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Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Studying Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
When I was given my agent edits a few weeks ago, I was also given a gentle nudge to read Seraphina. It's represented by the same team I signed with last month. I took on the assignment, trying to glean what I could about how it was constructed and what made it work. The only downside was that it was so good I kept getting transported and forgot to study.
On the surface it seems like kind of a strange thing for me to be studying right now. I write speculative historical fiction (and not, like, medieval stuff, like 1800s stuff). Seraphina is pretty solidly fantasy. On the surface, my work doesn't resemble this book at all. No common world or plot points or character traits. Seraphina is told in a first person girl voice; my main character is a guy.
So I was hesitant to take it on while I have so many other assignments. I mean, this book is long. Like, late era Harry Potter long (see Seraphina pictured below, with the sequel Shadow Scale and other big huge books shown for scale).
But I'd had this book recommended to me before. The entire front cover is a list of awards it won. So I accepted my mission and read the book, and the thing that makes it so special - that I want to incorporate into my own work - is that it's a beautiful, flowing experience. There's a compelling story, a series of mysteries that build upon each other, and a sweet almost courtly romance. But the thing that really stands out is that I was never tempted to skim or hurry through any sentence/paragraph/page in order to get to some big payoff faster. There are big payoffs - multiple big payoffs scattered throughout. But the journey through the book never makes you feel like you need to hurry, which is a really, really cool quality. When I was in school and had to read a lot in a hurry, I remember only reading dialog and feeling like that would be enough to give me the basic idea, and once in awhile I catch myself slipping back into that nasty habit. I don't often think about that "no rush" quality when it's not there; I can't think of many other books that made me feel that way (though I do remember saying something similar about Bitterblue years ago).
Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus, once used the terms "slow food" versus "fast food" to describe similar TV shows (for example, they described the TV show The Honorable Woman as the slow-food version of Homeland). Seraphina is a slow-food book, where you sit down at a table with real silverware and cloth napkins and they bring you appetizers, soup/salad, a main course, and dessert.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Start of Me and Emery and Books
Would I be willing to read it and give some feedback?
At that time the sender of that email, Emery Lord, and I were in similar situations. We were both 20-something Midwesterners with similar backgrounds. We'd both just finished writing our first complete manuscripts and were trying to figure out what to do next. We didn't really know many other writers. Even though I'd never critiqued anything before, a mutual writer friend introduced us. We agreed to exchange pages and give whatever feedback we could. Four years later, Emery and I both have literary agents, I have an awesome job as an editor, and she has two gorgeous books out in the world with a third on its way. Best of all, she's become one of my best friends.
THE START OF ME AND YOU, which released yesterday. It's a smart, lovely book full of heart and humor and people who care about each other. I love this book for many, many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the start of our friendship, but it was also the start of our professional writing endeavors. Independently we learned how to finish a manuscript. Together we learned how to query, how to edit, how to do it again and again and again. Together we learned how to try new things and see things differently. The more I look back at the last four years, the more I realize that the themes contained in this young adult book - themes of reinvention, of trying new things, of seeing things differently - are timeless. These are lessons we learn and forget and relearn again, and I love that this book reminds me of that.
Joseph-Beth Books (and every time I visit Cincinnati I'm reminded that it's one of America's secret gems).
David Arnold, Kate Hattemer, and Courtney Stevens in an hour long panel discussion followed by lots and lots of book signing. David Arnold, in a stroke of genius, brought a copy of his book for the readers to sign for him, sort of like a year book. Emery brought boxes of donuts to share with the crowd.
Jasmine Warga tried to blend in with the audience but ended up signing a few of her books too.
Every writer I know has at one point or another considered shelving a completed project. Maybe it doesn't appear to fit the market, or agents are only responding with form rejections. Maybe it's been shopped to editors and no one bought it. The last line from that very first email I received from Emery back in 2011: "I guess I need to know whether or not this thing has a shot or if I should let it be and move on." We finally have the answer, and I couldn't be prouder of my friend and everything she's accomplished.
Thursday, March 12, 2015
March Reads: Doll Bones, Jackaby, The Girl on the Train, The Raven Boys
I picked up this book because my friend Julie Hammerle called it a "thrillery thriller." It's a book about messed up grownups. Grownups struggling with grownup problems like alcoholism and divorce and unemployment. But beyond all of that, it's a "wife gone missing" thriller along a similar line as GONE GIRL, but with what many might consider a more satisfying ending.
The story is written from multiple first-person female perspectives: Rachel, recently divorced train rider; Anna, mistress turned wife with trust issues; and Megan, the one who goes missing. I can't remember reading a book written in three first person voices before, so right away it has an added level of difficulty. The structure is compelling, divided by narrators as well as "morning" and "evening" (as though mimicking both legs of a commute). Each day, when her train stops at the signal, Rachel looks longingly over a back fence into the lives of a seemingly perfect couple. The trouble starts when she sees the perfect wife, Megan, with another man... and then a few hours later sees a report on the news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel feels compelled to tell the authorities what she saw, but the more we learn about Rachel, the more we wonder whether or not she's actually a reliable witness. It's not my favorite sort of book, but it is the sort of thing I enjoy in small doses.
On the other hand, JACKABY is like if Sherlock and Doctor Who had a baby. This, in fact, is exactly my favorite sort of book. I could not have been more delighted. There's an eccentric detective that can see paranormal activity that no one else can see. There's a young female English assistant (and a second assistant, who happens to be a duck). And MONSTERS. The main difference is setting: 1890s America, instead of modern day England. The pacing and energy and tone are all perfect for someone like me, who adores the Cumberbatchy/Tennant-ness of BBC TV. It was a quick, easy, fun read that left me feeling generally happy. There's a second book coming out in September called BEASTLY BONES, which will get a priority spot on my to-read stack.
DOLL BONES by Holly Black
This was a different read for me, in that it features younger characters (age 12) and several cool illustrations, kind of like the earlier Harry Potter books, but with creepier (think Tim Burton) undertones. A trio of friends, two girls and a boy, play-act stories with dolls and action figures and end up going on a real-life quest (I'm not sure I can say more without getting spoilery, but they do at one point sail and sink a boat). This book touches on gender roles in play and toys, on relationships between fathers and sons, on how friendships shift as kids grow older - so many lovely bits of substance in the midst of an adventure story with just a touch of magic.THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
This was one of those times Emery Lord dropped a book recommendation bomb and then watched me lose my mind (one of her favorite hobbies). This book has everything (said in Stefon voice), but what really made it for me was the exquisite character building (and there are a LOT of characters). It was like Maggie Stiefvater built these people with tiny Lego bricks, one phrase at a time, until they were each big and beautiful and real and I just wanted to BE with them. She wrote deep friendship dynamics, and I felt the give-and-take of their personal goals versus their loyalties to each other.
Enough vague praise - to be a little more specific, this is a story of (mostly) rich private school boys colliding with the everyday people of their adopted hometown (including some quirky psychics). There's Adam, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make something of himself despite discouragement at home. There's Ronan, the sharp around the edges trust fund kid who acts like he doesn't care about anyone yet takes care to feed his rescued bird every two hours. And quiet, reclusive Noah, who at first kind of brought to my mind the guy from the movie The Great Outdoors who'd been struck by lightning multiple times and as a result was just a little squeamish about everything. Richard Gansey III is the glue that holds everyone together (he kind of reminded me of Hale from the HEIST SOCIETY books, but with many, many more Alpha tendencies). He's heart of gold meets foot-in-mouth. To quote the book (when viewed from Adam's perspective): "...Adam could forgive that shallow, glossy version of Gansey he'd first met. Because of his money and his good family name, because of his handsome smile and his easy laugh, because he liked people and (despite his fears to the contrary) they liked him back, Gansey could've had any and all of the friends that he wanted. Instead he had chosen the three of them, three guys who should've, for three different reasons, been friendless."
When I read that snippet, I fell in love with this book. It has paranormal elements. It has magic. It flirts with romance, when a local girl (who thinks of Gansey as "President Cell Phone") starts hanging around the boys, helping them with their quest, which has something of a modern day Arthurian feel to it. There are three total books in this series, and I'm thrilled; I'm not ready to give these people up just yet.
And one more thing. A lot of books have plot twists. Some are better executed than others. Some get a little too cute. Some act like they're getting away with something. THIS book manages to execute a dramatic plot twist while actually stating that twist plainly. In blunt language. At the very beginning. This book never lies to you, never withholds any information, gives you everything you need to know right up front... and twists you just the same. Really, really impressive stuff.Upcoming Want to Reads: I still need to read ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, must make it a priority; THE CONSPIRACY OF US by Maggie Hall, TRUST ME I'M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer, THE SHADOW CABINET by Maureen Johnson, THE INFINITE by Lori M. Lee, and I finally picked up THE RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Read then Write: ILLUSIVE, FAR FROM HERE, ISCARIOT, FOOL ME TWICE
It's been a pretty diverse month over here at the Robison Reading Nook. We've got a superhero story, some introspective women's fiction, historical Biblical fiction, and a rom-com. Something for everyone!
ILLUSIVE (Emily Lloyd-Jones) is a young adult sci-fi/comic-bookish story that gives an alternate take on the current vaccination controversy (kidding, kidding, but kind of not kidding).
"Once upon a time, there was a pandemic. It was a new strain of meningococcal disease. Named Meningococcas Krinotas - or simply the MK plague - it embodied the worst traits of both viral and bacterial meningitis. Because it was a virus, anticiotics had no effect, and the current viral vaccines were ineffective. The result was a disease that, when diagnosed, was always followed by a funeral."
So a doctor developed a vaccine, and that vaccine gave a small percentage of the population special "immunities" - like telepathy, perfect recall, increased intuition, levitation, and the ability to create illusions. And once the doctor saw what his vaccine could do, he destroyed it so prevent more "immunities" from manifesting. Those who have immunities (or, what I could call "super powers") are hunted down and recruited by the government and criminals in equal measure. ILLUSIVE bounces back and forth between an criminal and a fed.
This was a really fun book with a delightful and diverse cast of characters, plenty of action and solid platonic (refreshing) relationships. It also had one of the great character names I've ever come across: Kit Copperfield, a kindhearted criminal who kind of reminded me of Fagin from Oliver Twist, if Fagan had boatloads of money and fine taste in art.
(Note: The second book in the series, DECEPTIVE releases in July 2015)
FAR FROM HERE (Nikki Baart) was introduced to me as "Women's Fiction/Book Club Fiction" - a genre I'm not overly familiar with, but when I met Nikki it was obvious that she was a lady who has interesting things to say. She's a preacher's wife. She and her husband are founding members of a non-profit that works with orphans in Liberia. She writes fiction from a Christian perspective, but her multiple books don't appear in the faith-based section of the bookstore.
FAR FROM HERE is the story of a woman whose husband goes missing in the Alaskan wilderness, and what follows is a thought provoking series of events that raise questions without "right" answers (which is probably what makes it "book club fiction" - good discussion questions). How can others support someone in this sort of traumatic situation? (For example, the main character is annoyed by people bringing her endless casserole dish dinners that she has no appetite to eat, but is deeply touched by a neighbor who offers to mow her lawn). What is she willing to sacrifice to search for her husband (she is terrified of flying, but the only way to search is by air in tiny, tiny planes - identical to the one her husband was flying when he went missing). And, how does she balance holding out hope while still moving forward and functioning in her everyday life. Nikki's video is a great introduction to this book, to see if it might be for you.
FOOL ME TWICE (Mandy Hubbard) a young adult rom-com about a group of eighteen-year-olds in the summer between high school and college. They have killer summer jobs living and working on a luxury ranch, entertaining guests with rodeos, riding lessons, spa treatments, etc. There is an amazing girl-best-friends relationship. There's a prank war. And LOTS of horses! There's an elaborate plot to exact revenge on the boy who broke the narrator's heart the previous summer. I'm afraid to say too much because I don't want to give away any of the jokes. Funny is so hard to do. I appreciate it so much when it's done well.
FOOL ME TWICE is grounded in reality, but there is almost a playful/magical element to it where the rules of the real world don't quite apply (Confession: I have ~20% left; there may be another shoe yet to drop, but I didn't want to wait to recommend it). Oh, and since the story takes place in the state of Washington, I got a chuckle out of multiple Seattle Seahawks jokes. "Wilson Russell... NO, Russell Wilson." This is a fun, cheerful read. Especially if you're buried under 15+ inches of snow, like I currently am. It was the perfect dose of summer.
ISCARIOT (Tosca Lee) is historical Biblical fiction told in the first person narrative of Judas Iscariot. I was blown away by this book. Biblical fiction is something I'm typically a little wary of. I feel like it's important to recognize the line between entertainment and doctrine, between "I'm reading this for fun" and "I'm reading this to enrich my spiritual life." I'm not really in to the big Hollywood blockbusters of Bible stories. I didn't really dig The Red Tent (braces for onslaught because everyone else loves that book). I'd decided that Biblical fiction just wasn't really my thing until I met Tosca (who, by the way, might be the Most Interesting Woman in the World).
But I was so interested in the idea of a first person account from Judas's perspective that I dug in and in the end I felt both entertained and enriched. It's beautifully written and thoroughly researched. There's such care and tenderness in this story, spanning Judas's entire life, making it essentially a fictional autobiography. I highly, highly recommend this book - and I might suggest starting with the author's note at the end, where Tosca explains how this books came to be (and try this short, beautiful video; Tosca is good at videos). She's written three works of Biblical fiction - Judas, HAVAH (the story of Eve), and THE LEGEND OF SHEBA (the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon - check out her video for it here! Seriously, watch it). I CANNOT wait to read the others and can't recommend Tosca's work highly enough.
Upcoming Want to Reads: ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, DOLL BONES by Holly Black, THE CONSPIRACY OF US by Maggie Hall, TRUST ME I'M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer, THE SHADOW CABINET by Maureen Johnson
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Read then Write: For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund
I often feel like I'm racing to keep up with all of the new book releases, to keep up with the conversation around those "most anticipated" titles and those released by people I'm now connected to in one way or another. As a result, I often neglect to go back to gems I might have missed. But this is one (written all the way back in 2012!) I made a point of placing in my reading queue after I read its companion novel, ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, last winter. Every time I saw this cover I got that little heart palpitation. "Soon, dear Peterfreund. I just have to do this one thing first." And finally I did get to it. Please indulge me in reprinting the 2am Twitter explosion upon finishing FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, for I feel it more properly captures my emotions than I can do now in the caffeinated light of day.
I love Diana Peterfreund so much it hurts. Just...here, Diana. Have my heart and lungs and ribs & do what you will with them.— Bethany Robison (@BethanyRobison) January 15, 2015
*discovers prequel novella for ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA* You win, Peterfreund. I'm happy I'm broken *dissolves into gleeful madness*— Bethany Robison (@BethanyRobison) January 15, 2015
And what's lovely about Peterfreund's "Stars" duo is that we go into it already knowing the endings. They are (in my opinion) perfectly executed science fiction re-imaginings of beloved classic stories. ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA, when I first fell in love with Peterfreund, is sci-fi Scarlet Pimpernel. FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is PERSUASION, a Jane Austen-style sci-fi novel of manners.
I've spent a lot of time studying refreshes or re-imaginings of classic stories (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), and there does seem to be an unwritten set of rules for the most satisfying ones. For example, I've spent enough time studying various versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel to possibly draft a bad PhD dissertation. As a fan, I know that certain touchstones are expected, or else don't bother pretending something is a Scarlet Pimpernel inspired story. There must be a masked hero. There must be some element of espionage and rescuing of imprisoned people, etc.
Peterfreund's version of PERSUASION hits all the proper Jane Austen touchstones. I never realized how much I'd underrated Jane Austen's world building until I saw it transplanted into a new setting. It's futuristic sci-fi without being spaceshipy. They're on an indebted estate. There's a technologically induced class system that must be adhered to. There's careful politicking and relationship rumors. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the addition of a Grandfather character; his last name is Boatwright and he's throughout referred to as "The Boatwright" and that struck me as so perfectly English literature-y. The Boatwright was forced to move in to his son-in-law's guest rooms. The Boatwright was not pleased with the quality of his dinner. Love it.
The basic plot of PERSUASION: Rich young girl falls in love with poor boy, professes love, then breaks it off. Boy strikes out on his own, makes mega-cash, then comes back (at least a little bitter) with his old attachment kept semi-secret. Sexual tension ensues.
FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS hits so many lovely touchstones, and Peterfreund treats them lovingly. You know she reveres the story she's paying tribute to and treasures those key elements. We get to see a series of letters between "Anne" and "Wentworth" (who has been cleverly renamed "Wentforth") watching the evolution of their relationship prior to the breakup and him striking out on his own, up to and including THE letter at the end (which Peterfreund calls out as critical to her Austen fandom in her lovely acknowledgements). Peterfreund makes you feel the desperate financial and physical circumstances of the estate, and you feel the lenghts that "Anne" goes to, trying to keep everything together. "Wentforth" still joins the fleet, but he's an explorer, not a soldier. There is still a young lady who takes a tragic fall and is injured, though I'd argue that Peterfreund's explanation for WHY she falls might actually make more sense?
As for the sci-fi elements: it's not dystopian, but it is set in a distant future, in which a large population of humans have had their abilities "reduced" after years of scientific enhancements corrupting their DNA. Only those who refused the enhancements for generations (the "Luddites") are still mentally and physically intact, and as such have risen to the level of aristocracy, charged with caring for the "reduced" who live and work on their estates. So what we have here is a futuristic society that congratulates themselves for not advancing technologically. Peterfreund actually apologizes (tongue in cheek) in her acknowledgements for not including much tech in her sci-fi; ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA, the second book, is more techy.
While reading these two books, I often felt like they were written specifically for me. Both touched on so many things I love. Really satisfying, to the point that I'd happily take the time to reread both of them, and dig into the companion prequel novellas. As far as I can tell, Peterfreund isn't working on any other classic re-imaginings, but I really, really wish she would. With two homeruns, she's now among my very favorite and most trusted writers, and I hope she gets a lot of attention for her work.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Read then Write: Holiday Redux
How I read during my Christmas Vacation:In college I had a professor who encouraged me to free write a few hundred words whenever I finished reading something as a future reminder of what I did (or didn't) get out of it. Over time it's proven to be wise advice.
Edited by Stephanie Perkins
Short stories aren't really my favorite thing, but I did enjoy this collection (I just wished most of the stories were longer). There's something for everyone in here, stories about Christmas, about Hanukkah, about New Years Eve (oddly enough, the New Years Eve story is presented first instead of last, but whatever). There's contemporary fiction, fantasy, magic, and some combinations thereof. Big cities, small towns, mansions, and poverty. Some stories resonated with me more than others, as I'm sure is the case with everyone who picked this up. It was a lovely experience to read one story a day during the Twelve Days of Christmas. If you decide to try it next year, some of my favorite moments include:
* The Lady and the Fox by Kelly Link. This story follows the life of a lonely girl who spends every Christmas at her wealthy English godmother's estate and encounters a ghostly stranger every time it snows. This one could have been 30k words longer and I would have been delighted.
* It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown by Stephanie Perkins. I love everything Perkins writes, so I went into this one expecting to love it. It features a girl who (along with her mom) is between homes, so they're basically living in an apartment that doubles as a storage locker. Having had this experience myself just last Christmas, I completely empathized with her desire for simple things, like a Christmas tree and an unblocked window to put it in. The simple things in this story are what make it so touching.
* Welcome to Christmas, CA by Kiersten White. For me, this was the most complete of the stories. It didn't leave me wanting more but left me fully satisfied. In a dying mining town full of downtrodden residents, our narrator is a waitress in a hokey Christmas themed diner. But things turn around when the diner hires a new chef with a magical knack for giving people exactly what they need, even if they don't ask for it.
Note: If you have the book cover with the ice skaters, here's a guide for who comes from which story. Adorable.
By Lori M. Lee
I hadn't heard about this book until I attended Chicago Spring Fling RWA Conference last spring, but this is a book that should be getting more attention. It's fantasy with a mythological, timeless feel to it (and just the right amount of romance). Essentially, it's a story of a girl trying to rescue her kidnapped older brother. There's a dash of "quest" mixed with a tiny bit of "Hunger Games Training" plus (best of all) time bending. I love time bending, I love illusion, I love not knowing what's real, who's good, who's bad, etc. Lori's world and voice feel different and fresh, even of some of these elements feel familiar. Definitely looking forward to her second book, THE INFINITE, coming out in March.
RUN TO YOU (Parts 4-6)
By Clara Kensie
This was especially fun for me to read because Clara was the first writer I befriended back in the days when I was first trying to find my place in the writer community. We lived maaaybe a mile or two apart and met at an SCBWI chapter meeting in an entirely different town. Clara's publication story is a little different than anyone else I know because her story, which she wrote as two full-length novels, was picked up by Harlequin Teen as a 6-part series. Reading it felt like watching a miniseries on TV, which I personally enjoy. I thought it was a cool way to tell a story, something old-fashioned made new, but it seems like some readers weren't quite sure what to make of the format. That makes me sad because Clara is really talented (wait until you see her NEXT thing, holy mackerel).
RUN TO YOU is a paranormal romance (which, frankly, is possibly my least favorite genre), but I was gripped by Clara's characters, a family with a collection of psychic abilities on the run from a powerful psychic serial killer. Don't let the pretty pastel covers fool you. There's plenty of teenage romance, but there are flashes that make it obvious Clara's a Stephen King reader. It gets twisty, there are elements of suspense. Parts 4-6 (formerly Book 2) was originally titled NIGHTMARE EYES before the publisher changed the title (presumably to emphasize the romantic elements).
By Adam Selzer
Since I moved to downtown Chicago I've been obsessed with learning everything I can about the history of my new neighborhood (it has a very checkered past), and so far my favorite resource has been Adam Selzer, a historian and ghost tour guide. History can get a little dry at times, but Adam has a way of finding the colorful stuff and presenting it with flair and skepticism at the same time. I found his blog a long time ago, but just recently bought three of his books (something I should have done a long time ago). I devoured all of them. In the daylight, his stories are entertaining and very, very well researched. Around 2am they freak the hell out of me, which is kind of the point. And, best of all, I learned my neighborhood, despite it's checkered history, isn't haunted. Like, at all. The closest ghost reported is at the Haunted Hooters several blocks away. So that's a relief.
I've wanted to go on Adam's ghost tour for years, but have had trouble finding anyone to go WITH me. But I've gotten to know Adam a little over Twitter (I write historical fiction and he's been very personable, great at answering my questions). He's a fun Twitter follow, if you're in to Chicago stuff, writing community news, and have a sense of humor.
If you made a New Years Resolution to read more nonfiction, consider these (all available on ebook):
* Chronicles of Old Chicago (this is mostly straight historical stories, not a lot of ghosts)
* Weird Chicago (a mixture of fact, legend, folklore, and spooky stuff)
* The Ghosts of Chicago (the book that Adam actually suggested to me when I asked him which of his books I should read)
Coming soon: ANOMALY by Tonya Kuper, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund, and I want to dig in to Tosca Lee's historical fiction.
Friday, December 19, 2014
The Best Christmas Gift Ever
Early in December my husband and I received a letter that read, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15:5,8). Enclosed with this letter was a $100 bill.
No signature or return address. No post mark, but it had to have come through the mail because we have apartment mailboxes (you can't just slip letters in there). Everything was typed, so no opportunity for handwriting analysis. We considered having it dusted for prints but decided against it.
So, Secret Santa, if you're out there lurking, here's what happened to the awesome gift you sent us.
As far as we were concerned, our Secret Santa's intent was clear. This was an opportunity to do something cool for someone else, an opportunity we actually have every day but don't always think about. We spent a couple of weeks debating our options. Do we donate it to an organization, like Toys for Tots or Ephraim Orphan Project? Or buy a few grocery store gift cards to distribute to the homeless near our neighborhood? In the end, we decided we wanted to keep the money intact. One gift for one person. We thought it would be cool to give someone that same SHOCK value that we got when we first opened it.
So that was settled. But who?
As my husband said, "The only wrong answer is to not give it to anyone."
We moved to downtown Chicago less than a year ago and are still growing accustomed to the workings of our neighborhood. It's a fascinating neighborhood with a rich and complicated history. We're on the Near North Side of the city. We tell people it's the Old Town neighborhood (because we aren't sure what else to call it), but technically we're just outside of the border, the area that 100 years ago was known as "Little Hell" and more recently Cabrini Green. Cabrini Green was a collection of public housing buildings, row houses and high rises. When we moved here earlier this year, we knew all of this, but we didn't realize just how recently things had changed (the last of the Cabrini Green high rises was torn down in 2011).
This area was dangerous and violent on and off for more than 100 years, but we've never felt unsafe. We've felt warmly welcomed by everyone we've met. But still, if you watch, you can see the signs that this area is still shifting. There's a police presence, but in a friendly way (some of the local officers live in our apartment building, and others whistle when they stroll into the shiny new Starbucks). There are security patrols, especially in parking lots. There's an organized community watch, especially near the elementary school by our building (the school dates back at least 100 years and has seen all of the neighborhood's best and worst).
We'd taken extra notice of these community watch people lately. They stay at their posts for hours at a time, bundled to the teeth against the weather, with big thick parkas under high visibility vests and scarves wrapped around their faces. They watch the kids (and adults too) as they're crossing the streets and generally keep an eye on things during work/school hours. These men and women are like everyone else I've met around here, warm and inviting. This neighborhood is much improved because it's clear the people living here want it to improve. Whenever we tell someone we're new here, they beam with pride and can't wait to tell us how far this area has come in the last few years.
So we handed our Christmas card, complete with our Secret Santa's bill, to a woman in the community watch who stands in the cold and keeps an eye on our building and the school. I don't know her name, and I didn't introduce myself; we didn't want her to know us well enough to thank us (I mean, the gift isn't even really from us). But I knew we'd found the right recipient when I handed her the card. She looked surprised and legitimately pleased to be receiving a card (regardless of what was inside). She said thank you with so much warmth in her voice. I smiled and disappeared into the night (because I apparently think I'm Batman or something). I was about a block away when I thought I heard her squeal, but I didn't look. Another community watch person noticed me smiling and said, "You seem awfully cheerful today!" I responded with a Merry Christmas and wished I had a second card.
That's the story of the best Christmas gift I ever received. It started with a little anonymous Christmas magic, and I think it ended with some, too. Thank you, Secret Santa; please never, ever confess your true identity.