Monday, December 27, 2010

Teens and dystopian fiction

There's an discussion article today on the New York Times opinion page about "The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction." A variety of writers and "experts" weigh in with some fairly vapid remarks, but I thought Steve Westerfeld, author of the Leviathan series, hit the nail on the head with his comment on teenagers today:

"Teenagers are at a stage of life where they must tangle with almost adult responsibilities — school, work, college applications — and yet they haven’t been granted many adult powers or respect. They’re encouraged to work, but generally at menial jobs, and when they show up to spend their money, they’re carefully watched, assumed to be shoplifters and loiterers.

Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them?"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas to all

Well, I did see Voyage of the Dawn Treader and I now know that Eustace is "You-Stace" and the actor playing him was one of the bright spots of the movie. Visually it was close to how I'd always imagined the book, too. As for the rest... hmm.

I did make an interesting observation about characterization watching the movie. The audience's attention focuses on Eustace almost as soon as the adventure portion of the movie begins, in spite of the fact that he's an unlikeable character. Long before he becomes a likeable one, we're identifying with him, even to the exclusion of Edmund and Lucy, who seem rather flat. (This is true in the book, too, but to a lesser extent, as Lewis is able to jump around more easily between the minds of the characters.) The transformation of an unlikeable character to a likeable one, and particularly getting the reader to identify with that character even before the transformation is a nice challenge for a writer.

I guess I'm a bit late for the Be Jolly blogfest so I'm not going to link to it but I'd like to post a picture of my tree. A long time ago I went a little stir-crazy one December and starting making ornaments -- first extremely intricate snowflakes and then posterboard animals. I didn't expect them to last, given the material, but we still put them up every year. For Christmas dinner my husband is going to make the only thing he knows how to make: seafood marinara. It's not really traditional but I don't eat meat anyway so it's been years since I had a Christmas turkey. And if you want a stretch a point, Italians (my husband's heritage) traditionally eat fish on Christmas Eve. (For my in-laws, this is preserved in an annual ritual known as "going to Red Lobster.") So on Christmas Eve day I'll bake cookies and probably take my kid Christmas shopping and we'll eat early and go to the children's Christmas Eve service and I'll try to catch the "The Bishop's Wife" -- one of the more obscure Hollywood Christmas movies -- on TCM.

And it wouldn't be Christmas without music, so I'll share my latest favorite: the Pipettes' version of "In the Bleak Midwinter."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

C.S. Lewis hits the wall

Sometime this weekend or over Christmas vacation I'll go with my son to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. When I was a kid, Dawn Treader was my favorite Narnia book -- perhaps because of the map in front, or that I found Eustace (by the way, I knew no-one, and still know no-one, actually named Eustace and can't fathom how to pronounce it.* I guess I'll learn when I see the movie) a compelling character or just the theme of exploration, going beyond the horizon to the edge of the world. I'm crossing my fingers that some of this will still be in the movie.

The story behind the current movie productions of the Narnia books is this: Disney did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It made money and got good reviews. I thought it was a pretty good movie and much better than some of the earlier Narnia adaptations. Then Disney did Prince Caspian. They spent a lot of money, and though the movie made money, it didn't make enough, and Disney washed their hands of the whole series and walked away. Prince Caspian struck me as an odd movie, and perhaps this is partly why Disney gave up. The one thing I thought when I left the theatre was, "Wow, that was very...macho." The movie was almost one long battle. Yet most of that stuff was also in the book and here's where the disconnect comes in. For C.S. Lewis, battles were something out of King Arthur. They were about chivalry and honor and Up England! Lewis actually fought in the trenches during World War I and probably knew war wasn't really like that, but when he came to write the books he either figured real war didn't belong in them, or he just fell back on the ideals of his Edwardian childhood. But movie battles usually aren't about chivalry and battles tend to be violent. So the movie came off as a lot darker and tougher than the book.

Well, now Fox has taken over the series, and if Dawn Treader does well they will likely make the other books. I think Dawn Treader has the material in it to be a spectacular movie, if made right. About the other books, I'm not so sure. A Horse and His Boy has some politically incorrect aspects to it, though it offers a great female role. The Silver Chair mostly takes place underground and the plot is pretty convoluted and doesn't make a lot of sense until you realize it's Lewis' tribute to The Fairie Queen. The Magician's Nephew, on the other hand, could be a fantastic movie. Great settings -- the dead city of Charn, the Wood between the World, Paradise -- great characters -- bring back Tilda Swinton! A great part for someone like Alan Rickman as Uncle Andrew. Enormous guinea pigs! Unlike the previous two books, there's a strong plot and visual element to it.

As for The Last Battle, well, that's the only Narnia book I never really liked.

So I'm hoping Dawn Treader does well, and if it does, I hope the filmmakers make the logical leap to The Magician's Nephew.

What do you think? What remaining Narnia books are most "filmmable?" Who would you like to see in key roles?

Monday, November 29, 2010

I got a Kindle!

For my birthday I got an unexpected present: a Kindle. Now, let me say that I'm the sort of person who is content with things the way they are, mostly: I check out books from the library, I loan and borrow them from people, occasionally I buy them. I didn't see that I'd use a Kindle much, especially as I use my credit card for large purchases only. However, as the idea began to work in my brain, I could see a couple of advantages to having an e-reader. Magazines, for instance. No more clutter on the coffee table. No more wondering why some weeks the New Yorker comes on Thursdays and other weeks on Mondays. No more missing New Yorkers! (Bah! It turns out I can't switch my current subscription to the Kindle, I have to wait for it to run out and renew it via Amazon.) And there's the space issue, which is one reason why I don't buy a lot of new books. As it happened, my book club had just chosen Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer -- a book about Pat Tillman. Not a book I would ordinarily make a long story short, oh so sinfully cheap on Kindle and I don't have to feel that I gambled buying a book I don't know much about. (Also, it turned out to be an excellent book which I don't regret buying.)
So I can see that this may, in fact, change some of my reading and buying habits. It will be interesting to see how much...
I still love books and I particularly love the cheapness and portability of them. I love that you can leave a book on a bus...or that you can find a book on a bus. When I was teaching I kept a library in my room and didn't try to keep track of who had what. Some of the books never came back, but I didn't mind -- I figured I was creating new readers. And I don't think Kindles will ever replace that.

I also want to say that I read an amazing book recently. It's written by a scientist called Iain Gilchrist and is called The Master and His Emissary. It's basically about differences in how the right brain and left brain view the world and how in the current era the left brain view (which is often fragmented and disassociated from reality and which views objects as having a fixed value) dominates. It's not exactly an easy read: there's a lot about Heidegger and the paradox of Theseus' Ship and other landmarks of the history of philosophy, as well as an entire section on brain structure. But definitely worth it. Among other things it kind of explains why it's so difficult, when you're revising something, to tell if it's any good or not. (Not that it helps you do anything about it, but at least you know why, after this book.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

...and stopped my mind from wandering

Yesterday I read this article in the Science section of the New York Times about daydreaming. It says, basically, that people who let their thoughts wander aren't very happy. This is the kind of study I'm always a little suspicous of: for one thing, they apparently measured happiness by contacting people every 15 minutes or so and asking them to rate how happy they were at that moment. ("Are you happy now?" How 'bout now?") Then they compiled all the yeses and found people were most happy during physical activity, when they brains were basicially turned off. When they had to think and they let their minds wander, they reported themselves as unhappy.

Maybe they should have talked to more writers.

I do sort of understand where this study is coming from. Thoughts can become repetitive, they can chase you around and around and they make excellent attack dogs, hanging on and never letting go until they've convinced you to do something stupid.

But honestly, some of the best moments of my life have been spent daydreaming. When I get blocked writing, my general procedure is to lie down and let my mind wander while I argue the problem out to myself. I can't imagine life without it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some thoughts on Showing and Telling

I'm going to go out on a limb here and admit that "show, don't tell" is one of those writing shibboleths that throws me a little. I'll even admit that I sometimes get the phrase mixed up and can't remember which one is the "bad" one. This may be because I understand "telling" to be as it is defined here -- vague language, lacking in detail and bolstered by cliche, language which doesn't add much to the story and which bores the reader. And yet lots of people seem to think that telling is any form of narration, or any kind of description without drama to it.
I'm hesitant to admit this, however, or even to ask other writers what they think, because so many people treat "show, don't tell" as the 11th commandment. So I'm going to go out a little further on the limb: I don't think it's a commandment at all. I think, like many rules, it gets a little complicated when you take a closer look.

Thought number 1. My son's English teacher recently gave him an assignment of writing "show" paragraphs on various emotions. In these paragraphs he couldn't say why he was angry (or happy, or excited) or what this emotion made him do. He couldn't use any "to be" words, either. She wanted sentences like "Furiously, I rifled through my papers looking for my missing homework." The paragraphs, as they ended up, were loaded with adverbs and over-dramatic language. And yet this was apparently what "showing" is -- at least in the teacher's conception of it. (Note that the article I linked above actually calls use of adverbs a form of telling.)

Thought number 2. People were writing good fiction for years before "show, don't tell," came along. Pick up Dickens or Austen and you get a fair amount of narration and digressive scene building. Try Jane Eyre -- lots of tell there (do we really care about Jane's cousins' religious beliefs?) Read a really bad 19th century novel and you'll get tons of tell. Standard practice in the 19th century was so express a character's thoughts/feelings via background description. The poverty and narrow outlook of a certain character, for instance, would be conveyed by a description of her room and style of clothing.
Then came the modernists, who rebelled against all that. Modernist writers wanted to capture everyday life by showing the interior world of their characters through emotions, memories and passing thoughts. The reader was not to be told anything. Classic modern texts like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway are nearly all showing -- the events unfold as they happen and the reader has to piece together who the characters are and the relationship(s) between them.*
To me, this puts a different light on "show, don't tell." It evolved at a particular time in a response to a particular kind of writing. Is there a basic truth embodied in it? Yes. Is it helpful to remember as you write? Absolutely. If by "telling" you mean vague descriptions and cliches, I'm all in favor of stamping them out.
But I don't think every single book has to be written the same way by the same rules. I don't think there's anything wrong with narration as long as it is detailed, not digressive, and well-written.

*Readers hate this, by the way. That's why so many people fail to finish Ulysses.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eva Ibbotson

I read today that writer Eva Ibbotson died last week. She was one of my "discoveries" when I began reading childrens/YA books again as an adult. Ibbotson made her name with fantasy aimed at slightly younger readers like Which Witch? and Island of the Aunts, but I really liked some of her later stuff, particularly Star of Kazan, which is set in pre-war Vienna.
A couple of things I didn't know about Ibbotson which I found out in the obit. She was born in 1925, which made her 85 when she died. (I never picture my favorite writers as old, somehow.) She published her first children's book at 50. (All right!) She was born in Vienna into a Jewish family which fled to England in 1933. She got a degree in physiology and studied at Cambridge. She married an entomologist. (I seem to recall butterflies playing a role in Journey to the River Sea, which is about the Amazon.)

I'm sorry we'll never see any future books from Ibbotson (unless she left some in manuscript.) And if you haven't read her, you have a delight in front of you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Carole Anne Carr recently presented my other blog, The Paris Hat, with a Literacy Builder Award. This means I have to name 5 favorite words and pass it on to 3 other bloggers. I'm going to do this on Pray for Rain as there are more followers and maybe it fits the theme better? Anyway, thanks Carole Anne! I had trouble picking out only five favorite words, but here they are:




charley horse


My three bloggers are:
Booknapped by Marie Devers, even though she hasn't posted much lately (something about being pregnant.) Hopefully she'll start up again when she has more time.
Katie M. Stout - One Page at a Time, because she covers so many literary topics.
Mary Aalgaard - Play Off the Page, which is always chock full of literate quotes.

By the way, if you believe Wikipedia, a charley horse is known as a "granddaddy" in the UK, a "horse's kiss" in German and a "corky" in Australia.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Adventures in Critiquing

A few weeks ago I joined Critique Circle, an online critique group. I also found a local critque group and have attended two of their meetings. This has been a big step, though not for the reason I thought it would be. I knew that reading my work in front of people, even friendly people, would be a bit hard for mem but I managed it in the end. No, the problem turned out to be critiquing other people. I did everything I was supposed to on Critique Circle: I read all the FAQs, the Newbie page, I looked up archived critiques to see how others did it. The way Critique Circle works, you have to critique other stories in order to earn credits to put up your own stuff. So after a week or two of research, I finally dived in and critiqued one of the short stories. I can say two things about my critique: 1) it was honest and 2) it was nicely phrased -- no rudeness. Exactly what the guidelines said it should be. And yet I went around very troubled afterwards. Perhaps the person who put up the story hadn't expected or wanted honesty. Perhaps I had stopped someone's writing in their tracks or persuaded the person to toss the story. I didn't like the thought that I might have disturbed someone's confidence in their own writing. And yet, secretly, I was kind of proud of my critique. I like critiquing. I have definite opinions about certain things, and I like to express them.
So it was as a very conflicted person that I went to my critique group and proceeded to make a rookie error -- reading them a scene I had revised in a fury and hadn't really re-read. They didn't hate it, but they pointed out some problems, and, being new in the group, (this was only the second thing I'd read) I came away thinking I must have looked like someone who couldn't write at all. Believe me, I saw the irony in all this.
When I'm in doubt or turmoil I try to fall back on what I call the Two-Day Rule. Wait two days before making a decision about this. Give yourself some perspective, let your emotions fade. (This sounds wise, but it also allows two days of pure nobody-loves-me-think-I'll-eat-some-worms wallowing.) So sure enough, Monday came and I got a little perspective and began to re-structure my ruined scene. And I got an message on Critique Circle from the person who wrote the story, thanking me for giving her an honest critique! I promptly and boldly then went out and critiqued two more stories and submitted one of my own (won't get any feedback on it for a week or so.) So I might get the hang of this yet. Or I might be repeating the two-day rule to myself again one of these days.
Anywaym as a Giant of Critiquing, I am now my proclaiming my official disapproval of two things:
The one-sentence paragraph.
The. One. Word. Sentence.
Maybe I'll do a post about them one of these days...after I've gone back over my own writing to edit out all the times I've done it myself.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Scottish Play

One summer when I was in high school I went with a group of friends to a Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Richard III. Richard III is one of Shakespeare's longer plays, and it got to be kind of late and we were all a little sleepy by the time Richard was being visited by the ghosts of all the people he had had put to death. Then we heard the sound of a motorcycle. It crossed the park, ripping up the grass, and began to circle the stage and the audience, fading in and out as the actor playing Richard struggled to make himself heard. It was pitch dark except for a few lights on the stage and an array of floodlights on the hill behind us. The motorcyle returned, and we heard wild cries and laughter. It was at the top of the hill now, and I remember turning and seeing the cyclist silhouetted by the lights, standing up on the pedals with his fist raised towards the stage. We heard him shout: "Hail, Satan...Hail, Satan!"
Then he turned and zoomed down the other side of the hill, fading back into the night.

Well, such scenes can happen only once in a lifetime. I don't expect, when I go to see Macbeth next week, that it will be interrupted by a Satanist on a motorcycle, though I can always hope. Anyway, in preparation for it I've been going over certain key parts of the Macbeth with my son so he can follow it when we go see it. I had forgotten how gruesome it is. Two appearance by witches, Banquo's ghost, the murder of Macduff's family, and someone's head being carried onstage. I'd also forgotten that Macbeth is the source of such familar quotes as:

"By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes."

"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well."

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

And, of course:

"Out, damned spot!"

One of the best books I've read about Shakespeare is Norrie Epstein's The Friendly Shakespeare. (There are also companion volumes on Jane Austen and Dickens.) Not exactly biography, and not exactly criticism, these books focus on the relationship between the reader and favorite authors, teasing out what makes Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens seem like old friends. If you haven't read it, go look for it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

SCBWI Fall Workshop

So I've dipped my toe in and I find I'm late to the party, as usual...(ooh, mixed metaphor!)
On Saturday my local SCBWI chapter sponsored a workshop. Chris Eboch, author of The Well of Sacrifice and the Haunted series, was there to do critiques and lead us through a workshop on description. She was amazing in a your-favorite-teacher kind of way -- easygoing, unassuming and yet so professional and full of good advice.
We also had peer critiques in the morning, and a session with Nancy Davis, an illustrator who lives here in Las Vegas now and has done some fantastic illustrations for picture books.
Best of all, I found a local critique group which meets on Saturdays. And I met a dozen or so people who are doing what I do and who couldn't have been more friendly.
As I said in a previous post, a year ago I couldn't have done this. The idea of reading to or letting strangers read my work would have been excruciating. But I got to this point partly because of blogging. The past year has drawn me out of being the one weird person who wrote and made things so much easier. I think the latest of my illusions to be shattered is the idea that you can do it alone.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On the scale

I was always the skinniest girl in my class, as well as the shortest and the flattest. For many years I never topped 110 pounds. I never dieted and I never worried about what I ate. When I got pregnant I gained a reasonable amount of weight and lost most of it quickly. (Breast-feeding helps.) I lived in NYC, so I climbed subway stairs and I took the kid out in the stroller up and down Ocean Parkway and I bicycled to church.
Then I moved to Las Vegas. I did try to walk somewhere not long after I got here, but it was hotter than I realized (in April!) and suddenly the sidewalk stopped and I had to pick my way across a construction site. Before long the 120s were a distant memory. I began working out, but the numbers on the scale kept going up. I'd been a vegetarian for many years, but I'd drifted away from the "combine proteins" mantra that was predominant when I'd learned how to cook vegetarian. At the end of the summer, two years ago, I was over 150. And I was sick, which is what prompted me to reform. I drastically changed my diet, lowering carbs and increasing protein, and the way I worked out (goodbye 45 minutes of cardio, hello weights.) I stopped eating between meals and I took a grim pleasure in never having any birthday cake at office parties. The numbers on the scale began to fall.
I don't expect to ever gain that weight back as long as I continue to work out and eat the way I do now. But as the numbers began to fall something unexpected awoke in me.
I was part of the generation which "discovered" anorexia. It was fashionable when I was in high school. I never had anywhere near the problems that most anorexics do, but I flirted with the idea. And now I find, standing on the scale, that the belief that my worth as a person depends on whether the level finds its mark at 124 or 126 is still there after all these years.
Weight is such a funny thing. I'm almost on the verge of not posting this, because I guess I think if you write about your weight, you're opening yourself up for almost any kind of criticism. Part of me thinks it's frivolous, I suppose.
I'm trying to write a scene where a character is standing on a scale and battering the slider back and forth, as if she doesn't care what it will come out to. I haven't gotten it right yet, and I haven't been able to fit it in where I want it to go. But it will go somewhere, because it's important.

Back to School Blogfest

Roh Morgan of Musings of a Moonlight Writer is sponsoring a Back to School Daze blogfest. Go check out the others at her site!
The section below is from HOW TO SEE THE ELEPHANT, YA historical fiction, set in 1862.

The stair and hall carpets were trodden gray by schoolgirl slippers. In the art room there was the same bowl of fruit as on the day the name Thefish was coined, along with a plaster statue of a Greek slave and a large etching of the Roman Forum. The same thick pencils and erasers, ten girls sketching and rubbing and blowing on the paper. The same grammar and history lessons, papers screwed up and thrown into the unlit fireplace, and compositions begun again, copied and recopied until they were entirely free of inkblots. No matter what the class the same subject studied all the time: young ladies. Young ladies did not tell lies or raise their voices. (This I already knew.) They did not cross their legs. They did not let their backs touch the back of a sofa or chair. They did not indulge in coffee or tea, which sapped vitality. They avoided the grosser cuts of animal flesh. They did not whistle. They did not drink excessively chilled water. They did not belabor their minds with serious reading; nor did they display a weakness for frivolous novels. They did not say “oh, yummy!” when dinner was announced. They did not yawn before eight o’clock in the evening. They did not jump up and down so they could watch their bosoms bounce. (I was not guilty of this last one.) They did not open bedroom windows and let in the night air. They did not pinch their cheeks to make them look redder. Above all, young ladies did not want things – things they could have or things that could happen. “Want must be your master,” they said to us. Mama had said that, too. I had never really understood what it meant.
This was what I had wanted. This was education. It was music and French verbs and the Great Men of History. So why did I sit there with my eyes on the window, where the rain was now ending, hoping for a fire engine to pass? Why did I close my eyes and imagine what I’d be doing right now on the wagon? The smell of harness and horse, the rhythm of hooves, dogs barking as we came into town. I would be reading the map to Pa, persuading him that a certain route would save us a half-hour on the way to Princeton. Or talking to one of the wholesalers about a new kind of spade...
What was someone who could do all that, who’d been as good as an adult for the past two years, doing here? I looked around the rest of the class. Jenny was rubbing her pen along the edge of her nose, something she did every day to give it (the nose, not the pen) a more distinguished shape. Sarah Stephens was drawing a row of monkeys down the side of her composition on “Ambition.”
“Miss Wymore?”
“Yes, Miss Matilda?”
“I don’t believe you have recited for us.”
“ ‘I’, Miss Wymore.”
“I? You mean me?”
Miss Matilda sighed, to laughter all around. “Yes, you, Miss Wymore. Please come up and recite. You may choose any selection in the reader.”
I stood up, smoothing my apron, and walked towards the front of the class. The Fourth Reader lay open on Miss Matilda’s lectern to “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” I closed it with a small thump and turned to the class.
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,”
I said,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea..
I let my hands wave just a bit to suggest the sea. If you make too many gestures when you recite you start to look ridiculous.
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed
As I spoke I watched the girls. Jenny was no longer rubbing her nose. Polly was sitting with widened eyes, as was Ellen. Sarah had stopped drawing and was looking at me as if I might prove to be not uninteresting.
“…And the widows of Ashur are loud in the wail!”
I proclaimed,
“And the idols are broken in the temple of Baal!”
I shook my fist.
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,”
I paused and looked around the room, careful to hold their attention. Lord Byron wrote the ending kind of punchy, but I liked to give it slow, letting the line build to a triumphant conclusion:
Hath melted like snow... in the glance of the Lord!”
Applause? Yes, real applause, not just grudging claps. Ellen turned and smiled as I made my way back to my seat.
“Well,” said Miss Matilda. “Well. Thank you, Miss Wymore. Thank you very much.”
I sat back down, trying not to look triumphant. None of them knew how many times I had slain the fourth reader class in Mansfield with that old chestnut.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year

Yesterday morning it rained. It was the best kind of rain: unexpected, creeping up over us in the middle of the night and turning the morning soft and gray. Puddles on the porch and the smell of rain in the air. Headlights on cars as I drove in to work. Thick clouds with dramatic shafts of light breaking through over the valley. I delighted in it all the more because not one single mention was made on the weather of the possibility of rain. It was like someone saying, miracles still happen.
It was like the beginning of fall, too. This is a great time of year in the desert, where we look at seasons differently. We don't say "summer is over." We say, "the heat is over." Now we begin to emerge and think of hikes and trips and 5k runs and Shakespeare in the Park and planting vegetables and re-doing the garden.
The other great thing about this time of year is that I work at a Jewish-sponsored school so I get a bunch of holidays, all in a row. It throws my routine way off, but I look forward to it. I'm finally getting my hair cut and I have a bunch of slow-cooker recipes I want to try and there'll be lots of time for writing. So if I'm not around for awhile, that's what I'm doing. See you in October.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Street Diary

After the last post I went back and looked at the "Street Diary" I kept when I was living in NYC and I've decided to post some of the entries below. My intent keeping this diary was just to write down overheard conversations or scenes of small everyday importance. I started out calling it a "Subway Diary" but I expanded it to any public area, especially streets. I was fascinated by encounters and interactions between strangers (or not) in the streets of the city and on public transportation.

All you really need to know to understand what follows is that I lived in Brooklyn in a Russian/Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and I worked in midtown Manhattan. A Yeshiva (if you haven't seen Yentl) is an Orthodox Jewish school.

July 15, 1997 Greenwich Street between Canal and Spring St., Manhattan, 6:30 pm

Written (painted) across a building: WATER SPILLED FROM SOURCE TO USE. Next door, a wooden board rests on the sidewalk – COOKBOOKS.

The door (a house) is propped open with a small brass teapot. Red carpet, start of a wall of books half-visible.

Across the street, faintly visible, with imagination, painted on the side of the building -- Fletcher's Castoria.

August 1, 1997 F train to Brooklyn 5:10 pm

The girl next to me, smartly dressed (beige dress, silk scarf), lanky hair behind her ears, smooth, bright face, asked: “Can you tell me approximately how long it will take this train to get to the World Trade Center?”

“Is this the E train?” I asked.


I leaned forward to look at the sign. “No, this is the F. You’re on the wrong train.”

“How did that happen?”

“They run on the same track – the first two stations in Manhattan they’re on the same track.”

“What should I do?”

“You can change at West Fourth. Go downstairs – “

She did not understand when I said, “three or four stops,” thinking I meant the World Trade Center. “No 23rd St, 14th St, West 4th St.” She pulled out a map and I showed her, “the blue, that’s the E train. Go downstairs – I’m sorry, go upstairs.” An Asian guy in a suit, wearing glasses, carrying a briefcase was listening, he nodded now.

She put her hands to her face. “I’m so late already.” As much to him as me, “I’m meeting someone I haven’t seen in four years.”

Boredom, slightly, as we were only at 34th St – now I would either have to talk to her or interrupt myself at West 4th to remind her to get off.

When she stood up the Asian man was getting off too – “Are you going that way…” she asked.

August 15, 1997 M-1 bus, Fifth Avenue, near St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Tourists on the bus.

“Mom, look at that cathedral.”

“Gosh, that is huge.”

After a pause, she adds:

“I think that’s the one that was in a book or something.”

“Do they have any gargoyles?” the boy says, and repeats, “gargoyles?…gargoyles?…”

October 11, 1997 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn

Homeless man lying on a bench under a thick red blanket (coat?). Calls out to me:

“What time is it?”

“Three o’clock.”

November 13, 1997 Fifth Avenue E/F station (upstairs) 5 pm

The way was blocked.

“The platform is full,” one of the MTA workers said. No one could hear. “Both platforms?” A man with an Indian accent said angrily, “I can assure you the platform to Queens is not crowded.” The MTA guy ignored him. A woman pushed through. “They are not letting anyone through – I can’t wait!” she cried.

“But people are coming up! You should let people through as people come up!”

“Come on – I’ve got sitters to pick up!”

“I can assure you,” the Indian man said again, “The platform to Queens is not crowded.”

“Assure us?” a voice said.

“Yes, I can assure you! I will bet you 100 dollars! 100 dollars! Do you want to bet 100 dollars? Do you have 100 dollars in your pocket right now?”

When I got downstairs the platform was as near to deserted as I have seen in weeks.

November/December 1997 Wednesday nights, 18th Ave./Newkirk Ave. B8 bus stop, Brooklyn

Yeshiva boys. They pace the sidewalk, talking so fast you can hardly understand them. And then an odd word comes up – “Flubber” – for instance. Once one said in a mocking voice, “uh…what’s nudity?” and the one beside him sniggered. Last week a car drew up and the woman on the passenger side said: “Where are you going?”

“47th and 18th.”

“Well, we will take – I don’t know how many will fit – but we will take –"

Four piled in, one came out. Off the car went.

“Benny got a ride with a stranger.”

December 15, 1997 1 pm

One of those stray sentences you hear sometimes, floating, on the street. In front of Archiva, Madison and 75th Street – a middle-aged woman, barely seen, behind me, looking at the window display.

“Books have come so far."

June 16, 1998 10 pm, cab across the Brooklyn Bridge

Jostling in traffic. A man in a sport utility vehicle refused to let the cab into his lane. Rolling down the window he said, “You do it to me all the time.” The driver (Russian?), a middle-aged man, began muttering, “What’s the hurry? We’re all going to the same place…” (I thought he meant across the Brooklyn Bridge) “…six feet under, right?”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dear Diary

I've kept a diary off and on most of my adult life. (I also kept diaries as a teen but shortly before I left for college I lit a bonfire and burned them in a grand melodramatic style.) There are a number of reasons why people keep diaries, besides needing something to read on the train, but I've never been sure where I fall on that spectrum. A large part is blowing off steam, of course. The diary will never judge you, no matter how much you whine about traffic and stupid people and waiting at the doctor's office. There's also, on a more practical note for a writer, the art of description -- the opportunity for a word picture of the person sitting opposite you in the doctor's waiting room. When I lived in NYC I kept a "Street Diary," which was just descriptions of people and/or scenes I had witnessed on the streets and subways, scribbled down irregularly. This was great practice for writing and I recommend it to anyone but it's hard to keep it up in suburbs, where there is less public space.
The constantly true thing about any diary is that the important stuff never gets written down or gets written down too late. Big emotional issues are too large to grapple with on daily basis most of the time. Sometime things that become important start out very small and by the time they are important it's too late to describe them accurately. But I keep going, hoping I'm capturing at least part of myself at this particular stage of life.
I think writers fall into two categories -- internal and external. Some writers burn entirely off their own emotions and all their creations stem from their own central dramas. (Writers who live highly dramatic lives, like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Patricia Highsmith, often fall into this first category.) Others don't look inside themselves much but feed off observing and analyzing people. I fall mostly into the second category. I'm fascinated by people. I think I'm going to try and re-orient my diary into less blowing off steam and more looking outward and observing daily life.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lying to the blog

I think I've sort of been lying to/hiding from this blog for the past two weeks, which accounts for the disconnected posts. I guess I shy away from updates as they actually happen...I like to put things in perspective. When I got back from vacation I found an email in my in-box which was one of those rejections-with-feedback. I didn't want to revise How to See the Elephant again because every revision has bogged down and pushed me closer to the edge but I took a few days to think about it and then made some notes and outlines and then got started. And it really wasn't so bad -- I was just focusing on one chapter, not the whole thing, so maybe that limited the insanity. Then I emailed the agent who has been looking at the ms since May and it turned out she hasn't actually looked at it yet (agents, I conclude, go by God's time) so I asked it I could send her the revised revision and now that's accomplished.

Now I should go back to the WIP but the truth is that I've rewritten the first 50 pages of the WIP so many times I've lost count and I can't get beyond a certain point. I have a lot of good ideas but they're all scattered and I can't seem to get them into an appropriate structure. And I've been tempted by the idea of going back and revising a long-abandoned manuscript instead.

So that's where I am and there's not much more to say.

I do want to put a plug in, though. My 12 year old son has a blog, YE's Hurricane Tracker. Now, unless you are extremely interested in Eastern Pacific hurricanes, you may not want to follow it but I'm really proud of how he's taken off with it, putting up posts and changing the background design, adding in tables and widgets and all kinds of stuff. His obsession with hurricanes is long-standing but I take some comfort in the fact that the ones in the Eastern Pacific generally go out to sea and don't kill anyone.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Going to see the sheep

This has become a late-summer tradition. The bighorns stay up in the mountains in the spring and early summer, but this time of year and then through the winter months they descend on a small park in Boulder City. There's kind of a interesting co-existence: kids play on the swings, people sit in the picnic shelters, and the sheep crop the grass all around. Last year we sat on a blanket and the sheep crept around us so close we could hear them breathing.
The co-existence ended this year when someone idiotically, but not intentionally I think, threw a Frisbee.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Back to School: Ancient Languages

I don't know how a classical education survived into the 70s in a state not famed for its educational opportunities, but I do know the high school I went to offered Latin, and my mother -- I won't say made, but I will say "leaned on" -- me to take it.
The first phrase we learned was puella pulchra (beautiful girl.) Immediately there was a student who didn't understand how a word like silvia (woods) could be female. Or how any word could be male or female. He became known as First Declension Man because he never got any further. The rest of us translated sentences from our textbook, sentences like: " 'Let us cross the river and make camp there,' Caesar said to his troops" and "The men drank too much wine and danced around the house." By third year there were four of us left, sitting in the back of the second year class, reading the Aeneid, scribbling down our translations and asking Mrs. Harrod tangled grammar questions.
When I came out of it I knew what the pluperfect was. And the subjunctive mood. And an indirect object. (10 years of English and they still hadn't drilled that into me!) I had baked a placenta (cake) and taken it to to the Foreign Language Club and not suprisingly no one had eaten it. And I was motivated to take Ancient Greek in the first two semesters of college.
What did I get out of it all? Well, when I went to Rome I could read the inscriptions on the buildings. I could sort of read Italian, too. (I was tripped up by Domingo/Sunday on a train schedule but the Romans didn't have days of the week so how could I know?) I could decipher allusions in The Hunger Games. (Panem = bread as in bread and circuses.) But probably the best thing was that I hardly ever again have encountered a word in English I didn't know. Knowing Latin and Greek, even long after the grammar faded away, made words useful to me.
Looking back, Latin class is one of my better memories of high school. There was a sense of a world opening up. It seemed to be more about discovering something new, of acquiring autonomy, than boring memorization of vocabulary. The language came to us, flexible and mysterious, and we played with it. (I made Mrs. Harrod laugh once by translating Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book.")
So in this back to school season, I hope someone somewhere is taking Latin.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Summer Interlude

When you live in the desert you look to the mountains for water, greenery and coolness. Sometimes you don't believe in these things until they're right in front of you. On the road to Angel Lake you circle round double twists and turns with a cliff and no guardrail on your right side. And then the road twists around again and you see this:

Follow the creek long enough and you find yourself singing, the hills are alive/with the sound of music...

Then there's the road up the canyon. One side dust and sagebrush. The other side, beyond the trees, an entirely green world:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Save the Date

I've always lamented that I don't really know any local writers or writing groups in my area. No conferences, no workshops. I did go to a meet and greet at the library last year but I couldn't make myself heard over the Elvis impersonator. (No, really.) Well, now I've discovered that the Nevada chapter of the SCBWI is having a craft workshop here on September 18, with MG historical ficiton writer Chris Eboch as special guest. There will be peer critiques and (for a fee) an individualized critique as well. A year ago this would have been impossible for me. I've always been extremely private about my writing. I had to drag myself kicking and screaming down the blog road and even to go to the library thing last year. So the fact that I'm looking forward to this more than I'm dreading it -- in fact, I'm kicking myself now for not going for the individualized critique when I filled out the registration form -- means I've grown. I know a lot of you out there have done the conference thing before and I'm looking forward to joining you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Which the Title of this Blog Becomes True

7/19/10 7:20 AM PDT Temp: 96 F
I know one thing: there must always be iced tea in the refrigerator. When there is an interruption in the iced-tea cycle (as occured over the weekend, when it was discovered that my husband bought a new bag of sugar but didn't bring it home from the store), hoarding breaks out.
Heatwave eating tips: good meals -- pasta salad, potato salad, hummus; best meal - leftover birthday cake.
Ordinary car air conditioners can't deal with this. They blow cold air on your arms while crystal drops of sweat roll down your temples. Ordinary home a/c blows and blows all night and makes sleep just barely possible. When I turn on the shower I have to let the water run to cool off. At the outdoor pools children swim in hot water.
Through it all clouds form and come and go, first white, then gray, but not yet stormy and black. Something is lacking. It could be as prosaic as moisture in the upper atmosphere, but I prefer to think of it as energy or will, something personal that makes the clouds stir and show their hands, to prove that they are capable of producing rain but won't do it just to please you.
Maybe next week. It will happen (won't it?) and then for each person in Las Vegas the rain will be personal and different: huge grasshopper drops leaping off the back patio; jolts of thunder and lightning that bring shoppers out of Petsmart to view the parking lot, awash; drops that fall so slowly you can count each one as it fades into the sidewalk.
Then the bonus of August nights: rattling storms in the mountains; the hope inspired by the weather service's beep-beep-beep; the backyard in the morning wet and smelling, for once, like a garden should.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


When I began to get bad headaches about 10 years I resisted the idea that they might be migraines because I'd heard that people who had migraines "saw things." Alas, I discovered that is it possible to have very ordinary and painful migraines without "seeing things" at all. (These are known as common rather than classic migraines.)

Then one day in the gym I sat up from doing crunches and noticed that what I had taken for an afterimage of the ceiling tiles was still in front of my left eye. It was a series of small boxes, composed of boxes within boxes within boxes, like an optical illusion, that made an arc across my vision. It just hung there, shaking and shimmering, transparent, and yet not, and I didn't know what to think until I remembered that I'd seen a similar picture in a book about migraines. Oh my, I thought, so this is a migraine aura. I guess I was a little excited: even as I made my way out of the gym I couldn't help telling people I met about it. Just as I was wondering how I was going to drive home, the boxes began to fade.

That was three years ago. Last week it happened again. It started as a little blurry spot in the middle of my vision, which made it somewhat hard to read a computer screen. I ignored it. The spot became a series of little intersecting lines, like a Cubist painting, and then bloomed into a set of jagged teeth, bent double upon itself. There was nothing to do but sit and wait for it to pass, which it did after about 10 minutes. Interestingly enough, neither this time nor the last time did I get a real full-blown migraine, just a slight headache-y feeling.

A lot of books and articles have been written about migraine aura, many of which speculate that people in the past who claimed to have visions were actually experiencing aura instead. I can accept this in some cases, I suppose, but it's also kind of disappointing. As I understand it, when I see aura, there's something going on my brain: a message is being sent. But the message is inscrutable and random. Why boxes and lines?

By the way, an update on that postcard from WWII. I found one of George A. Paris' daughters (on Facebook, naturally) and sent it to her. She wrote back saying:
"My mother is still alive and doing quite well at 87 years old. We had a perfect childhood any person would want, there was plenty of love and laughter. The family is still very close all because of the bond they built for us."

Friday, July 9, 2010


I loved this painting, by the Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau, when I was a teenager. My father will probably deny this, but he once made me remove a poster of it from the living room because he said it was depressing. For those who don't know the story, Salome dances for her stepfather, King Herod, who promises in return to give her anything she wants. At the suggestion of her mother she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver charger. Herod says, "Well, I didn't mean that." But she insists and Herod has sworn an unbreakable oath, so that's the end of John the Baptist. A week or so ago, after re-reading Oscar Wilde's play Salome (banned in England for 34 years!) I found myself writing a story about her. It's historical fantasy, which is a genre I'm both attracted to but unsure about my ability to work in. For Moreau and Wilde, the point of the story of Salome is that women are lustful and evil (call me crazy, but I don't think that Wilde really has street cred on that theme.) The original Biblical story, however, doesn't mention sex at all: John the Baptist's death is a palace intrigue, no more.

I found myself writing from Salome's point of view, trying to understand a character who is willful and spoiled but not wanting to go in the women-are-evil direction. And what came out was a focus on desire for things -- luxuries, material goods that, in my story, Herod promises without being able to provide.

How should I know what I wanted? Staring off into the air he’d list things – things he’d had once maybe, or things he thought we ought to have, if our luck turned. Dishes shaped like cranes and fish; painted bowls that turned your hands blood-red while you washed them; salt from distant lands, less brittle than our local salt, with the taste of the sea, and tints of purple; little potted trees, that we might plant and see if they would thrive; the bones of ancient giants – collecting such things was a craze in Rome; all the wisdom of the ages, written by blind men on grains of rice. Also jewels, of course – but after Mama no one could be impressed with jewels – and every kind of clothing and scent and headdresses.
Herod believed in these things. If I’d named just one, he’d have found a way to manage it.
Around that time a fad took the court for a new kind of drum that had been invented to the south, in the marshlands. It was a tiny thing, stretched with ostrich skin, but played right anyone could dance to it, they said. I found this to be true. Somehow I could catch the rhythm and then I hardly knew the hours passed, even as drummer after drummer stumbled away with swollen hands.
I wanted no more than to dance for the sun, outside, in the morning and again in the evening.

I enjoyed writing it but I'm not sure what to do with the result. It needs work and I've never felt short stories to be my forte. For now I'll probably just file it away. This is the second history fantasy I've written in the past two months, when I'm supposed to be concentrating on my WIP. I'm not really sure what my brain is up to.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sidelines blogfest

Thanks for Cheree at Justified Lunacy for hosting the Sidelines blogfest, focusing on secondary characters. Go check out the others!
This is from How to See the Elephant. Background info - September 1862. Delaware. Possibility of Confederate invasion. The students at Thetis' boarding school have been taken on an excursion to the country to escape the heat. On the boat Thetis learns that her father has been wounded in battle. When they reach their destination, Thetis and Ellen, her only friend at the school, sit in a cornfield while Thetis tries to decide what she's going to do now.

We were in a cornfield. It had been harvested and bundled but broken stalks still poked up and ears, husks and leaves were scattered everywhere. Even in the heat, flocks of blackbirds were feeding, hopping around the dead cornstalks, poking at the ears and fighting each other. At any moment some were circling up and others landing, little black dots moving and jumping, all the time going arr-arr-arr and squeaking like a whole field of rusty doors.
“Why, the poor farmer!” Ellen said. “They’re eating everything!”
“Those are just the leftovers. It’s like the husks the prodigal son fed on.”
We sat then for a long time, just watching the birds. In spite of the way they seethed and hopped and pecked I saw something peaceful in it all. It did not feel like summer was gone, but it was, and the birds were feeding for the winter ahead. And before the winter came there would be battles in fields like this. The soldiers massed south of here would lie in cornfields and shoot each other. They might be doing so now.
This thought should have frightened me. Instead, it seemed, like the silence and the river, the only real thing in the world.
Ellen said:
“My father’s going to take me to my aunt’s in Brooklyn at Christmas. Maybe you could write your father and he would let you come, too.”
“It’s kind of you to offer. I can’t though – I won’t be here.”
Ellen looked puzzled. “I didn’t know you were leaving.”
“My father’s not pulling me out, if that’s what you mean. He’s been wounded, in Kentucky. Amaryllis told me when we were on the boat. I’m going to run away, as soon as it gets dark, and go to him. I can get to Louisville tomorrow night, on the train. I’m going to start looking for him there.”
I saw her looking at me strangely and for a second I thought she wanted to come along. I nerved myself to say no. I certainly wasn’t going to drag anyone extra along, not with time of the essence.
“I don’t know how badly he’s wounded. Anything could happen, and he needs someone to take care of him. Anyway, I can’t stay at Miss Barclay’s. There’s nothing there for me. I thought I knew – I thought I wanted – ” My thoughts swirled and tumbled like bits of straw in a draft. A whole new person. The girls looking at me, during the storm.
“I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell anyone. Though it won’t matter if you do, because I’m going anyway.”
I had thought nothing in the world could ever make Ellen mad. I was wrong. She stood up, her tiny face concentrated, like a baby’s, into fury, as she pulled her sunbonnet back on.
“What do you think I am? A sneak? Do you think I’m like Jenny or something? Is that what you think of me?”
“Wasn’t I nice to you all these months? Wasn’t I? Do you think that was easy? Don’t you think I would have preferred to let you go your own way? And did you ever think of me as anything? ”
“Wait – Ellen – please wait!” I pulled at her arm, and when she would not sit down again, stood up as well. “I’m sorry. I…”
But I couldn’t explain myself. I couldn’t explain anything.
She looked at me a long time, and then she said:
“Honestly, Thetis, I think you’re crazy. You don’t even know where you’re going and you don’t know how you’re going to find your father. Anyone with any common sense would wait a few days for the situation to clear up. But I guess that’s your business and I guess I understand how you feel. I’m not going to try to talk you out of it, anyway. Or sneak on you.”
“I can’t wait a few days. The invasion might start. Or Pa might die. Besides…”
I knew she was right. But there were things I could not tell her. How I had failed to write to Pa – how Amaryllis had lied, and would keep on lying, thinking she was protecting me – but most of all how everything had turned to ashes in the past twenty-four hours, and how I could not bear to look at or think about it. I was not the cuckoo in the nest I had been in Mansfield and yet I had failed to become anyone new. All I could do was shut it all out of my mind, and run…

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Secondary Characters

Cheree at Justified Lunacy is hosting a blogfest featuring secondary characters on July 8th. I've signed up, and so should you. It was kind of hard choosing a good scene, though. I find I use secondary characters especially, though I hope not too much, for humor. They bring light and nice counterweight to many scenes. I also like the character who only appears once but does a great star turn and is vital to the plot.
I would never draw a major character entirely from a single real-life person, but with secondary characters I find it fun to do so. For instance, for the past four years I've worked with someone who is not only very talkative but who assumes that anything connected with her life, no matter how trival, is of absorbing interest to everyone around her. Were I a real writer, instead of "telling" you this, I would be "showing" you, by reproducing the classic "I saw this bag in my freezer and I thought it was mangoes but actually it was carrots" conversation, as well as the immortal "I went to get my watch fixed and it wasn't ready and they said come back in a week" drama, but around this time of day energy tends to flag. Anyway, should I complain? I wrote her into a story this weekend.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Christmas in July

I bought a used copy online of Junior Miss, by Sally Benson, thinking it might be a good book for my other blog, The Paris Hat. When I opened it this is what fell out. It was sent by a George A. Paris of the 286th Signal Corps from the Italian front in November 1943.
Google suggests that this is probably the same George A. Paris who died in Manchester, New Hampshire in January 1998 at age 82. According to his obituary he worked in a shoe factory and at a meat counter. He had 6 children and 25 grandchildren. Like many people in Manchester he was of French-Canadian descent, which probably accounts for the spelling mistakes in his postcard.
I could probably find out more through the magic of the internet, but I already feel like a snoop.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Summer Place

When I was growing up, pools were big rectangles of concrete built for adults. In fact, the Y where I swam growing up blew the whistle at a quarter to every hour, the signal for all the kids to get out of the pool so the adults could paddle around for fifteen minutes, while we sat kicking our legs and looking at the clock. It was clear we didn't belong. Swimming was for elderly people to improve their cardiovascular function. It was exercise. It was serious.
The pools here in Las Vegas are activity pools. They resemble water parks: three feet deep at most, with slides and fountains and splash buckets and beach entries. They're really fun -- when you have a two year old.
But then your two year old grows up and knows how to swim but he can't swim at the activity pools because the water's not deep enough and anyway there's no room because of all the two year olds.
There's a public pool near my neighborhood that no one ever goes to. Why knows why? Maybe most of the households already have pools. Maybe everyone's forgotten about it. Maybe it's the lack of fountains and slides and splash buckets. Whatever the reason, it's become the rediscovered pool for us. Though it's just a big concrete rectangle it's on the edge of a park, so you can float and look at trees and grass and people going by on bikes. I like the architecture, which might best be described as Fake Swiss Cottage, too. And no one ever blows the whistle and tells the kids they have to get out of the pool.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rocky Ridge

On vacation last week in Missouri I went to Rocky Ridge Farm, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I sometimes think there must be a Laura Ingalls gene, because not only did I grow up on the books, but my son, who doesn't read much, loves them as well, and he particularly likes the modern continuations of them which take up the life of Rose Wilder.
It was a beautiful June day, very green, and the farm was shaded by huge trees. The house is small and was built more or less a room as a time, as their farm succeeded. Laura wrote the books in a narrow office near the front of the house.

There's a weird alchemy to the Little House books. If you re-read them, you notice tons of "Pa builds Ma a shelf" type description but none of it slows the narrative down. You also notice subtler things, like Laura's resentment of Mary, and later, after Mary goes blind, her guilt, and her resentment over her guilt. Like a lot of classics you can't quite see how it's done, but you can feel that it works.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Leo Huberman

As mentioned in my previous post, I was going to buy The Dark Divine this weekend. Actually, I didn't -- and nothing against it as a book. I still may get it at the library (I'll be #15 on the hold list.) Instead I bought The Book Thief, which about 2-3 years ago was a book with about the same status as The Dark Divine -- that is, I wanted it but couldn't get it. Of course I'd forgotten about it until I saw it in B&N. If you delight Amazon's heart by following the link you'll see it's a Holocaust book, of sorts. There's a character in it name Hubermann. The first, slight, coincidence is that I used the name Huberman for a character in my WIP perhaps two weeks ago. I chose that name on purpose. Why? Well, that's a much larger coincidence.
When I first moved to Brooklyn in the early 1990s it was to an apartment building and neighborhood that was mainly Orthodox Jewish and Holocaust survivors (the two groups were not necessarily the same.) One day I went down to the basement to do laundry and I saw an elderly woman with a number on her arm pulling clothes out of the washing machine. I found this, of course, very disturbing. Possibly it was the banality of the situation -- I'd read of concentration camp tattoos in books and now in front of me was a skinny arm with a long-blurred number (only 4 digits!) fishing up unmentionables from the depths of her machine. It's one thing to know the "reality" of something via fiction. It's another to think that the lady next to you in the laundry room, who just wants to get her clothes out of the washer, has seen things that you wouldn't want to have in your nightmares.
I had a similar reaction when I first met one of my neighbors in the building, an elderly man named Leo Huberman. His apartment was pristine, and, suspecting he was a recent widower, I asked casually after his wife. He said, in apparent seriousness, "Have you ever heard of Auschwitz? My wife and my son died there."
I wish I could say that I said something comforting or deeply moving in reply, but I didn't. I was just too young and too socially unskilled. Neither "I'm sorry" or "that's too bad" seemed at all adequate to "My wife and my son died in Auschwitz." I just stood there awkwardly, looking at the floor, hoping to think of a way to change the subject.
I only saw Mr. Huberman a few times after that. Once I brought him some soup. It was a weird potato-pumpkin kind of soup that I had made from a Vegetarian Times recipe. It might have been decent if I'd had a blender, but I didn't, and I recall it as pretty dismal, although at the time I was very proud of it. (Whenever I wonder if there's more comedy than tragedy in life, I think of that soup.)
I must have told Mr. Huberman I was a writer, because he told me I should read a Yiddish writer named I.L. Peretz. Then we sort of drifted apart, although I said hello to him sometimes outside the building. A year or so later, in the middle of a blizzard, I came home to a notice posted on the building door that he was dead, and that services would be held, etc.
One of the things that bothered me after this was the idea that he might be forgotten. He'd had no other children and no other family, at least that I knew of. I committed his name to memory. I spoke of him once at church. The idea of a person's name as their strongest kind of memorial is one that runs through history. So I put it out there again. Leo Huberman. And I wrote his name into my WIP. My Huberman is a minor character, not a great soul but not a pure villain either. Those are the breaks of being written into a novel. Those are the breaks of being a human being as well.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful

1. It's still nice in the garden in the morning when I go out to water.

2. I have peppers. (How else can I put this? "My peppers are fruiting?" That doesn't sound right.)

3. There's a agent out there reading the full of How to See the Elephant.

4. I've been hearing a lot about The Dark Divine by Bree Despain and when I looked it up in the LV library catalog it said "14 holds on the first 8 returned copies." So I'll probably just go buy it. New reading!

5. Blogfest! From Amalia T. -- the theme of which is dreams. I found out kind of late, but here's my contribution, from The Poison Hill. The dreamer is my MC, Gertrude. She's living in Italy, about 30 years after most of the action has taken place.

The water is inky black, tossing against the dock. It’s the dock at the lake, the same dock after all these years, but the water goes on forever, all the way to the horizon, under a dark sky. When I get to the white raft out in the center of the lake my mother will be there. I have to be out there at exactly the right time. Clark Gable takes the towel from my shoulders and I dive into the water and swim with great speed, waves bobbing in my face. I see the raft just ahead, dirty white from the dark water. The crowd of people on the dock is screaming, cheering me on. I have to be up on it before sunset. One moment later and my mother will be gone…Something is knocking on the side of the raft, making it shake…the ladder is right before me; I grab at it and begin to climb up… the knocking, again …There is my mother, with long hair and a long dress, like an Edgar Allan Poe illustration… The sun is not down yet; I’m still in time…
But I'm not in time, and Zita is pounding on the door. I know she's standing out in the hall, wondering, knocking and waiting, and knocking again. It’s no good to call avanti. Zita never avanti’s; she waits for you to let her in.

Fun Fact: this actually came from a real dream, although it's been much altered. Have a good weekend and check out the other Dreamfest posts!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

24 hours late

This is a little late, but I wanted to put up something about Memorial Day. I dedicated How to See the Elephant to two sets of family ancestors, one from Ohio, the other from Georgia. I'm not so good at remembering dates and units and similar numbers, but I can give you the gist of their stories.

The Hedges were from Coshocton County, Ohio. They had abolitionist sympathies and it is reputed that their farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The oldest, Anderson Hedge, served in 3 different Ohio regiments at various times. He was wounded in the hand at the battle of Iuka, Mississippi (look it up!) in 1862, returned home, and went back to war about a year later. His brother Aaron went with him, as did their younger brother Porter, who was just shy of 16 at the time. Aaron's history is shadowy. Family story is that he was prisoner, and was later exchanged, and this experience damaged his health. In 1864 all three brothers were together at the battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia; fortunately for them (it was one of the bloodiest battles of the war) they were assigned guard the railroad tracks in the rear sector. Porter and Anderson returned home when the war ended, but Aaron served until November 1865 in the Army of Occupation in Texas. Then he returned to his sister's house in Ohio and quite simply laid down and died. There is no way of knowing what actually killed him, but family opinion blamed the war for undermining his health.

The Wilsons were from Early County, Georgia. They were a large family which farmed their own land, and although they owned no slaves at the time of the war, past generations had. Four brothers -- Joe Lane, William, James B. and Marion -- joined the 55th Georgia (a.k.a. "the Early County Wildcats") John M. the youngest, joined the 29th Georgia Cavalry. The 55th Georgia was sent to guard Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Joe Lane died there in January, 1863. He had been ill, and in being transported to a different location he was dropped in the creek, which caused him to develop pneumonia. In September 1863 Cumberland Gap surrendered, and William and James B. were sent to Camp Douglas, a Union prison camp just outside Chicago. Camp Douglas, on the shores of Lake Michigan, was famed for its unsanitary and inhumane conditions. (A recent History Channel documentary labeled it 80 Acres of Hell.) When the war ended the two made their way back to Early County, and, in a strange parallel to the Hedges, William died shortly after arriving home, probably from the effects of his imprisonment. James B., who was 22 at the war's end, became my great-grandfather. I am unclear about the time period of what follows, but I do know that Marion deserted the 55th Georgia at some point. Family story is that he returned home and his mother hid him in the barn and fed him before sending him on. He didn't come back when the war ended. Possibly he died elsewhere, but I imagine that he may have felt unwelcome, given the price his family paid in the war.
A couple years back my mother discovered that the US government will provide a free headstone for any Civil War veteran -- yes, even for Rebels. She found Joe Lane's grave in the Cumberland Gap battlefield, filled out the proper paperwork, and got one put up for him.
Being a child of the 70s -- one of my earliest memories is the famous "War is not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" wall poster -- I have very mixed feelings about war in general, and I'm not always comfortable with the glorification of it. But I have no problem honoring the soldiers on both sides.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Recent Reading

I need to update my Shelfari bookshelf. Poor Shelfari thinks I've only read 5 books this year. In fact I'm always reading but I tend to only put up the ones that rise to a certain interest level. This week I read two books that I know I'll never forget, and one book that wasn't that great in itself, but which definitely started my creativity flowing.
I hate to admit it but I often avoid books that touch even a little on the Israel-Palestine thing, so while I'd heard of Amos Oz, the Israeli writer, I'd never read any of his novels. But I'm so glad I ran across A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz's memoir of growing up in pre-state of Israel Jerusalem. It focuses on his mother, who loved to tell him stories, and his more skeptical father, and the world of their neighbors, refugees from a now-lost Europe. Oz is a master writer, and he moves back and forth in time, calling up now a girls' school in 1920s Poland, now life on a kibbutz in the 1950s, now 1990s Israel, all the while trying to understand the factors that led to his mother's suicide when he was 12.
Anna Anderson spent most of her life pretending to be Anastasia Romanov (at least if you believe the DNA tests) and her story is told in A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson by Frances Welch. It's an entertaining book -- Anna ended her life as a Crazy Cat Lady, and the man she married to gain US citizenship was nutty as a fruitcake himself. The problem I had with this book was that it just told the story without going any deeper. I'd like to know why Anna fooled so many people for so many years -- why did the people who supported her (and were usually badly treated by her) need to believe she was Anastasia? What did she represent to them and to the moviemakers, etc. who told her story? Even her surburban neighbors late in life believed she was Anastasia. Why? Well, the book doesn't answer these questions but it's such a fascinating story -- identity and imposters and what terms like nobility and royalty are really supposed to signify -- that I've filed it away for the future.
The last book is The City of Trembling Leaves by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a genuine Nevada writer (famous for The Ox-Bow Incident.) It was written in 1945 and is one of those big, satisfying mid-century novels about growing up (i.e., S-E-X) and, in particular, discovering yourself as an artist and struggling to create something lasting and meaningful. The city of the title is Reno, and the book will make you fall in love with it, and Carmel, and Death Valley and the entire West. It's a little bit like Thomas Wolfe in places, and in others Willa Cather and I can tell it's one of those books I'm going to read over and over.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thoughts about Research

A recent post on Elle Strauss' blog got me to thinking about research.
I like things to be right in the world I create. I always imagine someone somewhere will pop up and say, "no, you're wrong about this detail," and then I have terrifying imaginary arguments with them. But sometimes research is about more than detail -- it's about getting the right feeling, and that's tricky.
My MC in How to See the Elephant suffers from (though I never use the term) what are supposed to be asthma attacks. When I revised it I saw that the asthma scenes fell flat: I didn't capture her fear and panic during the attacks, and especially her embarrassment when they happen in public. I felt I couldn't do this until I knew more about asthma. Needless to say, I don't have asthma and don't know anyone who does.
(At this point I am also saying to myself, why did you have to pick asthma? Why not migraines? You can do migraines. But in fact the asthma attacks serve as kind of a symbol of her imprisonment at boarding school; after she runs away she doesn't have them anymore. So I felt they had a function in the plot.)
My first stop was some of the medical textbooks I have access to at work. Here I got a clinical description of the pathology and physiology of asthma, its incidence, ramifications for public health, long-term management, and so on. Really, nothing to help me write a scene describing an attack from the point of view of a asthma sufferer.
So I went to Youtube. Maybe, I reasoned, I could find a video or two of someone having an asthma attack. There were way more than one or two videos, but they turned out to fall into two categories: 1) someone runs up a hill, then coughs a little, or 2) someone in an ER with a mask over their face. Youtube did help me correct a whopping error I'd made with having my MC lie down during her attacks. In fact, it's dangerous for anyone having an asthma attack to lie down -- they are supposed to sit or lean forward. (Immediate re-write there of about 5 scenes.) But other than that there just wasn't enough visible detail in the videos to help me write the scenes. And I also realized that watching a modern-day asthma attack, cut short or helped by an inhaler, wouldn't be the same as an asthma attack in the 19th century. My MC wouldn't have had an inhaler or much in the way of medicine.
We think of an illness as something which is unchangeable over time. A 19th century asthma attack can't be much different from a 20th century one, right? Well, I wasn't so sure. The pathology of asthma -- the swelling of the bronchi -- is the same no matter what, of course. But how a disease is perceived, whom it affects, how the symptoms are described -- these are all subjective. Asthma, for instance, was considered to be a nervous disease, with a psychological origin, well into the 20th century. So what I needed was a natural or social history of asthma, something that would describe asthma as someone in the 19th century saw it.
Well, with a little bit of careful searching, I found, on Google Books, a treatise written in 1882 by a Dr. Henry Salter, who was a pioneer of asthma research. (He was the first to show it could be caused by environmental factors like animal dander.) I learned a lot of interesting information from Dr. Salter's book. For one thing, Dr. Salter didn't seem to think of asthma as a terribly dangerous illness. He doesn't mention any fatalities among his patients and he describes attacks that go on for as long as three days, off and on. Dr. Salter was also convinced that smoking and city air were good for asthma. Like others of his day, he thought it was a nervous illness and he describes it as occuring in definite periods or cycles. Best of all, though, Dr. Salter devotes an entire chapter to describing "the asthma attack." Wikipedia describes the noise an asthma sufferer makes as "whistling." Dr. Salter describes the same noise as "like a mouse squeaking or a kitten mewing."
When I was done with the chapter I felt I had what I needed to re-write the scenes. In fact, I had to avoid the other pitfall of research, which is putting in too much information. The details were odd, but they were 19th century details, and the scenes worked much better for them. And I'm ready to have an imaginary argument with anyone who says otherwise.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Writing anywhere (not a plug for Pei Wei)

I'm sitting at the kitchen table with my son shooting free throws almost over my head, with my notebook open and my draft, with handwritten corrections, beside it. I'm at work, shut up in a tiny room proctoring two students taking an exam. Ten minutes later I finish my book and and out comes the notebook. Yes, I'm in one of those rare moods when I can write anywhere, in the presence of anybody.
I remember the writing the start of How to See the Elephant particularly well, because I went out to lunch to write on purpose, so that I would actually have that hour instead of having it chipped away by work. I went to Pei Wei, and I became so involved in what I was doing that when the waiter came to take my bowl and said, are you a writer? I jumped about three feet and realized I was late getting back. I understand the waiter's suprise. I don't suppose anyone ever started a novel at Pei Wei, because its the opposite of Starbucks in that no one stays there longer than 20 minutes.
But that experience is really the exception for me. I'm not much of a public writer. But I am a travelling writer, and as long as I have my notebook and feel that tight connection with the text, I'll write anywhere.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The reviser and the revised

I started revising just one particular part of How to See the Elephant in February and it snowballed to the whole thing but I can definitely say now I'm almost done. This week I re-read it backwards, starting with the last chapter and working back through the book. I'm not sure what gave me the idea to do this but I thought it would give me a new perspective on the separate parts of the book and sort of get me out of the familar groove (you know -- when you've read the paragraphs so many times you don't really see them anymore.) I'm also not sure it was a really helpful idea, on the whole. For one thing, when I finally got to the first chapter, it seemed flat. Of course, reading backwards is a decrescendo so naturally it would be flat, right? (It doesn't seem flat when I read it forwards.) But maybe there is something in that chapter that I'm missing and ought to be looking at.
Anyway, this has left me in a doldrums kind of mood and a serious question about revising. When I rip up paragraphs and passages and write new scenes, am I really making it better? Or does it just seem better when I re-read it because it's new?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Summer reading

This time of year I usually go to the library and re-check out The Country of the Pointed Fir, by Sarah Orne Jewett. There's really not much to The Country of the Pointed Fir, as a novel. All that happens is a woman writer goes to Maine for the summer and meets some of the local people -- a woman who lives on an island, for instance, and an old man who's traveled on an Arctic expedition. Like a lot of 19th century writing it focuses on the quaint and is long on description. And yet I re-read every year around this time because it gives me a pure, unadulterated feeling of beginning-of-summer: blue water and boats and pines and sunshine. Another set of books I often turn to for the same reason are the Anne of Green Gables books. I know them by heart, and I know what I don't like about them, and yet I re-read them at least twice a year, purely for comfort.
How about you? What qualifies as your comfort reading?