Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Confessions of a (secret?) Tiger Mom

Maybe you’ve heard of the controversial book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It came out earlier this year and outraged lots of American women who were suddenly aware of and defensive about their supposedly permissive/pathetic parenting style. Bits and pieces of the book fluttered around the internet so I thought I knew all about it—how the uber-controlling Asian professor mother had her poor kids practicing violin five hours a day, and how she once made her daughters redo their homemade birthday cards because she knew they could do a better job than the lazily scribbled junk they’d given her. Sheesh. Take a chill pill, lady, was what I thought. And then I sighed a superior sigh and clapped myself metaphorically on the back.

Until I actually read the book. It was a Christmas present from my brother, and I won’t attempt to figure out the motivation behind that. I picked it up after Christmas dinner and could hardly put it down. Yes, the woman does go to the extreme sometimes. (Extreme may be putting it mildly. Chua once forbade her daughter from going to the bathroom until she got a violin piece she was working on just right.) But overall I found myself nodding along as I read.

The book is surprisingly funny. Chua knows when she’s going overboard, but she just can’t seem to stop herself. She has high standards for her daughters and one of her main goals is to demand that they live up to those standards. Failure truly isn’t an option. When the family gets a dog, Chua tries to apply the same strict Chinese mothering techniques on it. In one scene when she and her husband are arguing about the level of tension in the household (due to Chua’s constant pressure on the kids), she accuses him of not having any dreams for their daughters, or for Coco. He bursts out laughing.

But Chua presses on. She believes that pretty much anything can be accomplished with hard work. Lots of hard work. Nothing is fun when you first start out. You have to practice. And what kid wants to practice? An American parent tends to throw up her hands at the first sign of struggle, while a Chinese mother doubles down. For her, giving in is basically telling the kid that you don’t believe he can do it.

A lot of the stuff in the book made me cringe. Some—because it really is kind of wacky, the lengths the Chua will go in her quest. (She takes one daughter out of school early because what she’s doing in class seems sort of pointless and this way she can get in some extra violin practice.) But mostly because I could see myself in Chua too. I’m not saying I’m a Tiger Mother (or, geez, maybe I am and this was the point my brother was trying to make) but because I understand the fierce love she has for her children—to want them to be successful and brilliant and great at everything they do. And while Chua doesn’t seem to care about this, I would also add: happy and socially well-adjusted to the list.

How do you accomplish it? Is it even possible for a parent to manipulate these outcomes? If not, is it a worthy goal to strive for anyway? Who knows, but it’s a relief to see other parents struggling with the same battles (on a somewhat grander scale). Tiger Mother is a book-long, guilt-infused confession. People had asked Chua how she came to have such accomplished, talented children, and she gave them the behind the scenes story. Those daughters aren’t brilliant, musical prodigies. They’re hard workers.

Really, really hard workers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Still a Wonderful Life

It’s funny how you can watch the same movie a zillion times and still find yourself caught up in it. Last night when my family sat down for our annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life, I was choked up right on schedule.

In the first minute when one of the little kids prays: “please help my daddy,” I was fighting off tears.

(I’m assuming everyone on the planet knows the gist of this story—an angel visits suicidal George Bailey and shows him what the world would be like if he had never been born.)

Annually, I gasp when Mr. Gower, the grief-stricken druggist, boxes George’s ears. I root for George to leave town and follow his dreams. I tear up when he realizes he loves Mary and won't be going anywhere. I bite my nails when goofball Uncle Billy misplaces the eight thousand dollars. I wince when George loses his temper with his kids on Christmas Eve.

And I cheer when he finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket and runs around Bedford Falls like a lunatic shouting “Yay!”

It’s a great movie. When our kids were little, my husband and I used to force them to watch it with us. We still tease our daughter for her reaction when she was four years old. At the end, as everyone praises George, and Harry gives his toast—“to my big brother George, the richest man in town”—our daughter remarked: “but what about that old guy in the wheelchair?”

Here’s the thing about watching a movie a zillion times: you notice details you didn't catch the first few times around. Like how brother Harry pleads with his parents to let him drink gin at his graduation party. (They say no.) And how Mr. Potter calls the poor people in town "riff raff" and “garlic eaters.”

And did you catch a glimpse of that human skull on Mr. Potter’s desk?

I once read a review of the movie that said the story is really about the frustration and resentment involved when people realize that their childhood dreams will never come true. I used to see it this way too. I mean who doesn’t feel George’s pain as year after year he sacrifices his own plans and instead helps out his father, and then his brother, and then his town?

He watches doofy "HeeHaw" Sam Wainwright make it big in the city. Younger brother Harry becomes a football star and a war hero, while George stays behind in “crummy little” Bedford Falls.

It’s all so unfair. George is such a good guy. You really want him to get what he deserves. The fancy education. The opportunity to travel the world. A house that’s not drafty. Furs and jewelry for his wife Mary.

But that review is wrong.

The next time you watch the movie, pay close attention to the scene where Mr. Potter offers George his dream job. The silver skull gleams on the desk and a picture of Mr. Potter glares down from the wall, but for the moment Mr. Potter is all smiley, offering George a cigar and promising him everything his heart desires: more money than he can dream of (Twenty thousand dollars a year, instead of two thousand), the chance to travel to New York City and Europe, the ability to buy his lovely wife anything she wants.

All George has to do is shut down the Building and Loan, his family business.

You can see George considering the offer, calculating the enormous sum of money and picturing Mary in furs—just like Sam Wainwright’s wife. He shakes Mr. Potter’s hand and suddenly he freezes.

I wonder every year when I watch this part, what IS it that George feels when he touches Mr. Potter’s hand? Because at that moment, George lets go and wipes his own hand on his coat and angrily says no to everything.

Mr. Potter is greed and power and cruelty personified. Making a deal with him would be like selling your soul to the devil. And nothing is worth that, George instinctively realizes.

The message at the end of the movie, that George had a wonderful life because he made a real difference in the lives of others, is simple and practically a cliché, but at the same time it’s so easy to forget. Especially at this time of year when we are bombarded with messages to buy and spend and want want want.

So stop focusing on the fact that half of the stuff in your house is broken and you never had a chance to take a trip to Rome and once upon a time you dreamed you'd make a million dollars.

Instead, remember this: the town you live in isn’t crummy. A problem that can be solved with money is no problem at all.

And there are people who love you, who will willingly sit with you in your drafty den to watch a movie you’ve all seen a million times.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Here's the Thing

Winter in Columbus (also the tail end of fall and most of spring) is relentlessly bleak and gray. I heard somewhere that we have fewer sunny days than Seattle. I don’t know if this is true, but I wouldn’t doubt it. For the past few years, to keep my mind off the interminable dreariness, I’ve thrown myself into various time-consuming projects. Painting all the trim in the house was one fun project. And by fun I mean that it was not fun. Last year I practiced with our town’s women’s rowing team. Yeah. That was “fun,” too. The year before that I signed up for a watercolor class through the local parks and rec. This endeavor stretched the boundaries of the word fun too.

Let me preface this by saying I am not what anyone would call artistic. Unless you count having the ability to doodle a cube. But I was hoping I could learn. I had this thought that using another part of my creative brain would help with a book project I was working on. I obediently bought the prerequisite art supplies, nearly busting my budget on the paper alone. Side note: art is way more expensive than writing is.

It didn’t turn out how I expected. My vision of watercolor was kind of impressionistic and Monet-ish. The class turned out it be more of a study in paint-by-number. The teacher would show us a picture and we were supposed to copy it on our own paper and then color it in. He didn’t explain how to blend paints. I know. I know. How hard can that be? But somehow everything I mixed turned into various shades of gray. This became a metaphor for that winter. And my life.

That was the last time I tried to “do” art. It still intrigues me though. I have a good friend who is an artist and we’ve talked about how similar the creative process is, whether you’re working with fabrics (as she does) or with words (as I try to do). There is that little difference in expense mentioned above, but otherwise our feelings about creativity and the discipline involved are the same.

I’ve noticed that many characters in YA books have some connection to the arts, either as writers, or as artists or musicians. The main character in Gayle Forman’s beautifully written novel If I Stay, for example, is a cello player who is in love with a rock singer. Jessica Martinez’s new novel Virtuosity is about a cello player too, a prodigy pushed to perform by her driven mother. There’s a conflicted artist in Kirsten Hubbard’s travel adventure, love story Wanderlove. And an artist obsessed with Salavador Dali in Tom Leveen’s new book Zero (Release date: April 2012).

I read Zero over the weekend and it got me thinking a lot about art and music. The main character Zero has a totally original, distinctive voice that grabs the reader from the very first page. “Here’s the thing…” is how she starts most of her commentary. She’s got a major inferiority complex about her art, mostly because she was denied a scholarship to a prestigious art school. Now she’s stuck going to a local community college and taking an art class led by a new-agey flake painter. Zero’s also hobbled by her messed up home-life—Dad who drinks too much, Mom who enables him, and their explosive nightly fights. Art is an escape. And so is the punk music scene in Phoenix, which is where Zero meets Mike, the cool mysterious-eyed drummer in a band on the verge.

The book easily transcends the angsty teen drama genre. There’s quirky Salvador Dali quotes at the beginning of each chapter, such as “the difference between the Surrealists and me is that I am a Surrealist.” And funny/spot-on dysfunctional dialogue between Zero and her parents. And a love scene that has got to be one of THE most heartbreaking and awkward scenes ever written. It ranks right up there with John Green’s Looking for Alaska (which I won’t get into now. Let’s just say it’s a little too painfully real and therefore one of the reasons the book tends to get removed from school library shelves.) But my favorite parts were when Zero and Mike talk about art.

At one point Zero says: “I really want to sell a painting someday. I mean, I’d do it anyway. But I just—I don’t think I’ll believe I’m any good until someone I don’t know hands over a couple of bucks for something I did. Is that wrong, do you think?”

And Mike takes her hand and says, “No, I don’t. It’s fair. As long as you’re having fun.”

That’s the point, right? That you enjoy what you do, whether it’s art, music, writing, or whatever. Here’s the thing, in a gray season of impending-but-not-looking-so-impending book deals, it was just the bit of inspirational wisdom I needed to hear.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Second Guest Blog from a Teen Reader. Warning: This Blog Involves Quantum Physics

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine even if for some reason you are not a scientist (but just for some context, you may want to check out this video since it will blow your mind in the most educational way possible). Anyway I am applying to Yale early action this year because I’d rather get rejected than never know if I could have made it, but it’s now eating away at my psyche in the weirdest way imaginable.

Yale accepts 2000 people per year, out of 27000 applicants. 27000! (if you could capitalize numbers to indicate yelling, I would have there). And I literally cannot stop myself from fantasizing about what I’ll do when I learn that I’m accepted even though it statistically cannot happen. 6000 people apply early action to Yale (like me); I don’t know how many are accepted, but a lot of them are deferred to have their application reread with the regular decision applicants. It’s a second chance that takes 4 months to evaluate and is practically guaranteed to happen to me. I think I am qualified to go to Yale, but just think of how good I have to be to get accepted early action: Yale reads my application and is SO confident that I’m in the top 7% that they’re not even going to wait to see the other 21000 applications before they say yes. How could that possibly happen?! Yet, I just can’t stop imagining myself getting accepted in 5 days.

So now that I’ve done the interview, I have lost literally all control over what happens to my application. I’ve basically bought myself a lottery ticket with decent chances, but as far as I’m concerned, my chances are just weighted randomness. And because, in the system that is my sphere of existence, no physical law governs whether or not I get accepted, it is truly random. It’s like if Schrodinger’s cat were reading Yale applications: if the cat lives, the application is accepted, and if it dies, the application is rejected. The acceptance/rejection letter is a quantum superposition of both accept and reject simultaneously (deferral isn’t included in this because deferral will always lead to either an accept or a reject). I am both a future Yale student and not a future Yale student at the same time, and I will be both until I observe the letter and collapse its wave function into either accept or reject. If I get rejected, the moment before it occurs will be the closest I ever come to being a Yale undergrad as I will have been in the superposition of acceptance right before the rejection.

Another consequence of quantum mechanics (that has no proof at all even among scientists but has been speculated by theoretical physicists because it is technically “possible”) is that instead of something being in the quantum superposition of two states when a random event is about to occur, the universe actually splits into two separate, parallel, and otherwise identical universes where one outcome occurs in the first universe, and the other outcome occurs in the second. This process of universe-splitting is painless and totally unnoticeable but may provide drastically different universes as a result. For example, imagine flipping a coin and wagering your life-savings on it landing heads. In the universe where the coin lands heads, you become wealthy, but in the universe where the coin lands tails, you lose everything. This gives me some comfort, however, because when I nervously open my letter from Yale and see a rejection, I know that in another universe, my heart isn’t dropping into my stomach with disappointment, but with excitement. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that I’m lucky enough to be the version of me experiencing the success, but the acceptance is out there. It may just be a mere universe away.

Where am I going with all this quantum weirdness? I was talking to my friend today and he was talking about how his older brother applied to MIT early action last year. His brother was checking his email one day last December and saw the letter from MIT. He knew it was his acceptance/rejection letter and he didn’t open it. He simply looked at the subject line in his inbox and then chose not to click it – every day, for two months. What it really came down to was this: why did he do the things that he did? Is it for some sort of outside recognition or because he actually wants to do it? If he got accepted to MIT, it wouldn’t somehow make him a different person than if he was rejected. So anyway, I’m not going to tell you whether or not he ended up getting accepted, because it just doesn’t matter.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What Color is Rue?

This morning children’s book editor Harold Underdown posted a link to an article about the movie casting of Hunger Games. Apparently new movie posters have come out with one picturing the darling character Rue played by an African American actress. The article went on to catalog the various responses to the casting, which ranged from surprise about the character’s race to disbelief. For the record the book clearly describes Rue as having “dark brown skin and brown eyes.”

But I hadn’t clearly registered this. And I wondered what that meant about me. I posed the question to my kids at breakfast, who had both read the book and loved it. Neither one had pictured Rue as an African American, and my son went on to say that he hadn’t pictured her at all.

Which opened up a discussion of how we imagine characters’ looks. For example, none of us could describe Katniss, the main character, but now with the movie coming out, we all imagine her looking like the actress they’ve cast to play her. How important are characters’ looks anyway? I know when I write a book I have a picture in mind of what the characters look like, but I don’t spend much time describing their physical attributes. 

A character is not going to walk around thinking, “I am white and I have brown hair and blue eyes.” Some writers fall back on the cliché of the character passing by a mirror and noting his reflection. Or you could have one character remarking about another character’s physical attributes. But here you risk sounding like a romance novel. Exhibit A: Bella in Twilight constantly remarking about how Edward looks like a supermodel. With his auburn hair and his soft golden eyes and the marble planes of his chest.

Looks are important in movies but maybe they’re not so important in books with much of the description left for the reader to fill in for himself. Which my son pointed out, for him, was “a default white character.”

This led to another discussion. Is it okay that the default character is a white character? Probably not, for all the non-white readers in the world. I think I might understand how they feel. Notice I said in the above paragraph that the reader is left to fill in for himself. I fell back on the default male sex. The use of he to refer to both men and women has always bugged me. Yeah, it’s awkward to say he or she. And sure, everyone knows that when you say he, you really mean both he and she anyway. “And you can’t say she,” said my son.

He explained that whenever he comes across she in place of the understood he or she, it pulls him out of the narrative. He doesn’t like it. Well, I suppose he wouldn’t. Since he’s a he.

Language is more powerful than we realize in shaping how we view the world and ourselves. People might joke about political correctness, saying firefighter instead of fireman, for example. But I think that was a worthy change. As a woman when I read he, I picture a man. When I hear the word mankind, I imagine a default group of men.

Maybe what’s really going on here is unless a character’s description is pointed out again and again, like Edward’s chiseled abs, most of us are going to picture a version of ourselves. But it would be nice to have other pictures to picture once in a while. A she here and there thrown into a textbook. A black character who is simply black because that is what she is. Like Rue.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How to Promote Your Brand and Raise Your Klout

You may have clicked on this blogpost thinking I knew something about marketing strategies. Or maybe you’re just a friend of a friend of mine on Facebook. Or you’re my mother. Hi Mom! By now you’re growing disappointed. Because you’re starting to suspect I don’t know much about marketing strategies.

It’s true. But I promise I’m working on it. Marketing a book is a hot topic right now. Speakers talk it up at writing conferences. Twitter’s abuzz with strategies. Worthwhile ideas. As well as jokey ones. I don’t know if this is a new trend or if I just wasn’t aware of it before. Probably a little of both. What I’m hearing is that publishing house publicity departments have been cut to the bone so authors are being asked to do more and more of their own promotion. This is supposed to happen before the first book comes out. Get yourself OUT THERE, they say. Create a media presence; a brand. Network with other writers and bloggers and people like teachers and librarians who can potentially talk up your book.

It also doesn’t help that the book industry’s in a state of flux. The old method of a traditional publishing house printing up books and distributing them to libraries and bookstores is fading or at least it’s getting crowded out by Amazon and E-books. More writers are ditching the traditional houses altogether and self-publishing. It sounds easier on the surface than trying to snag the attention of an agent and/or editor. But is it, really? Just because you’ve thrown an e-book out on the inter tubes doesn’t mean an audience is going to find it.

So for the moment I’m still slogging down the traditional path, and I am dutifully following the bits of marketing advice I’ve picked up along the way. I’m facebooking and twittering and blogging. I’m passing out my card, this cutsy thing my husband put together when he was bored. 500 for 5 bucks. I’ve got a ton of them. Anyone want one? And the other day a writer friend of mine signed me up on this site called Klout so I could figure out what the strength of my web presence is.

It’s a 12. I’m guessing that's low.

The trouble is I’ve got no book to hawk. So there’s nothing there there. I was telling this to my husband and he said that shouldn’t stop me. Marketing can work wonders. Look at Paris Hilton, he said. Or the Kardashians.

But I said, bleh. I want to talk about Annie Dillard (author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood) I’m reading her book The Writing Life and it’s so absorbing. All nuts and bolts and thoughts on craft. There was no Twitter or Facebook or Blogging in the late 80’s when Annie wrote this book, so she doesn’t spend time discussing that stuff. But I suspect that she doesn’t spend much time on it now either. Okay, I just checked. She has an official website. She’s not on Twitter. She has a Facebook author page with no pic. She doesn’t appear to blog.

Not sure what I’m trying to say here except there is a difference between a writer like Annie Dillard and someone like Paris Hilton (She’s “written” three books, in case you were wondering) who's content to be a brand. Like a purse. Or a shoe. Or a box of tissue.

I just checked the Klout site. Not surprisingly, Paris Hilton has an 80. And somehow, my score went up to 13.23. Paris, watch out. I am gaining on you.

(I am not Paris Hilton.)

(Or Annie Dillard.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Long Live Bookstores!

You’ve probably heard that bookstores are on the verge of going the way of the dodo. Someday we’ll be telling our grandkids about them. You see, there were these places that had shelves filled with books. And the books were made out of paper… The other day I was at a thrift shop with my kids. They simply could not get over the existence of typewriters. How do those keys work exactly? And what’s with the ribbon? Also they were enamored by the dialing phones. So, wait, you have to stick your finger in the hole and drag it all the way around? Geez. That would suck if your phone number had a bunch of 9s and 0s.

My husband and I felt like dinosaurs.

Yes, it’s true, children, bookstores used to be all the rage. And the bigger the store the better. When I lived in Memphis in the early ’90’s there were three warehoused-sized bookstores within a two-mile radius. That doesn’t count the local bookstore the chains were copying, the one I worked at when I was in grad school, Davis Kidd. (Now it’s called Booksellers at Laurelwood.) The first time I walked into that place I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The. Biggest. Bookstore. I. Had. Ever. Seen. 100,000 books. Comfy chairs. Cool artsy posters on the wall. It was The place to hang out.

All the workers were hip and brilliant and quirky, each one an expert in his or her area, so the history alcove was manned by a PhD student in history. And the math section was shelved by a math genius. The religion and philosophy guy gave me a tour on my first day of work. He waved his arm at the bibles then walked me around the alcove. Religious texts, world religions, philosophy, new age, satanic beliefs. “The bible thumpers end up back to back with the atheists,” he pointed out with a smirk. “And over here are the books on ESP. Funny, no one ever asks where this section is…” I cracked up and he stared at me like I was a flake. I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time so I was kind of a flake. Come to think of it, maybe I still am.

The section I was in charge of was romance. Since I only worked part-time, it was a good genre for me. Not much upkeep except making sure the rows of bodice rippers stayed in alphabetical order. The other clerks knew I hated romance novels and took every opportunity to mock me and my charges. One time the accomplished literary fiction guy led a customer my way. “She wants a recommendation, Jody,” he said, “from your romance section. I told her you were a total fan.”

I ignored that and asked the customer in my most polite, salesperson tone: “Would you like a book about a beautiful woman and a man who’s really handsome but kind of mean to her and they have all sorts of issues and then they realize they really love each other?”

“Oh, yes!” said the woman. “That sounds like a good one.”

With all the smart-aleck clerks looking on, I waved my hand at the entire romance section. “There it is,” I said. They probably should’ve fired me for that. In addition to being kind of flaky, I was snarky back then too.

Davis Kidd had an information desk in the middle of the store. We got the strangest questions at that desk:

“What’s a good place to eat Mexican food?”

“Um, I don’t know. But I’ll show you our selection of Mexican cookbooks.”

Or “Where can I buy white gloves?”

“Um.” I tried to show the customer the fashion and style books but she waved me off. No, she didn’t want a book about gloves, she wanted to know where to buy actual white gloves.

“Ma’am,” I said, “I have no idea. Maybe Macys?”

She glared at me then pointed at the sign over the desk. “That says information,” she said.

“Information for the store,” I told her. “Not information about life in general.”

I probably should’ve gotten fired for that too.

We weren’t allowed to read while we were on the clock. I guess that goes without saying. But sometimes I snuck away and hid in an alcove and read anyway. The fiction guy usually caught me but he was always nice about it. I bought tons of books the couple of years I worked at Davis Kidd. Many of them line the shelves in our house today, all alphabetized, of course, and by genre, just like in the store. My family used to tease me about that, but hey! It makes it easier to find what you’re looking for.

I don’t want bookstores to go away. I heard the author Ann Patchett talking on NPR a few weeks ago about Parnassus, the bookstore she just opened in Nashville. The big question was why she was taking such a risk—opening a bookstore, in this economy, when people aren’t even sure that books are going to be around much longer. Ann said while it’s true that the big bookstore model might not work anymore, she’s betting that there is still a market for smaller ones. Maybe things had gone a little over the top with cafés and selling non-book stuff like candles and expensive pens and designer purses.

She’s probably right. And I hope she’s right about her new bookstore. Because shouldn’t there still be a place where people who love to read can browse alongside other people who love to read? Where you can ask for information about whatever thoughts pop into your head? And where an old woman picking out a new bible has to brush past a biker flipping through a copy of The Anarchists Cookbook?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Red Riding Hood, Tattoos, and Other Gifts of Charity

Saturday my family volunteered to help out at a Christmas party for underprivileged kids. It was a nice party. Holiday songs played. A Santa sat up on the stage so kids could sit on him. There was food and crafts and games. My daughter and I decorated kids with tattoos. Turns out this was kind of stressful. Some of the tattoos didn’t latch on properly. Only half the candy cane stuck. Or one of the elf arms got lopped off. The kids didn’t typically like a wet, cold sponge pressed on the back of their hands. Or on their cheeks. Or for one kid, smack dab in the middle of his forehead, which ended up sparking a momentary trend in snowman tattoo placement.

My husband and I had gone out to buy gifts the week before. His company sponsored the party, and his office had contributed donations, but it was up to us to purchase the items on the wish list. The little girl we’d drawn wished for a coat and gloves. Also a “doll baby.” That’s the way she wrote it, and I don’t know why but it killed me, that wording. We weren’t allowed to spend too much money (to make things fair, the organizers said) so there were elements of resourcefulness and planning involved. How could we afford to get the coat AND the doll baby without going over the limit? We managed, though, and I was hoping to watch the little girl open the presents, but we didn’t get to stay for the gift opening. It was just as well. I think the organizers wanted the gifts to seem like they’d come from Santa. Instead of from well-meaning, over-blessed, seasonal do-gooders.

What kids want to have it pointed out to them that they’re needy? I remember going to the bank with my mother when I was seven years old. In the lobby there was a display of what seemed like hundreds of dolls. Each one was dressed up in a different outfit. A lacy ball gown. A hula skirt. Flowery nightshirt and bathrobe. It took a long inspection for me to realize it was the same doll wearing different clothes. I stared at them longingly while my mother went about her banking business then I asked her if I could have one and she told me they were for the needy. I’m not sure I understood what that meant except that I couldn’t have a doll. And I didn’t understand it later when that Christmas, I DID get one of the dolls, the one dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. That was the year my father died and my mother was instantly a young single mother with three kids under the age of seven. Maybe she hadn’t realized we were needy either.

I was having flashbacks of Red Riding Hood when I was carefully pressing tattoos on little kids’ cheeks and they would flounce off to grin at themselves in the mirror and I would pray the tattoo wouldn’t peel off while their parents smiled wearily and didn't look me in the eye.

A few weeks ago I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It’s a true story about a guy named Paul Farmer, a Harvard doctor who volunteers most of his time at a clinic he started in Haiti.

The book is alternately depressing and inspiring. It’s depressing because there is so much need in the world, and these needy people are ordinary people just like any other people who for the most part are forgotten and ignored and suffering and sometimes dying because no one is helping them. And it’s inspiring because Paul Farmer, one ordinary but clearly brilliant and caring man, is doing everything he can to save them. And then it’s depressing again because you read this book, or at least I did, thinking what the heck is wrong with me, sitting around worrying about inane meaningless stuff like stupid book deals when there are real people right now out there in the world starving and sick and in pain?

And what did I do with this realization? I took a few hours to shop for a coat and stick snowflake tattoos on kids’ faces. Not sure how much of a difference that made in the ultimate scheme of life. Or who knows. I really liked my Red Riding Hood doll. It was clear to me when I opened it the Christmas I was seven that it was the best doll from the bank lobby display. I don’t know who donated it, who sewed the darling jumper and cape and hood. It was a small thing but it meant something to me, a needy little girl who didn’t know she was needy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On Black Holes and Alleged Book Deals

I don’t understand Quantum Mechanics. Lately my son’s been giving the family mini lessons at the dinner table but the bits and pieces that I manage to grasp fall away shortly after the meal is eaten. My mind is a sieve for stuff like science and math. Blame this on a history of scary and/or uninspiring nuns and a dash of an inferiority complex back when I was in high school (cough cough) over twenty years ago.

My son patiently and excitedly explains his latest insights in what I assume is a perfectly understandable manner. But what I hear sounds like this: “particles…light….Einstein said….so force will…something something….a dead cat…” Then he gives up and directs the rest of the conversation to his father.

But every once in a while a concept seeps in. I hate to say this, because it will make me seem very self-centered, but it’s usually a concept that relates to, well, ME. So here’s the background info—and if you’ve been following this blog even sporadically, you can probably guess what I’m about to say next—I’m waiting but pretending I’m not waiting for news about a potential book deal. This WAITING is slowly driving me mad. Every day I wake up not thinking about it while actually thinking about it. I go about my morning viscerally shoving it out of my mind and mentally patting myself on the back about my cheery upbeat attitude as I make breakfast and pack lunches. Then it’s down to my cave of an office to fire up the stuttering/near broken lap top to further not think about it. I do this by writing another blog. And doodling around in my journal. I make up projects. Writing exercises. And rereading snippets of inspirational writing books. Why don’t I just start another novel? But Christmas is only a few weeks away! There’s no point! These are just a few of my fun mental battles.

Then it’s time for yoga and further not thinking about It That Shall Not Be Named. Maybe it will happen today is the thought that burbles up during my mediation. Which I quickly tamp down until it’s time for lunch! And more writing in the office. But I’m out of my pajamas now, so I’ve got that going for me. I know, I’ll enter a writing contest. I’ll write a poem. No. I must get the heck out of the house. I simply can’t sit one more second in front of my computer blinking at my empty email box.
I haul myself to the library. To the post office. To the grocery store. My metaphorical hands are pressed against my ears. I’m not thinking about it. I’m not thinking about it. Because if I DO think about it, what I think is: it’s not going to happen today. And there isn’t much of a leap to get to the next step: It’s not going to happen ever.

But at this point you may be thinking: Wait. Wasn’t she talking about Quantum Mechanics?

Don’t worry. I didn’t forget. So it has something to do with black holes. Apparently, (and forgive me if I get any of this wrong; it’s really really likely that I will.) if you are heading toward a black hole, you will, at a certain point, cross the black hole threshold and fall into it. BUT if someone is watching you fall into a black hole, he won’t ever see you cross over. From his vantage point, you just keep getting closer and closer. Forever. There was more to my son’s explanation and now that I think about it, this may not have anything to do with Quantum Mechanics. I had stopped taking information in and was simply picturing myself slipping closer and closer to a black hole. But the black hole in my mind was the %&#*%^ book deal.

It seems that there is an actual scientific reason why time has slowed down and collapsed in on itself and I am seemingly no closer to reaching my goals than I have ever been.

Whew. So that’s a relief.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I Won't Write a Bad Review

Someone asked me the other day if I LOVE every book I read. They noticed that all of the book reviews I do are so gushingly positive. Yes, that’s true. But what I haven’t been mentioning is that for every book I blog about, there are a good four or five others that I don’t review. I read a lot of books. And sadly, most of what I read isn’t that great. These unreviewed books seem to fall into two categories, each kind of depressing to me as an aspiring writer.

1. Simply bad. These are the ones that I question how in the world they ever got published. They’re over-written and/or poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, cardboard cutouts. The plots are plots I’ve seen before. Predictable. Boring. The English major in me has an extremely hard time closing a book without finishing it. But this year I have done that several times, ignoring the accompanying twinges of guilt.

2. Decent but “meh.” Somehow these books depress me even more than the badly written ones. There’s nothing wrong with them. They just lack something. Heart, maybe. I heard an editor talk about this once at a conference. She said she could work with an author who had issues with plot or characterization or even grammatical problems. But if the “heart” wasn’t in the book, there was nothing she could do to save it. Heart is one of those elements that’s hard to explain, but you know it when you feel it. A character’s voice that immediately resonates with you. Maybe the story meanders or nothing much happens but somehow you want to keep reading anyway. Finish a book like that and it’s still tugging at you. Meh books disappear the second you put them down. I feel sad about those books. Somebody worked on them. Somebody loved them. And yet my only reaction in the end is: Yeah. Whatever.

I used to review books for a regional magazine. The editor made it clear that my job was to promote authors from that region. This meant no bad reviews. If I truly didn’t like the book, he said, I could simply write up a summary of it. That was fine with me. Until I came to a book that was so terrible I could barely plow through it. I don’t want to get into a big discussion here about self-published books, but this one took the stereotypical self-published prize. I read the whole damn thing out of some sense of obligation. (The magazine didn’t pay me for writing reviews. The payment was a copy of the book.) I tried to write up a summary. I really did. But every sentence veered into snarky territory and then I started worrying about my name being on top of that review. What if someone bought the book because of me? I just couldn’t go through with it.

When the owner of the children’s bookstore Cover to Cover asked me to review advanced copies of young adult books for her, remembering that previous experience, I made the deal that I would send her a short review of every book she gave me but only blog about the ones I really liked. I have nothing against literary critics. I appreciate their analyses of books—both the positive and negative. You’re not going to get better if you don’t have someone pointing out areas of weakness or plot holes or whatever. But being a writer, I understand what goes into creating a book, and I’m not going to spend my time or energy crafting a negative response to someone’s precious manuscript, no matter how crappy I think it is.

So for whatever it’s worth, if I review a book on this site, you can rest assured that it’s pretty darned good. (just my opinion, of course) I’m not getting paid. I don’t know any of the writers. And I have no reason to plug them. Except that something about the book stood out to me and I hope it might appeal to you as well.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Addicted to Revenge

It’s Wednesday and this fall that means one thing: the latest installment of my guilty, TV-watching pleasure—ABC’s new soap-opera-y, over-the-top drama Revenge comes on.

I love this show and I’m only a little embarrassed to say so. Yes, I’ll admit there is a part of me that likes looking at attractive people cavorting around the beaches and mansions and yachts of the Hamptons. And I enjoy the ridiculous plot twists and over-acting and shocking hook-ups. My teen daughter and I pop a bowl of popcorn and curl up on the couch together, excitedly gasping during commercials and trying to pull the other members of the family in. (Typically, husband is at the computer, but he occasionally looks up when there’s a climactic shift in the music to ask what the heck is going on. Or son ambles in with his nightly bowl of cereal to make a derogatory remark about inane TV shows. My daughter and I roll our eyes. This show is GOOD, we insist.)

In case you haven’t tuned in, I will say here that it is not too late to jump on board. You can watch the earlier episodes online and catch right up with us. And now I will attempt to analyze the appeal. Because I am a writer who prides myself on having some taste in entertainment offerings. And because watching this show is a kind of assignment for me. You see, all of the necessary aspects of a story are present in Revenge, and watching it religiously can therefore improve my own story-telling abilities. (If I keep telling myself this, I might eventually believe it.)

It starts, I think, with a proper hook. The minute we meet the main character Emily Thorne (spoiler alert—this is not her real name) we are introduced to her quest. Emily’s father was framed in a spectacular way by his wealthy and powerful friends for a terrible crime he did not commit. And now Emily is out to seek revenge on every last one of them. She’s got a photo of the smiling, smug group and each episode she takes one down in a satisfying way and marks an X across his face.

So that’s fun.

The first episode began at the end, in a kind of flash-forward. A man is (possibly) shot on the beach during a Labor Day/engagement party. It’s Emily’s fiancé and we watch her react to the news and then we rewind back to the beginning of the summer when Emily is just moving into the Hamptons and setting her diabolical revenge plan into motion. I love this framework for a story because it gives the sense that the writers know where the plot is going. I’ve gotten sucked into complicated programs before (ahem, Lost) and the build up of sub plots and introductions of characters, etc., works up to a certain point in grabbing the audience’s attention. But eventually there has to be a pay off equal to or greater than the building up section. It’s nice if the writers have some idea how they’re going to tie everything together. Otherwise you have the sneaking suspicion they’re making it up as they go. Not a great tactic, by the way, for any kind of story creation.

No story, no matter how cleverly plotted, can last long without interesting characters. True, the ones in Revenge are exaggerations (I hope) of reality, but these people are much more complex than you realize at first. Take “Emily.” We are rooting for her to destroy her father’s enemies, but there are many times when she seems to go too far. And we don’t know her true feelings about anyone, including the clueless boyfriend/fiancé Daniel. The main antagonist in this drama is Daniel’s mother, Victoria Grayson. You really really want to hate this woman, but somehow in every episode there’s a little glimmer of humanity glinting behind her smirky smile. It’s like that with all the characters. One week we applaud Emily’s destruction of former supermodel, Lydia. But a few weeks later that poor woman is thrown out of a window and somehow survives. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her when Victoria keeps her bedridden and drugged in a back bedroom.

The writers could’ve rested on their laurels with the cool premise and complicated characters, but each week they up the ante, introducing more potential enemies for Emily and flashing intriguing pieces of the past at us. Victoria was having an affair with Emily’s father. Da da dum! And Emily’s reform school roommate, the one she switched identities with, is back, after murdering the Grayson’s evil security guard. Da da dum! And Daniel’s best buddy from Harvard is really a sociopathic lying hustler. Da da dum!!!

Each show is more brilliant and funny and ridiculous than the last. And I for one will be eagerly watching it all unfold tonight. (Pen in hand. To further conduct my story-building research. Not.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not Just Sitting Around Eating Bon-Bons

One of the best things I ever got out of attending a writing workshop was a new friend. It was July 2008 at the amazingly inspirational and life-changing Children’s Writing Conference at Chautauqua and I was pretty much at a crossroads in my writing life. Did I want to keep writing for children? was one of the many questions I had going into it. That conference is on the expensive side and it was hard to justify spending money like that on myself, specifically on a hobby that didn’t seem to be going anywhere in the career sense.

I clicked with a lot of people that week, some just dipping a toe into the writing pool and others already treading water on the deep end. I was searching for a person somewhere in the middle, maybe one who was ready to pull off the floaties and dunk her head under. I found her waiting in line at a porta-potty. Donna was an aspiring picture book writer, and she had a couple of novels under her belt too and they sounded interesting to me. We had a few things in common. Kids sort of the same age. (But she has four!) We’d both been English teachers, and we were spending our child-raising years as uber-PTA volunteers. We nervously exchanged manuscripts that day.

I say nervously because there is always this element of fear when you first look at someone’s writing (and know she is evaluating yours too). The biggest worry is that you won’t like it and how will you tell her without hurting her feelings? Ideally, you’d both be at a similar level and looking for the same kind feedback. Up to this point I'd never found someone like that, so I wasn’t holding my breath.

But, whew. What Donna wrote was pretty darned good and apparently she thought my stuff was worthwhile too. After the conference we started emailing each other and this correspondence quickly turned into a twice daily check-in. Every morning we email each other our goals for the day and every afternoon we write what we call our "accountability." At the end of the year I scrolled through all those emails and found that they were a record of Donna's and my writing journey and our friendship. There are our goals, of course, but also snippets of daily life, books we’ve read and errands we’ve run. Stuff we make for dinner. Funny and/or annoying things are kids and hubbies do.

Once Donna wrote that a friend of hers wondered what she did all day at home. The implication was that Donna must be sitting around eating bon-bons. She certainly wasn’t out working. Or cleaning her house. That accusation became a joke to us. Yes, we were sitting around eating bon-bons all day. That’s what writers do. For a Christmas present that year I compiled all of our emails and had them printed and bound on one of those self-published book sites. I titled the book Sitting Around Eating Bon-Bons and even used a picture of bon-bons for the cover art.

Now it’s an annual tradition, that correspondence book. I’m editing Book Three this week and it’s inspiring to see how far Donna and I have come since we met. I can’t count how many times we’ve talked each other out of quitting. And when one of us has any kind of success, the other feels it just as much, if not more so. Writing can be such a lonely activity. Also frustrating and exciting and heartbreaking and amazing. It’s a million times better when you have another person to share the journey with. All I can say is thank goodness Donna and I had the same inclination to head for the porta-potty when we did.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part (or not)

I wasn’t going to write about this, the potential book deal, PBD for short, that’s been pulsing in the back of my mind for weeks now, flaring up here and there during quiet moments or simmering on the back burner when I’ve been distracted by out-of-town visitors. But there are no distractions now. The visitors have departed. The carcass of leftover turkey has been picked clean. Yesterday I threw out the remaining plop of congealed stuffing because no one in my family could bear to look at it anymore. Today hubby is at work, and children are at school, and I am back in my office/guest room and there is nothing much to do but THINK about the PBD while at the same time trying NOT to THINK about it.

I wasn’t going to write about this because I have the niggling, superstitious feeling that writing about a possible dream-come-true may jinx, curse, doom (insert you negative verb here) the whole thing and I will be left looking like a fool/hopeless dreamer/naïve beginner. It seems silly to talk about something that hasn’t happened and possibly won’t happen. Don’t count your chickens, etc. So I was going to wait and not discuss it and then if/when IT happened, I could just burst out with the good news and cry happy tears on my keyboard and say thankyouverymuch to my supporters, yadda yadda ya.

But I started this blog because I wanted to create a picture of what life is like for an unpublished, persevering writer. I envisioned a person like the Me of fifteen years ago reading it, a person just starting on the journey and not knowing what she is getting into. And I think that person should know what it feels like at this point, when there is a PBD glimmering just ahead.

It feels like you're a nervous, pessimistic wreck.

I’ve heard stories from people, writers who came soooo close and then watched their chances slip away. I can imagine what this feels like. I was putzing around the grocery store the other day and I had a vivid flash of myself getting the call, but it wasn’t the one where your agent tells you there’s an offer on your book, it was the call where she says they changed their minds. Actually, this would probably happen in an email now that I think about it. Which is why I dread opening mine lately. In the supermarket I let the whole vision unfold. My few minutes of frustrated tears. My day or two shuffling around the house wearily wondering if I should just quit for good. The well-meaning reactions of family and friends. (They’re comforting yet also sort of like, yeah, that sucks, but did you really think this was going to happen to you?) And then I saw myself plunked out in my office opening up a new file and starting another book. Because that’s what I do in the face of rejection. I write. This whole vision flashed at me in the grocery store aisles and I went through the entire gamut of emotions and came to the check-out feeling completely fine. It hit me that I know exactly how I’d react because rejection and failure have happened to me before. Been there. Done that. I keep writing anyway.

But success. Now that is something I have no real experience with.

Seemingly pointless digression: Last year my son got cut from the lacrosse team at his school. It was a very discouraging experience for him, to put it mildly. He’d worked hard, attended grueling practices, done all of the things the coach suggested to get better. The way they tell the kids if they made the team or not is they have all of them come to the gym and then the coaches call each kid in one by one to have a little talk. It seems excruciating to me, that wait out there in the gym, the guys all looking at each other and wondering who’s in and who’s not. But my son told me the moment the coach called his name wasn’t too bad. It was the moment when he still had a chance to be on the team, so there was this feeling of expectation and possibility and hope and he could see himself in the uniform and running out onto the field in front of the cheering fans.

He got cut. But that moment right before he found out was the closest he was going to be to being on the team so he let his dream in and he basked in it.

I have no idea what’s going to happen with the book deal, but at this moment I think I’ll bask in its potential glory. And I promise from now on I’ll share every gory and/or delicious detail with you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

When a "Problem Book" Transcends Its Problem

I hate to admit this but I kept putting off reading my advance review copy Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post. I’d read the back cover, so I knew what it was about, something to do with a girl coming to terms with being a lesbian. Several months ago there was a big discussion in the YA publishing industry about this very topic. I won’t go into all the details here, but the gist came down to this question: how much of a market is there for books featuring gay characters? The issue exploded when an agent (there is dispute about whether this actually happened or not) suggested to a writer that a manuscript would be more palatable to readers if she changed a gay character into a straight one.

From a business/marketing perspective, I suppose that’s a safer choice. On the other hand, controversy can be good for sales too. There are some books that are called problem novels. I imagine them being cooked up in a marketing department. Someone throws out a hot controversial topic. In the past it might have been abortion or anorexia or incest. More recently it might be meth abuse or cutting. The books that are created this way are rarely good. The issue is the whole point and often it’s handled in a lurid, sensationalistic way. Sometimes these books sell very well but they quickly disappear from the shelves.

So this is what I was afraid of with Cameron Post. That it would be one of those books with a tag line like, “an important book on an important topic, blah blah.” Then I was hesitant when I read the first page and realized that it had that nostalgic-adult-looking-back-on-defining-teen-moments tone to it. You know what I mean—a book that’s not a YA book at all but more of a memoir. But I got past that because the voice of Cameron was so real and honest and funny.

When we meet her, she and her best friend Irene are hanging out like they always do in the summer in Miles City, Montana. Swimming at the lake, watching reruns of Murder She Wrote with Cam’s grandmother, daring each other to do crazy stunts like swipe a pack of gum from the minute market. Later they share a kiss in Irene’s barn, and it surprises them both. But what really turns Cam’s world upside down is the death of her parents. When her ultra conservative Aunt Ruth moves in to take care of her, you can guess that life is going to get pretty stifling for Cam.

Here’s another confession: I thought the book was going to disturb me. And it did. But not because of the occasional girl kissing a girl. What was disturbing was worrying about Cam. Her crushing guilt that her actions were somehow responsible for her parents’ death. Her heart being broken. Her struggles to conform. Her earnest attempts to change herself.

This book isn’t about homosexuality.

It’s about growing up. About fitting in (or not fitting in). About the painful and horrifying realization that sometimes the people in charge truly don’t know what’s best for you. I hope that kids who struggle with this “issue” will find this book. And I hope that others will read it for the reason that they would read any book.
Because it’s really really good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Joy of Cooking Gets All Snarky about My Turkey

Maybe it’s strange but I love reading cookbooks. Flip through one and you get so much more than a collection of recipes. Old cookbooks are glimpses into the past. I’ve got a 1960’s book that tells me how to talk to my neighborhood butcher. It also contains cool, quirky photos of dishes that would look at home on the set of Mad Men. My favorite is a “crown roast” constructed out of hot dogs.
Many cookbooks have a voice. I’m thinking of course of Julia’s Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I can’t make her potato and leek soup without hearing her distinctive accent in my ear. Julia seems so imposing and authoritative. When I do her beef bourguignon I close the book when I come to the part where I’m going to skip steps. I just don’t want her to know that I can’t be bothered sautéing mushroom slices in small batches or that I’m too lazy to towel off my beef chunks.
The voice in my Victory Garden Cookbook, which I’m assuming belongs to the author, Marian Morash, is more forgiving.

Marian, going by her picture on the cover, is so happy and perky surrounded by massive heads of lettuce in her farmhouse kitchen. She’s always referring to her husband Russ, who I imagine is out in the garden doing the sweaty stuff while Marian follows behind with her big basket collecting the bounty. Marian makes beets sound so good I decided to grow them even though no one in my family including me likes beets at all. FYI: They do have pretty purplish leaves you can use in salad.
One of the funniest cookbooks (yes, funniest) is Being Dead is No Excuse by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays.

Sandwiched around super-rich, cholesterol clogging casserole recipes are tidbits about small town Southern life. And death. My favorite story is about a Southern girl who left home and returns after many years for a funeral. She rolls her eyes at the table laden with cream of chicken soup soaked concoctions and says something snarky like, “who on earth brought that canned pea casserole?” To which her mother replies, “I did.” The girl, without missing a beat, grabs the ladle, plops a big helping on her plate and says, “And Mama, don’t you ever stop.”
Snark is not something you often find in a cookbook. So when you do come across it, it’s always fun. Take Joy of Cooking by Irma. S. Rombauer. Many Thanksgivings ago I was using the book as a reference and I came across this little passage:
Today “roasting” (turkey) in aluminum foil has become popular because no basting is needed. So, if you decide, despite our Cassandra warnings about this method, that you’d rather clean the attic, improve your serve, or write Chapter IX of the Great American Novel than to baby-sit a bird, go ahead with the foil and take the consequences—which will be steamed rather than roasted.

You can almost hear Irma muttering the word, Idiot, under her breath.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Bird, the Brain, and the Meaning of Life

I read two good books over the weekend that are still spinning around in my mind. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley and an advanced review copy of Fracture by Megan Miranda (pub date is Jan., 2012).

Seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter in Where Things Come Back could be the millennial generation’s Holden Caulfield. He tries to be upbeat about his life in rural Arkansas, but it’s tough. At the beginning of the summer his cousin dies of a drug overdose. His younger brother Gabriel, a sensitive, brilliant oddball, is grief-stricken. But life goes on, Cullen wryly observes. He’d like to be a writer someday, but all he’s been able to muster so far are potential book titles. When a weird guy from out-of-state shows up proclaiming that he’s seen an extinct woodpecker in town, Cullen has tons of comic material to work with. The “Lazarus” bird, as it’s called, gives the dying town hope. Also new marketing possibilities. Cullen’s mom, for example, the local hairdresser, creates a Lazarus bird hairstyle that becomes all the rage for the middle school boys set.
Then Cullen’s brother Gabriel disappears and nothing in Cullen’s life makes sense anymore.

Spliced around this story of a mysterious bird and a missing boy, is another one, the tale of a floundering teenage missionary attempting to please his impossible-to-please father, and his friend, a boy obsessed with the Book of Enoch. If you don’t know this book, it details the fall of angels in the bible and the angel Gabriel’s battle against them.

These two seemingly unconnected narratives collide in a surprising way and allow the author to explore the timeless question: how do we find meaning in life?

The novel Fracture tackles the question too. Be warned: this book is a page-turner, so clear out your schedule for a few hours before starting. In the first few pages Delaney Maxwell falls through the ice of a pond near her house and “dies.” When she wakes up from a coma, to the surprise of everyone, she seems completely fine. No long-lasting physical injuries except for a few broken ribs due to CPR. No apparent brain damage.

Except Delaney knows there’s something wrong with her. In the hospital she is sure that she sees a shadowy figure lurking around her room. And there’s a strange tugging sensation in her head whenever she’s around someone who’s about to die. She’s got other problems too. Her parents are plying her with medication fearing she’s psychotic. The boy next door, the one who pulled her out of the icy pond, is alternately concerned and distant. And there’s another boy who shows up out of the blue, someone who’s also been in a coma and shares Delaney’s “talent” for sensing impending death.
But is he helping Delaney or is he out to hurt her?

What was interesting to me about this novel was that the author took it beyond the level of straightforward thriller, asking readers: if you knew a person was about to die, what would you do? And how do you live your life when it is surrounded by death?

Two great books by two new voices in YA literature. Be sure to check them out.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Musings on Cleanliness, Procrastination, and Italian Grandmothers

Today I need to clean my house. Relatives are coming in from out of town and eighteen people will be sitting down to dinner next week on Thanksgiving. So there is a lot to do and I must get right on it.

Or, I could delay all that and write about cleaning my house. I read this article once that Italian women are the best cleaners in the world. I think it was sponsored by the company that makes Swiffers or whatever they’re called. You know those mops with a cleaning cloth latched on for quick-dusting floors?

Apparently, Italian women weren’t buying that product at the same rate that other women were. The Swiffer people discovered that Italian women really get into cleaning, spending way more hours a week than anyone else. They have a different, cleaner, definition of clean. So the company began to market the Swiffer as a mop that would polish your already clean floors and their sales went up in Italy.

I don’t know if it’s true that Italian women are so much cleaner. I’m half-Italian, but that doesn’t seem to mean much, which you would see if you visited my house. My grandmother was extremely clean. The saying went that you could “eat off her floors.” And this was before Swiffer was around. 

I think my grandmother would’ve loved Swiffer (but only for post-cleaning, buffing purposes, of course). Once, I went to visit her and talk came around to her favorite hobby. She went through her weekly cleaning schedule with me. One day a week, for example, she emptied her kitchen cabinets and dusted them. Another day she washed out her washing machine. That was interesting to me.

I confess that I have never cleaned my washing machine. I guess I trust that it happens whenever I wash a load of clothes.

But I was feeling the pressure of my ethnicity several years ago when my Italian aunt came to visit. I went on a cleaning rampage through my house dusting corners that had never been dusted and scouring nooks that had never been scoured. It was then that I noticed that the mini blinds in all of the windows were filthy. (Possibly because I had never cleaned them.) This wasn’t the kind of dust you could simply Swiffer off.

I got online for mini-blind cleaning tips and the very first website I came to recommended throwing out your dirty mini blinds and buying new ones. Well, the half-Italian in me had a hearty laugh about that.

The next site was more helpful. Soak them outside in a baby pool was the advice. It happened to be like 100 degrees when I did this. I had sixteen mini blinds soaking and then drying out on my driveway. It took me all afternoon. It was a major sweaty production, to put it mildly, but I was committed. When they were all dry, I went to hang them and found that several of the mini blinds had broken during the process.

Long story short, my husband bought replacements that didn’t match the color exactly of the others, and in the end we bought ALL new ones.

They were only a few bucks apiece.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. But I suspect my writing-a-blog-to-delay-cleaning tactic is drawing to a close. So with that I will sign off and begin the search for my dust cloth.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Books with a Twist

I’m a sucker for books that trick me. I remember the first time it happened. I was ten and my friendly neighborhood librarian handed me a copy of a book called The Truth about Mary Rose by Marilyn Sachs. It was published in 1973; it’s not in print anymore, which is a darn shame because I think the story holds up for today’s kids.

The narrator Mary Rose worships her namesake, an aunt who died in a fire when she was twelve years old after saving all the people in her apartment building. The first Mary Rose was clearly a heroine, and our narrator is enamored with the details surrounding the aunt’s death, so enamored that she and her cousin like to act out the night of the fire, with our narrator in the starring role. The aunt seemed like such a cool, creative person. The only thing that survived the fire was a shoebox filled with her collection of handmade stuff, paper rings that narrator Mary Rose adores trying on. Supposedly there were tons of those shoeboxes, but on the night of the fire, the aunt thrust that one box into the arms of her baby brother, pushed him out the door to safety, then returned into the building to knock on every door and wake the inhabitants. There’s a newspaper picture of her, arms waving from the window of the burning building right before it collapsed.

I was totally caught up in the story, adoring the original Mary Rose myself. So it came as a complete shock to me when the narrator discovers that her namesake may not have been such a noble heroine after all. Throughout the book, her parents reprimand her for eavesdropping on conversations, and at the end she learns her lesson: the little brother who ran out of the building with the shoebox has a different version of the night of the fire. He says Mary Rose was a terrible, bossy, vicious girl who literally pushed him out the door with her precious belongings and returned inside only to save the rest of her stuff. I won’t tell you his other revelations about that night, but the narrator Mary Rose and I were both stunned.

I read the book again and again, caught up each time with Mary Rose’s point of view and struck by the fact that there could be an opposite, equally compelling version of the same events. When I was an adult I came upon another book that had the same effect on me. This one, coincidentally, also had the word truth in the title, so you would’ve thought I’d be ahead of the game.

But The Truth about Loren Jones by Alison Lurie ended up tricking me too. The narrator Polly is recently divorced and feeling bitter about males in general. She avoids them, interacting only with women if she can manage it, and even flirting with the idea of being a lesbian. Meanwhile she’s busy with a new project. She’s a biographer and her present subject is the brilliant, misunderstood painter, Loren Jones. Polly’s thesis is that Jones’s legacy has been tarnished by men, and she sets out to prove it, interviewing one guy after another and threatening to expose them.

I was mentally patting myself on the back the first time I read this book. I was in grad school working on an MA in English so I was no newby to unreliable narrators. Plus, I had The Truth about Mary Rose tucked somewhere in the back of my mind. I just knew that Polly’s thesis was going to be wrong. She’d discover that Lorin Jones was a lunatic or a bitch or fraud or something, and then wouldn’t she feel like a big fool.
Polly is tricked all right. But the funny thing was that I was too. I’m not going to give this book’s secret away either, except to say that Polly’s revelation at the end was mine. Very cool book that I also read several times, trying to figure out how the author managed to pull it off.
Maybe it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that my own novel—the one currently winging around the editorial desks of NYC—has a similar twist. Here’s the only thing I’m going to say about it (at the risk of jinxing the whole deal): writing one of these novels with a twist is just as fun as reading one.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Don't Neglect Your Gall Bladder

Sometimes I have the tendency, particularly when I’m not writing, to be a tad anxious and high strung. Cue: guffaw of hearty laughter from family and friends. Over the years I discovered that writing every day is an antidote. I think it has something to do with the “falling into the dark pool effect” (I’ve written about this before in my post “Caution, Writing May Be Hazardous to Your Skin.) The gist of it is that writing, like any activity that a person can throw himself into, can be absorbing. And by absorbing I mean that it’s like a drug to me. I know this makes me sound like a loon. The point is I get caught up in what I’m writing, and I lose track of time and my surroundings. Climbing out of that spell can be disconcerting. In other words, I need an antidote for my antidote.

Enter: yoga. Let me preface this by saying that I am not what anyone would call an athlete. When I was growing up I didn’t play sports. Unless you count kickball or dodge ball. And I didn't do these activities well. I was the stereotypical last kid chosen for teams in PE. Yes, they still did this when I was in school, and it ranks right up there with the most humiliating experiences in life. To say that I am not a physical person is putting it mildly. But a few years ago I found yoga. Or maybe….duh duh duh…it found me.

It came in the form of a dvd at the library (which I have since purchased. The dvd. Not the library). I liked the workout immediately because it was something I could do alone and was deceptively rigorous. It also, strangely, helped me work through plot holes. Every morning I write for a few hours then break for yoga, and any walls I’ve bumped into in a story fall away. It’s magic. Or not. I’ve read studies that show that switching from an intense mental activity to a physical one, such as taking a walk or washing dishes or even taking a shower, can improve creativity. Not sure how this works, and I don’t care.

Yoga, at least the kind I do, which is called Kundalini, is very new-agey. There’s lots of breathing and meditating and concentrating. I confess that all of this felt very over-the-top weirdo to me when I first started doing it. I am not an expert in chakras. I don’t even know what they are. But I can say with some degree of confidence that if mine are not balanced daily, I am in trouble.

So I no longer roll my eyes or snicker at the dvd instructor’s directions. He’s an adorably poetic guy named Ravi who introduces exercises by saying stuff like:

This next one isn’t easy but it’s glorious. Go for it and be victorious.

Stretching is your body’s way of receiving new information.


This is for your pancreas, gall bladder, and spleen. Let’s show these organs we care.

Ravi also wants me to care about my fascis muscles, and in one meditative exercise he asks me to float three feet off the ground.

And get this: I DO.

Maybe I am a new-agey person after all. And with that I will leave you, faithful readers, to don my yoga garb (this is a lie. I am wearing my yoga garb. It is my pajamas.) head up to my yoga studio (my bedroom) and strike a pose. As Ravi likes to say, "Sat nam."