Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sweet Venom & Sweet Shadows by Tera Lynn Childs

Tera Lynn Childs’ young-adult novel Sweet Venom ends with a huge cliff hanger. For a lover of instant gratification such as myself, that is almost unbearable. Each chapter in this mythology-meets-modern-United-States novel culminates at a point which forbids stopping. I postponed my bedtime page after page, longing to know what will happen. Since I read the book on kindle, I was wholly unprepared when, at the height of suspense, I turned the page and discovered that it was titled About the Author. Frazzled and deep in the world of the novel, I started complaining to my uncle in English and was more than startled when he responded in Hebrew. Fortunately, book two of the trilogy, Sweet Shadows, came out in 2012.

I loved Sweet Venom. Each of the three narrators has a distinct voice and personality. Grace, Gretchen, and Greer discover that they are triplets, descendants of the Gorgon Medusa. It is their destiny to be guardians of the gate between the Abyss, where monsters reign, and our human world. The novel is rife with fighting, danger, secrets, and some romance, and I fell completely under its spell. I was ready to believe the girls are descendants of Medusa and that they hunt monsters in San Francisco. I loved that Gretchen consults the Oracle (who works as a psychic in the city), and that all the gods get “instant messages” when she does. I read on and on, allowing the cliff hangers to carry me through to what turned out to be not at all an end.

I instantly ordered Sweet Shadows, but I found it is not as spellbinding. Throughout the novel, the three girls show polite and overly discrete restraint at sharing information or asking questions. Greer, the sister with second vision, refrains from telling her sisters about visions which pertain to them. Grace, the pleaser, doesn’t ask questions out of consideration for the others’ feelings. Gretchen, even after she sees over and over again that they three should stick together, keeps pushing her sisters away. With the fate of the world resting on their shoulders, it seemed strange to me that three intelligent girls could be so unaware that their reticence is putting spokes in their own wheels. Do they really think all this information is unimportant?

Wishing to enter a novel’s world whole-heartedly, I am always disappointed when the technique a writer employs does not work for me. I didn’t read book two with the same eagerness as I read the first novel. I think, however, that my disappointment arose out of how fascinating I found Sweet Venom and the high expectations which I therefore had for the second. Despite the communication shortcomings, Tera Lynn Childs continues to build the girls’ characters nicely, and there’s some conflicts (such as who the girls’ mother is) that I long to see resolved. I am looking forward to reading book three, Sweet Legacy, when it comes out in 2013.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Petal of Happiness

My grandmother is 96 years old. An almost incomprehensible age. She has eleven great grandchildren, the youngest of whom, at one year old, is 95 years younger than her. She might be older than almost everything around me, including the house I live in and probably most of the trees in my yard, but she’s still, as they say, all there, smart, funny, and often tactless.

On this visit to Israel I soaked up on my Safta’s love and wisdom, feeling stronger than ever how lucky I am to have someone like her in my life. “At my age,” Safta said, “you learn to find happiness in the little things: the song of birds, the fact that the sun rose yet another morning, the blooming cyclamen.” At 96, Safta seems to have stopped worrying about earning money, self realization, or the melting of the arctic ice cap. Like an ancient olive tree on a terraced hillside, my Safta just is.

Gorgeous clouds
I often think that, involved in the pursuit of future happiness, we miss the happiness that is right in front of our eyes. I remember, when I was still single, thinking that my writing would, for sure, flow better once I’m in a relationship. Sadly, no such luck. I continually look forward to the times when the kids are with me as times of future happiness, but when the kids come, happiness is as elusive as ever. I’m sure I’ll be really happy if I moved to live in Hawaii. Or Yosemite. Or if my cousins lived nearer to me. Or if I had a King Charles Spaniel to follow me around.

In the pursuit of happiness, we rarely recognize happiness when we feel it, and often confuse our lack of recognition with our ambition to stretch farther the limits of our world. It is easier to pause and smell the roses when I am not rushing to meet friends or thinking about where my next meal is coming from. Embroiled in the struggles of life, a rose seems trivial, a thorn in the way. But just think of the added quality of life that comes from that pause, the lowering of the nose to the open petals, the deep breath that fills the entire body with a perfumed lungful of oxygen and fresh start.
Lonely Seagull

My mother says that even in the ugliest yard there is a splash of beauty. In a busy street in Tel Aviv, the pavement dark with the exhaust fumes of buses, birds sing in the trees, just as in the postcard-view of palms on a sandy Hawaii beach. Similarly, my Safta, in between enjoying the pink buds of the cyclamen, still worries that my 27 year-old cousin is not eating enough. Us humans love to improve, to change, to grow, and though we create much that is dark, we also bring to life much that is wonderful.

Juice at end of the walk
This morning, before I set out for my walk on the promenade of Tel Aviv, I am setting the intention to notice the little happinesses in life. I wish you the joy of smelling the roses today and noticing the birds singing on every branch. In the midst of every storm, if you can find the sunshine, a rainbow spans. And you know where that leads, right? To where the blue birds fly.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jerusalem Air and the Need for Hugs

Morning view of the Jerusalem Hills
On Saturday I went for a walk with my aunt in a little suburb of Jerusalem called Ein Kerem. We visited churches and monasteries, walked through beautiful gardens and weathered stone buildings, looked at mosaics and wall paintings, and enjoyed a fabulous, fabulous view of the Jerusalem mountains stretching almost as far as the eye can see.

We stopped by one Russian Orthodox monastery which sits high atop the mountain. The view from up there took my breath away. Around the golden-domed church, many houses nestled, embraced by oak, pine, fig and olive trees and early cyclamen bending their pink heads to the ground. Stone staircases wound up and down the steep hill. My aunt and I longed to peek inside the houses, to see how the nuns live. We saw one nun, in a house dress, sweeping the stairs below her house. Near another house a long white shirt hung on a line, the wind floating it back and forth like a ghostly swing. Peace reigned, and quiet.

Gate near Stairs of Eden, Ein Kerem
Living in such surrounding must be uplifting, blissful, I thought, and yet how do the nuns deal with depriving themselves of the comfort of love? They choose to live without a family, without a partner, an intimate witness to their hopes and dreams, their mistakes and successes, and without children to brighten (and sometimes make crazy) their days. How do they do it without loneliness taking hold and shriveling them inside?

Since arriving in Israel, I’ve been thinking a lot about love. After all, coming here meant that I left people I love, the kids, Dar and my parents, far away -- half way around the world -- in order to see other people I love, my aunt, grandma, cousins and friends. Despite being surrounded here by love, I miss Eden’s soft cheek as she presses it against mine, Uri’s giggles when I try to steal a kiss from him, and the feeling of safety and warmth in Dar’s hugs. I am here, but my heart, divided, is also there.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps I am too dependent on the kids and Dar. Do I worry about them too much? Has my happiness become too entwined in their presence? Am I too attached? I feel as though I could be more independent, give myself and them our freedom to be.

“Letting go of attachment does not preclude love,” my aunt, who is also a Yogi and Sanskrit scholar, told me. Like the Buddhist monks who, by letting go of the boundaries between people, love the whole world. The idea of attachment is that, in the end, we cannot take anything or anyone with us.

Stairs of Eden, Ein Kerem
I am unlikely to be a Buddhist monk in this lifetime. While I know I can’t take hugs with me to the grave, I do know that I would not like to live without them. I guess when I’m not feeling contrary, I know that hugs are not attachment, unless perhaps I refuse to let go. I could argue that holding on to the memory of the hug is attachment. But philosophizing about that, perhaps, should be left for another post. For now, I remember the lofty feeling of openness in the Jerusalem pine-infused air, and though it is hard, I call my heart here. In a few days I fly back, and I will see the kids and Dar and feel their hugs and taste their kisses. But today, I am here.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Feeling Sorry For Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty

“Dear Miss Clarry,
It has come to our attention that you are incredibly bad at being a teenager.” This letter, addressed to Elizabeth Clarry, comes from the Association of Teenagers and opens the funny and highly readable Feeling Sorry for Celia by Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty. The letter ends with: “Not to hurt your feelings or anything, but you are an embarrassment to teenagerhood. Therefore, could you please climb into the refrigerator and wait very quietly until your teenager years end?”

Elizabeth Clarry has a lot on her plate. Her mother is trying to feed her oatmeal and asks her to start dinner (and means for her to finish preparing it too). Her friend Celia disappears and needs to be rescued. The Association of Teenagers, the Best Friends’ Club, and the Cold Hard Truth Association send her letters telling her that she is never enough. And her English teacher is not only making her write letters to a complete and utter stranger, but is unhappy about her tendency not to complete homework assignments and is using her love of letter-writing against her. Not to forget, her father, who has been pretty much MIA most of her life, has suddenly moved back to Sydney and wants to have dinner with her and discuss the qualities of wine.

So much pressure on one person. I was not surprised that Elizabeth loves cross country running. With the inordinate amounts of criticism that the Association of Teenagers and the other groups heap on Elizabeth, I could not imagine her ever finding the will to stop running. Except, as she says, the only pleasure in cross country running is when you can finally stop.

So many of us go through life with a critic sitting on our shoulder. Mine, by the way, is definitely male. This critic has something to say about everything I do, whether it is what I said to a friend on the phone, my writing, or what I cooked (or did not cook) that day. Often, it is hard for me to hear myself over the voice of the critic, and making choices becomes sifting through contradictory but always denouncing remarks.

Feeling Sorry for Celia follows Elizabeth’s gradual acceptance of herself as she sees other people’s quirkiness around her, their anxieties and self consciousness, their desire to escape. In other people’s humanity, failings as well as good qualities, Elizabeth finds understanding and empathy for her own. I, her reader, read along and admire Elizabeth’s ability to distance herself from that critical part, assign it separate identities and finally discover within herself the capacity to tell that part that it is wrong.

I read the novel in less than four hours, and I was so sad to finish it. I had hoped to make it last for most of my flight to Israel, but it was just too fun to read. And I love it when a novel is both hysterically funny and still has a lesson from which the reader can learn. Separate thyself from thy critic, reader, and thou shalt be able to juggle five billion things as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt

The children and I had hardly finished listening to The Wednesday Wars. The tears were still fresh in my eyes, as was the echo of my son’s astounded question: “Ima, are you crying?!” I needed a moment to breathe, to recuperate, to taste fully of the enchantment of the book. But the children were adamant. We’re starting the next book, right now.

Since we loved The Wednesday Wars so much, our next choice was obvious. Okay For Now is by the same author and continues the story through the eyes of Doug Sweiteck, one of Holling’s friends. At first, however, perhaps because of how emotional I had gotten when finishing The Wednesday Wars, I had a hard time getting into Okay For Now. I didn’t like Doug’s voice. I didn’t like his family. I didn’t like that they were moving away. I didn’t like that Doug kept saying “stupid” about everything.

Doug, however, won me over. This sad kid, who tries so hard to act tough and not to look like a chump, is actually an endearing, smart boy who gently and quietly refuses to accept the labels put on him by most everyone in his new town. No matter how much Doug pretends to believe that things can’t get better, or that the people around him tell him he is bound never to succeed, an invincible streak of hope runs through him. He is willing to work hard, to try again and again, to put himself out there even in front of his Vietnam veteran PE coach and his condescending principal and carve out his own terrific and creative way in the world.

Okay For Now
is a very different book from The Wednesday Wars. Where Holling notices every little detail about the world, the war, his teachers, friends, and family, Doug’s world is an intimate one, and his skin is so fragile that everything touches a raw nerve. The Vietnam war enters into the story through Doug’s badly-wounded brother who Doug admires and yet from whom he yearns to be different. The town’s policeman and his many children, the grocer, the town’s biggest employer, the librarians, the teachers, the famous playwright who lives isolated at the edge of town, and Doug’s family members -- they all come to life through Doug’s interactions with them.

A boy Doug’s age would be fifty eight today, and I know it is silly to worry about a kid who not only is a character in a book, but would also be older than me if he really lived. But I can’t help myself. I want to know that Doug is okay. Not just for the now of the book, but for always. I hope he grew up to continue to do well at school. That he became an artist. That he married his childhood sweetheart and had five kids of his own. And I realize why it is I loved Doug so much. It is because his character’s defining quality is forgiveness. Doug gives everyone, and most especially himself, a chance. Not just a second chance or a third chance, but as many chances as they need. And so Doug gets a chance, and being Doug, good natured, intelligent, open-hearted and hopeful, he always makes the very best out of it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Love Our Children

Some news is impossible to ignore. Some news leaks into even the most safely locked bubble. Plastered all over facebook, in emails, in headlines -- it is everywhere. And so even an ostrich such as myself, with my head deep in the sand, cannot avoid hearing about twenty kids and six teachers killed on Friday.

Friday night we went to dinner at my parents’ home. It was the seventh night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, of miracles. We lit the candles, sung songs, the children’s innocent, open faces illuminated by the flickering light of the candles. We had homemade food, lovingly prepared by my mother, and home-baked challah, her specialty. I sat, surrounded by the love of my family, and thought: Here we are, safe and secure, and somewhere across the United States are twenty-six families, probably more, whose darkness cannot be lightened tonight. Somewhere across the United States twenty little bodies and six bigger ones are lying in a morgue instead of having dinner at home.

News people: instead of telling me about the killer, his parents, his situation, here is what I want: I want to hear about the day each of the twenty six was born. I want to hear about their first breath, what kind of a baby each was. About the first time they rolled over and how they took their first step. I want to hear about the foods they loved and hated, their favorite color and animal, what made each of them unique. I want to know what they had for breakfast on Friday and what was the last thing they said before they left their home. I want to hear about the last hug and kiss they gave.

The twenty six are the important ones. They are who should be at the top of the news. They ought to be the pictures we carry engraved in our hearts so that we know, we just know that this can never ever happen again.

Perhaps if we gave them the attention, those who rode to school on their bikes with their parents on Friday morning, or walked with a friend, or rode in the car, or had a fight with their brother or sister, or forgot to brush their teeth, or were rude to their mom, perhaps if we gave them the attention instead of the killer, it would be not just a lessening of a reason to kill but a deterrent. Yes, we need better and more accessible mental health care. Yes, we need better gun control. But what we really need is an end to sensationalism. An end to publicizing the perpetrators of these horrid events. Instead, we can praise the teacher who saved sixteen kids, the children who were able to hide quietly, those who helped others, who supported each other, who gave their lives.

I believe love can travel around the globe if need be, and so I ask you, for just a moment, to let go of your outrage and direct your love toward the families hurt by this tragedy. Just close your eyes and send them love. It is love that will save the world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Literary Relativity

My aunt and uncle are the most loyal readers and supporters of my blog. They engage me in conversation on what I wrote and often take my book recommendations. My uncle always “likes” my blog on Facebook, and they both treat my philosophical meanderings seriously.

I love talking about books, and so I adore it when my aunt and uncle read the books I recommend. I had discussions with them on Fifty Shades of Grey on one side of the literary spectrum and Percy Jackson on the other, and I’m still looking forward to hearing what they think about Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake. Last week, they told me they had been reading Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars.

“I want to talk to you about this book,” my aunt said. “I can’t believe you think it’s the best book you’ve read. I’m enjoying it, but I want to know what makes you say that.” A few days later, my uncle, having finished the book, said: “It’s a good book, but it’s not the best book I’ve ever read.”

The Wednesday Wars is, at the very least, a great book. The novel won the 2008 Newbery Honor medal, after all. It got 4.5 stars on Amazon and 4.1 on Goodreads, a fabulous review on the New York Times and starred reviews on both Kirkus and Booklist. And what’s more: my kids loved it, so much so that my daughter and I are now listening to it again, and the three of us together are on our third Gary Schmidt novel.

But of course that is not what my aunt and uncle meant. They wanted to know what in the novel resonated so strongly with me that I made my “best book” claim because the novel did not resonate with them the same. And yet, I cannot quite put my finger on an explanation. All I know is I cried and laughed, often at the same time. I felt my heart beating in time with Holling. I rooted for him, cared for him, wished him well. And not only him, but all the characters in the novel, from Mrs. Bigio in the kitchen mourning her dead husband and baking cream puffs to Holling’s sister running away from home.

A book is a vessel, a channel to express our feelings, thoughts, and needs. The details in it act like the fibers of a sponge, allowing space in which to unload whatever it is we have been carrying and maybe gain new insights. I am reading The Wednesday Wars again, looking for what it is, precisely, that so caught my heart. What made me care so much, as though these characters were my friends, my family? What is it I identified with so strongly? If I find, I will let you know. But I think, perhaps, it is the mystery of the letters on the page, the combination of them into words, the energy that hides in them that creates this literary relativity and makes one of us fall hopelessly in love while others don’t make any fuss at all.

Here's the link to the NYT article about the book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Forgetting the Why

Friday night, I watched The Avengers with Dar. While watching the movie, I noticed that I was more interested in why I am not carried away by the action than by the action itself. In many films, I find myself either captivated by the concept of the movie or skeptical of the details of the plot. Movies based on comics often require a huge leap of faith, one that I am not always willing to make. How did the hero gain his or her superpowers? Where did the villain come from, and how is he (or she) strong enough to challenge the hero? And how did the creators then raise the stakes high enough so that I desperately want the hero to win?

The Avengers was a huge box office success. It made a record 207 million dollars in its first weekend in theaters and by now has earned over 1.5 billion dollars worldwide. For comparison, it is listed as the third highest grossing movie, after Avatar and Titanic. But the film wasn’t just a box office success. Critics as well as viewers loved it, and it got high ratings everywhere. I had heard good reviews about this film myself from many of my friends

There’s a lot of action in The Avengers: a universe-leaping cube, guns of various sizes and shapes, a guy who shoots arrows that always hit the mark, Norse gods whose personal vendettas affect our world, an invasion from outer space of aliens riding space tricycles and Godzilla-like metallic monsters. Where did the aliens come from? Why is this invasion army working with Loki, the villain? I did not quite know. Some weapons stopped or slowed down Loki, but some didn’t. Why? I didn’t know. Sometimes Loki just touched people with his wand to make them obedient to him, and sometimes he chatted with them instead. Why? Perhaps because he’s the super villain and can do whatever he wants. Super villains love chatting about their plans, you know.

I suppose in a way I wish that, just like when I was a child, I could still become whole-heartedly engaged by the plot, living for the superhero, believing in him (or her). Today, a cynic, I sit there and think: are those Godzilla-like metallic things supposed to be alien monsters or some sort of vehicle, and I am not scared. I do not worry about the safety of the heroes, because the danger facing them seems somewhat ridiculous to me. And when Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, saying that he can suddenly control himself because he is “always angry,” I am happy that he’s going to help the good guys, but inside I scoff.

Usually I love these kind of movies, about superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, The Fantastic Four. I enjoyed this movie too, the action, the characters. It was only the added value of getting completely sucked into the plot that was just not there. I wish it was. I wish I could have forgotten the why and fallen into the flow of the movie, but for this particular one, I could not.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Am I a Writer?

“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I first heard this question as a child and thought it was funny, asked to make children think about circular arguments. As an adult, I always thought it pretentious: are we really so self-important that we think a falling tree does not make a sound unless we hear it? When sitting down to write this blog, however, I discovered an actual discussion around this question. From a purely scientific point of view, it turns out, a tree that falls with no one around to hear it does not, in fact, make a sound, because sound is defined as the vibration in the ear caused by movement in the air. With no listener, there can be no sound.

If I write a book, but no one reads my writing, am I a writer? Is writing meaningfully enough defined by the act of putting words to paper, or does it require a reader perusing those words? Does the tree of writing, falling in the forest need a reader present in order to be heard?

Throughout my years of writing, I have been grappling with the question of who am I writing for? Am I writing because I must, because the writing is in my blood? I think that is at least part of the answer. I love the writing, I want to write, and writing is, without doubt, deep in my blood and bones. But am I satisfied enough with writing just for myself? The answer to this question is far more complicated. I wish to be satisfied with that. I feel like I should be satisfied with that. And yet I am not.

Yesterday, when I wrote how other people’s opinions confuse me as to how I feel about my parenting, I had writing in mind too. Once I let other people read my writing, opinions are bound to surface. Every reader is a critic to a certain degree, whether they love what I write, hate it, decide not to finish it, or never pick it up. And, being me, every opinion has the potential to bring me soaring to the sky or crawling deep under the bed. Is it possible to write, and wish for others to read, yet still keep my opinion of my writing and of myself as a writer pure and unaffected by theirs?

Downed tree in our yard. We never heard it fall....
For now, as I am working through the first draft of my new novel, I would like to write for me, with no critics in the room. To trust, perhaps, that since we are all unique and yet all have common experiences and thoughts, one day someone will want to read my book and feel as though I wrote it for her, and it will not matter that there was only one reader in my mind as I wrote the book. For that one reader, the book will be hers.

As I was about to publish this blog, I saw this blog post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner about "How do you know if your word is any good."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Matters of Opinion

My recent haircut garnered lots of attention. My daughter flew out of the classroom, her eyes wide with appreciation, “Hello beautiful woman!” she exclaimed. My son took one look: “Why did you do that?” he asked. “It looks terrible.” Other moms stopped, pointed to their hair and mine and smiled. Dar said: “It looks great.” And an unnamed someone pronounced: “Too many highlights.”

When first I saw my new cut, I loved it. But that first, pure, unadulterated enjoyment in my new hair dimmed under the heaping commentary. I began to wonder: Does the cut make me look older? Should I have kept my hair longer? Do the highlights look artificial? A bad haircut is serious business. As an unhappy customer who once had a second haircut on the same day in order to salvage a horrid first one, I would not think to downplay the importance of even a single hair. But in the end, as I find myself face to face with my reflection in the looking glass, I can shut out everyone’s opinions and decide: I look okay.

Nowhere do other people’s opinions seem to matter more than in my parenting. Every day I ask myself: Am I a good parent? Do I make good parenting choices? My questions, sadly, rarely get answered in my heart. The children’s opinions, my parents’ words, friends’ comments, even the looks of strangers all affect my perception of my decisions and actions.

Not surprisingly, Uri and Eden have opinions about my parenting. “You yell all the time,” is a common complaint. “You’re always impatient.” “You don’t make us good food” is a particularly dreaded grievance. I care about their opinion of my parenting. After all, they are the main beneficiaries (or in their opinion, victims) of it. They are the ones who will need to see a psychologist for years to come in order to undo the damage my well-meaning but disastrous mistakes engender.

And yet, I doubt that the children (or my parents, friends, and strangers) are the best judges of my parenting. The children, caught in the transitory and yet all-encompassing moment-to-moment childhood life, cannot appreciate the big picture, the bigger plan, the one in which I am hoping that they will turn into healthy, self-sufficient, independent adults. The unsuspecting strangers in the grocery store cannot appreciate my bigger plan either, the one in which the tantrum-engrossed candy-deprived child lives to be 95 with all her teeth intact. And my parents, no matter how much they care, still live at their own house and only see part of the picture, and even that is colored by their own parenting hopes, regrets, and dreams.

Still, when a friend tells me that I am a marvelous parent, my heart sings. When the children criticize me, I wish to crawl under the bed and disappear. But somewhere deep in my heart I know that I am doing the best that I can, and I have to trust that love is enough. That, and putting a dollar or two in the savings account for future psychologists. After all, it is best to be prepared. I consider it insurance for a satisfactory life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Getting a Mental Break

“How would you go about giving yourself a mental break?” My cousin Iris, who is a life coach, asked me after I told her about the anxiety and feeling of impending doom which have been following me since August. Would a vacation be a mental break? I asked her. “From what I know of you,” my cousin replied, “your anxieties and stress follow you to the vacation.”

How then does one go about taking a mental break? And what is a mental break anyways? “Just letting yourself be,” my cousin said, “without needing to do anything or achieve anything or finish anything. Just be.” She thought for a moment, then added, “Maybe it would be better to start with an hour. Or even five minutes. Or thirty seconds. Of just being.”

I went to take a shower. Before going in, I told my anxieties to wait for me outside. I asked the critic if he wouldn’t mind to let me go to the shower by myself, just this once. It occurred to me that I rarely shower without my critic leaning over my shoulder and commenting on how long I’m taking, how much water I’m wasting, and the general scarcity of water in the world. Let me enjoy my shower as a mental break today, I told him. Please wait outside.

It is much harder than I imagined, to get even thirty seconds of mental break. It seems my stresses and anxieties are standing by, ever ready to take advantage of any opening to come into my mind. I think to myself: all is well in my world at this moment in time in this place. And somewhere a whisper pesters: “But you don’t actually know that. The kids are not under your eye. Your parents are not here. Even Dar is in the other room and something could happen to him before you can hear.”

A friend told me the other day that the first step in the twelve step program is to admit powerlessness. I am, as yet, far from being able to admit that. Powerlessness scares me. My first thought in response to the whispering voice is that I should tell Dar to stay near me at all times. Can you imagine me actually doing that? And the critic, as though adding wood to the fire, laughs in my ear: “You’re a control freak,” he says, satisfied.

Oh dear. All these parts of me talking and commenting and judging. And where had the mental break gone? And yet, I think perhaps for a few seconds, maybe not for a whole thirty, maybe for only ten seconds or five, my mind rested in the moment of peace of the hot water washing the day off my back. Five seconds today, and maybe five seconds tomorrow, and maybe eventually they will start adding up, and I can rest in the moment, and let that mental break happen wherever I am.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Description’s Noiseless, Unseen Tread

I was a voracious reader growing up. I often say that my best memories are of my mother, my sister and I going to the library, scanning the shelves, searching for new books, and later carrying a huge, tottering pile full of promise to the car. As a young girl I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo, Three Men in a Boat, The Hobbit, My Family and Other Relatives, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Red and The Black. My mother used to tell me to read the first 100 pages before deciding if I’m interested in a book, and not surprisingly, I finished reading almost every novel I began.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read Three Men in a Boat again. The novel is filled with poetic, rambling nature descriptions such as this one: “From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rearguard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in silence.” (Chapter 2).

Shockingly, I find that now, at age 40, I have less patience for nature descriptions than I did at age 14. All I want is action. I pick through exposition to find Harris attacked by the swan or losing his way in the maze, Jerome burying the cheeses on the beach or taking a young lady on a boat ride, or even George trying out the banjo. Anything seems to me more interesting than wallowing in a description of night. And yet I love Jerome K. Jerome’s descriptions. I love his lyrical prose, his light, ironic touch, how he seems to make fun of himself and his comrades while giving an articulate description of the English countryside.

In Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, Holling’s teacher Mrs. Baker assigns him Hamlet. Holling says the tragedy is pretty good, if you skip all the long speeches. His friend Meryl Lee objects:

“You can't just skip the boring parts."

"Of course I can skip the boring parts."
"How do you know they're boring if you don't read them?"
"I can tell."
"Then you can't say you've read the whole play."
"I think I can live a happy life, Meryl Lee, even if I don't read the boring parts of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."
"Who knows?" she said. "Maybe you can't.”

These days, novels brim with action. Descriptions take second place -- a distant, less conspicuous second place. Writers are told again and again: “Show, don’t tell!” And yet the description above adds a lot of meaning to Jerome’s romantic, indolent character. I can tell how happy he is just to lie around and look around him, and when I stop rushing ahead to the next action scene I have to admit: I am perfectly content to sit there with him, watching Night as she folds her black wings. Living the happy, description-full life.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Just a Beautiful Day

Frost covered our dining table this cold, clear Sunday morning. Our heater died on Friday and will only get fixed on Tuesday, and meanwhile it was nearly as cold indoors as outside. Wearing a thermal shirt and two jackets, I turned on two space heaters near my chair and hoped that some form of warmth will infiltrate the frigid house.

I had meant to go for a morning walk with my friend Rebecca, but I was cold and reluctant to move from the cozy-potential of the space heaters. Finally, however, after I convinced myself that I’d feel so much happier after a walk, I called Rebecca. Our hike led through a woody trail up a hill. Rebecca’s dogs rushed back and forth, sniffing for jackrabbits and deer and news from other dogs. Oaks glowed green in the sunshine, olive-colored fern falling off their branches like snow. A madrone gleamed red and green in the shifting shade. Crossing a ravine, my morning crankiness disappeared into the brown, fertile soil and the whispering forest, and my day became full of the joyful promise of living trees.

Later, Dar and I went to the farmers’ market and enjoyed the abundance of fresh vegetables, roots, and leaves in the stalls. Two women sold freshly-baked gluten-free and dairy-free muffins and cookies and gave us a taste of Guatemalan coffee with coconut creamer. We had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant where the waiter showed us a youtube video of how they make traditional teff bread. We drank sweet spicy tea and tore pieces of the soft, fluffy bread, dipping it in yellow lentil and brown beef stews.

At home I cleaned the chicken coop, replacing the wood chips with clean ones, and gave the chickens some of the leaves we bought at the farmers’ market. They were overjoyed, pecking at the leaves with abandon. Still energetic, I took my three dogs for a walk through the trails near my house where we met two deer crossing a meadow and some bicyclists shooting, wheels squealing with the effort to keep pace, up the road. The sun began to dip below the hills, and cool air wove its tendrils around me, reminding me that it is nearly wintertime, and that the heater at the house still doesn’t work.

As we walked down the driveway, a flock of migrating birds flew by through the clear blue sky. The dogs, panting and excited to be home, rushed ahead to the door. I looked at the red roof of my home and knew that this was the only place I wanted to be. There’s no place like home.

Now here I sit, wearing thick flannel pajamas and a jacket, as close to the heater as I can. Dar sits next to me, reading a book about stamps. The dishwasher is churning the dirt off of our dinner dishes. The chickens have already retreated into their coop, and the dogs have fallen asleep on their bed. It is dark outside, and for this moment in time, all is well in my world.

How was your Sunday?

Friday, November 9, 2012

An Egg a Day

So much about raising chickens appeals to me: reconnecting with nature, knowing where my food comes from, eating wholesome eggs. We raised seven little chicks this summer. We kept them warm and fed, petted them, and allowed them to perch on us and run around the TV room. Once the chicks grew, we moved them to a coop outside and started counting the days till we get fresh, natural, home-grown eggs. Instead, one chick after the other began, unmistakably, to crow. Out of seven chicks, five turned out to be roosters.

I am fortunate to live in a town that allows roosters, so long as the neighbors don’t complain. But five roosters? On two little hens? Turns out there are no places willing to take in roosters. In my search for a rooster home, I called Animal Place in Vacaville. Jacie, the adoption coordinator, told me she hears stories such as mine all the time. People are promised that they will get 98% female, but the real ratio is a lot more like 50% male. At birth, chicks are “sexed” to find out if they are male or female and the males killed. But the sexing is not accurate. Females end up killed just as much as males, and people still end up with roosters. The best way, she said, is to adopt a hen.

Animal Place rescues hens from factory farms. Have you ever wondered for how long hens lay eggs and what happens to them once they stop? I have never given the matter any thought, and I was stunned when Dave, another Animal Place coordinator, told me that farmers replace (translation: kill) their chickens every two years. These “used-up” chickens are not, in case you were wondering, the chickens that we buy to eat.

In March, Animal Place, in cooperation with Stanislaus Animal Services Agency, rescued 5000 chickens from a factory farm in Turlock. 45,000 more chickens died after the owners abandoned the factory, leaving the hens without food or water. When Dar and I came to Vacaville to pick up four hens, Animal Place still had about 300 birds left. Dave explained that these birds were raised to lay. Their combs hung long and strange across their heads -- from lack of sunshine during their year and a half at the factory farm, Dave explained.

Today, one of these leghorns is sick with an egg stuck in her reproductive system. Her prognosis is not good. She might die. She might live but never lay any more eggs. Either way, she is no longer just a chicken -- since we want to keep her we now look at her as a pet. The vet explained to me that since these birds are genetically-modified to lay an egg a day -- a completely unnatural phenomena -- they tend to have many reproductive problems.

I wanted to get back to nature, to reconnect to who I am on the most basic and fundamental level. Instead I find myself bowled over by just how deep our rape of this earth really is. I try to be environmentally conscious and conscientious, and yet I find that I eat eggs of chickens bred like machines who are kept for only as long as they are useful. And there’s no way around that. No matter if they are pasture-raised, cage-free, organic, free-range.

This is true for so much of what we eat. Soybeans and corn. Milk. Meat. Eggs. Chocolate and coffee. We seem irretrievably divorced from what should be natural and pure in our food. I feel so sad today. I am sad about the millions of chickens slaughtered in the United States every year after they have laid eggs for their allotted 18 months. I feel sad for all the little chicks that are killed at birth. I feel sad for cows and pigs, goats and sheep, all animals who are so useful to us, and who we reject once their usefulness ceases. And sad for Clementine in her cage, suffering from her stuck egg, which, if it were not for our consumer, supply and demand society, she would never have had to worry about.

To find out more about the life of chickens:
Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing
Animal Place

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dazzling, Wonderful Shoes!

The blog today is in honor of the marvelous Bridgey who introduced me to the best shoe shops in the area and encouraged me to buy as many pairs as I like. 

I am not a dressing-up kind of gal. I wear the same shoes (sneakers) and hiking or workout clothes every day. My dressiest pair of pants are jeans, and my dressiest shirts are t-shirts. I rarely wear jewelry (though lately I’ve taken to wearing a gold necklace with a merlinite pendant round my neck), and I never, ever put on make-up or perfume. I suppose I should also confess that I keep myself warm with the same two hiking-style jackets, one of which my mother hates because of a large brown stain on the back from when Eden accidentally painted me.

Despite this, you might be surprised to learn that I own quite a few pairs of high-heel shoes. And I don’t mean just one or two. I have a pink, floral pair that I bought for my cousin’s wedding and worn that one time. I have a platformed black sandal that makes me feel tall and thin, and another black, elegant, shiny sandal. My grandma bought me a fabulous pair in yellow and tan -- worn once. I have a red platformed pair -- still brand new. I have one in sparkly purple that Eden decided she hates, and another classic black pump which pinches my foot terribly. And there’s my favorite one: silvery-grey with black dots, surprisingly comfy.

 So what does a plain-dressing gal who wears hiking clothes and prefers flat sneakers (the flatter the better) want with so many pairs of (shall I confess it?) expensive, stylish shoes? Well, perhaps I too have a vain streak, an “oh my gosh I love looking hot” vein in my practical body. And perhaps I also love, just once in a while, and no more than once a year, to dress up in a tight-fitting dress and to add to it a pair of sexy heels. But more true than that would be an equally embarrassing confession: I just really really love shopping for shoes.

Remember the scene from Roman Holiday, where Audrey Hepburn (who plays a visiting princess) removes her shoe and cannot find it again under her dress? There’s just something about shoes, even if they are partly or completely hidden beneath clothes. They can make us tall, stable, comfortable or uncomfortable, elegant or dowdy. They can make our calves look sexy, lengthen our legs, give an unforgettable accent to an outfit. Can you imagine a cowboy with sneakers? A president in clogs?

My shoes, though kept hidden in the closet, remind me of an aspect of my personality that I rarely acknowledge: the coquetish, girly part of me that likes to dress up and wants to look beautiful, and that enjoys so much when Dar says, “Wow!” or Eden says, “Ima, you look good today!” The practical me prefers to dress in comfort. The sexy woman in me says, “Wear that jacket with the stains, but you have to have the shoes’ support behind you!”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

OK, So It’s a Panegyric of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars

I did not want the novel to end. Actually, that might not be an accurate description of my emotions as Joel Johnstone, the audio book narrator, neared the conclusion of Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. The kids and I have been listening to the novel for the past few weeks, laughing and crying, discussing Vietnam and Shakespeare, and loving every moment. Today, however, we had to say good bye. Laughing helped a little to choke down the tears that burned at the corner of my eyes and the sadness which tightened my throat as the story wound, inexorably, to its end.

What a beautiful, beautiful story! A whole, wide, wondrous world! Racial tensions, war, family, competition, ambition, fear, love, friendship, white feathers and yellow tights, miracles and brown, perfect cream puffs. Holling Hoodhood, the protagonist, tells us of negotiating a world strewn with rules, disappointments, and unexpected events, both good and bad. As a seventh grader, he is perched on the rim of growing up, and he notices everything that happens around him, understanding people (and sometimes misunderstanding them) with touching sensitivity and straight-forward, often self-deprecating expression.

My favorites are the unlikely friendships born in the novel: Holling and his eye-rolling teacher Mrs. Baker (despite the fact that Holling is certain that she hates his guts). Holling’s classmate Mai Thi, the tough Vietnamese girl who was sponsored over to the U.S. by the Catholic Relief Agency, and Mrs. Bigio, the school’s cook whose husband dies in Vietnam. Holling and Meryl Lee, whose fathers’ have competing architectural firms (I can see Hoodhood and Associates and Kowalski and Associates becoming Hoodhood, Kowalski and Associates in a few years). Holling and his sister Heather, who wishes to be a flower child and change the world and who leaves their house (the Perfect Home, as Holling calls it satirically) to find herself.

Some books I read once, and it is enough, but not this one. Having heard it on audio, I would now like to read it on paper and see if it is the same. There are so many details there, so many undercurrents in every word, that I expect I shall find it quite different. I love Joel Johnstone’s reading. I love how I can hear Mrs. Baker’s sarcasm dripping when she corrects Holling’s grammar. I love Danny Hupfer’s breaking voice. I love Holling’s multicolor way of speaking, depending, of course, on who he is speaking to and whether or not he is feeling threatened.

And in honor of Gary Schmidt’s powerful writing, I love the cream puffs, the escaped rats, Mrs. Sidman’s yellow rain jacket, Doug Sweiteck’s penitentiary-heading brother, and the many other colorful, fabulously portrayed characters. I will forever think of Mrs. Baker waiting for strawberries, and Mrs. Bigio opening her heart to the young Vietnamese girl. And above them all, sternly ruling, the ghost of William Shakespeare, with an answer for every question on life, and his best contribution to swear words, the ultimate: “Toad, beetles, bats!”

The Wednesday Wars on Audible
The Wednesday Wars on Amazon
The Wednesday Wars on Goodreads
Gary Schmidt's Website

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Woman and the Reformed Rake

Typing in the word “rake” on Amazon brings up hundreds of novel results: romancing a rake, reforming a rake, running away with a rake, redeeming a rake, or taming a rake. Hundreds more come up for “rogue” and “scoundrel.” The general outline of these novels tends to be the same: an immoral, experienced man meets an innocent, inexperienced woman. She will teach him that he can love and be loved, and he will set her free by teaching her the mysteries of her own body.

This basic plot repeats with fascinating variations. Most recently I read The Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas, where young “wallflower” Evie requests the protection of Sebastian, a notorious rake, promising him her fortune if he marries her; and the fabulous Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah Maclean (on which I wrote a blog before). The male protagonists of these two novels are reformed by the end, tying the knot, promising fidelity, falling in love, and allowing their woman to twirl them round her little finger.

Richardson’s Pamela is an eighteenth-century example of this kind of novel, but Richardson’s novels, written nearly three hundred years ago, were moral lessons, aimed at teaching young ladies the importance of keeping their virtue intact. Pamela was able to resist Mr. B.’s attempts at ruining her -- though I seem to remember a certain rather juicy scene where he tries to kiss her, and she evades his embrace by lying on the floor face-down (Richardson thought if she lay face-up the scene would be too sizzling). Pamela marries Mr. B., but her successor, the heroine of Richardson’s later novel Clarissa, is not so lucky. Clarissa’s rake offers to make amends and marry her, but for Clarissa, once ruined, her only choice was to die. Neither Lovelace’s offer of marriage nor his regrets could save her, no matter how willing he was to be reformed.

Today, reserving innocence till after the wedding is less wide-spread than in the eighteenth century. “Rake” novels no longer warn girls of succumbing to the charms of a rake. Instead, they promise delights beyond our imagination to a girl who is willing to live by her own rules. Not less important, however, is the message that it is okay for women to take pleasure, to seize the day and take control of their own destiny.

Truth be told, I do not read romance for its lessons, moral or otherwise. The chase, the attraction, the tension between the two main characters is what makes me come back to them again and again. In a way, because most romances were written by women, I am willing to forgive the male protagonist a lot. I do, however, believe that in between the fabulously decadent scenes, romance novels offer a vision of the modern woman, perhaps not yet 100% free of her expectations from men, but ready to jump into adventure and experiences, try new things, and leave all the norms and regulations imposed by society in her dust. And the best part is: she always lives to tell the tale.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Minimizing My Goals

So here I am, sitting in front of my computer, not two days after writing my blog about letting go of ambition, and what do you think my brain does if not invent new ambitions and goals. The newest goal: write a first draft of my romance novel, letting it flow out. Seems simple, no? But in my brain, a conversation goes on between my different parts, putting a stop to any writing attempt.

The enthusiastic part: “Let’s go! Come on! Let’s write! You’re at over 19,000 words! You can do this! We can finish a first draft!

The “I don’t want you to be disappointed” part: “Wait a second. Let’s not get all over-excited here. Don’t you remember what happened last time? We wrote a first draft, and then we felt overwhelmed. We felt out of control, like we have no idea what was going on in the novel and like we have no idea how to even start to revise.”

The critic: In order to avoid that, you need to write really well the first time. Make it perfect right off the bat. Just really delve into the scenes, think what the characters are thinking, see what they see, make every word count.”

The enthusiastic part: "No, stop stopping me! Just write! Let it flow! We can do it! It’s going to be great! It’ll be fabulous to have a first draft! We’ll revise later. Let’s go, write now!”

The “I don’t want you to be disappointed” part: “You’re rushing and you’ll regret it. Don’t just write. You’ll hate it later and become discouraged. Take it slowly, or even better, let it be. You don’t need to write today. Write tomorrow or the day after, when you’re in a better mood. Write when you’re in your groove. Not now with all this chaos.”

The critic: “That’s the lazy way out. You never get in your groove. You have to write now but write your best work only.”

And so on and so on. They argue with each other louder and louder in my head until I want to scream: “What do you want from me? Let me be. I’m not going to write today!”

But perhaps there is another way. Perhaps a new goal, a smaller, unambitious, calmer goal: I’d like to write today and enjoy it. I’d like to feel like I got sucked into the story for just a little while, even five minutes. I’d like to write and feel the magic of writing without time limits or word counts, and without thinking of the end result, free of expectations and rules.

Can we do it, my parts? Can you step back for just a little while this morning and allow me to have fun? Tomorrow, if you like, we can have the same conversation again, or maybe, if you see that my new goal was a success, we can forgo our usual process of judgement, over-excitement and fear and cooperate: the enthusiastic part can make my ideas flow, the cautious part can make me think, and the critic can keep me organized.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ambition is a Bad Word

A few years ago a teacher told me: “You have large hands, and that means you are ambitious.” I objected: “But my hands are so small.” He shook his head: “Not compared to your body size.” I doubted that my hands were large, even compared to my small body, but I never doubted my ambition. I’ll be going places. I knew that.

From childhood, I was convinced that I was special. School came easy for me, and despite never doing much work at home and no more than doodling in class, I still found myself invited to the principal’s office year after year to be acknowledged for my excellence. With an A+ in Math, Physics, Biology, Chemistry and more, it seemed silly to care about a B or a C in the corner of my report card. And anyways, I knew that if I had tried at all, I would have gotten an A+ in that subject too.

Ambition is defined by the Free Dictionary as “An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame and power.” I had a desire to succeed, to have an A+ across my report card, but I was not willing to put in the work. I knew it was the effort that was missing, not the ability or the brains. My ambition for a perfect record gave way before other activities, mainly reading, and out of the failure to achieve success grew a belief in my own innate laziness and inability to work hard.

Two of the new leghorns
As an adult, I designed my goals around my ambitiousness. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.” If I was ambitious, I needed to make my ambitions count. I wanted to be a writer, I knew that. But surely that was not enough. Surely, for writing to be an ambition, my book must be a bestseller, a Newbery Winner, life-changer, one of a kind. Measured against such terms of success, my novel never seemed enough.

My hands, however, are little hands, small palms with short fingers. They enjoy doing little, ordinary things: cooking for the kids, cleaning the chicken coop, planting in the garden, swinging back and forth as I hike. I find that I prefer doodling to painting masterpieces, and I’d really like to go back to singing without feeling that I ever need to perform in front of a crowd. I want to write a book without the burden of needing to change the world, becoming famous, or winning prizes. I’d like to write for my own pleasure, my magic of creation, the sound of my laughter.
My plumeria

“Where ambition ends, happiness begins,” said monk, poet and spiritualist Thomas Merton. I think I prefer his quote to the Emperor’s. I would like to find happiness in my ordinary life nearby, to give myself permission not to be ambitious or strive for fame. To be me, no matter how small, as long as that is what my heart tells me to be.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Life with a Light Laugh

I take myself too seriously. I take my writing seriously, my parenting seriously, my exercise routine seriously. I analyze my mistakes in all areas of life seriously. What have I done wrong? Why have I gone wrong? And most important of all: how can I fix it? Heaven forbid that I should make the same mistake twice! And if the fix for a problem has not worked -- I tremble to think of the consequences to my state of mind.

It’s like having a judge next door who works around the clock to give his opinion: what I’ve done well, what I’ve done wrong, and how my solutions are working. This judge is ingrained in me, ever willing to step up and pick up responsibility for evaluating my performance. He never sleeps, never pauses, is ever alert and ready for business.

I like to think that I get along well with my judge. He (yes, he is male) pronounces his opinion as to my laziness, my failures, my inactivity, and I return the favor by becoming depressed and not doing anything whatsoever. If he’s going to be so difficult about every little thing I do or say, why, in all the fairies’ names, should I even bother?

In the past few weeks, however, I started a conversation with the judge. Perhaps if he stopped pushing so hard, there will be room for me to write, grow, laugh. Turns out that the judge is quite willing. I never knew how much he longed for me to have the freedom to do. “I feel so frustrated,” he says. “I just want you to fly, to reach the sky, for your writing to flow.” He looks at me, confused rather than critical, almost ashamed of himself. “I don’t know where it all went wrong,” he says.

Fortunately, at this juncture, my friend Rebecca came for a visit. We decided that since we were having a girlfriend to girlfriend, heart to heart talk, there is no better place for us to sit than the treehouse. The sky slowly darkened as we laughed and shared stories. Moths fluttered about our heads. The grasses crinkled, and I thought deer might be near. I felt happier than I have felt in a long time.

Life is not a one-key door, nor a treasure chest with seven different locks. The keys to life come at random, when we are ready, fitting the keyhole with an unexpected precision and serendipity. And last night, sitting and chatting in the tree house, Rebecca gave me a key that was just right for what I am dealing with now.

“My teacher, Chophel,” Rebecca said, “always says: ‘We are all wrong. We might as well take ourselves lightly.’”

To laugh at myself is perhaps the greatest lesson I wish to learn, to take myself lightly. Next time I get all serious, critical, and dramatic about my life, please remind me that I'm all wrong. That it’s just so much better to take a breath, and let it out in a laugh, lightly.

Take a breath and admit that you're all wrong. Laugh about it.  Take yourself lightly.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happily Ever After, The End

When I was a teenager, my aunt recommended I read Gone With the Wind. I remember the dreamy look on her face, the sigh as she told me how romantic the book was. She said: “Every time I read the book, I pray that it will end differently, that he will not leave, that something will make him stay.”

As a reader, I love happy endings. I am not usually fond of books that end like wisps of thread in the wind, without a satisfying conclusion. I rarely read sad books. In books, as in life, I love the romantic, happy ending, the hero and the heroine rambling barefoot on the beach under the smiling full moon, their hands swinging together in tune to the beat of a faraway melody.

As a writer, other forces are at work in me. The happily-ever-after romantic ending grates on my nerves. I watch my strong-minded, smart, independent protagonist and think: She has to end up with a guy? No way. She has grown so much in the book. She has found confidence in herself. I don’t want her to give that wonderful freedom away. My readers disagreed. “She has to find a prince,” they argued. “Any prince. Some kind of prince. But the story must end with a prince.”

What is it about the romantic happily-ever-after that appeals to readers? Even picture books have their share of romance. I think, really, only middle grade novels are free of it. My nine-year-old daughter certainly expresses the “ew” factor if anyone tries a smooch in a book. I can think of some beloved books that do not end hand in hand, but my favorites, the ones that I read again and again, all have bells ringing for the beau and his belle. Elizabeth marries Darcy. Ivanhoe marries Rowena. Lord of the Rings? Yes, romance. War and Peace? Of course.

Truth be told, I don’t think the ending of Gone with the Wind is sad. Faced with Rhett leaving, Scarlet realizes that she loves him. As the spectator to her heart’s misadventures, however, I am not sure that I trust her love. I want her to grow, to expand her horizons, to learn who she is inside. She has been silly the whole book through. The ending is Scarlet’s opportunity to grow up.

I’ve been lucky to have the latest chapter in my life wrapped up in romance. My daughter’s “ew” resounds in our house a lot, as does: “No kissies and no huggies!” But one chapter of life leads into another, all merging together into one story whose end is never in sight.  I like the idea of the independent heroine walking with confidence into the sunset, ready for whatever experience comes her way. But I admit, I like it too when she walks off into the sunset, confident and assured, and there's a man's arm linked in her own.

How do your favorite books end? Do you too have s soft spot in your heart for the happily ever after?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Violence and the Open Sky in War and Peace

For the past couple of months I’ve been listening to War and Peace on audio book. As a  teenager, I read many of the Russian authors, including Tolstoy, but the title War and Peace daunted me. I had never been particularly fond of war. Tackling the book as an audio book seemed easier -- I wouldn’t need to do anything but listen during my hours of driving every day. The audio book is over 60 hours long, and I have listened already to 50.

Listening to the book, I understand why it is praised as one of the greatest novels ever written. Natasha’s search for love, falling in love first with Boris, then with Prince Andrei, and then with Anatole, is the best kind of soap opera. Natasha, joyful and impetuous, is impossible not to love. I found myself identifying with the confused and innocent Pierre and his search for meaning, with the lonely Princess Maria who yearns to find an outlet for her love and caring, with the friendly, good-natured Count Rostov who seems unable to stop giving his money away and lets everyone cheat him.

It is now 1812 in the novel, and the French have occupied Moscow. The last battle of Borodino has taken a heavy toll. Prince Andrei has been wounded. Anatole lost his leg, perhaps has died. Pierre was dazed by what he has seen, describing a fallen colonel as though the colonel were inspecting something on the ground. In Moscow, the mayor hands over a political prisoner, Vereschagin, to the crowd to be lynched. The Rostovs leave most of their belongings behind in order to provide transport for the countless wounded soldiers that would otherwise be abandoned in the city. It is a gruesome time, and I am not enjoying it.

This morning, while trying to find the correct spellings of characters’ names, I ran into a surprising fact about Tolstoy. Turns out Tolstoy is known for his non-violent teachings. He was a vegetarian and has corresponded with Ghandi and was one of the biggest influences on Gahndi’s decision to pursue nonviolent resistance of the British. Amazing, is it not? “To get rid of an enemy, one must love him,” Tolstoy had said.

One of my favorite parts in War and Peace was Nikolai Rostov’s first meeting with battle. Instead of concentrating on the smoke, the fire, the shots, Nikolai suddenly realizes that he is in nature, that the sun is shining and the sky is blue. He is overwhelmed by love of life and the world. Tolstoy said: “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” I suppose at that moment, in the midst of chaos and violence, Nikolai was able to let go of fears and anger and violence, and be happy.

Happy Jewish New Year -- Shana Tova -- everyone! Wishing us all a happy, peaceful, love-filled year!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Interview with Author Karen Sandler

Today I’m excited to interview Karen Sandler, the author of Tankborn. After emailing with Karen and reading her blog and website, she still managed to surprise me with her answers. She leads such an exciting life!

Hi Karen! You write romance and YA sci-fi, but which is your favorite?

Science fiction is my all-time favorite genre. Although I’ve always read pretty widely and eclectically, SF is number one. It’s the first genre I tried to write too. I wrote plenty of SF short stories before I ever wrote my first romance. The second romance novel I wrote (the first one was too abysmal to count) was a science fiction romance.

You worked on the space shuttle program. That’s so exciting. Do you think that this contributed to your fascination with other worlds?

I think my fascination with other worlds led me to want to work on the space shuttle program, and in turn the job fed my fascination with other worlds. I should also mention that I applied to be an astronaut with the space shuttle program. I didn’t make it very far (never heard back from NASA), but I followed the launches and space walks, grieved terribly with the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

It amazes me that there are people out there who don’t like science fiction. It’s a little like not liking chocolate. I see the science fiction genre as a guide to our future—good and bad. In fact, maybe reading about the bad (such as dystopic stories like The Hunger Games and Tankborn) can help us make better decisions for our future.

I’ve heard you mention the idea that if we are not expected to do great things then we are more likely to excel. Do you find this is often true? 

What I was trying to say is that sometimes high expectations can be paralyzing and demoralizing. I remember my first year in graduate school I felt overwhelmed by class work. Prior to that, school had been my area of success. But in grad school, I was trapped both by my own expectations of myself, and the role I played in my family—I was the smart one, the one who did well in school. My very identity was threatened by what I thought was imminent failure. I was having some pretty dire thoughts, experienced some very dark moments. I did push through and made a respectable showing, but it was a difficult time.

I don’t think the opposite is a good thing—having it ingrained in you that you’ll never amount to anything. But there’s a certain freedom in not having external expectations at all. To excel because you find joy in excelling, to succeed when you’re self-motivated. There’s a freedom in working hard because you want to, not because you’re expected to.

Do you have a favorite email from a reader?

This isn’t from an e-mail, but from a snail mail letter. Here’s the best part:

“Tankborn is now my all-time favorite book. I’ve read it five times already.”

It put a huge smile on my face when I pulled that letter out of my P.O. Box and read it the first time. I’m sure I’ve read it more than five times since.

You wrote in your blog that you are a fast walker and do not like to meander. Does that translate into your writing career?

Well, being a fast walker doesn’t translate into my writing career, but maybe into my writing process. When I was writing the shorter romances I did for Harlequin, I used to write them pretty quickly (a 60K word book would take about 4 months). I’ve tried to keep up that same pace with the SF books, but they are far more complex plots. The details really take some thinking about. So while I do keep up a pretty decent pace (and I’m generally screaming fast when I get close to the end), I don’t write nearly as quickly as I used to. But I still walk fast.

What is your revision process like?

My goal is always to get the book written, the manuscript finished, before I revise. In practice, I do end up doing some light editing as I go, usually going back to touch up a page or two from a previous writing session before going on with new material. Also, when I figure out something needs to be changed earlier in the book that’s going to foreshadow something later, I’m not very good at leaving that for the revision process. I feel much better going back and working in the foreshadowing or clues that occur to me, then once that’s in place, move on.

I do sometimes just make a few notes to myself about stuff that I’m going to have to handle in the re-write. But even in those cases, they’re often notes made at the end of the day and are the first thing I handle the next time I sit down to write.

But I do generally write the entire manuscript, then do a read-through during which I make the changes I see are necessary. I always know, though, that my editor will have changes of her own, which might be fairly extensive. It’s kind of cool finding the solutions to the problems my editor points out.

Casper in bed
Tenka asking for a bellyrub
Zak posing for the camera
You have cats and horses and you dance too. Do these hobbies find their way into your books?

Heh. Cats aren’t a hobby. They’re a way of life. At least the cats think so. I have three—a young former feral named Zak, a rather chubby female Siamese/calico mix named Tenka, and a cranky old guy, Casper, who’s diabetic and requires insulin shots twice a day. They all live indoors only (Casper used to go out during the day until he got beaten up by a stray dog).

My mare is an Andalusian/Morgan cross and I mainly do dressage with her. Dressage is that really boring equestrian event that no one watches at the Olympics.

The dancing I do is international folk dance. It’s a fun mix of partner dancing and line dancing from countries all over the world—Israeli, Romanian, German, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian, American, British, Italian, etc. My husband and I belong to a group that meets weekly, then we’ll do the occasional performance or special event. Here’s a video that includes my husband and me dancing. I’m the one in the black turtleneck and striped skirt.

I have rarely been able to work either cats or horses into my books. Of the nearly 20 books that I’ve published, I think there were two books that included cats (the romances Chocolate Magic and His Miracle Baby) and two that included horses (romances The In-Between and Counting On a Cowboy). The animals were very minor influences on the plot.

I do have a dance scene of sorts in the upcoming Awakening, the second book in the Tankborn trilogy.

Where can we watch your short films?

I’ve only put Sweet Tooth up on YouTube,. Here’s the link:
Karen Sandler's Sweet Tooth

Thank you Karen for interviewing with me! Please feel free to send Karen your questions and thoughts in the comment box below.

Karen Sandler on the web:
Karen Sandler's website
Karen Sandler's blog
Follow Karen on Twitter: @karensandlerYA

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review of Tankborn, a young adult novel by Karen Sandler

Kayla is a GEN, a genetically engineered non-human. She was born in a tank, made from a DNA mix of animals and humans that was chosen to ensure she can fulfill a specific role in society. On the planet Loka, GENs are servants without the choice of where they serve, forced to wear gloves if they touch a human and forbidden to look into the eyes of a Trueborn.

We meet Kayla on the eve of her 15th birthday when she will receive her first assignment. But something about Kayla’s first job is odd, and the circumstances surrounding it are not quite what Kayla had been taught to expect. Kayla’s employer is a very old man with many secrets, and his secrets have the power to overthrow Kayla’s well-ordered view of her world.

Tankborn is a thrilling adventure and a romantic love story, but it also echoes (without being annoying) with political, religious and social undertones. It shows the difficulties of being at the top of the social ladder as well as the injustices suffered by those at the bottom, and how religion can be used to control an entire class of people.

The novel has an intricate plot that brings together many details and threads into a tightly-woven world. The planet Loka is complete with wildlife, geography, and climate, and the human impact -- whether through technology, social norms, or the exploitation of natural resources -- on it is already jarring. The higher class uses holograms to beautify homes and gardens. The low class no longer needs to fill low-rung positions like cleaning, mining, caregiving, because GENs are genetically engineered to fulfill these roles. The people of Tankborn are trapped in their positions in society, with only a few who are willing to fight to change the rules.

Karen Sandler’s Tankborn transported me so far out of my own life that, for the few hours which it took me to devour it, I lived right there on the planet Loka with Kayla and watched her adventures unfold as through a camera lens. I am so glad I got to read it -- I don’t often pick up sci-fi novels -- and to know Karen who has been so kind as to answer a few questions about this wonderful novel.

Hi Karen! You’ve said in one of your videos that you would prefer to be Lowborn than Trueborn so as not to have to worry about losing your status. Do you think teens would relate to the idea that it's not that easy to be popular?

I don’t know if I consciously thought of it like that, but yes, being a high-status trueborn is very like being one of the very popular kids in high school. Life can often look easier for other people if we’re watching them from the outside, but we all go through tough emotions in high school (and beyond). As bad as the humiliation was that I sometimes experienced as one of the very unpopular kids, it might have been much worse for a popular girl. She would have so much farther to fall in the eyes of others in her clique.

The world of Tankborn is extremely detailed. Can you tell us what it was like to imagine everything about Loka from scratch?

The world building happened in layers. I got the bare bones of the plot down, then handed it off to my son (a voracious SF/F reader) for a beta read. His feedback led to another layer of world building, then the same with my agents and eventually my editor, Stacy Whitman at Tu Books. Stacy’s feedback led me to fleshing out the most complex elements of the planet Loka and Tankborn’s society. In fact, on my hard drive, there are files full of details that never made it into the book, although they inform the structure of Loka’s society. Stacy would ask questions, which led me to creating a particular aspect of Loka’s backstory, which I would send to her to answer her questions, which would lead to more questions and further answers. There’s some pretty interesting stuff about Loka on my hard drive. Some of it (artists concepts of the flora and fauna, for instance) can be found at the Tankborn website and some will be up on my website soon.

What are you working on now?

I recently turned in to my editor a major re-write of Awakening, the second book of the Tankborn trilogy. I’m just starting the synopsis of Revolution, which will be the third and final book of the trilogy.

I will be looking forward to more of Kayla’s story when it is published!

Please join me tomorrow in a full interview with Karen about her cats, the space program, and why sci-fi is such a great genre to read and write.

To learn more about Karen Sandler and Tankborn you can go to:
Tankborn website
First four chapters of Tankborn
Karen Sandler’s website
Tankborn on Goodreads