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.