Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry Christmas from the girls

Years ago when I lived in New York I found two sets of ornaments in an art supply store around the corner from where I worked in Midtown. One was Dickens' characters. The other -- and why this is Christmas-associated I don't know and don't care -- was Golden Age Hollywood actresses.

Alice Faye, Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr

This is Sonja Henie, who made ice-skating movies and was also a three-time Olympic champion. (If you ever watched M*A*S*H, you may remember that Colonel Potter was a fan of her films.)

And I've completely forgotten who this is. My best guess is Irene Dunne.
When we first moved to the house I hung the girls up on the staircase as Christmas decorations and somehow I never took them down. This year I finally moved them back to the tree, to join Mr. Micawber, Tiny Tim, David Copperfield, Little Nell and....Mrs. Gamp?

Merry Christmas to all! Have a happy and healthy set of holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2011

End of the year reading

The end of the year is well-known as the time that all the big Oscar-type movies come out. There's kind of a similar effect in books, with blogs and publishing industry magazines talking up the big books and potential prize-winners. So here's my list. Probably not all prize winners but well worth seeking out and keeping in mind for that after-Christmas shopping.

Most recent read: The Returning. Published in Australia originally as Bloodflower (truthfully, I would probably never read a novel called Bloodflower, so this is one time the US title is an improvement.) The Returning is hard to characterize. It's set in a unnamed country whose culture is at times vaguely English, at other times vaguely feudal Japanese. A civil war has unsettled everything. The main character, Cam, returns to his village, but soon leaves again because of the resentment everyone bears him (he was the only one, of all the men who went, who returned.) The narrative follows Cam but also the other inhabitants of the village: an orphan boy, a refugee girl, Cam's sister, his former fiancee. It's at this point that I break off and say, just read the darn book. It's very well done, one of the most thoughtful and interesting books I've read on the YA side in a long time.

Potential Newbery(s): Bigger than a Bread Box. I don't read a lot of middle-grade or contemporary novels but I read this feeling I had fallen into the hands of a master. The plot works, the problems are realistic, and best of all, not only is there magic, but there are consequences to the magic. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. This is one of those books that winks at adults, and might even be aimed at them for all I know. (I did wonder, while I read it, how many children would really get into it, but then I remembered that at age 10 I read all the Oz books I could find, and they do much the same thing.)

Obligatory Mentions: Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Chime.

Overlooked: Fly Trap. Frances Hardinge in the only writer I can think of fit to inherit Diana Wynne-Jone's mantle. She just comes up with stuff that makes other YA fantasy seem pallid.

And one other mention, since I'm only 3/4 of the way through: Life: An Exploded Diagram. Love and the Cuban Missile Crisis and do I get the feeling that Mal Peet still doesn't quite know what kind of a writer he is? Yes, but worth reading.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Awhile back Laurel Garver at Laurel's Leaves posted this piece on boosting writing credits by publishing in literary magazines. Specifically, she suggested using scenes or chapters which you have cut from an MS but which can stand alone as stories or flash fiction.

After I read this, I turned over, mentally, what I had that might fit her suggestion...fragments from an abandoned project that are still rather fragment-y...two short stories I wasn't sure what to do with. Then I remembered a prologue I had written for my current WIP. It takes place about 20 years before the main action and I wrote it out partly to give one of my characters a backstory. I liked it, but I wasn't sure how it fit in with the main narrative and finally one day I took a Joan Crawford-style vow of "No more prologues, ever!" and cut it entirely. It worked as a stand-alone story, however, and thanks to Laurel's piece I polished it, sent it out and and this week, as short story now called "The Feeb," I got an acceptance for it from The Waterhouse Review, an online literary magazine in Scotland.

(And they pay! OK - a token payment of 2 pounds -- but still!)

I'm really excited. It's kind of a smashing little story and I was always very proud of it but it's nice to know that other people see the same thing in it. And not for nothing is The Waterhouse Review known as a "personable" market. They've been great to deal with, honest and cheerful and so quick to respond!

I think I'm still a little in the is-it-all-a-dream phase...

I'll post a link when the story comes out in January. Big thanks again to Laurel for the idea. I had dipped my toe in the magazine market years ago when everything was print and response times were looooong and I never would have been motivated to do it again were it not for her post.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Yes, I am cooking. No, I'm not shopping.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Heretical Thoughts on NaNoWriMo

Last week I saw this post on NaNoWriMo by Rebecca Ryals Russell who blogs at YA Authors You Never Heard Of. She addresses the fact that some writers just aren't interested in NaNoWriMo, and I read it because I've always included myself among them. I write every day, I have long-term plans for what I'm going to do and don't need outside stimulus, and word counts? Not only do I not do them, there are times when I actually want the word count to go down, not up. Most of the first two weeks of November looked like this: read six-sentence paragraph. Rewrite. Now an eight-sentence paragraph...(hold music plays, 45 minutes pass)...now a four sentence paragraph. Move to next paragraph...(more hold music)... At end of day, think how I have ruined the story. Next morning, read it over and decide it's not so bad.

I saw something similar at my critique group on Saturday. Someone suggested doing writing prompts or flash-fiction contests as part of the group. Several people perked up immediately, "I'll do that! Sounds like fun!" Two other people, as well as me, didn't want to. "I've done that, and it takes time away from what I'm supposed to be working on."

I think it comes down to the basic question, why do you write? Because it's fun? Because you like to tell stories? Yes, and yes, and yet...writing is Work. It's hard. It's sitting down every day to face the dragon of failure and fearing the day you won't be able to fight him to a draw anymore, because on that day life will hardly be worth living. And honestly, for all the community that exists in the writing world, you face that dragon alone. You have to, because your dragon is not like anyone else's. (OK, official end of dragon metaphor!)

What I'd like to know is not, does NaNoWriMo help you get started or help you write more easily, but, does it help you get serious about your writing? Does it help you improve? Does what you start turn into something finished?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Stitch by stitch

Last December I decided I wanted to learn to knit. It was during the dead days at the end of the year, and I was feeling flush with Christmas money and gift cards. I bought a book on knitting, and a lot of supplies and I watched a lot of online videos demonstrating various knitting stitches. (It is impossible, by the way, to knit and move the mouse to hit the pause/start button as needed, so those videos are not very useful.)

Now, don't throw things at me, but what I'm working for here is this...knitting is a lot like writing.

1. You're going to screw up a lot before you get it right.
Most of my early scarves had this weird tendency to get wider. I'd cast on 18 stitches and a certain point find myself with 26. When this happens, what do you do? You do what you do in writing. You revise it. You go back to where you went wrong and you pick the bad part out and you start again and try to keep the count right.

2. Follow the rules, even when you don't think you need to.
The knitting book said "some people count stitches," which lead me to think that it was kind of a nerdish thing for uptight people and hey, man, I don't need that kind of headache, man...
Now I count stitches. And my scarves don't get bigger. *crosses fingers.*

3. You keep going because you fall in love.
Early on I went to a small yarn store and saw such beautiful yarns that I spent more money than I'm willing to confess, even now. The first scarf made from one of those yarns, though a little...uneven...in shape, has drawn a bunch of compliments mainly for the color. As I drove home I thought, now you've got to make sure it comes out right. And every time I looked at the yarns I was led on to create something. I wanted to try new things, just so I could live up to the yarn.

4. Know your limits.
I joined a new church and someone asked me if I could knit and next thing I knew I was knitting a prayer shawl, in slightly scratchy green acrylic Wal-Mart yarn. (My own fault -- I picked out a shade that looked nice in the sunlight.) The prayer shawl fell victim to the same enlarging phenomenon that the scarves did. But it will be done...someday.
Here's what else I can't do. I can't purl. I can't do circular knitting. I can make scarves. Lots and lots of scarves.

Everyone needs scarves.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Count Marco

Ah, research in the old newspaper archives! An alternate universe, in which Martin Luther King is still alive and Barry Goldwater might be elected president.

Actually, when I'm doing research I don't pay too much attention to really big historical events. I'm looking for the small stuff, the little things that make up ordinary life. Sleazy films at the drive-in ("Child Brides," "Slave Empress"). Fancy downtown stores like Ronzone's and Chic Hecht's vs. Penney's and Kresge's.

And Count Marco's column. I speed up the microfilm machine and try to avoid getting sucked in by Count Marco and somehow I can't.

Count Marco -- supposedly he was Italian -- ran an advice column in the San Francisco Chronicle which was widely syndicated in the 60s and early 70s. (His claim to modern day fame is involvement in the Zodiac killer case.) And basically, he makes Dear Abby seem like a hippie.

Count Marco's sole target is women. Women are lazy. They sit around all day buffing their nails and look like hell when their men come home. They give their husbands tv dinners instead of bothering to cook. They won't date a man unless he has a large pocketbook. They have no sense of responsibility and they teach their daughters to be just like them. Probably most interesting (poignant?) is a column that scolds women for continuing to date men who don't propose right away. "Remember, you can love any man," Count Marco says, "Be open-minded..." (I don't know why, but I hear a hint of wistfulness in that tone.)

At first it kind of startled me that stuff like this could run in newspapers all around the country. But then, if the Time magazine article above is to be believed, Count Marco was something of a joke even in 1959.

As far as research goes, Count Marco, like a lot of forgotten figures, is not very useful. I'd have to explain who he was if I introduced him by name and he's so obscure it just wouldn't be worth it. But as an example of the times he's invaluable.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The In-between Season

So it's dark just about dinnertime now. When I clear the table light from the back door shines in the yard. Pajamas and hot tea have come back in style. The alarm goes off in the morning and I think: must be a mistake, it's too dark. Baseball is always on. I pull the slow cooker out from the back of the pots and pans.
I love in-between seasons. Winter and summer have their virtues but something about the mixed nature of this time of year, the light and the dark dancing with each other, the storms of the equinox, make it come alive for me.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Month of Holidays

In five years of working at a Jewish-sponsored university, I've learned that two things are taken very, very seriously: kosher food laws, and holidays/Sabbaths. April and September-October bring days off -- some years, like this year, a lot of them.

I tend to spend these bonus days doing research. During Passover I shut myself up at the UNLV library, listening to oral histories (on a tape recorder!) and going through archives of the Sun and the Review Journal. Neither newspaper is indexed, so I had to read them page by page, which was extremely distracting (pause to see how different "Rex Morgan, MD" was in 1964 (not very)...pause to read prices of stereos and Danish Modern furniture...pause to consider a picture of LBJ and Khrushchev in fake Beatles wigs.) I think I got through about 2 weeks of February 1964, all told.

I started this set of holidays by going to the Museum of Atomic Testing. Atomic testing is emerging, maybe, as a motif in the book. It opens with one of my protagonists remembering watching atomic tests from the playground of her elementary school, and the other protagonist has a father who works at the Test Site. It's an interesting museum, combining serious information with some atomic kitsch. (The old "Duck and Cover" movie is played.) I noticed that the sections devoted to the later underground tests attracted much less attention from the visitors. I tried to look at everything, though I didn't find much information on workers at the site. (There's also a reading room and a public archive, which I might go back to later if I have more specific questions.)

There's a fine line with research. Too much can drag you down, quell the imagination. But finding that odd gem of a detail gives the book authenticity. When I come away from the research library, heavy-headed and a little sleepy, I'm usually aware that somewhere in my notebook is something that will lead me in a direction I never thought of.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I was watching Mr. Rogers.

In the past couple of days the where-were-you-when-it-happened stories have swept over me. I didn't want to join in. I find it painful to talk about 9/11, and it's sometimes strange to me that no one else finds it so painful they won't talk about it. Perhaps I'm still at that stage of grief when you just try to go on, day to day.

So I'll say it. I had a three-year-old at the time and as soon as I got up I put Mr. Rogers on. I never watched the news in the morning then. Now, I watch the news every morning, ever since, and I've learned to recognize that tone in the announcer's voice that means, something very, very bad has happened. Then the phone rang.

We'd left New York six months before. My husband was born and raised there and it was my adopted city, where I went to college, lived and worked. In all that, I never went to the World Trade Center. I never had to. Didn't have business there and wasn't a tourist interested in the view.

But the World Trade Center was the modern city. There's a video -- a very primitive, early video -- for the Blondie song "Heart of Glass," which basically shows the band, playing on Saturday Night Live, intercut with shots of the World Trade Center and the Manhattan skyline. The Trade Center was the city, for those who came to it in the bad years and lived through them. It wasn't the past, like the Empire State Building. It was our city, the one we had trekked to.

My one thought, out in Las Vegas, was I should have been there. I should have gone through it with my city. I wasn't glad I had escaped -- I felt guilty.

The towers have never meant to me what they seem to mean for other people. I don't think of "first responders." (A horrible coinage.) Or freedom, that being a word that is so twisted around sometimes I don't recognize it. I take nothing away from the people for whom it does mean those things. We all have our own experiences of grief and our own methods of dealing with it.

This Sunday the streets of my town will be filled with people running a triathalon in honor of September 11. Running/biking/swimming is great, especially when do it for your own health. But part of me wonders how running a triathalon does anything for the dead. (Or the "fallen" -- another new coinage.)

After 9/11 my church orchestra got together, learned, over several weeks, Faure's Requiem, and, on a certain Sunday, performed it for the congregation. I remember listening to it, hearing the words, "Lord, give them peace, give them peace." And I thought, it's not peace for them we want. It's peace for us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Question of Talent

I read a bio of Edith Piaf recently. The book itself was only so-so, but it led to me going Youtube to watch some of Piaf's clips. Which led me to this, from a movie Piaf made in 1941 (in German-occupied Paris, actually):

The best part is the way the people in the nightclub just stare at her, absolutely mesmerized.
If you ever look at the Youtube comments for Piaf, people say over and over, the voice, the voice, the voice...

Which leads me to think about talent. A couple months ago we had a speaker at work who mentioned a recent book called Talent is Overrated. The idea behind the book is that there's no such thing, really, as exceptional talent or genius. What distinguishes the person who succeeds in a given field is what the author calls "deliberate practice." This is hard work plus feedback, and the resulting modification of good/bad habits, etc. (And a lot of other stuff...I guess you have to read the book, which I didn't, just heard a precis from the speaker.) Over time, according to the author, this is what produces success.

Well, I'm a professional skeptic, particularly of speakers and self-help books, but the idea does make sense. Hard work is a given. Feedback is crucial, particularly for a writer. Belief is crucial.

But then I think about a voice like Edith Piaf's... And she just had that voice. She didn't have to develop it. (And where did it come from? Her mother was a minor nightclub singer, her father an acrobat. Her grandmother ran a flea circus.)

I suppose it's one of the nature/nuture debates that will never be resolved. In the meantime I'm going to go download "L'Accordianiste."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

None but the Brave Deserve the Fair

Yes, it's been awhile since I posted. I can blame it (partly) on being on vacation -- first Sequoia National Park (we stayed in Visalia, which is hot and full of flies, though there were a lot of fruitstands as compensation) and then in San Diego (I - I don't understand it. It's 9 a.m. and the sky is still grey!) The medical school where I work starts its classes in August so I've been busy there. We've gotten new computer programs which are supposed to make everyone's lives easier and lead to a paperless world. Hmm. I suspect things will be hairy for awhile but ultimately the brave will prevail.

And through all this I've been writing, writing, writing. Sometimes it amazes me. One part of the brain is dissatisfied, sees only disaster ahead, has to meditate 20 minutes a day to stay calm. The other part is saying, sit down, sit down, I've got this great idea on how to re-write this scene.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mockingbird Summer

A couple of posts back I mentioned The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilpin. The reason this book resonated with me so much is that it's partly about what it's like to love books and yet raise a child who, in spite of all encouragement, not much of a reader. My son and I have shared a lot of books, many of them the traditional children's classics, but it's mainly been me reading to him. As much as he loves the books, he'd like to keep it that way. He shows no interest in stretching out and finding his own favorites. Much like his actual diet, his book diet is quite restricted. Hates fantasy. Can't stand the supernatural. When his Reading class last year assigned a book by Mary Downing Hahn (think Lois Duncan for a younger set), he informed me that he liked the book but he didn't believe the ending because "ghosts aren't real." (Something about the solemn way he said that gives me hope for the younger generation.)

Until this summer. For the past few weeks he's been reading, on his own, To Kill A Mockingbird.

It was our idea that he do some reading over the summer, but he picked the book, which he had read excerpts from in his Kumon packets. He raced through the first part of it, swept in by the small-town characters and curiousity over Boo Radley. The second part of the book, about the trial, went a little more slowly. Over and over again I sat down and tried to answer questions -- about black men and white women and lynch law and the way the various characters accomodate the racism around them. Should I see it as a hopeful sign that I had to explain all this as past history? It strikes me that Harper Lee never questioned that this particular context of the novel would be understood. And in spite of all these explanations my son, like Jem, was confident that Tom Robinson would be acquitted. I bit my lip and did my best not to utter any spoilers, but I did hint, "you know, the novel's not really about Tom...it's about Scout and Jem." The next day there was a cry of outrage from his room. He was dancing around in rage, swearing he wasn't going to read any more of the book. When we got him calmed down, he said "But they can appeal to the Supreme Court, right? I think they should appeal to the Supreme Court!"

I don't remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, though I think I was a teenager. The thing was, I read so much, and so quickly, that it was just another book to me -- a worthy book, but not a real favorite. Going through this experience with my son has given me a different perspective on reading. Instead of being an indiscriminate reader of good, bad and ugly, he reads a little, slowly, but he likes what he reads. And by reading it slowly he lives the book in a way I rarely do. It's given me an appreciation, too, of what works in Mockingbird (and what doesn't -- there are certain parts that make me squirm) and why.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Prosopagnosia is the inability to remember or distinguish faces. Oliver Sacks recently wrote an article in the New Yorker about how he suffers from this: he failed to recognize a doctor he'd been seeing for many years and he mixed his own two brothers up! Well, nothing like that has ever happened to me, but I do have a terrible memory for faces. At church, work (where I come in contact with 100+ students) and other social places faces just slide by me. I've perfected the art of standing there, smiling, talking to someone who clearly knows me while I wonder who is this person? where did I meet them?

Even worse, I sometimes make up names for people ("she looks like a Gloria") and then I remember the fake name instead of the real one. I'm not sure if this is a side effect of prosopagnosia or just the writer in me taking over.

Think about writing from the point of view of a character with this problem. It's interesting what a barrier it is to basic everyday life.

What I find even more interesting is the people I do remember. You'd think a disability like this would be equal across the board, but it's not. Certain people always stand out, which makes me think that facial recognition is a fairly complex process in the brain. You might call this love at first sight, even though often it's not love, exactly, more like a certain heightened interest. It's the total opposite of prosopagnosia and also a fascinating thing to write about...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Old Movies

I read an obituary today in the NY Times for one of my NYU film school professors, Robert Sklar.

The course I took from him was called, I think, Hollywood and Its Alternatives. The idea was we saw Hollywood films side by side with some classics of foreign cinema. I remember Anna Magnani running after the truck after the Nazis have taken away her lover in Rome, Open City. And Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped -- an almost entirely dark movie, filmed in a prison, and yet it made you hold your breath with suspense. On the Hollywood side I remember The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Heat, where Gloria Grahame has hot coffee thrown in her face by Lee Marvin. (I remember The Public Enemy, too -- Professor Sklar really had a thing for gangster films.) Above all I remember how stirred the class was by these films as we discussed them. They might be 50 years old but they were brand new to us. Each film was like a continent, rediscovered after being long-lost, and all our own. And there were those films that were hardly ever shown -- cult movies and potential cult movies -- over which we asserted bragging rights, like birdwatchers listing rare species.

Today you can get Rome, Open City on Netflix or watch the coffee scene from The Big Heat on Youtube. I think that's great, honestly. I count the hours I spent sitting in the Kentucky Theatre watching Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock as part of my education. But it was a hard-won education, full of gaps, and anything that makes great movies more easily available is a win for our civilization. But kids today will never know the thrill of making an effort to see a classic movie -- earning it, in a way -- and they will also never see the movies as I saw them -- on an enormous silver screen in black and white that could be satiny smooth or gritty as reality itself.

In tribute, here is Anna's famous run, yes, from Youtube. (I can't seem to get it to embed, so I'm just going to link it.) It's in Italian, but you won't need subtitles.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


We had a beautiful rain on Sunday. The day was smudgy and hazy, with the white sky we sometimes get when there are nearby wildfires. (There weren't any - none closer than New Mexico.) At 5 o'clock, when I drove out to pick up a pizza for dinner, the cars had their headlights on. After dinner the lamp made a pool of yellow light and we sat reading by it. For half an hour or more we heard long rolls of thunder. The air remained humid, the breeze began to stir, we took the garbage back in. I went outside once or twice and could smell the rain up in the clouds. Finally I looked up from A School for Scandal to see the first big drops falling on the porch. Then it rained and rained and rained. We paid for it the next day, the 4th, when it was humid and sticky, but it was fun while it lasted.

If you ever want to know exactly how dry it is in Las Vegas, I can tell you. When it rains here, they put it on the news. And the news goes crazy. Flooding! Don't go in the washes! Don't drive through running water! Stay indoors because lightning can get you 10 miles away! Look, a palm tree got blown over! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

I didn't listen to the news. My son and I went out on the porch (some people have sun porches -- we have a rain porch) and watched the drops dance in the street.

I am still on my Free Stuff on Kindle binge. I have overdosed on Victorian fiction, which means I am taking every act and thought very seriously and worthy of a thousand other acts and thoughts. By the way, A School for Scandal would make an excellent YA novel. So would William Makepeace Thackery's fairy-tale The Rose and the Ring. I can't believe no one's ripped it off yet.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Longest Day of the Year

"Don't you always look for the longest day of the year, and then miss it?" Daisy Buchanan asks in The Great Gatsby.
Daisy never had CNN to remind her.
The garden was gorgeous this morning and we have hummingbirds the way some people have mice.

Monday, June 13, 2011

3rd Person vs. 1st Person

With 3rd person, you're the movie director. You're a master of sleight-of-hand, showing the reader this scene, withholding that bit of information, moving from person to person, building tension, jumping across continents, moving through space and time. You are the Author. You can do anything you like.

1st person, on the other hand -- and I know 9/10ths of YA is written in 1st person -- is messy. You're in the middle of everything, plopped down in your character's mind, wading through the long grass of distraction. You don't know the half of what's going on. Forget the well-tempered sentence: you drown in a sea of "anyway," "sort of," "kind of," and "I mean." You're not sure when to stop and so you keep going on and on, until you're sick of your character and just want out of his/her head.

OK, maybe you can tell I'm just a little bit prejudiced in favor of 3rd person. Frankly, I think that 1st person is (sometimes) a writer's crutch. It lets you do more with less. But before anyone who loves 1st person gets upset, let me just say that I'm willing to look at both sides of the subject:

3rd person is cold. It's remote. You're up in the sky, looking down on the characters. Good luck getting close to them as they wander through their lives while Mr./Ms. Author , who seems to be on a serious ego trip, tells you all about the history of some other place or person.

1st person is focused. It's you, telling your story. It's you living your story. You're witty, intelligent, sarcastic and flirty all at once. Everyone loves you. You have VOICE.

My challenge this time around, since I'm writing first person from two different characters: make them sound different.

Monday, June 6, 2011

That feeling

Forgive this post for self-indulgence. Yesterday, in the middle of the hot-water-heater crisis, I had a semi-mystical experience while watching an earwig. Actually, I don't think the earwig had much to do with it; it was just there on the floor of the garage while I stared, thinking deep thoughts, and somehow got mixed up with them. Although if things work out maybe I'll mention him in the acknowledgements.

The deep thoughts were about my WIP and what came out is that story is going to be in first person instead of third, and told in alternating chapters by two characters. I got "that feeling." You know: the road is open, I can see this, I know exactly how this is going to work. And I could hear Janette's voice for the first time, though I created her as a character months ago.

The book is set in Las Vegas in 1964 and Janette, one of the narrators, is a 16 year old art student:

"John would have been an artist, if it wasn’t that he became a Beatle first. In pictures he always looks slightly apart, slightly more serious – not sad, like Ringo – but as if he sees through the press and the cameras and the screaming girls, as if he keeps something in reserve, apart from them. As if he’s waiting for something, almost.

I zipped up my art bag and slung it around my shoulder and then I remembered I’d bought a new tube of cadmium orange and it was…somewhere in my room. I finally found it in my school jacket. It’s a bad habit, leaving paint everywhere. One day last fall I threw my jacket on the floor and later I walked across it and there was a paint tube in my pocket and it burst open. I didn’t even notice until the next day when I put my hand in the pocket at school. Mom wasn’t happy, about the jacket or the carpet.

I threw the cadmium orange in the bag and zipped it up again. Then I opened the window, pushed the screen out, and slipped out it feet first, landing among the weeds and the bleached, warped boards my father still intends to build a shed with. It’s juvenile, I know, but it avoids Janette can you go to Safeway for me, oh, and take your little sister too. If Mom had her way I’d spend my entire Sunday pushing Betsy on the swings at the park.

Rachel’s mother is not like anyone else I ever met, never mind anyone else’s mother. She’s a good model, generally; she sits still without complaining and questioning me. She’s never asked to see the picture, either, which is good because the picture is pretty much a disaster.

But her house is so…not dark, exactly, but dim. And silent. There are never any women sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee and goading each other into eating the last piece of cake. And there are too many things in the house. The first time I saw the living room I recognized, somehow, that every statue and picture had a particular reason for being there, that Mrs. Rosenkrantz wasn’t just hoarding stuff like a madwoman. But there’s just so much of it. It’s like a house under occupation by an army. I can hardly stand to sit there, scraping Mrs. Rosenkrantz’s head off the canvas for the hundredth time or re-working those damn glasses (I don’t know why I ever thought to put them in, and yet every time I paint them out the picture just seems nothing.) I feel like they’re all watching me – the stuffed trout, John F. Kennedy, St. Bernadette – and they know I’m going to fail."

This is just the middle of a passage so I'm sure a lot of it will go away or change. But one of the great things about writing for me is that feeling that something's there, something I can use and make something of. I feel like a cat, watching the mouse play and thinking, you're mine, baby.

Kindle, take me away

One of the secret pleasures of Kindle for me is that you can get for free almost any book published in English before 1923. Since the copyright has expired, these books are in the public domain. Yesterday I woke up early and instead of thinking about 1) work, 2) various medical crises in my extended family or 3) our broken hot water heater and the mildew smell downstairs from the resulting flood, I thought, my God, think of all those old books you've always wanted and never could get...now's your chance, girl...be glad you've lived long enough to see this day...19th century literature FOR FREE!

A long-supressed wishlist tumbled out. Lord Dunsany, the Irish fantasy writer (he actually died in 1957, but his early weird stuff is available.) The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett. Mr. Britling Sees It Through, a WWI-era novel by H.G. Wells. The Golden Age, Kenneth Grahame's other children's book. A couple of Victorian classics: Three Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody. Oh, and I threw Moby Dick in as well. I've read it, but I figured it was worth a second look.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two New Books

I don't do book reviews a lot, but I've just finished two books that definitely go on the changed-my-life list.

The first is Among Others, by Jo Walton. Walton is mainly known as a adult writer of fantasy/alternate history, but I think Among Others could be considered crossover/YA. It has a little bit of magic in it, but mostly its about being a reader, about loving books, consuming books, talking with people about books, and not being able to understand people who don't like books. It's a very close portrait of growing up in Wales/England in the late 1970s, dealing with family, school, boy-girl stuff...and the whole time living another life through reading, and recognizing that this second life is the one you really want to lead when you grow up. If you were one of those teenagers that just read and read and read, this book is about you, and you need to read it.

The second book is called The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman. As soon as I saw the title on the New Book shelf in the library, I thought, "I know what that book is about. It's about my son." And it is.

Gilman, who comes from a literary family and was at that time teaching at Yale, wanted a child who would love books and poetry, someone for whom she could re-create the cosy world of her own childhood. But she had the sense that her son Benjamin, in spite of his precocious reading, was somehow "off." In fact, he turned out to have a host of disabilities (hyperlexia, sensory integration) related to autism. Gilman subtitles the book "A Story of Unexpected Joy" and in fact there is great joy, both in the progress Benjamin makes and the things Gilman learns from her son. As I read this book I found myself putting it down from time to time and pacing around, remembering things from my son's childhood. The motor difficulties ("Don't worry -- not all children crawl.") The blank staring at other children ("He's just shy.") The day what you thought was your child's personality is just a list of symptoms on a website.

Even if you don't have a child with a developmental disorder, you're bound to be touched by The Anti-Romantic Child and to see such children in a new light (I did, and I thought I knew everything I was supposed to about the way my son's mind works.) It also struck me, as I was reading it, that Gilman's book is kind of the story of a generation. Women my age grew up with three factors affecting child-rearing: 1) less experience with babies because of smaller families, 2) less availability of parents and grandparents, and therefore dependence on books for child-rearing 3) a kind of "free to be you and me" attitude that encouraged us to see children as individuals in which there was no such thing as "wrong" development or behavior. We are also the generation that seems, based on statistical evidence, to face the highest rate of autism in our children. I don't know why this is and I don't really want to go into those muddy waters. But I appreciate Gilman for writing the story of what she and I and a lot of other mothers have gone through.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mother's Day Thoughts

"I can't remember it all!"
"Don't worry, you'll remember it. You practiced."

"I can't sleep."
"Just close your eyes."
"I still can't sleep. I'll never sleep."
"You'll go to sleep. Everybody goes to sleep eventually."

The whole time you are thinking to yourself: What do I know? When did I get to be such a confident person? So much of motherhood is just making stuff up.

It's interesting that mother-child and specifically mother-daughter relationships are so often portrayed negatively in YA fiction. The "typical" YA mother is absent or indifferent, and others are downright evil. Bad or absent mothers make for a good story, of course, and there's some psychological truth to the motif, since most teens want nothing to do with their parents. But for this post I thought I'd search my library for a good mother-daughter relationship and this led me to Lois Duncan's 1977 classic Summer of Fear.

I won't recap the plot, but Summer of Fear involves Rachel and her Ozark cousin Julia. Cousin Julia -- who is not cousin Julia at all, but a witch -- intends to usurp Rachel's place in the family and to that end kills Rachel's dog and a family friend. Her last intended victim is Rachel's mother, who is supposed to drive off the road at a certain spot in the mountains between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But Rachel's mother isn't at that spot, at the time, because she's made an detour to buy Rachel a new dog:

"This has been such a difficult summer for you, honey," Mother said. "I thought it might help to have your own dog again. Not that he will ever replace Trickle -- you don't replace a person -- but he can make his own place in your life. All of us in the family have been so worried about you. We hate to see you so unhappy."
And there in her eyes was the answer, the thing Sarah [Julia] had not reckoned on, had not been prepared to handle, had not known how to combat.
It was love.

So in honor of Rachel and her mother, and all mothers, and all children, Happy Mother's Day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Easter Eggs

I always get days off this time of year so I spent this afternoon doing Easter eggs with my son, who is officially too old for Easter eggs. I have no real point here, just the joy of doing something simple and colorful. Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pig Will and Pig Won't

The other day I was arguing with someone at work about going to a potluck lunch. I wanted to go. The other person -- from some personal motive I was unable to dig out -- didn't. Later, when I was wondering why I had to be so self-righteous about it, I thought, well, you're Pig Will and she's Pig Won't.

Pig Will, in case you don't remember your Richard Scarry, is kind, cheerful, polite, helpful to his mother and always keeps his room clean. Pig Won't is obstinate, sloppy and defiant. As a child it was clear to me that Richard Scarry had based Pig Won't on my younger brother. This left me with Pig Will, and I've been Pig Will pretty much ever since (except for the keeping your room clean part.)

I love the look on Pig Won't's face, by the way. He knows he's in trouble, but he's pretty sure his mother's going to get him out ot it.

Of course, as a writer, you want to make your characters more than simple good and bad. Even Pig Wills are conflicted and often they rebel. And Pig Won'ts -- well, like the mother in the picture, they often call upon the reader's sympathy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Big Questions

The other day, coming out of church, my 12-year-old son asked me "Why did Hitler hate Jews?" I said "What a question to ask me, coming out of church..." Don't get me wrong -- I love having long talks with my son on a variety of subjects and I love that he's interested in history. But at that moment I was not sure how I could ever answer that question. Where to begin -- with World War I leading to World War II? Hitler's twisted personal history? The legacy of anti-semitism in Western civilization? Sigh. He's twelve years old.

My son's question came because his Reading class is currently doing a book by Eleanor H. Ayers called Parallel Journeys. Parallel Journeys is based on two memoirs -- of a boy, Arthur, who joins Hitler Youth, and a Jewish girl, Helen, who is trapped in Holland. It seems like a good way to tell the history of the time period and I like the fact that it's non-fiction. The Holocaust is a major subject for children's/YA fiction today, of course. When I was growing up there were far fewer such books, but I was fascinated by the subject, and read every one I got my hands on. (I remember those books reinforcing my already strong feeling that most ordinary people are cowards.) One I remember very well was The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel, along with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and -- a real classic of the era -- The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. (I'm not leaving out Anne Frank, but I read that when I was much older.)

It's worth noting that all of the above books, even those labeled fiction, had non-fiction roots. Doris Orgel and Judith Kerr based their books on their own childhood experiences as refugees. There are many classic novels of the Holocaust -- Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic foremost -- but I think that memoirs, or fictionalized memoirs, of the subject have something that novels just lack. And I supposed that something has something to do with the question my son asked me. Why did it all happen? How could it have happened?

And how, as writers, do we ever grapple with such a subject?

Everyone who has ever tried has begun, basically, with story of one person. A boy who wants to join the Hitler Youth. A Jewish girl with a Christian best friend in Vienna. A girl who starts her diary by writing about her birthday presents and her movie star picture collection.

Perhaps that's the only way, as humans, we can ever understand things.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones 1934-2011

A ghost can't remember which one of four sisters she is, or how she died. Time and space are woven into a landscape, and things and people get stuck in between. A star is also a celestial being before being turned into a dog. A girl discovers that her aunts and uncles are the Pleiades and various Greek Gods. A world just like ours, except that everyone takes for granted that witches ought to be burnt at the stake.

What I loved about Diana Wynne Jones' books was their sheer inventiveness. She had a way of looking at the world that no one else had, and way of imagining magic that owed nothing to anyone who came before her. Magic overlaid and intertwined with the real world in her novels, but they were also grounded in real emotional situations -- the feuding parents of The Lives of Christopher Chant and Aunt Maria, school rivalries in Witch Week. Above all she could take an abstract concept -- time, for instance, or mythology -- and make it a real-world object without ever seeming gimmicky or heavy-handed.

My favorite Diana Wynne Jones novel is The Time of the Ghost, which is also one of her earliest. It begins with a ghost who is unsure who she is or what happened to her. Observing her sisters and family, she begins to piece the story together, until about half-way through the book, when the narrative jumps forward in time and the reader realizes that nothing is what it appears to be. The sisters in the book, and their situation -- living in a boys' school, neglected by their parents -- were based on Jones' own childhood, which adds to the darkness of a book that is already concerned with death and witchcraft. Jones would go on, in her prime, to write books that were much more inventive than The Time of the Ghost. But I've rarely read a YA book with such emotional depth. If you've never read Diana Wynne Jones, go look for the The Time of the Ghost. Then read Dogsbody, and then the Chrestomanci books, starting with The Lives of Christopher Chant. And then you should still have a couple dozen more books to read. You'll enjoy every one of them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Turtles All the Way Down

The work I'm currently querying has a bit of a long intro. I've gotten mixed feedback on it. Some people think the writing is strong, others think it's too slow. My crit group suggested cutting it back, at least. I've almost resigned myself to cutting it and yet I sit here, feeling more like I hold a knife than a pair of scissors, unable to start. Normally I have no problem with revising. When I see sentences and paragraphs that don't work I'm eager to re-write them until I feel they're perfect. (Strange how those sentences always seem to grow back -- like crabgrass.) But in this case I'm revising something I think is good. Cutting into it doesn't feel right. All I can think of is the "turtles all the way down" story."

Don't know the "turtles all the way down" story? Here is is:

Bertrand Russell (or some other agnostic scientist, in other versions of the story) is giving a lecture on the universe. Afterwards an old lady comes up to him and says:
"Very interesting lecture, young man, but you're completely wrong. The universe sits on the back of a giant turtle."
Russell says: "All right, but what does the giant turtle sit on?"
Lady: "Another turtle."
Russell: "And what does that turtle sit on?"
Lady: "Another turtle."
Russell: "And what does that turtle sit on?"
Lady: "You're not listening, young man. I'm telling you, it's turtles all the way down!"

Revising this is like pushing one of those turtles out of line. And it's a long, long fall to the bottom of the universe.

Yes, I know this is the "kill your darlings" rule. Any advice on "giving-your-darling-a-haircut-but-not-chopping-off-its-head?"

Monday, March 21, 2011

News from 1964

My current WIP is set in Las Vegas in 1964. The upside of this is that I can walk Rachel's neighborhood and decide which house she might have lived in. The downside is that other opportunities for research are very limited. Las Vegas is a city that doesn't consider its own history very important.

Oh, sure, we have a lot of lore: Busgy Siegel...Benny Binion...Howard Hughes. But uncovering ordinary life in Las Vegas is hard. For instance, the microfilms of Las Vegas' two newspapers are kept at UNLV. But they're not indexed. Actually, they are partly indexed, but those partial indexes are kept in a different location, across town. So when I do get down to UNLV to do look at those microfilms, I'm just going to have to fish around.

Until I can get to UNLV, however, I've been relying on the Henderson Home News. Henderson, the suburb where I now live, was in those days a small industrial town way some ways out in the desert from Las Vegas. The Henderson library has digitized every issue since 1950 and put it online. Keep in mind that Henderson was a small, small town in those days. The Home News came out two days a week and ran about 4-6 pages, plus advertising. Sample front page articles: someone found a lost dog out in the desert. Two rattlesnakes are killed on Texas Street. A square dance is held to raise money for a local family with a sick child.

But as I read a little more, I began to see the Henderson, for all its sleepiness, had some major stuff going on. Perhaps not surprisingly for a small town dominated by industry, there was some political corruption. The Home News ran a number of headlines critical of the mayor, a man named William Byrne. In January of 1964 they criticized him for keeping Henderson out of the state health district. By March, they were able to show that he had enriched himself in a local land deal. In April they began a recall drive. By August (I skipped ahead), there was a new "mayor pro tem," which suggests that Byrne resigned. In February an Esquire magazine writer named Thomas K. Wolfe accuses the Henderson hospital, St. Rose of Lima, of catering to Vegas call girls, an allegation loudly denounced by all. (Seems unlikely to me...the hospital was still run by nuns in those days.) In late January, Mrs. Maralyn Warmington goes on trial for shooting her husband, who had threatened to kill her if she left the house to go to a ceramics class. Mrs. Warmington is acquitted a week later, after the police mishandle the evidence in the case. (On purpose, I wonder?) In September of 1963 John F. Kennedy visits Henderson and makes a speech at the Convention Center. Two months later the newspaper comments on his death are shocked and heartfelt.

I also begin to see, a little bit, the town I know. One of the Home News reporters, Jim Gibson, was mayor when I moved here, and then ran for governor. His father, Fred Gibson, was one of Henderson's first residents, and every day I drive to work on a road named after him. Then there's this article from 1963, a few weeks before Kennedy's assassination: "Basic High Graduate Harry Reid Passes Bar Exam."
(For my non-American followers, Harry Reid is now the Majority Leader of the US Senate.)

Of course, I'm writing my WIP about Las Vegas, not Henderson. But I think a lot of the stuff in the Home News will still be useful. The paper ran a lot of advertising, which is great for getting a handle on prices of things. There are bits of local color: rockets trails from the Nevada Test Site seen in in the sky at sunset. High school basketball standings. A "teen-age rumble" which resulted in a locker search at the high school, which resulted in a bottle of gin being found in a girl's locker.

No word on what happened to the girl, or the gin.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Library Thing

I have a new widget up for Library Thing. I joined Shelfari not long after I started blogging but I never used it much. I read a lot of books -- mainly from the library -- and the thought of entering all of them, never mind reviewing, was kind of exhausting, so mainly I just ignored it, or only updated it with books that were particularly important to me. I did kind of envy those cool "Random Books from my Library" widgets I saw on other people's blogs, however, and so I finally kicked myself into going to Library Thing and signing up.

Unlike Shelfari or Goodreads, Library Thing is more focused on books you own (though you can make a category for books you've read but don't own.) And a library -- the books you've collected over a lifetime -- gives a slightly different picture of who you are as a reader. I have books in my library that belonged to my parents. I have favorite authors from my high school days. I have cheap paperbacks from book swaps. I have textbooks, home-repair manuals, cookbooks, and a guide to the major festivals of Japan.

A library, like a diary, is only a partial reflection of who you are. A lot of my recent interests aren't represented because I don't buy as many books as I used to for lack of space. But I'm looking forward to using Library Thing more than I used Shelfari, and getting to know the community there.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Power of the Story

I took my son to see "The King's Speech" over the weekend. (How was I to know George VI was going to drop the F-bomb?) As I did so I remembered the first grown-up movie I went to. It was "Fiddler on the Roof." (On re-release, ahem.) I cried and cried at the end, and went back the next week with my friend Amy, and proceed to tell her, in loud whispers, what was going to happen through out the movie, until the woman in front of me turned around and told me to shut up. And thus I learned my first lesson of movie etiquette.

By high school I was going to the art movie theater downtown and sitting through a bewildering mix of old Hollywood and avant-garde Eastern European movies, with some New Wave and Bergman thrown in. Passage to India. The Seventh Seal. Some Like It Hot. 42nd Street. Closely Watched Trains. It was an education, particularly in narrative and the language of film.

When I first read about "The King's Speech," I thought, honestly, that it was a silly subject for a movie. I mean, how trivial could you get about the Royal Family? Stammering, really? Some speech no one even remembers? (Speaking as an American, anyway.) But as with any creative work, it's not the subject, it's the storytelling. Make the viewer/reader care, as "The King's Speech" does, and you can follow it up with a sequel, "The King's Hangnail," I suspect.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Presidential Story

She was a rich man's daughter in a small Ohio town. When she was 19, Florence ran away with a boy her father didn't approve of. She came back home a little later, with a baby. She said the boy had married her, but small towns being what they are, not everyone believed her. Her father wouldn't take her back, so Florence supported the two of them by giving piano lessons. Then her father changed his mind -- only she'd have to give up the baby to be raised by them. She agreed. A few years later there was a new face in town, a newspaper owner named Harding. Now restored to her proper social position, Florence married him.

Harding liked everybody and everybody liked him. He also liked women. Of course, it was a shame for Florence, but men are men, and what are you going to do? You couldn't dislike old Harding, no one did. He was so popular it was thought by others he would make a good politician. He ran for Governor, but lost. He tried for Senate, and won. A story was invented about early widowhood, to explain Florence's past. Her son, well on his way to an early death from tb and alcoholism, was kept out of sight. And in a year when the American public would have elected anyone who wasn't associated with Woodrow Wilson, Harding became President of the United States.

Now Harding had lots of friends, and he gave jobs to most of them, and looked the other way when they took taxpayer money for their own profit. He had lots of women -- actresses in New York, his wife's best friend. Florence was always bossing him anyway and the newspaper reporters called her "the Duchess." She befriend socialite Evalyn McLean, heiress to a newspaper fortune, owner of the Hope Diamond, drug addict, and they consulted astrologers together. One of them predicted Florence's death, then said she would recover, but her husband was in danger. Plans were made for a Presidential trip across the United States, and even up to Alaska. In San Francisco, Harding, who'd shown signs of heart disease, died suddenly. His doctors, believing they'd be blamed, told the public it was a stroke. Rumor said that Florence had poisoned him. Scandal -- of all the corruption, thievery and adultery -- broke, and ruined Harding's hail-fellow-well-met good name.

Florence went home to Ohio, ill, and died a little over a year later.

Incidentally, Florence Harding was the first First Lady to fly in an airplane. Somewhere in there there must have been some good days.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Books I never forgot (though I forgot their titles)

I've been thinking about the mystique of the books you read as a child. Not necessarily great, prize-winning classics, but books that somehow or other spoke to you, books you remember for sometimes very peculiar or trivial reasons. I've just been looking through the archives at Loganberry Books' Stump the Bookseller site, where you can post memories of books you read once whose titles you no longer recall. Technically you can post any book, but the majority of the posts are for children's books, and the posters say over and over things like "...I've been searching for this book for 30 years." And the things they remember about the book -- the cover, of course, an illustration, a particular plot twist, a word or phrase! It's a huge testament to how much books are loved and remembered, how they become part of people's lives.

I used Stump the Bookseller a couple years ago to find two historical novels which I read multiple times as a teen. I can credit both of them with developing my interest in certain historical subjects. For the first one, all I remembered is that the heroine was a girl in the World War I era who falls in love with a boy who is the town outcast because he has a German name. The boy's name, Paul, had stuck with me all these years, as did a scene where some townspeople threw stones at a dauchshund because it was a German dog.

This turned out to be Norma Johnston's A Nice Girl Like You, which was published in 1980, and was part of a series that Johnston wrote about the various members of a extended family in Westchester County, New York. But I'd actually conflated part of it with another book, Never Jam Today by Carole Bolton, about a girl who takes part in the women's suffrage movement. What I loved about A Nice Girl Like You was the Romeo-and-Juliet romance between Saranne and Paul, who was the classic "bad boy." And Never Jam Today gave me a picture of the World War I era as a time of change, with protest marches, an anti-war movement and new technologies. ("You can fly from New York to San Francisco in only four days," someone says to the heroine, who replies, "Why would I want to do that?")

The second book I remembered well was set in 19th century Russia and was about a girl who is sent to a boarding school for orphaned daughters of Army officers. She's unhappy at first, but eventually makes friends, and then the Neva river floods and the girls have to be rescued. Later she becomes a lady in waiting at the Tsar's court and is involved in the Decemberist Revolution. I remembered certain aspects with crystal clarity -- the girl's father was killed at something called the Battle of Borodino (they didn't teach the Napoleonic wars in Kentucky) and that she had friend called Sonia who was sent into exile with her Decemberist fiance.

I don't know how many times I read this book as a child, but I can honestly say that it possessed me. I identified entirely with the heroine. As an adult it was THE book I thought of when I remembered my childhood reading. (Like many of the posters on Stump the Bookseller, I remembered almost exactly what section of the library it was in.) However, I'd completely forgotten the title and probably never paid any attention to the author. Fortunately, when I posted the description someone had an answer right away: Masha, published in 1968 by a writer named Mara Kay. (There was actually a sequel -- I'd remembered it as being all one book -- called The Youngest Lady in Waiting, and that was the one about the Decemberist Revolution.)

Given that how big these books were for me as a teenager, I thought it might be fun to re-read them. I tracked down A Nice Girl Like You and Never Jam Today easily, and...well, I was kind of surprised and disappointed. The great romance of Saranne and Paul was mainly in my head: the book underplays it and they hardly even kiss. Never Jam Today turned out to be one of those historical novels where various facts are kind of shoveled awkwardly into the text. The dialogue was stilted and the characters' motivations were thin.

I can't believe I didn't notice these things as a teenager, and yet perhaps it didn't matter. I'd like to think great writing lasts and poor writing fades. But Stump the Bookseller is testament to the fact that sometimes readers love books in spite of themselves. Sometimes a book just sparks something in you, opening your eyes to a new world, in spite of problems with plot, structure and dialogue.

As for Masha, I can't tell you if it's a disappointment or not, as it is now a "rare" book and the cheapest copy I could find was more than $300! I guess it's better that way. At least I won't ever lose my memories of it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Memories of Egypt

If I haven't gotten much done this past week, blame Al Jazeera English, which I've been watching online for their coverage of events in Egypt. I wake up every morning hoping that Mubarak will be gone. I guess partly I'm a news junkie, and part of it is remembering the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, but I also have personal memories of Egypt from a trip I made years ago. I was only in my twenties at the time and had never really been out of the US much, and never been to a "third world" country. I'd like to say that it was a great experience which broadened my horizons and my understanding of the world, but that wouldn't be true. I was sick much of the time and I kept having panic attacks (I didn't know they were panic attacks until years later; at the time I just thought I was dying) and deep down I just wanted to go home. The one thing that epitomized the foreignness of Egypt for me was the fact that I couldn't get regular American-looking bread, even on sandwiches.

Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.

But eventually I did rally, and I found myself collecting specific images. The crystal blueness of the Mediterranean Sea, unlike any water I'd ever seen. A donkey pulling a cart in the middle of insane Cairo traffic. Schoolboys with satchels yelling English at us and reaching up to touch my hair (platinum blonde at the time.) Unemployed men standing around the street, hoping to get tips for opening doors for people. The cemeteries at El Alamein. A rest house in the middle of the Sahara desert. The statue of some forgotten pharoah at Luxor, worn down to just a foot. (Talk about Ozymandias!) The call to prayer, at evening, dawn and noon, echoing up and down the streets.

We had come to Egypt at the invitation of Samir, a friend of my future husband's. On the way to Alexandria, speeding across the desert, he mentioned that anyone who had three speeding tickets in Egpyt faced a mandatory 20 year prison sentence. He added he already had one ticket on his record. I got the feeling that, having lived in the US, he knew things could be a lot better in Egypt but he accepted his government for what it was.

The Egyptian people no longer want to accept this, and I hope they succeed. They deserve better.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Clubs of note

About two years ago I started a book club at my job. There are two other main members, both faculty members and PhDs -- a woman who grew up in Morocco and was educated in France and a man who immigrated from Russia after the fall of communism. Others drop in and out. We're very informal. Anyone can suggest a book, anyone can come to the meetings. The only rule we follow is that we do non-fiction one month, fiction the other. I can be a bit snobbish about the books I read, so one of the reasons I established the anyone-can-suggest rule is to get out of my comfort zone, and I haven't been disappointed. I wouldn't have read Eat, Pray, Love or Where Men Find Glory on my own, but I ended up enjoying both.
This month we're reading Hush, by Eishes Chayil, a YA novel which was nominated for the Morris award. It's a story about the consequences of silence about sexual abuse in a small community -- in this case, a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. When I lived in Brooklyn I lived in the very neighborhood in which the book is set and I recognized quite of bit of it, so perhaps that gave the book an extra interest for me. Who knows what the others in the group will think?
By the way, I've suggested a couple of YA novels to the group, and the one book they loved was The Hunger Games.
As I've mentioned already, last fall I found a SCWBI crit group in my area. We meet every other Saturday at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf near UNLV, and recently we've grown so much we hardly fit in the room anymore. I am really amazed by the talented people in the group and I just want to celebrate a bunch of recent successes. First, Nancy won honorable mention in a Tommy Di Paola-judged contest illustrating "Heidi." Second, Sharon won a Meegenius e-book contest and will have her picture book published on that platform. Third, Michael won honorable mention (26th out of 1000s of entries) in a contest sponsored by Writer's Digest. I so enjoy meeting and socializing -- and reading to -- these guys twice a month.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Short stories and graphic novels

Last year I wrote two short stories. Well, they were sort-of short stories. To be honest, I don't consider myself a natural short story writer and I don't even much like to read other people's short stories (Chekhov excepted.) The process of writing for me is getting to know a character in the long term, building them up, leading them into encounters with other characters, and you can't really do this in a short-story format. And these particular stories were surface pieces, once-upon-a-time story telling.

And then it occurred to me, as I tweaked various words and phrases for the hundredth time, that both these stories would work well as graphic novels. They were both visual and I could see how the pictures would tell the story more successfully than words.

My first question was, how do you write a graphic novel? I didn't intend to do the art, but I wanted to block out the size of pictures, relation to the text, and so on. So I went on one of the forums at Critique Circle as asked if there was a kind of software that graphic novelists used, something that would help with that. To my surprise, the replies I got were the graphic novels are usually written in a screenplay format, something like:


Mickey Mouse is seen with his hands up as Donald Duck points a water pistol at him. Minnie can be seen running away in the background, her flowered hat coming off.

Donald: Prepare to get wet, Mickey!

Mickey: But -- but --

Apparent the more description of the scene, pov, etc., the better. So for the past few days I've been tentatively re-writing these short stories in this format and having some fun with them. It's been a nice stretch for my brain. And I like to dream about what the finished art might look like. I've just finished reading Steve Westerfeld's steampunk novel Leviathan, and I just love the fact that it's YA and illustrated. Love the art, also, which reminds me one of my favorite books from childhood, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

Anyone out there up to any new projects for the new year?

New Year's Post (late)

As far as I'm concerned, the grimmest day of any year is the Monday after New Year's. Once again you're up at an ungodly hour when it's not even light yet, eating cereal with your son, neither of you speaking, both of you thinking how quickly vacation ended.
So maybe you can tell I'm not much of a resolution maker. But in keeping with New Year's goal-making, I wanted to share something from a book on Jesuit spirituality which I read a few months ago and which has really helped me. This is from the chapter on "Making Decisions."

1. Beware of getting bogged down in what-ifs and if-onlys when you think about the future or try to make a decision. Deliberately causing yourself anxiety and fear won't help you make a better decision.

2. Never make a decision during a period of desolation. Your motivations will be unhealthy.

3. Ignore I-wants and be aware of your weak points.

4. Learn from the past -- wrong decisions you made before and what the consequences were.

I know that #2 really resonated with me. I've done that a lot -- just fallen into despair and said, "Since I can't...I'm just going to..."

And may all of your New Year's Resolutions come to pass!