Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader

Book Review: The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao

May 3rd, 2016
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The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao is a book about a boy with the unfortunate name of  Murgatroyd Floyd.

Murgatroyd is a happy little chap, despite the fact that his parents are horrible people. He has no bed or hot water in his bedroom/bath because his parents have told him it would be too expensive.

They rarely pay any attention to him, unless it is to dress him in unusual garb or give him a hair cut that is even more unfortunate than his name.

Despite their cruelties, Murgatroyd loves his parents. He gets up early and fixes them breakfast every morning before he goes off to school. Of course, you would too if your mother cooked like Murgatroyd’s:

She was always making silly mistakes when it came to preparing her son’s food—mistakes that anybody could have made, really. Like sprinkling chilli powder instead of cinnamon into his birthday cake batter every year, or accidentally spreading crushed cockroaches instead of tuna onto his tuna sandwiches.

Poor Murgatroyd! He has a friend from school, one who is as self-absorbed as Murgatroyd’s parents, if not nearly as evil. And for a time, he has a friend at an ice cream shop who tells him that one day something wonderful is going to happen for him. It is unfortunate when this one true friend disappears one day without telling Murgatroyd any more about his promise.

Murgatroyd grows up, still inexplicably happy despite his parents and only friend. He has found a job and is actually starting to fit into his world when a strange woman appears. She tells Murgatroyd about something called the More Known World, dimensions of our world that normal people can’t see, but that people like him – OddFits – can travel through. He is invited to join the other OddFits on their adventure.

This is a delightfully odd book that is just the beginning of a great adventure. I am anxiously awaiting the sequel to The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao.


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Competition Time, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toastmasters Contest

April 26th, 2016
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It’s that time in the Toastmasters year when an old woman’s thoughts turn to the International Speech Contest. I thought I would do a short retrospective on how competing has changed for me over time.

I started in Toastmasters in May of 2004. My first contest was a club evaluation contest that I was drafted into before I really understood how Toastmasters do evaluations – 85% encouragement / 15% gentle suggestions for improvement. I can’t even begin to tell you how embarrassed I am when I think back to that contest evaluation wherein I listed everything – yes, everything – the speaker had done wrong, included a detailed recitation on grammar, proper pronunciation, and my general disagreement with the topic of the speech. I can’t remember that I said anything positive.

The worst part is that I didn’t even know how awful that was for several years because my club never assigned me a mentor, and no club member took me aside to tell me. They made me figure it out by myself and then feel ashamed at how stupid I’d been.


Lesson 1: Don’t pick a club based on your emotional response to the nice people there. Don’t pick a club based on them being President’s Distinguished every year. Ask questions about the things that are really important to your growth and development, like do you have an active mentoring program? Who are the people who would be available to mentor me? Can I interview them before I join?

My second competition was in the International Speech Contest at that same club. Again, I was voluntold I was going to be competing, and quite honestly, I didn’t want to compete. No one at that club told me about the huge benefits I could reap from competing. I wrote a speech titled The Quantum Mechanics of Forgiveness that quite honestly would only appeal to fans of Star Trek and/or people who understand Quantum Mechanics. I confused over half the audience, lost the contest, and considered the outing a complete success.

Once again, no one at that club took me aside to tell me why I was a complete idiot to throw away a chance to become a much better speaker through the competition process.


Lesson 2: A good Toastmasters club is a fun way to spend a couple hours every week. A great Toastmasters club has members and officers that explain the benefits of the Toastmasters world outside the club and how you can participate to accelerate your personal growth.

At this point in my Toastmasters career, I became an Area Governor which put me on the other side of the contests. Instead of being in them, I was running them. Thanks to this experience, I had the AHA! moment when I finally figured out why contests are such an integral part of the Toastmasters experience if you are really dedicated to honing your skills as a speaker. I ran contests, judged contests, acted at a functionary at contests, and attended contests until I was so excited about contests that I absolutely could not wait for my year of service to be done so that I could compete in contests. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy my year as Area Governor very much, but I credit it for most of the growth I’ve experienced and am continuing to experience in Toastmasters.


Lesson 3: When you step outside the club, you may not learn what you expected to learn, but you will most certainly learn many valuable things. Be open to it all.

My first competition after finishing up as AG was a humorous speech contest. I had started a new job and had what I thought was a great speech about mutinous telephone systems. My club thought I was the funniest speaker they’d ever heard. I went to the area contest believing that no one could beat me. Only 3 people from my club showed up. I couldn’t buy a laugh. At first I thought it was the audience, but they laughed like crazy for the next gal up. I took second, and felt like the world’s biggest loser. I went out of the contest telling myself that I was funny and no one ever wanted to hear anything I said.

Lesson 4: You aren’t going to win all the contests, and that’s OK. Stop overreacting, silly girl! You’ll learn a lot when you lose, especially if you’re paying attention to what the other people are doing.

The next couple of contests were International Speech Contests, and while I managed to win at area, I didn’t do well at division. Looking back, these were critical contests for me. I managed to avoid taking the losses personally and focused instead on learning how to write a speech and compete effectively. It was during this time that I joined a different club that places an emphasis on mentoring. The people there helped me overcome my fear of the humorous speech contest, so I took another shot at it. I got so many laughs at the area level that I DQ’d for time, which restored my believe in my Inner Funny Girl. The final thing that happened during this stage of my growth is that I made it to the district stage in the evaluation contest. There I had a microphone malfunction. Despite failing to place, I’d gotten a taste of the big stage, and I knew I had to keep working to get there again.


Lesson 5: Regardless of the outcome in any individual contest, keep going. People will share information and encouragement as they see that you are serious about bettering yourself as a speaker and competitor. If you’re not in it, you won’t ever have that available to you.

In 2012 I won the District 3 International Speech contest and went on to represent the District at the International Convention in Orlando. I had mentoring in how to dress and how to do make up. The experience in Orlando was fantastic, and I wanted to go again. One of the things that I learned is that District 3 is more competitive than many other districts, so I knew it would be a tough road. The following 2 years, I lost at Area and Division.  I fought the temptation to give up, even though I was challenged to go after the position of Chief Judge for the District. The stage is where I challenge myself to grow, so it’s to the stage I must return.

Lesson 6: Go where the learning is, even if that means disappointment after disappointment.

Last year I wrote what I believed was my best speech ever. I won my club contest, but just over a week before the area contest, I broke my shoulder. Here’s the crazy thing: I talked myself into believing that I could still compete. I could barely dress myself, but I thought I could win contests. Let’s just say I was on some pretty good pain pills. A couple days before the contest I came to my senses and bowed out.


Lesson 7: Health is more important than anything, including a Toastmasters contest. Don’t be crazy.

I’m in the midst of the competition for this year. I’ve got a speech that is so good that I don’t even remember why I was so excited about last year’s. I’ve won the club, the area, and the division. I’ll speak on the big stage again at District in May. I want to share with you what winning means to me.

First, I always set personal goals for the performance. I watch and listen to the recording of the previous performance of the speech, and set out to improve specific sections of it. If I walk off stage knowing that I have met my personal goals, I am a winner. This is the only criteria that is under my control. That’s why it is the first, and most important criteria I set for winning.

Second, one of my motivations for speaking in the International Speech Contest is that I like to serve my audience. If someone comes up to me after the contest to tell me that the speech touched them, made them think differently about their life, or inspired them to change, then I’m a winner.  While I can’t control this, if it doesn’t happen, it tells me that I have lost focus. That sends me back to do some rewriting.

Finally, I do like to win so that I have the opportunity to move on to the next level. This is the least important of the criteria, no matter how much I enjoy it. Judges are one of the great mysteries of the competition world. What one set of judges loves, another set hates. It’s impossible to predict what judges are going to do on any given day. Therefore, I don’t speak to impress the judges; I speak to serve the audience.

Are you competing for something? What are you learning from the experience?

Thanks to hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr for the DOH picture.
Thanks to Karol Franks on Flickr for the AHA picture.


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Why We Do Rituals

April 22nd, 2016
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This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down.

We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.

Elizabeth GilbertEat, Pray, Love

Photo Credit: Vincent F on Flickr
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Book Review: The Shell Collector by Hugh Howey

April 19th, 2016
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I haven’t made a big secret of my admiration for Hugh Howey’s writing. I was really excited about digging into the book, despite very mixed reviews on GoodReads and Amazon.

This story is set in a world where global warming has impacted the oceans enough that shells no longer wash up on beaches. Collectors go to extremes to find diving areas where they can harvest the treasured shells.

Journalist Maya Walsh has been writing about shells in the Times for years. A federal agency asks her to investigate oil magnate, Ness Wilde. Wilde’s family has been drilling in and polluting the oceans for generations, but Walsh hesitates until she is shown a perfect shell specimen obtained by someone who works for Wilde.

She goes to interview Wilde at his beachfront mansion and finds herself falling in love with him, all while becoming more and more suspicious about the source of the perfect shells.

“Shelling is like relationships,” Ness says. He turns away from me and scans the beach, makes an adjustment with the wheel. “I can see that.” He nods to himself. “Yeah, I can totally see that.”

This is more literature than the genre fiction that Howey’s fans have come to love. I think this is the source of the disappointment some reviewers express. But isn’t this what John Grisham did? He moved from writing awesome legal thrillers into writing literature. And isn’t this what a good writer should do? Stretch into new endeavors, build the creativity muscles.

But then I realize that no journey is ever truly the same the second time around. What felt interminable the first time now passes with a quickness borne of familiarity. It makes me wonder if life seems to accelerate as we get older simply because our days and our experiences become routine. The things we recognize flash right by, where once they held our attention. Only the new bears careful contemplation, and the new gets harder and harder to come by.

I would argue that Howey, however literature-y this may feel to some, is still writing science fiction. While the characters feel contemporary, the setting is definitely futuristic. Howey has given us a look at how he believes global warming is going to manifest in the not too distant future.

Life has a way of being both more surreal and more predictable than readers can tolerate.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not flashy, but it’s solid writing. Howey transported me to a believable future inhabited by two complex protagonists who took me on a fascinating trip into shell collecting. Recommended!

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Book Review: Half Way Home by Hugh Howey

April 11th, 2016
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Hugh Howey’s Silo Trilogy were my favorite books in 2015. I couldn’t resist another title by Howey.

Earth is sending out terraforming colony ships full of vats of test tube humans. Each is being taught to fill a critical function in the new colony. The colony ship is programmed to self-destruct, along with all the humans, if it detects conditions that will doom the colony.

What would happen if the colony ship began the self-destruct sequence, but then interrupted it before all the humans died? This is where Half Way Home begins.

The world that Howey envisions in this book reminded me of some pulp sci fi stories I read in the 60s and 70s. It’s no where near as intricately developed as the world of the silos, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I enjoyed the trees and fruit that Howey created for his world.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the humans who start out united in a drive to survive quickly devolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario, but you will be surprised as to why the colony ship aborted the self-destruct sequence.

Not the solid 5 star performance of the Silo series, but a solid 4 star readthat made me nostalgic for some old-fashioned pulp sci fi.


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What is Success?

April 2nd, 2016
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You cannot judge a man’s life by the success of a moment, by the victory of an hour, or even by the results of a year.

You must view his life as a whole.

You must stand where you can see the man as he treads the entire path that leads from the cradle to the grave — now crossing the plain, now climbing the steeps, now passing through pleasant fields, now wending his way with difficulty between rugged rocks — tempted, tried, tested, triumphant.

William Jennings Bryan
“The Law and the Gospel”

Photo Credit: Abe Kleinfeld on Flickr
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Book Review – Another Country by James Baldwin

March 26th, 2016
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Another Country

Another Country by James Baldwin is set in the late 1950s in Greenwich Village, NY. The main character is Rufus, a talented jazz drummer. When we meet Rufus, he is in the midst of a crisis. He is lost, a black man in a white man’s country. He has many white friends, and none of them really know him. They fail to see him, which leads to their failure to save him. At the end of the first chapter (and it is a long chapter), Rufus commits suicide. The rest of the book revolves around his friends trying to come to grips with their failure, and in most cases, watching their own lives fall apart.

“People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears – not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.” 

Many of the things that made this book shocking when it was published in 1962 are now normal, everyday things. Interracial couples, adultery, homosexual relationships, bisexuality, and domestic violence no longer carry the shock value they once did. To me, this doesn’t make the book dated. It clears away the unimportant issues so that the reader can focus on the story about identity.

The white people in this book not only don’t see Rufus; they can’t see themselves. They are, all of them, shallow, empty people, adrift in lives that lack direction.

The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had had ever, really, been present at his life.

There are two writers in this book. Richard, who writes popular fiction and is beginning to have some succes, and Vivaldo, who struggles to get anything down on paper. Vivaldo’s struggle in writing is described beautifully:

He did not seem to know enough about the people in his novel. They did not seem to trust him. They were all named, more or less, all more or less destined, the pattern he wished them to describe was clear to him. But it did not seem clear to them. He could move them about but they themselves did not move. He put words in their mouths which they uttered sullenly, unconvinced. With the same agony, or greater, with which he attempted to seduce a woman, he was trying to seduce his people: he begged them to surrender up their privacy. And they refused – without, for all their ugly intransigence, showing the faintest desire to leave him. They were waiting for him to find the key, press the nerve, tell the truth.

And indeed, this describes Vivaldo’s problems in life as well. He struggles with relationships, with his sexuality, with everything in his life. Following Rufus’ death, Vivaldo becomes involved with his sister, Ida, although she is angry with him for his failure to protect her brother. It seems as though she can’t decide whether to love him or punish him, and Vivaldo allows her to do both while never really opening himself to her.

You stop that,’ he said, in a voice which he did not recognise. ‘You stop that. You stop trying to kill me. It’s not my fault I’m white. It’s not my fault you’re black. It’s not my fault he’s dead.

Ida’s voice brings us some clarity on what it was like to be black in a segregated America.

But, Cass, ask yourself, look out and ask yourself – wouldn’t you hate all white people if they kept you in prison here?’ They were rolling up startling Seventh Avenue. The entire population seemed to be in the streets, draped, almost, from lamp-posts, stoops, and hydrants, and walking through the traffic as though it were not there. ‘Kept you here, and stunted you and starved you, and made you watch your mother and father and sister and lover and brother and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes? And not in a hurry, like from one day to the next, but, every day, every day, for years, for generations? Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, while they go around jerking themselves off with all the jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with the same music, too, only keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist. Now, you’ve never felt like that, and Vivaldo’s never felt like that. Vivaldo didn’t want to know my brother was dying because he doesn’t want to know that my brother would still be alive if he hadn’t been born black.

This was not a comfortable book for me to read. I believe that Baldwin was right when he said, “…many more people than are willing to admit it lead lives not at all unlike the lives of the people in my book.” I am grateful to have discovered this on my bookshelf and to have been challenged and, I hope, changed through reading it.

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I wanted to reach a center… -Mircea Eliade

March 19th, 2016
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These thirty years, and more, that I’ve spent among exotic, barbaric, indomitable gods and goddesses, nourished on myths, obsessed by symbols, nursed and bewitched by so many images which have come down to me from those submerged worlds, today seem to me to be the stages of a long initiation.


Each one of these divine figures, each of these myths or symbols, is connected to a danger that was confronted and overcome. How many times I was almost lost, gone astray in this labyrinth where I risked being killed… These were not only bits of knowledge acquired slowly and leisurely in books, but so many encounters, confrontations, and temptations.

winged goddess

I realize perfectly well now all the dangers I skirted during this long quest, and, in the first place, the risk of forgetting that I had a goal… that I wanted to reach a “center”.

Mircea Eliade – Journal entry (10 November 1959) published in No Souvenirs (1977) , 74-5. Journal II, 1957-1969 (1989).

Goddess Photo Credit: June Yarham on Flickr

Goddess with Candles Photo Credit: Subash BGK on Flickr

Goddess with Wings Photo Credit: on Flickr
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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader