Saturday, December 24, 2011


Whenever a holiday approaches, I feel my luck in living close to so many members of my family. My gratitude is mixed with some sadness, because of course not everyone I love lives so near. My grandmother, my aunt and uncles, many cousins, my brother, his wife and their newborn baby -- they all live in Israel. I also have family scattered around the United States. But my parents and my sister and her family live here, and their presence is a constant source of joy in my life.

Hanukkah is one of my favorite holidays. It lasts eight whole days and is full of lights, fabulous fatty foods, and songs. What could be better? I love to watch my sister’s three kids and my two, their faces lit with a childhood's wonderment and awe, as all of us sing the holiday songs together, bursting into laughter as we mess up, yet again, the canon “Mi yemalel gvurot yisrael,” or as someone forgets the right words to “Maoz tzur,” or as somebody burst into “Sevivon sov sov sov” just as all the rest begin with “Hanukiyya sheli.”

This Hanukkah my parents are in Israel, visiting my brother and my grandmother (who is turning 95!). For the first four days of the holidays my kids were with their dad. Dar and I lit the first candle together on the menorah that my grandfather had built and which my grandmother had used for many years in her home preschool. I taught Dar how to sing the blessings and started him on the complicated “Maoz Tzur.” I didn’t make latkes or the holiday doughnuts, but we watched the candles flickering and took pictures, and I sang the songs.

The second and fourth nights we celebrated with my sister’s family. My sister’s husband has a great voice and his mother was a school teacher, and the three of us sang all the songs, with some help from my sister (who I think was born with a unique sense of hearing that not everyone can appreciate), her kids and her husband’s father. We had latkes and sufganiyot and felt that it was really a holiday.

Tonight Uri and Eden will be with us as well, and then we’ll take our Hanukiyot with us and fly to Roatan Island in Honduras to continue the celebration there. I feel a little sad that our travel plans prevent us from fully celebrating the holiday as my perfect vision would have liked. But I am bringing the menorahs and enough candles with us, and a CD with all the songs to keep us in voice, and we’re going to have a great time.

I am not sure if our hotel on Roatan will have wifi, or if I will have time to blog in the busy schedule of having fun. I wish you all a happy Hanukkah and a happy new year, and I’ll see you again in 2012. Have a wonderful, fabulous, fantastic, great time!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Year in Romantic and Grateful Review

Only a few more days remain till the end of 2011. It had been a heck of a year.

I wrote a lot. Sent out queries. Felt sure I would get my book out this year. Handled rejections (and I’m proud to say that I handled them relatively well). I started three new books, one of which is a romance novel and is flowing like a waterfall from my mind. I also started this blog!

I traveled a lot. Went to Yosemite, Tahoe, Israel, Henry Coe State Park, New York, Asilomar, Big Basin, San Luis Obispo County, Catalina Island, LA, Harbin, and Kauai. Dar and I were going to hike the John Muir Trail for three weeks, and that might still happen in 2012!

I met Dar, broke up with him twice, and finally decided he was my soul mate, never to be separated from again (especially if he continues doing the laundry, cooking, washing the dishes, and planting in the yard).

I had my usual up and down year with the kids, a lot of worrying, obsessing, driving, yelling, reading, playing, hugging.

So let’s see, where was I? I wrote a lot, traveled a lot, loved a lot, yelled a lot. Sounds like a heck of a year, does it not?

I am proud of my year. It had not been easy. I have had some trials. There were nights I couldn’t sleep from stress and days spent crying. Sitting today at my desk in the new office Dar had arranged for us, looking out at the green carpet beginning to grow under the oaks, listening to my crazy dogs bark at who knows what, I feel a bigger, better person than I was on January 1st, 2011. I like this new and improved Sigal. I hope she’ll stick around for us to get acquainted.

There are many things I wish for in 2012: an agent to represent me, to grow closer with Dar, hike the John Muir Trail, the Cross-Catalina Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail. I’d like to go to Hawaii’s Big Island and stay at Holualoa Inn again. To have wonderful moments with the children, reading to them, working with them, having fun with them. I’d like to grow as a mother and watch the kids grow ever taller, wiser, lovelier. I’d like to send out shana tova cards this year, read more books, let my ideas flow into writing and become new worlds, enjoy Friday nights with my family, spend time with my parents, with my sister and her kids. So many things!

I wish myself and all of you a happy new year. A year of inner joy and love. A year of self development and growth. Another year to look back upon with pride. May our homes be filled with laughter and our hearts with contentment. May we never lack for new ideas and desires. And may all our wishes happily, joyfully, excitedly come true.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All Eyes to the Target: Boy Ahead!

I read somewhere that young adult plots tend to concentrate on finding love, while middle grade novels depend on character development. I understand why 9-12 audiences are not interested in romantic endings. I also completely get why young adults would find the process of finding love more fascinating than almost any other subject. Love in YA novels, however, often comes hand in hand with the search for an inner truth and independence, an attempt to understand and find a place in a confusing world.

A friend of mine told me that she decided at eighteen to discover who she is alone before finding out who she was in a relationship. I appreciated what she said. I think it is a good lesson to learn, and I tried to follow it after my divorce. I met my ex husband at nineteen, when I did not have the presence of mine or inner strength yet to insist on what I want in the midst of my desire to please him, my craving for his love, and my fear of being alone. I hope, through my writing, to impart to girls the knowledge that facing these fears and needs and finding the “I” behind is possibly the most important and transforming experience in growing up.

I just finished reading Forgive My Fins by Tera Lynn Childs. Fluid and fabulous, the novel is a great example to YA love trends. The protagonist, Lily, is a mermaid living on land who must bond with a guy (for life) before her eighteenth birthday, or else she will not inherit her father’s throne. Lily has carefully selected a boy for this purpose. But it’s just so hard to tell him who she is and how she feels! Then Lily’s plans fall apart by another boy who she accidentally bonds with, and now she needs to find a way to put everything to rights again.

I had so much fun reading this novel. I loved Lily, her friends, and Quince, the boy next door. I loved the many fish expressions (like “That Blowfish!” and “curl my fins”). Lily had to find out not only who her true love is, but also what she wants from her life, and in Tera Lynn Childs’ novel the two were inexorably tied together. So maybe Lily doesn’t learn any other life lesson in the novel than that love is stronger than anything. But is that really such a bad lesson to learn? Lily learns to welcome the unconditional and rare love she is given not only from where she least expected it, but from her best friend in the sea and best friend in land and from her father -- all of whom are willing to set Lily free so that she can follow her dream.

And what better lesson is there in the world? What more could I want my teenaged child to know than that love conquers all? In my opinion, there is none.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Luxuriating a Mortal Sin? (it might as well be...).

During our last vacation, Dar and I visited Sycamore Mineral Hot Springs. We started the morning with massages (I got my first hot stone massage). We luxuriated in a private hot spring bath in the forest and ended with lunch at the spa’s cafe. During the massage, I got into a discussion with the therapist about whether a massage was a luxury or a necessary part of an exercise regime.

I have heard from trainers the opinion that a massage keeps the body healthier and prevents injury. My wonderful pilates instructor, Vera Szepesi (who has her own studio called, appropriately, Esprit de Core) believes in massages and often recommends that I get them more frequently. I know people who get massages as often as once a week!

So are massages a luxury or a necessity? Are they acceptable or an extravagance? Luxury, if not quite a mortal sin in my book, is at least extremely shameful. I prefer the sky over my head at night to a king-sized canopy bed. I would like, one day, to let go of material possessions, take only what fits in my backpack, and head out into nature. This dream certainly does not leave room for a massage!

I know part of my dislike for luxury comes from the values that were imbued in me by my parents and my school. Israel is a somewhat socialist country. When I grew up thirty years ago restaurants were much less prevalent than today. Dizingoff Center and the Kenyon in Ramat Gan were a miracle of creation, amazing shopping Centers where we went on special occasions only and certainly did not buy anything. And nobody I know ever got a massage.

I remember one time my mother’s uncle visited us from Colombia, and we took him to the solitary Chinese Restaurant near Herzliya. In honor of the occasion I got to eat strawberries in whipped cream for dessert. Ah, I will never forget the taste of these strawberries till my last day on this earth! Not one of the intricate concoctions I have had since will ever compare.

So are strawberries in cream a luxury or can we eat them every day? Would it cheapen their uniqueness if we did? I remember when I came to the United States and was introduced to blueberries for the first time. Blueberries in whipped cream! Yum!

Wait, how did this discussion degrade to food, anyways? One moment I was talking about the physical value of a massage, and the next I am salivating over fattening foods. I have no real answer for my question. In the end, it is my decision whether to give myself permission to luxuriate oftener in massage. As to the strawberries in whipped cream, it has been eleven years now that my stomach cannot digest dairy. They have become, and apparently will remain, a dream of mine, to enjoy but never fulfill, and I think that is just fine.,

The Great Exotic Versus Native Debate

Yesterday I walked to the cafe on the bay to get some breakfast for us. While I waited for the food, I started talking to a grandfatherly man who was peacefully sipping coffee outside. I told him how much we loved the town and asked whether everybody there was as nice as the people we had met. Los Osos had all kinds, he said, and told me about the main source of contention in the town:

Across the bay is a grove of eucalyptus trees, and eucalyptus trees, though beautiful, have several points against them: they are messy, nothing can grow under them, and they are not native to California. There are people in Los Osos who fight to have the eucalyptus cut down and native trees planted in their stead.

Eucalyptus trees were brought to California during the Gold Rush by well-meaning Australians who thought the wood could be used for railroad tracks (it can’t). The trees love the weather here, and it turns out they are useful as windbreakers. They are fast growing, and can get as tall as 65 feet in 50 years.

I looked over to the grove and felt sad. I do not like the idea of cutting down trees -- any tree. I happen to be very fond of eucalyptus, their musty smell and the rustling shade they provide remind me of the eucalyptus forest in my childhood town. Also, as a non-native species to California myself, I wonder: when does an exotic species become native?

There are so many examples like the eucalyptus. It is very popular to hate the yellow oats which cover the hills and choke the wildflowers, but they came here with the Spaniards, almost 250 years ago! At Henry Coe State Park the administration thought for a while to remove the dams the ranchers had built and release the water from the park’s many lakes and ponds. But these dams have been there for years and years, and the animals have learned to depend on the constant source of water. The question arises what is exactly the original or natural condition of the land?

Change. We love to resist it, don’t we? We always think it was better once upon a time, before the change had come. Life was so much better before the oats and the dams, before Chinese food and eucalyptus trees and before all those crazy immigrants. California must have been beautiful before the Dinosaur settlers stomped on all the native plants. Not that we’d know. Back then there were no people around.

Our world changes all the time. It really does. Mind you, I am a firm believer in taking care of our land and helping species survive. But I’m also trying to remind me, you, all of us, that even the most native species were exotic once upon a time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dancing Deer Farm

In honor of Dar’s birthday and our first anniversary, Dar and I decided to go on a romantic getaway near San Luis Obispo in the quiet community of Los Osos. Today, after two days spent wandering about the area, looking in galleries, eating fish tacos and canoeing under the shadow of Morro Rock, we went to visit Chris, who is responsible for keeping me honest and organized in life and lives on Dancing Deer Farm. Whenever Chris comes to the Bay Area she tells me I must come and visit the farm. “You’ll love it,” she promised. So we told her we’d be in the area, and she invited us to join the farm’s holiday party today.

The drive up through highway 46 was beautiful, crossing straight over the hills (on the way back we caught the sunset as it painted the sky a glorious crimson red). Though we had meant to be fashionably late, we found ourselves at the farm right on the dot. Chris, surprised at our promptness, asked us to wait twenty minutes. “Make yourself at home, walk around,” she said. And so we did. Wandering through oak forest and meadow, we met a nice man who recommended following the trails, a family of deer, and Dr. Peter Huber, who had started Dancing Deer Farm.

The farm stretches on some 80 acres and is a non profit organization whose goal, according to their website, is to provide “shared growth and support through a balanced and conscious style of life as well as reconnection with nature.” Dr. Peter Huber welcomed us kindly, offering us a place to stay at the farm, but we explained we already had a room in Los Osos. Once Chris arrived, she took us on a tour, showing us the Hacienda, a lovely structure that hosts yoga and other retreats, the organic garden, yoga room, the chicken coop, and the Cakery (we got to sample some cupcakes during the party and they were good!).

Chris told us that Peter has helped many people, providing them with a home on the property in exchange for work till they could get back on their feet. Peter tried to compliment Chris about the help which she had given him, but she clearly felt more comfortable honoring him than the other way around! Why is it so much easier to give compliment than receive them? Chris has done a lot for me this year too -- amazing stuff! I don’t know what I would have done without her, and I’m glad I don’t need to know!

What a wonderful visit! But the best part is yet to come. Chris’ friend Rebecca is a chocolatier at Sweet Earth Chocolates and has brought us a box of truffles as a gift. We savored the four truffles inside the golden box: an aztec truffle, spicy and warm, an orange truffle, tangy in the mouth, a chocolate truffle, creamy and soft, and a hazelnut truffle, perfectly satisfying.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On Raising Cows

I love to travel, and today I am sitting no more than two hundred feet from the waters of beautiful Morro Bay. Darkness reigns outside, and the sky is sprinkled with hundreds of blinking stars. Of course I am not sitting out there -- it’s too cold for me -- but in a comfortable chair in front of the fireplace (which for some reason refuses to turn on). The window shutters are down, but it doesn’t matter. I know the stars and the sea are there.

The landscape around Morro Bay stretches seemingly forever, pastoral farms, hills and sea. I love the space all around me. I love the farms. I love the cows dotting the hillside. I love how, when the shadows of the trees begin to stretch, the cows all follow each other back to the barn, the food, and the milking. I love the lines of planted fields, the color of newly turned soil. And I love how everything here is framed by the ocean.

Having a cow farm had always been a sort of dream of mine. I’d like to have a huge vegetable garden, overflowing with flowery lettuce and broccoli, waves of cucumbers and pumpkin, climbing pea plants, and sunshiny corn. I’d like to have pecan trees like my Uncle Yigal had when I was a kid, rows of them, an elfin forest where the air is cool and musty, and the leaves collect on the ground, hiding the treasured fallen nuts. I’d like to have peach trees and apple trees. And of course, the cows. And maybe a goat or two. Or sheep. An alpaca, perhaps?

Maybe you would ask what is stopping me from having a farm like that. Nothing but my own mind, I think -- my fears, my beliefs about my limitations. I could have a farm. But how would I know how to take care of the cows? It seems like so much work! And I don’t like working so very much. And I’d need to be responsible, conscientious about  checking on the vegetables in the garden, picking the fruit when it’s ready, trimming trees and taking care of the animals! Yes, I want to be closer to the land and grow my own food, but... well, can’t I hire someone else to actually milk the cows?

Ah, the hypocrisy of it all! I can dream, but I do it best from behind my computer screen. I am better at writing about my cow farm, at imagining it, than I am at growing even the little bit of herb garden at my home. So maybe I won’t have a cow farm in this life. Maybe chickens and dogs are my limit. Or maybe, as I grow a little more to believe in the special powers guiding my life, I’d find a way to have that farm, milk those cows, and grow all the vegetables I could desire. One day. Perhaps.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Romancing the Shoe

Once upon a time, before I met my friend Bridget (who started quite a lot of bad habits in me), I used to have one or two pairs of shoes, cross trainers which I wore for every occasion. Then Bridget came along, and now my shoe closet is full to the brim and overflowing with high heel shoes, boots, flats, and the usual cross-trainers (though now I own more than one). I still wear the same pair of shoes all the time: a well-worn pair of Merrell pace gloves which I love, but having options in case of emergencies or special occasions is fun!

So yes, I think shoes are very important to a woman’s life (and possible to a man, as well). But in Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers, shoes are important to everyone: men, women, and dragons. In fact, they are the trigger around which the entire plot revolves!

I finished reading Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers a couple days ago and enjoyed it very much. It’s a light and easy read, and I read through it fast. The novel follows the story of Creel, an orphan peasant girl. Creel’s aunt decides to sacrifice her to the village dragon in the hope that somebody might rescue, marry, and altogether take Creel off the aunt’s hands. Instead, Creel makes a bargain with the dragon and gets a pair of shoes (shoes! Notice where this is going!) from him for the road. Creel does not intend to go back home. She wants to go the big town, where the palace is, and make her fortune by weaving and embroidering.

Creel makes friends easily, befriending not only the girls in the shop where she finds work, but a dragon, the youngest prince, and the prince’s bodyguard. She also makes enemies fast -- or at least gets on the wrong side of the foreign princess about to marry the royal heir. Many adventures befall Creel, because even though she refuses to see it, the shoes she received from the dragon are magic. The foreign princess knows and wants them. The dragons know, but prefer to keep Creel ignorant. Only once she loses the shoes does Creel finally understand how important they are, and now her world is turned upside down as she realizes she could lose all her new friends unless she gets those shoes back!

I find it funny that both Jessica Day George books I read so far have a lot to do with shoes. In Midnight Ball (which I wrote about here) the whole hullabaloo starts because the princesses wear out their dance shoes every night. In Dragon Slippers Creel’s shoes possess a strange power over the dragons without which the conflict of the novel would not exist. Jessica Day George wrote several other novels, and I wonder if the theme of significant shoes continues in them. If I find the answer, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter Break and the Romance Novel

As a writer, I would like my novels to be more of the high literary kind. I should like to have complex characters, an intricate plot and lots of meaning. I would like my readers to leave the book feeling that they have grown through the reading experience, or at least learned something meaningful and worthwhile about themselves and the world. For example, with my Anna Mara fairy tale, I’d like to let girl readers know that they can be boyfriend-less and still important. Female empowerment, you know?

I’ve been thinking about all these high-brow ideas for so long, and doubting my abilities to convey my messages to humanity so often, that my head has literally began to shrink. I need a break, and I need it to be something fun and enjoyable. Sexy, even. So I was thinking maybe I’d write a romance novel for a while. Maybe romancing a novel would be less pressure than trying to imbue a fairy tale with so much meaning. Light and easy. After all, a romance has pretty much a preset plot line.

Girl meets Boy. Boy has a dog and a truck. For some reason Girl believes she can’t be with Boy. Boy pursues Girl, trying to prove that he is different from all the other boys who have broken her heart in the past. Girl and Boy have sex, which makes Girl even more adamant to stay as far away from Boy as possible. Girl has a change of heart through some experience (this can be paranormal, mysterious, violent, a dream, or something like that). Girl pursues Boy and has sex with him again. But now Boy thinks maybe Girl is right, and she is better off without him.

It can go on and on like that for a while until they both come to their senses and get married, at which point the sex basically ends, and so we have to end the novel.

Just kidding.

You get the idea, though. This could be fun! So for the next few weeks (till we come back from all our various vacations to the four corners of the world), I’m going to try to write anywhere between one and two thousand words a day in a romance novel about an artist and a rock climber. It’s going to be romantic. It’s going to have sex. It’s going to be full of high drama. And I’m definitely going to hide the fact that I wrote it so that no one could ever connect me with it for as long as we shall both live. But don’t worry. I’ll still keep you posted. You know you want me to.

By the way, I did notice the fact that I just finished a sentence and a paragraph with a preposition. I think I’ll leave it like that. I am practicing being less stressed out about perfection.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Misty Days

Misty days make me feel romantic in a nostalgic kind of way. There’s that little bit of rain suspended in the air, the clouds masking the sun and filtering the bright light away, that feeling of expectation of good things about to come.

Misty days remind me of falling in love in seventh grade. It was on one such day that I stretched myself on tiptoes and gave a first kiss on the cheek to a boy and cut my hand on his bike’s hand-breaks.

At eighteen, I fell in love yet again on a misty evening. Somewhere up in the Shomron Mountains, with the sun blinking through the clouds a last dramatic appearance on the desert hills, I got called to the office to “meet” someone. My first day in the unit, it was. And there he waited, this amazing guy -- an officer! -- patting the bench next to him for me to sit down!

Here is a cherished memory I have, with the same officer from the Shomron (whose name is Barak), except this time I was in the Golan Heights after a long day spent traveling up with the unit. Barak had been sick and away for about two weeks, and I knew he was expected to come back sometimes in the next couple of days. It was freezing outside, a wintery evening, the wind blowing wildly across the plateau. All of us girls huddled on top of a single space heater, trying to keep warm.

I knew Barak could not already be there, but I felt restless and alone despite the company of the giggling girls. I left the room and made my way to his office, just to make sure he really was not there. Nobody was outside. Everything appeared deserted and desolate, the low buildings built far apart. I finally found the office I was looking for and pushed the door open, and there, inside, just arrived and happy to see me, was this guy I loved.

A few days after this I left the unit to continue my own officer training, and Barak too left and went to India for a year-long trip. I have not seen him since, though I heard some rumors of a wife and twins.

When I think back on the romantic moments that stand out in my memory, most of them are important not because of another person, but because of the beautiful way those moments made me feel. As I sit here today I finally understand what people mean when they say love comes from within. Deep inside of me, love wells and fill me and overflows to include the kids, Dar, my family and friends, even my pathetic but cute dogs. I truly am in love with love -- love of being alive, enjoying misty days like today, reveling in having so many people to love.

Keep warm and healthy today! Have some chocolate! Lots of love!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Teachable Moments

Sometimes when I write, I am right there with my characters, acting as a scribe to their actions and words. Tonight I found myself in the kitchen at Snow Mansion, watching Anna Mara and Calypso Maximilian having breakfast. Five hundred words later, screams erupted in the bathroom here in the real world, invading my groove. Though reluctant, I left Calypso and Anna Mara mid-sentence and went to see what caused the shouting.

Eden burst out of the bathroom, holding her arm. Tears running down her face, she fell into my arms. Uri stood by the sink brushing his teeth. I hugged Eden for a moment, then asked what happened. They both spoke at once. “He pinched me.” “She kicked me.”

Ah! A teachable moment. One of those moments when total and utter clarity befriends me, when I know exactly what to say and do in order to make all right in the world. Right? Wrong. This is a time when I am beset by total helplessness. “She hit me!” “He bit me!” “She kicked me!” “He said I was stupid!” “She said she’d let the hamsters loose!” “He told me I can’t come in his room!” The accusations flow, and who is to make heads or tails out of it? And who do I talk to first, him or her? Who’s more to blame?

Ah, the joys of motherhood! And me? I’m an elephant in a crystal shop kind of parent (I am translating this expression from the Hebrew, so excuse me if it sounds strange). I want to leave the kids with self confidence, a feeling of accountability and responsibility, and the inner-appreciation that comes from knowing that they did the right thing. Instead, I think I leave them feeling confused (because I talk too much), hurt (because they think I didn’t listen to them or consider their side enough), and mistreated (because of course justice should have been theirs).

I’d like to think that every time such an emergency arises, I am closer to handling it in the way I aspire to, with patience, level-headedness, and the right words. I think today I screamed less than in the past. I tried to explain to them about taking responsibility for their own actions. But I was far from perfect and still screamed too much.

I learn a lot from being Uri’s and Eden’s mother. They give me daily opportunities to grow closer to my better self. They provide me with the chance to be at peace with myself, learn patience, and think before I talk. I think I’m not a terrible student, but I’m definitely not getting many As. If there’s one thing I’d like to take from today, it is to view these moments with more joy and less frustration. They truly are opportunities for growth. And maybe if I concentrated on what I could learn rather than my success in teaching the children, I’d be happier with the end results as well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


I remember myself, in my first few months in the Israeli army, telling myself I was different from the other girls. My parents lived in California. I didn’t finished high school in Israel. I didn’t like the same music or movies as them. Once I told myself this story, I documented and verified it with every available clue, and finally it became the Truth. Looking back with a wisdom acquired over twenty years of feeling different, I know this was a story I told myself and not a truth. Perhaps back at nineteen it was easier for me to make myself different -- to reject myself before I risked rejection from the other girls.

I therefore tend to identify with characters who feel like they do not belong, such as Bianca, the protagonist in Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF. I enjoyed reading the novel with its romance, sex, conflict and high drama. But I think what most gripped me is that it made me think. I love it when a book does that!

For those of us who are clueless (like I was), DUFF is acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca is told she is the Duff by Wesley, who she herself has pigeonholed as a male slut. Starting with these stereotypes, Keplinger then proceeds to shatter whatever beliefs Bianca holds about herself, her parents, her friends, and of course Wesley, because stereotypes, after all, rarely describe who we really are.

So is Bianca the Duff because she is not blond and has non-existent breasts? or is her friend Casey the Duff because she is as tall as a giraffe? or is her other friend Jessica the Duff because of her airy, flaky personality? And who decides who the Duff is, anyways? Wesley calls Bianca the Duff, but it is Bianca who identifies herself with the word and makes it her own cross to bear. Only toward the end of the novel, when she confesses the word to Jessica and Casey, does she discover that each of them believes it refers better to herself.

Bianca learns compassion in the novel, and most of all, she learns compassion for herself. She understands the common humanity she shares with everyone else: “I should be proud to be the Duff. Proud to have great friends who, in their mind, were my Duffs.”

I have to admit, at the beginning of the novel, before I got to know Jessica and Casey, I resented them. I liked Bianca, and I didn’t want her to be the Duff. I thought she was the Duff because they made her so, that they hang out with her because she made them look better. So I loved this twist! I loved how their friendship truly came from the heart, from the places where they each most felt vulnerable. I agree with Bianca when she accepts Wesley’s assertion that he is not the Duff, telling him flatly: “That’s because you don’t have friends.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Falling in love with a Bear

Every so often I read a book with which I fall instantly in love. “Once upon a time, the North Wind said to the Polar Bear King, ‘Steal me a daughter, and when she grows, she will be your bride.” So begins Ice, a novel by Sarah Beth Durst. There is so much I want to know now: who is this girl who will be stolen, and will she have anything to say about being married to a bear?

Ice follows the myth East of the Sun West of the Moon which is a variant of the Psyche myth (and from which Beauty and the Beast is also descended). In the prologue, the grandmother tells her granddaughter the fairy tale whose beginning I quoted above. The North Wind’s daughter falls in love with a man and has a baby. She makes a bargain with the Polar Bear King. He will protect her from the North Wind, and she will give him her daughter for a bride. But the terrible North Wind discovers his truant daughter’s hiding place and blows her away to the castle of the trolls, east of the sun and west of the moon. As the prologue ends, young Cassie asks her grandmother, “And Mommy is still there?”

When next we meet Cassie, she is almost eighteen, an aspiring polar bear researcher at her father’s research station in the Arctic. The Polar Bear King appears in her orderly life, and she makes a deal with him. She will marry him if he brings her mother back from the Troll Castle. The Polar Bear King carries Cassie away, “an aurora streaking across the Arctic.” Durst portrays the conflict between Cassie’s scientific view of the universe and the magical elements which suddenly appear in her life: “There couldn’t be a castle in the Arctic. The whole expanse had been covered by satellite photography. Someone would have seen a castle. It was, she thought, beyond beautiful.”

I devoured the novel in two sittings. I followed Cassie’s progress as she falls in love with Bear and learns to appreciate the magic of life. She is a strong heroine, and I found her determination and ability to reach Bear after he is taken to the Troll Castle a believable if somewhat crazy quest. I loved the beautiful, win-win ending. The novel has lyrical moments, moment of breathtaking nature descriptions, and moments of courage.

Though Ice could be classified as a fairy tale retelling, I do not feel that the novel fits that mold. Durst manages to marry seamlessly the magical fairy tale elements with the raw reality of the Arctic. Perhaps because the novel takes place in a location that is itself mythical it was easier for me to accept the enchantment of the story, or perhaps it is just that I prefer to believe that magic really is everywhere around us. Either way, Ice is one of the most beautiful novels I have read lately.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Food! Food! Food!

Thanksgiving and the parties around my mom’s birthday have given me some five or six extra pounds around the midsection, a not-so-little gift which I would rather like to return. It always amazes me how much easier it is to gain weight than to lose it, and having never been much prone to dieting, I feel very helpless about how to proceed.

I train at the gym three times a week and go to pilates twice. I jog sometimes around my home, walk the dogs and go on hikes. I think of myself as a fairly active person. It seems to me that my weight ought to remain low due to all this exercise, but for some reason this theory simply does not hold.

Taking a look at my eating habits does not make me feel much better. I eat a lot of chocolate, though now that I’m in love with this brand of chocolate called Taza, I eat less. It’s very dark chocolate and gritty, being stone-ground, and somehow one piece of it suffices. I feel like I eat a lot of vegetables throughout the day, but looking closely at yesterday, for example, reveals that I had a bit of salad for breakfast, then a few cooked carrots for lunch, and a couple cucumber and carrot sticks for dinner. Not that much. My mood falls even lower when I consider that I always pour olive oil on my salad, and that the goulash from lunch had been sautéed in canola oil before cooked.

I’m going to make chicken soup today with lots of veggies inside, and this thought makes me feel a lot better. I guess in order to eat healthier I’m going to have to make an effort to eat at home oftener, to cook myself, and to add more vegetables to everything I make.

I have one friend who, whenever I’m upset about my weight or comment on looking fat, tells me that our weight fluctuates in winter and summer, that it’s natural to gain or lose as much as seven pounds at these times. She also says to talk about myself in the way I want my daughter to talk about herself. That’s a big statement, because I definitely would not want Eden to have issues with her weight. Ever, if possible.

I feel very ambivalent about these extra pounds. I wish to accept myself the way I am, with a belly or without, but it’s very hard. I think mainly I want to feel healthy, fit and strong, and I guess I don’t right now. Perhaps keeping the balance of eating as healthy as I can and working out is the important aspect, and my weight is not much more important than as a side product. Today I can’t quite reconcile myself to this, but tomorrow, as always, is a new day, the perfect day to start.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Un-Architectural Calling

I don’t know why, but big projects tend to freak me out. Two years ago, relief flooded me when Uri chose to build a synagogue model for his third grade project with his dad. Similarly, last year, I felt as happy about the two of them working on Uri’s science experiment together. This year, when Eden announced that she decided to build the synagogue model with me, I felt very tentative about it. I didn’t know how to begin or how to go about it, and I felt like if she insisted on working with me, the project might never get done. I think Eden noticed my hesitation, because a few days later she came home and declared that actually her plan is to build the synagogue with her grandpa, my dad. Big sigh of relief. Responsibility off. Now, I thought to myself, there is a chance that she will have a synagogue!

My dad, who has prepared models like that before, immediately imagined Eden and himself working in his wood shop, covered in thin wood dust, building a synagogue out of balsa wood. I suggested that perhaps using foam board would be easier. My dad submitted. He began working on the sanctuary, the most difficult-looking part which is shaped like an ark. Eden seemed to have little interest in the process, instead immersing herself in creating a torah and aron kodesh.

Seeing how uninvolved she was, I thought we could switch to building the synagogue out of lego. Eden sparkled back to life. In an hour, the walls were up. Another hour or two, and we had ceilings. Without so much as a peep for help, she built a bimah and a little rabbi. We put everything together, and voila, a synagogue! I felt a huge surge of pride. Of myself as much as of Eden, I think. We had done it! Perhaps we couldn’t have done it without my dad’s help, who told us where the windows ought to go, and where the door is, and to which side the huge ark-shaped sanctuary must look. But we did a lot! My first project!

When we entered the school this morning, one of the girls in Eden’s class looked at our synagogue and said, “Why is it so small?” Upstairs, mega-projects lined the walls. I think some of these synagogues are the work of parent more than child. Some I know were done by the kids alone. I am proud of Eden for having done more than half the work on her project by herself. Yes, her grandpa helped her with the sanctuary-ark, and I gave her the idea for the ceiling, but most of the execution is her own. And it’s beautiful. It might be small, it might be in many shades of grey, black and blue, because we didn’t have all grey pieces, but to me, it is beautiful.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fairytale Retellings

My favorite Cinderella retelling is Eleanor Farjeon’s The Glass Slipper which I originally read in Hebrew. I love the image of Shoshi’s father (she is called Ella in the English version), hiding sugared plums for Shoshi in his pocket during the ball, feeling sad about not standing up to his wife. I love the chirping fairy godmother who hides peaches for Shoshi within a pile of kindling, Shoshi’s childlike enthusiasm about dancing and the speeches that the toastmaster gives for every dish.

When I came upon a recommendation for Ash, a Cinderella adaptation by Malinda Lo, I was excited. Here was an opportunity to research the fairy tale market. Ash grows up near the forest, and after her mother and then her father die, she is taken to live at her stepmother’s house, which is adjacent to a different part of the forest. The forest helps maintain the enchantment permeating the book: paths form beneath Ash’s feet as she wanders, leading her in and out of mist-shrouded places to which a fairy friend tells her she ought not to go. In the forest she also meets the King’s Huntress, and in an unexpected twist we find that Ash is to fall in love not with the prince, but with this woman who feels compassion for the deer she hunts.

The novel is beautifully written in lyrical language which brings to life the mystical world Ash lives in. Despite that, I felt confused by Ash’s bizarre relationship with the fairy man. I was further confused by the scene at which Ash enters the ball in her fairy ball gown and is accosted by the prince who falls in love with her. I suppose three is a magical number in fairy tales, but this abundance of lovers simply made me see Ash as rather emotionless. I also wondered whether women kissing in public during the king’s ball was a common occurrence, since no character commented on it.

In contrast, I was entirely entranced by Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball. I do not know if there is another retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, but I was smitten by this one. Jessica Day George raises the stakes so high in the story that I was kept wanting to read more and more and in fact felt so eager to know what is coming next that I never once thought to peek ahead (my usual naughty practice). Midnight Ball is readable and colorful, and all the characters felt lovable to me, including the grumpy Reiner Orm, uncle to the soldier who attempts to rescue the princesses from the enchantment placed on them.

I am looking forward to reading some other fairy tale adaptations I downloaded into my ipad, as well as some new releases which I found recommended on blogs. I enjoy discovering new writers, and I already purchased another Jessica Day George novel called Dragon Slippers, which I hope will be as good.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What is the World Coming to???

Yesterday my cousin asked me if I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. She wanted to know if I think she would enjoy it. I happen to have a strong opinion about the novel, and I told her that opinion in as strong terms.

I read The Hunger Games this past March after the SCBWI Asilomar Conference. Everybody there talked about the book: editors, agents, writers. It seemed I was the only one who had not read it, and so I downloaded the novel on kindle and began to catch up.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I have minimal experience with dystopia, being more of a light and airy, romantic fiction reader. I have never been a fan of books like 1984 or Lord of the Flies. So I was shocked, overwhelmed, and horrified. I had nightmares about the novel for weeks. Just looking at the movie trailer (as I had been tempted to do a couple weeks ago) made all those feelings return. My cousin, who had avoided the Harry Potter books because she felt they were too dark, said she might skip reading this one too.

I think partly I felt so traumatized because The Hunger Games is a book for teens 12 and up. In the book, twenty-four teenagers between 12 and 18 are chosen to fight each other to the death in an enclosed game area. The adults intervene only to provide more weaponry or to force the children to fight. The movie, coming out in March, is not yet rated, but it is designated a family film. I assume that means PG13. At least I hope so.

It seem to me that many new books for teenagers have a “bad world” turn to them. Dystopias are everywhere, fallen angels, zombies and vampires. Dead girls are featured on book covers (see Rachel Stark’s blog Themes which I would have expected in adult literature appear repeatedly in teen novels: like Ellen Hopkins’ Tricks, for example, which has some disturbing sex scenes that were difficult for me to read. The gory birth scene in the last Twilight film, rated PG13, surely would have belonged in an R film twenty years ago. Rain Man, as a comparison, which was released in 1988, is rated R, but neither the sex scene nor the screaming tantrums in that film unsettled me as much as the sight of Edward cutting open Bella’s belly, injecting her heart with his venom, and biting her repeatedly in her arms and legs.

So I don’t know what the world is coming to. Of course, this “bad world” trend might not be a bad thing, just another trend in a world which loves trends. But I hope maybe one day soon we can have a joyfulness trend. A happy, wonderful, the world is great trend. I’d enjoy that.