Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Novels About Schools

Blackwell's is my favorite bookstore in Oxford, established in 1879. It feels cozy but is enormous like a college library.

For inspiration writing S.A.D., I have read five good novels about schools. I’m passing the list along in case you’re looking for holiday reading or gifts. On that note, next week's blog might be one day late.

The closest book to my S.A.D. is Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher released this fall in the U.S.A. It’s not due in the U.K. until January, so my mother sent me a copy from NYC. The clocks are the only things ahead in England. [AND national health care, public television and punk rock, says my English husband.]

Both Perrotta’s and my novel concern evangelicals trying to change the high school curriculum. It's a coincidence as I started S.A.D. last year before his book was published. His novel looks at Sex Ed. while mine looks at Biology and the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution debate.

Perrotta is one of my favorite authors. His novels are at their best when parodying suburban life. Perrotta is clearly a devoted soccer dad, inviting you along for a ride in his minivan with a cynical laugh. Stonewood Heights is neither very liberal nor too conservative and appears the ideal place to raise a family. That is until the evangelicals spread through the community like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The protagonist is a divorced sex-ed teacher and her romantic foil a Born Again former rocker drug abuser. Perrotta is surprisingly good at mastering both the female and the male voices, straight or gay, and creating real characters in tangible settings. He writes very well and manages to make all topics accessible and amusing.

The Abstinence Teacher is a catalogue of sexual dysfunction, but it only tackles teen sex as flashbacks by the middle aged characters. This seems a curious omission since teenage sexuality is a bigger issue now than in the 1980's. The book is tastefully done, not prurient, and based on a solid understanding of evangelicalism. It has gotten a couple of favorable reviews in the NYT and deserves the attention.

I also enjoyed Perrotta's Little Children, a humorous tale of suburban malaise. His first novel, Election, took six years to sell, and the movie writes sold first, staring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. That one is also set in school, centering on a high school president election.

Another book set in an American public (ie. state) high school is Jodi Picoult’s latest, Nineteen Minutes. Picoult’s novel tries to understand school shootings from the perpetrator’s perspective. It’s a disturbing look at bullying and the shortfall of community. The accused shooter is almost as much a victim as his targets.

Picoult is a master of writing fast-paced, topical stories centered on families. Her books appeal to both teens and adults as she dexterously bridges the generation gap with the sensitivity of a former teacher. She's had many best sellers, even internationally. On almost any airplane ride, you'll find a woman reading one and gripped. It's not fluff: Picoult does her research, tackles the issues and writes well.

Her work is distinct, a genre to itself. Amazingly, Picoult produces a new novel every nine months. She notes with amusement that it is the same duration as pregnancy. It helps that her husband is at home raising their three children. Despite the upsetting topics, her books are easy reads. Another one that questions conventional ethics in the new world is My Sister’s Keeper. I just started The Tenth Circle.

David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is another book about bullying in school, but his tale takes place at an English state school during the 1980’s. It’s full of fun, nostalgic trivia. The narrator is a 13-year-old boy and a secret poet with an embarrassing stammer. The accounts of bullying are so real that they are hard to read, but Mitchell balances the darkness with humor.

Mitchell’s voice is original and engaging. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Structurally Black Swan Green reads like interlocking short stories or some YA chapter books. My 13-year-old son enjoyed it too, although it is more geared towards an adult audience. It’s a book that works on two levels of maturity. My husband is reading it now. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s so well written.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is about the elite world of New England boarding schools. A Midwesterner gets a scholarship to a school similar to Groton (Sittenfeld is an alum.) Leigh struggles academically and socially, making poor choices, especially sexually. She obsesses over a boy who is as accepted as she is spurned. Prep is a keen observation of setting and character. Unfortunately the protagonist is not likable enough to be sympathetic. Still it is an interesting view of privilege and class.

Like Picoult’s books, Prep has been popular with teenagers as well as adults. Prep is far less appropriate for teens than a Picoult novel. Picoult suffuses her narratives with moral lessons on safe sex and the consequences of bullying, whereas Sittenfeld paints a realistic portrait of degradation like rotting, over-priced fruit. There is a voyeuristic feel to Prep, but the writing is sophisticated.

If you’re looking for a more cozy-up-by-the-fire book, I’d recommend Joanna Trollope’s The Choir, even for those not religiously inclined. It’s a heartwarming story of village life in England where the clash between old and new generations takes on layers of meaning. Trollope writes well and is engaging, although sometimes her myriad of characters are hard to follow.

Trouble starts when the vicar proposes to renovate the church at the expense of the boys’ choir. The choir school dates back to King Henry VIII but lacks legal standing. The town is torn apart by the controversy that tests old friendships and divides families. In this way, The Choir is similar to S.A.D. as an exploration of the inter-personal, quirky world of small town politics and the danger of mixing church and state.

Happy Holidays and Good Reading!

Click on "comments" at the bottom of Unusual Holiday Lights for more school books.

If you know of other good novels on schools, please comment below.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wizard Earl

One step into the Museum of the History of Science and I had entered Philip Pullman’s fantasy world of His Dark Materials. The Oxford author had clearly found inspiration for Lyra’s magical alethiometer (the golden compass) in the museum’s collections of astrolabes and sundials. The 1590’s armillary sphere (pictured above) was owned by Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland. He was known as the “Wizard Earl.” The globes had astrological signs on them.

Director Jim Bennett explained that this was not a museum of modern science but rather “the finest collection of early instruments in the world.” The Persian astrolabes (above) dated from the 15th to the 18th centuries. There were other artifacts from the 11th century and many from the Renaissance. The instruments were called “mathematical” as the science focused on measuring distance and time in relation to the stars and planets for surveying and navigation.

Originally known as the Ashmolean, it was the first building ever constructed for the purpose of being a museum. It was completed in 1685 to embrace the new science in the university. The method of teaching was experiment and demonstration, a departure from the traditional reading of lectures. Like an allegory, the basement originally housed the chemical laboratories, the ground floor was devoted to the study of natural history and the top floor was the museum.

The new science museum was truly public from its conception. The six pence admission meant that few commoners could afford to visit, but those who could pay, including women, were welcome. What a radical concept for the 17th century! Some of the elite boycotted the museum for this reason.

I was surprised to see so many sundials during the period that clocks and pocket watches were gaining popularity. Dr. Bennett explained that clocks, which measure average solar time, had to be set off sundials. Interestingly, the sundials were a far more accurate measurement of time. Some were small enough to carry in a pocket and made additional measurements such as Babylonian time. Bennett compared them to the silly extra features on digital watches. Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. It’s all about the cool gadgets.

These days the entire building is devoted to the museum. The basement now houses the more modern collection, including its most famous object: a blackboard used by Einstein to show his cosmological equations. There is also the first wireless machine used to broadcast soprano Nellie Melba in 1920. An historic event included in the book my husband is writing on public television. Demonstrations of the ancient instruments are given at the table. I’d love to bring our engineer-inclined son back for an astrolabe or sundial demonstration.

My tour was arranged by the Oxford Newcomers' Club, and it was a fine way to spend a cold, wet morning. The leaves are mostly down, but the grass is still bright green and will be all winter. I miss snow. Perhaps that explains why the novel I started reading yesterday was Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Maybe I’m just pining after my own winter’s tale, S.A.D., which is with a reader now. S.A.D. is also about teaching science. Have you ever felt homesick for a novel?

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Philip Pullman on Writing Myth & Religion

I thought it was a joke: Philip Pullman, young adult author and outspoken critic of organized religion, in a public discussion with, get this, the vicar in a church. So it’s okay to be organized in a church so long as the topic is writing.

I grabbed my teenaged son, who loved His Dark Materials trilogy even more then Harry Potter, and joined throngs of Oxford students at The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on October 22nd. What a dramatic setting: stained glass, vaulted ceilings and gargoyles dating back to the 13th century. I half expected to find a daemon lurking in the pews. The fantasy series was set in his hometown of Oxford in this universe and in others.

Philip Pullman fitted the collegiate venue. He looked and sounded more like a tenured college professor than a bestselling author and iconoclast. He was warm and friendly with his host, Canon Brian Mountford.

Pullman referred to himself as a “Church of England Atheist.” He praised the Bible for its beautiful prose and noted religion’s value in building community. Pullman’s quarrel is not so much with religion but that “the church abandoned people in my position.” He cited religious wars, persecution and intolerance.

The Church of England was an important part of his personal history. He seemed to regard it more like an eccentric relative than the enemy. When Pullman was only seven, his father died. His grandfather, an ordained minister, partially raised him. Pullman praised his beloved grandfather for being a gifted storyteller. Later Pullman claimed that parents could do better by telling moral stories as opposed to religious ones.

In a Hollywood minute, the conversation jumped from religion to the upcoming film version of His Dark Materials. When Mountfield asked if the adaptation was true to the book, Pullman replied that the film is but one in a long series of different ways of telling the same story. Since writing the novels, there have been abridged audio books, a radio dramatization and 2 stage plays. Each has a different emphasis that reflects the genre.

His Dark Materials film will have special effects not possible on the page. It won’t be the same because the book takes eleven hours to read out loud, compared to a two-hour film. Pullman also wrote some special scenes just for the movie.

What impressed me most was Pullman’s eloquence and lack of conceit. He seemed to see the writer as a tool in the process: “stories only come into being when you read them; you can’t tell the meaning.”

Pullman has no problem with readers having different interpretations or leaving questions unanswered. When writing, the author is a tyrant and the process is despotic. Once the book becomes published, it becomes a democracy of the readers. “Reading is engaged in silence and secrecy, and there is nothing I can do about it.”

Writing is still hard work. The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA) took Pullman seven years to write. It still isn’t faultless. “If you want to write a perfect piece of literature, write a haiku or a sonnet but don’t bother writing a novel.”

Nonetheless, Pullman appreciates the craftsmanship of forming sentences and the discipline of using words precisely. He frequently consults the dictionary and loathes clichés. His focus is as much on enjoying the medium of language as on telling the story. With experience writing gets both harder and easier. “It is easier because there are more ways to say the same thing, but it is harder to choose.”

What sets Pullman apart from most contemporary writers of children’s fiction are his literary references. His work draws heavily from the Judeo-Christian tradition and from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. His books resonate with the notion of fall and redemption. There is also a fair bit of science, including string theory, in creating his parallel universes and “dust.”

His Dark Materials leave readers of any age with questions. The biggest one is “what is dust?”

Pullman explained, “It is the visual analogue of all things known, all thoughts. What I call dust is what makes us what we are.” He avoided using the term soul but instead referred to the human “sense of consciousness.” The purpose of dust was “to develop a myth as a place to stand like in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

I’m wondering how much of this will be clear to my ten-year-old daughter, who just started reading the series. To her, it is all about the daemons, those lovable animalistic beings that are the other half of humans. My daughter would calls them cute, little shape changers, but Pullman said they are the “aspect of oneself.”

Pullman claims that his best idea was having the daemons constantly changing form until their humans hit puberty. At heart, it is a young adult book dealing with this magical transformation from child to adult.

Biggest laughs came when Pullman answered the question of what would be his daemon. “My daemon would be a scruffy bird that steals from his neighbors.” He elaborated on how his imaginative fiction is rooted in research.

There is no doubt in my mind that his best character is the drunken, armored polar bear. Pullman created this creature and the dueling scene after reading an 1812 essay about fencing with a bear. His magic brings it to life.

The view from St. Mary's tower of Oxford

On the way out, we dropped a couple pounds in the church collection box. St. Mary’s also raises funds from visitors to the tower and by running a café called Vaults and Garden. The food is fresh and wholesome. Still, it’s hard to imagine any of this happening in an American church. That’s the fun of living abroad.

A blog is the ultimate democracy of the readers. What’s your take on Philip Pullman’s mythology?

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Happy Hallowgiving


My daughter was miserable. Halloween in England didn’t cut it. The only ten-year-old in our neighborhood out trick-or-treating was babysitting the little ones. The young children came in store-bought costumes and said “Happy Halloween” instead of “trick-or-treat.” There were few jack-o-lanterns and certainly no children’s parade. It was small consolation that she could save her Goth chick costume for next year.

My mother-in-law came to the rescue. Nicola proposed we gather the four grandchildren to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving together. Ever since they came to visit us for Thanksgiving, my English in-laws have been celebrating the holiday. Everyone loves the idea of coming together for a meal to give thanks.

I agree. I am already missing not seeing my extended family in NYC. My cousin cooks for the 19 of us, and it is the only time we are all together other than weddings. Amazingly my mother-in-law recreated the American feast: it tasted just like home. Nicola even made my mother’s stuffing and cranberry sauce. She baked her first pumpkin pie and my favorite of apple pie.

My husband’s family has become my own over the years despite the cultural barriers. Nicola is a retired occupational therapist who enjoys painting lovely watercolors. Her husband has the same first name as my father so sometimes we refer to him as Captain Tony. He’s half Chilean and knew Nicola because his father sold a Devonian farm to her parents. Captain Tony has a memoir out now about the Tanganyika Mutiny from his time in the royal navy.

When Tony isn’t writing, he’s bell ringing at the medieval church. They live in a quaint village, Goring-on-Thames, surrounded by bucolic countryside. It’s like stepping into a Joanna Trollope novel visiting my in-laws.

Since I have a brother but no sisters, it’s a bonus having sisters-in-law. Charlotte Laurence works in international development, designing and managing HIV and AIDS prevention and care programs in low-income countries. She was just back from China and has worked in Africa too. She has a beautiful old flat in Bath. My daughter thinks her aunt dead cool. It’s not only her fascinating work; Charlotte has a great fashion sense and is wonderful with her niece and nephews.

Henry, Charlotte, Neil and Jess

Henry’s older sister, Jessica Bett, is a planner in the South Gloucestershire Council. She has a degree in industrial archeology and collects old green glassware. Jess has an easy laugh and a gentle nature. She and her husband, Neil, live in Bristol.

Neil Bett is Scottish and a talented actor with a great sense of humor. He and a partner set up Barking Productions LLP. Actors teach businessmen, bureaucrats and doctors better public relations skills through role-playing. Neil still acts occasionally and will be on Max Bear with Tom Baker. It won't air until Christmas 2008. Jess and Neil have two boys close to my children in age. They get on fabulously.

Henry invented the game of Pirate Bold. It’s sort of like freeze tag but with a hidden treasure. The game starts with, “Ar, Jim lad!” The children run off base looking for the treasure chest while the grown ups tag them by hand or throwing a soft ball (ie. “firing a broadside.”) The best part is eating the chocolate treasure. For the Halloween version, they all dressed up in costumes except for my teenaged son. Granny provided plenty of extra treats and “pudding” as dessert is called in England.

It also happened to be November 11th so they went to a village service at 11:00 AM with girl and boy scouts and war veterans. Remembrance Day is like our Veteran’s Day only so many more Brits died in WWI. Everyone wears paper red poppies and dresses up somberly for the occasion. It was also my brother’s birthday so I called him in NYC and recounted our wonderful weekend. It felt like going home.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Horses in the Mist

In the mornings, the mist is often thick over Port Meadow. The herds of horses and cattle come into soft focus as I walk the dog. The sun is low on the horizon, making the most ordinary objects glow. Only in Oxford can swans flying over a river be called ordinary.

The misty landscape is a reflection of my mind as I try to find NOT CRICKET. First there are the characters, shifting in and out of focus and teasing me at the periphery of my vision. Sometimes I think I see them clearly, but other times they fade away.

In my latest version of S.A.D., I decided my protagonist needed a personality makeover and changed her name from Agnes Wolfe to Haley Swan. Time in England is affecting even my American book although Swan is a Maine name. I try to be true to my settings.

The plot is pure fiction. It keeps changing like a folktale passed down through generations. The essential message stays the same, but the story shifts in details and in structure almost organically.

The plot is key to commercial fiction as it drives the narrative. It’s tricky to create a story that keeps the reader turning pages but also resonates on a deeper level. I like to keep the narrative open for as long as possible so as to explore the many paths. A story that doesn’t surprise me won’t surprise you.

As important as thinking is reading. Some books I read for research and others for writing inspiration. I have just finished a most lovely novel, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, translated from the Norwegian by Ann Borne. It is not long, and the prose is simple, but it says so much with so little. It breaths between the words.

A coming-of-age story, Out Stealing Horses explores the relationship between a fourteen-year-old son and his enigmatic father. The beautiful, raw setting roots the characters and frames the narrative. It is a small community in the northeastern woods of Norway. The narrator is an older man, looking back on a disturbing and formative summer shortly after WWII. When I finished, it was like saying goodbye to a close friend. I miss his voice.

Another story that relies heavily on setting is Ann Patchett’s new release, Run. It takes place close to home in Boston and Cambridge where I attended university. Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and her last novel, Bel Canto, was too good to match. In her latest novel she looks closely at a family and the effects of race and class. Her characters are so real you feel you know them. Run was helpful for me to read because it is set in winter like my first two novels.

Popham Beach, Maine in December

So many authors set their Maine stories in the summer, possibly because they only vacation there. For year-round residents, Maine is defined by its long winter and unpredictable storms. It is what makes living up north unique and special. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a Maine summer, but you feel like you’ve earned it after surviving the winter and appreciate it the more.

As it rains and the leaves turn brown instead of flaming red and gold, Maine feels far away. Still, I have to admit that I may be quite happy to see daffodils in February for a change. When I leave Oxford, I will dream about horses in the mist.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Uprooting to England

I type to the whine of chainsaws. Most of our hundred year old white pines, towering high above our home, have died of a mysterious infection. Feeling the thud of falling trees brings home my own uprooting. Or is it transplanting?

We are moving to England for the year. My husband, Henry, is taking a research sabbatical at Oxford University, his alma mater. Our children will be attending English schools, and we’re even taking the dog along. Henry and the kids have dual citizenship, but my visa states that I’m a “settlement wife!” I do feel like a pioneer venturing into a new life.

In England I will be researching my third novel, NOT CRICKET. My first two novels were set in my home state of Maine. NOT CRICKET's Evelyn Levesque is a Maine native on a junior year at Oxford University. She returns 20 years later to track down her first love who disappeared mysteriously.

Like my central character, I spent my junior year at an English University. I had a rather dramatic trip overseas. My flight to London was cancelled when the plane exploded on its way to NYC over Lockerbie. Henry was beside himself until he learned that I was not on that doomed flight.

The next day I flew to London undeterred, assuming security would be top notch. My hometown of NYC changed so much after 9/11, but the shadow of terrorism has hung over England for decades. You learn to live with it.

My last long stint of living in England was in 2004. Henry ran the Colby-Bowdoin-Bates study abroad program in London for six months. Our children attended an English school like Hogwarts. My son won enough house points to attend a cricket match at Lord’s. We had many good adventures which I relayed to friends and family via bi-weekly e-mails. This time it will be easier with a blog.

England already feels like a second home. Raising a mixed nationality family, it helps to spend time in both countries. We are lucky that academia and writing provide the flexibility to do this.

I’ve always planned to write a novel about the Anglo-American experience. Despite a common language, there are cultural barriers leading to amusing misunderstandings. I consider myself bilingual after 17 years married to a Brit. Do I have stories to tell!

It may take a couple of weeks for me to get back on line, but I will keep this blog running weekly about our adventures abroad. We plan to travel to France, Italy, Kenya and other countries. It won’t be just vacation. I will be alternating research on NOT CRICKET with revisions on S.A.D.

First I need to finish packing and preparing the house for our lodgers (already thinking in English vernacular!) Next Wednesday we will be flying across the Atlantic and won’t return home until July 2008. After friends and family, the hardest thing to leave behind is my personal library, but I hear there are a lot of books in Oxford!

And now to answer the desert island question:

Books for the plane:
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights
(it takes place in Oxford if in a different dimension)
Kirin Desai’s Inheritance of Loss
(well recommended literary fiction)

Books I shipped:

For Writing:
Strunk and White – the classic writer’s manual
The Brief English Handbook- another for checking grammar
Points of View – a collection of different narrative points of view
A new journal

For S.A.D:
Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener for my Bartleby character– I still have my copy from high school
Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes since S.A.D. is also set in public high school
Four nonfiction research books

Valerie Martin’s The Unfinished Novel – brilliant short stories about artists and writers
Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants-excellent example of first person present and past tense interwoven narratives, a form I’m considering
Ian McEwan’s Atonement – as an alternative form, a book in chronological parts, also very English

Books I will buy in England:
A dictionary, a thesaurus and a baby name book
Does Cricket for Dummies exist?

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Moose Crossing

An e-mail from someone in Windham, Maine:

I have never seen a newborn moose. This one was not even a half a mile from our house. The mother picked a small quiet neighborhood and had her baby in the front yard at 5:30 am. We were out bike riding when we came upon the pair. The lady across the street from this house told us she saw it being born. We saw them at 5:30 pm. So the little one was 12 hours old. What an awesome place we live in to see such a site!

Note: If you know who took these moose photos, comment below so I can credit the photographer.

Recommended Books:

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
Beautifully written story about a wealthy Jewish family after the Iranian Revolution. On page one the father is arrested and disappears. This new release is a remarkable debut novel, reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
A lighter summer read. Run away and join the circus. A portrait of Depression era America with an odd but endearing cast of characters. Rosie, the elephant, steals the show. The narrator was a circus vet now trapped in a nursing home and his aging body. As fast, busy and entertaining as the big top.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Test Flight

Coming back home to Maine, I was in for a shock. My fluffy golden retriever . . .

. . .had become a Labrador retriever.

Or perhaps a naked mole rat? Poor Stella had been dying in the summer heat so a buzz cut was in order. She spent the first couple days chewing her tail, but now she is much perkier on her walks. Her feathers will grow back by autumn.

A mother’s solo vacation is more like racking up a debt. My husband coped well during my 5-day absence but didn’t get any work done. With a home office, I’ve learned to work with interruption if not gracefully. My children had so much to tell me they had to talk simultaneously. The laundry, camp forms, home repairs and bills had stacked up.

The piles only grew as my first priority was finishing manuscript revisions for my first reader. Henry is taking S.A.D. to England where he’s visiting family. Call it a test flight for an airplane book. With both of my books I gave my first chapter to my husband to read, and then I shut the door to my office. He waited patiently for years the first time and for months the second time for me to finish.

Henry must have read Moose Crossing six times. My first draft of that novel was a ridiculous 660 pages – more than twice what it is now! I’ve learned. The first draft of S.A.D. is 260 pages with room to expand. True love is the patience to proof carefully and offer constructive criticism.

Henry welcomes the fictional characters and their problems into our home but also entices me back to the real world. My son pointed out some people live in the past, others for the future, but I live too much in my imaginary world.

Stephen King (another Maine author!) wrote an excellent book On Writing in which he describes his creative process as writing for the ideal reader. For him that is his wife. His writing style, like mine, is to lock himself in his office, not sharing half completed work.

There is no one right way to write. The trick is finding the method that works best for you. I need privacy and big chunks of time; others need more feedback and write better in short bursts. All writers need readers because it’s hard to see the fault lines in one’s own work.

Although I write women’s fiction, my ideal reader is my husband. He’s a demanding critic, my most avid supporter and has a great sense of humor. He’s also an excellent writer himself. My comments on his political writing tend towards critique of theory. Academia is geared towards a narrow audience but good writing is all about communicating and entertaining.

Entertaining was the theme of last weekend. My youngest child just turned ten and invited SEVEN girls to what could only be called a wake-over. One parent described the next day as giving your child a hangover as a party favor. Not from alcohol but from sleep deprivation after watching Pirates of the Caribbean and giggling all night long.

P.S. Does anyone know who took the naked mole rat photo? If so leave a comment so I can credit the photographer.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Big Chill No Body

Cathy, Jen, Me, Kim, Deb, Amy, Abigail (L to R) at the RopeWalk

“It sounds like it was The Big Chill minus the dead body,” my husband said. I invited my six school friends to Nantucket to celebrate our 40th birthdays. Deb was my first play date when we were toddlers. We met Cathy and Jen in a Central Park playground, and our parents became friends too. Amy, Abigail, and Kim joined us at the Dalton School. One other school friend, Anna, couldn’t come as she lives in Italy.

Abigail summed it up, “What a fabulous weekend! More important than the beautiful surroundings and weather--though of course they helped--the company was just perfect. I find it so amazing that we never run out of things to talk about, and so comforting to know that we all have been there for one another over so many years, with the various ups and downs that we've all had. It makes me wish there was more time to just pick up the phone and chat with more frequency--and I really intend to do that more--but I guess it also says something that we can easily pick up wherever we left off, no matter how much time has passed.”

On Saturday we went on a twelve-mile bike ride and still managed to chat through most of it. Nantucket is small, flat and ringed with bike paths along the moors. The beach plums were in bloom as were the wildflowers. We stopped to watch enormous snapping turtles, a family of swans and a pair of egrets on our way to Madaket beach.

For lunch it was over-stuffed sandwiches on fresh baked bread at Something Natural that has been there decades before the health food craze even started. I always order avocado, cheddar and chutney on pumpernickel with Matt Fee iced herbal tea and carrot cake. We ate picnic style in the bucolic garden.

The sunset over the harbor was, as Deb likes to say, “spectacular.” Someone noticed that we all have our favorite words. Mine is “literary.” A lot of conversations revolved around books. Deb and Abigail worked in publishing before having kids, and we all bonded in high school over our love of books.

I remember taking turns reading aloud passages from romance novels between giggles. We learned all sorts of good SAT words like diaphanous and talked about writing our own Harlequin romance. I wonder now if that is where my idea to write commercial women’s fiction germinated.

Now Abigail, with her background in editing romance novels, and Cathy, with her good proofing eyes, are helpful readers. Deb promises a great book party in NYC when my debut novel is published one day. My novels are not romance genre, but there is still romance, which back in high school was a big topic of discussion.

We weren’t just bookworms. In high school we spent many a Saturday night dancing at clubs like Studio 54. Promoters passed out free passes in front of our school. Some nights we’d go to the theater, concerts, bars, movies or restaurants, when we weren’t babysitting.

Other times we’d just meet up at an apartment to watch a movie or General Hospital over tubs of Haagan Dazs ice cream, warm David’s Cookies and TAB. There can’t be a more fun and independent place to be a teenager than NYC. It’s safer too since no one drives.

You don’t really need a car in Nantucket either. Town has cute boutiques, but sadly the five-and-ten I used to frequent as a kid is now yet another T-shirt shop. On the way to the lighthouse (feeling like Virginia Woolf) we ran into John Kerry, who has a summerhouse nearby. He returned my smile and wave. It was bittersweet thinking he could have been our president instead of out walking alone.

We walked into town for dinner at Oran Mor. It feels as intimate as eating in someone’s colonial home but with gourmet food. Deb’s husband surprised us by calling the restaurant to foot the bill as a birthday present for his wife who turned 40 in Nantucket. Under his instruction, we ordered champagne and the finest wines. He was off fishing with his brother that weekend since their kids were at camp. The other husbands were at home tending kids and dogs.

Heading home to my husband, kids and dog, I took a one-night detour to see my college roommate. We met at the Harvard Book Store and laughed over how their table of summer reading included one of our favorite novels, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which would be quite a weight in the beach bag. It’s not just that it is a serious literary novel about India; it is also over 1,400 pages. Another summer read suggestion was a biography of Einstein. Only in Harvard Square!

My college roommate and her husband are heading off to teach for two years at a school in Columbia. They’ve rented out their house in suburban Lexington and are packing up their three kids aged three to thirteen. Mike has been a principal at a bilingual school in East Cambridge, and Debbie has worked in teaching and writer tutoring.

Debbie was also another reader for my first novel, Moose Crossing. We spent a good part of our sushi dinner at Shilla brainstorming over the plot of my third novel. I’m going to miss not having her around to bounce ideas, but what an adventure to move your family to South America!

I took the Downeaster train, my favorite way to travel from Boston to Maine. It’s a pleasant ride through New England towns, farms and marshes, bypassing the summer traffic. Onboard I proofed S.A.D., having finished the first draft of my second novel before my vacation.

Working for myself, I find it helps to set personal deadlines. It takes a disciplined mindset and self-motivation to work at home. After all that social time, I’m ready to revert to my introverted habits, my batteries recharged. This is good since a bigger part of writing a novel is rewriting it. It’s a long process of revision, fact checking, additional research and restructuring after feedback from readers. It’s exciting to be almost at the point where I can share my work. A book is only a book with readers.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Reading on Nantucket

Best to arrive by sea to Nantucket. Two hours of rocking on gentle waves lulls away tension. My children giggle teary-eyed at the ferry’s bow, their shirts ballooning. Cape Cod becomes a smeared line on the horizon before sinking. Sailboats blow by like feathers on the wind. Slowly, an island rises in the fog.

Rounding the tiny lighthouse at Brant Point, we enter an expansive harbor of sailing yachts. From this viewpoint not much has changed in decades. Squinting into the mist, it could still be a wealthy whaling town with its cobblestones, gas lamps and venerable architecture.

For over three decades my family has been coming to Nantucket. The grey-weathered shingles climbing with roses were a welcome contrast to hot concrete. The island is wrapped in an endless beach with the Gulf Stream warming the water. At night elegant restaurants take advantage of local farms and day boat fish.

Mostly I come to Nantucket to read. There are two independent bookstores and a good library in town. Nantucket Bookworks has a large selection of modern classics while Mitchell’s Book Corner stocks more current women authors. By odd coincidence the three books I read were gender benders: two men writing about women and one woman writing about men.

Haruki Murakami’s just released After Dark is a departure from his recent novels. The main characters are female: one sister with insomnia and another trapped in sleep. It reads more like a stretched short story or a dream unfolding over one night. It lacked the well-structured plot of his other novels, but it was just as surreal and evocative of alienation in modern Tokyo. He is one of my favorite authors with his original voice and flawless prose.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement left me stunned. It brought to mind Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and Leon Uris, but it stands independently as a modern classic. It’s an intensely human book with characters that are deeply flawed but sympathetic and real. McEwan writes so well about women and family. Set during World War II amidst class conflict, it’s a depressing story but told with such eloquence as to be uplifting. It’s a good vacation book because once you start, it’s impossible to put down.

Annie Proulx’s Close Range includes the story that became the movie Brokeback Mountain. That sad tale was one of the more upbeat stories in this beautiful collection. In this book it is a woman writing in a male voice. The writing is as raw and stunning as the western landscape. I find her work an inspiration, although bleaker than I would dare to venture. Proulx allows the landscape to become a character in the narrative; more than a setting, it sets the tone.

Writing is quite like painting. First mix the characters and then block out the plot before finding the light, the shadows and the details. The trick is holding onto the negative space – you feel that with Proulx. Her art is as much about what she doesn’t say as what she does. There is no better teacher than a well-written book.

Happy July 4th!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


On summer evenings the skies are a bright blue that glows from the horizon and intensifies in hue above. The buildings jump out in sharp relief, looking like you’ve put on glasses for the first time. Low humidity, a gentle sea breeze and a warm sun slow to set mark June in Maine. There’s a quiet peacefulness: a lingering “ahh” after the long winter and before the busy rush of tourist season.

After a day on Popham Beach, we sometimes treat ourselves to dinner in Bath. We don’t go for lobster but for Memphis style barbecue at the Beale Street Grill. Zappy black and white décor, blues posters and Elvis icons are a surprise to find in this historic shipbuilding city. The food is excellent: spicy and smoky with an interesting children’s menu. It’s known for its pulled pork and local brews on tap.

We had stayed late on the beach as the kids swam, and I finished Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Pessl has a bright and original voice that transports you back to the pains of late adolescence with its conflicting desires to judge, mock and fit in.

The narrator, a precocious high school senior called Blue, speaks in erudite footnotes, amusing, but after 500 pages, a bit tiresome. Her ironic observations are hilarious. She dismisses a potential suitor as being born in “the wrong decade” with his perfect, shiny hair earning him the nickname “Chippendales.” You keep reading for the unexpected combinations like the pretty boy’s blond curls on his sweaty forehead described as Cheerios soaked too long in milk.

The weakest part of Pessl's book was the murder or suicide mystery. I don’t think that far-fetched plot line was necessary to drive the narrative. Still, as a first novel by such a young author, it was impressive. I'd recommend this book for young adults more than grown ups.

I might look for a new book at the Bath Book Shop, which in itself is worth a trip to the little city. The cozy store promotes local authors and has an extensive children/YA’s section. The owner is as knowledgeable as the best children’s librarians.

Up the brick sidewalk is Reny’s, an old five-and-dime. Great place to find anything from camping chairs to discounted men’s clothing. At a corner over-looking the Kennebec River is Café Crème, a Wi-Fi hotspot with homey charm, featuring native ice cream. After a reviving espresso, you can browse the trendy boutiques and antique stores or visit the excellent Maine Maritime Museum.

Bath doesn’t appear to have changed much since its high days of being a wealthy ship captain’s town, but it has. Iron naval ships instead of wooden clipper ships are constructed on the Kennebec River that flows deep to the ocean. Charming Victorian and earlier period houses adorn tree-lined streets, but the city is no longer in past century financial boom. Bath Iron Works dominates the skyline and drives the economy that is increasingly becoming dependent on tourism.

Bath is worth a stop off Rt. One, driving east from Brunswick. It encapsulates the Old World meets next generation feeling of mid-coast Maine. It’s as nice a mix as the frozen cappuccinos I wasn’t able to find when I moved north a decade ago. Have I really lived here that long?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Portland Nightlife

“Oh-my-God-oh-my-God, it’s Professor Kitch!” shrieked a Bowdoin blond. When Aaron Kitch isn’t teaching Renaissance literature at Bowdoin College, he plays keyboard in the 80’s revival band, Racer-X.

The lead singer and guitarist, Vineet Shende , teaches music at Bowdoin. Vin had just come back from a semester sabbatical in India, studying sitar and letting his hair grow as long, black and curly as mine. For their gig at Ri~Ra in Portland, Vin clipped his hair short and donned a wig. Stretch pants and leopard print replaced his trademark jeans and leather jacket. Could this be my soft-spoken friend?

If Henry and I hadn’t gotten there early to see Racer-X set up, I doubt I would have recognized our mates. It wasn’t only their clothing that had changed. With the amps ramped up, the lights flashing and 20-year-old girls dancing and screaming, these professors were rocking.

Portland is the biggest city in Maine, a half an hour south of Brunswick. By day it’s a brick and cobblestone boutique haven of Old World charm, but by night the over-booked restaurants and bar crowds spill onto sidewalks as does the music of live bands.

The city doesn’t come alive until late, so we killed time at Books Etc. (open until 9pm Thursday-Saturday and every night during the summer.) I skimmed the new releases, pleased to see most were in my genre of women’s fiction. In the used book section I discovered a hardcover copy of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, the best novel I’ve read in the past year. I read about two books a month, mostly in my genre and in literary fiction. I’ve found the best writing teacher to be a well-written novel.

The stalking tiger on the cover of The Hungry Tide is as beautiful as the fairytale inside. It’s a contemporary story set in eastern India where deified tigers roam free and viciously wild in tidal country. The tough Indian-American heroine has come in search of the elusive river dolphin and inadvertently her ancestry. She hires an illiterate fisherman whose knowledge runs deeper than the hidden pools. It’s a world beyond intellect, ruled instead by dreams, spirits and unpredictable storms. The prose is as captivating as the story that compels the reader to read, return and read again like a favorite song.

I’ve always enjoyed books written by Indian authors. The setting is exotic but the English fluent. There is respect for family, nature and spirituality both rigidly confined and enhanced by culture. Two other favorite novels are Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. I’ve never read a better collection of stories than Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpretation of Maladies.

Lahiri’s novel The Namesake has just been released as a finely acted film. Vin says it’s the story of his life: “Did she call up all the people I know?” It’s a modern tale of Bengali immigrants whose son, Gogol, grows up to date a blond. Gogol is torn between his heritage and mainstream culture, struggling to find his footing in a world that sees him as a foreigner, despite being a native born American.

The Namesake rambles like many first novels, but it speaks with heartfelt honesty. You can almost forgive the hopeless plot that is more of an overstretched story than a novel. As a New York Jew living in small-town Maine, I’m drawn to tales of displacement and discovery.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Smart Plot Growth

I just had the best day. Early Tuesday morning I swam laps, as I do 2-3 times a week to counter all those hours sitting at the computer, and walked slowly home enjoying the sun. I opened all the windows to the wonderful warm air and produced a NEW chapter after a long, painful week of controlling plot sprawl.

Rambling prose is quite a common problem in a first draft. Many writers can only discover their characters through writing. I need to hear them talk, meet their families and see the world through their eyes before I can decide what is worth sharing. A classic piece of advice I’d heard from a writer-friend: you needed to write that, but I didn’t need to read it.

Before my children came home, I interviewed a school board member/former superintendent for research on S.A.D., my second novel. I like to let my imagination run wild and then take a reality check, adjusting details for verisimilitude. Often I ask my experts to spot-check the section later for mistakes and jargon. It’s odd being active in real educational politics while writing an imaginary version – almost like living out a dream.

I could have gone back to proofing, but it was low 70’s with a cooling sea breeze and everything had started blooming all at once. I took the dog for a walk on the way to get my daughter from girl scouts and lingered in the playground. The girls were playing an inventive mix of baseball, badminton and freeze tag. Even close to 5pm the sun was high above the tall pines. In Maine the flip side of short, dark winters are blissfully long spring/summer days.

On the deck I broke out my library book, Lionel Shriver’s The Post Birthday World. It is written in back to back chapters contrasting what would have happened had the protagonist kissed another man on his birthday or stayed faithful to her life partner. It sounds gimmicky, but it’s very well done. There are amusing twists: when she’s unfaithful, her partner dotes on her, but he almost ignores her when she’s dependable. Her flirtation sparks her creativity, but her work suffers when she leaves her supportive partner. It’s the book that answers what if… in two versions, and it does so artfully.

To top the perfect day, Henry and I decided to try Sweet Leaves Teahouse with the kids for dinner. All three dinner options were delicious (pork roast, gnocchi and scallops) and it was open mike night. I started laughing so hard I thought I’d fall off my chair to Henry’s horror because he thought the singer was trying to be serious.

Afterwards I had to get the name of the woman who sang about menopause, rhyming “my breasts are sagging” with “my energy is flagging,” and “aging” with “hormones raging.” The singer recognized me from my blog and said I was friends with her sister the writer Charlotte Agell. What a small town moment and what a pleasure to meet the talented Anna Agell.

Last night I slept well which doesn’t always happen. Often during creative bursts I wake in the night and scribble plot lines and dialogue on file cards I keep in the bathroom. I can’t help it – the characters wake me with their chatter. Other times I have worried about getting published, but as a writer I keep on writing. I do it because I can’t stop and because every day I look forward to working. It’s a passion as much as an obsession.

Some people ask how I manage to concentrate while working at home or how I find self-discipline without deadlines. I must have attention excessive disorder. I love what I do, even when it is painful, mostly it is pure joy.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Children's Author Cynthia Lord

“It must be something in the water,” Cynthia Lord surmised. Cindy’s first children’s book, Rules, just won a Newbery Honor Medal and the Schneider Family Book Award. We both live on the same street as Charlotte Agell who has published eleven children’s books. I guess I should drink more water.

Rules is fiction, but it rings true. Twelve-year-old Catherine tries to teach her autistic younger brother the rules of life. David has to be told that it’s okay to take his shirt off to swim but not his pants. Catherine creates the words to communicate with her paraplegic friend, Jason, and struggles to get her busy parents to listen to her needs too. The characters have challenges that restrict their lives but don’t define them. They find happiness on their own terms without a miracle cure.

When I read Rules aloud to my children, it made us laugh and almost cry. It was quite an accomplishment to create a book that would appeal to both a nine-year-old girl and a twelve-year-old boy, not to mention their mother. The book was flawlessly well written.

“Most books about autism are so sad,” Cindy said, “but a family has to learn how to laugh or they’re not going to make it.”


Is there a true story behind your story?

When my son was first diagnosed with autism, I spent forty hours a week on Behavior Modification Treatment because Maine didn’t offer it. The state flew up experts from New York and paid for the student helpers I trained. It was worth it to see my son recover the words he had lost at eighteen months.

Now my fourteen-year-old son attends the junior high for special classes like cooking and art. It’s too noisy there for him to concentrate in such a big school, so he does his schoolwork at home. His seventeen-year-old sister attends the high school.

How did you find the time to write Rules when your son was only five?

I realized I would have to make time for writing or not want it anymore. I set my alarm for 4am and wrote every morning until my family got up at 7am. In four months I finished the first draft and then spent a year revising it with help from readers.

Was the road to publication as short?

The first two publishers rejected Rules but sent the manuscript back with helpful comments. I rewrote it and sent out a query letter and two sample chapters to four more publishers. One rejected it with a form letter, but the other three asked for the complete manuscript.

I loved the Scholastic Book Club as a child, so I granted Scholastic an exclusive read. Then September 11th happened, and everything ground to a halt. After eight months, I finally got a call from the editor saying they would be running some numbers and planned to acquire it. I realized that I needed an agent to negotiate the contract, so I called Tracey Adams in New York. We had met at a conference.

So why did the book not come out until 2006 – almost five years later?

As a first time author, I was put on the slow track. The manuscript went from one over-committed editor to a second one. There were revisions to add more drama. Even when the manuscript was ready, I was bumped off the list by established authors. New authors were the first to be cut when the list had to shrink for financial problems.

How did you deal with the long wait?

It was demoralizing, but I kept writing. Scholastic bought my picture book; it’s waiting for illustration. My second middle reader (grades 4-8) was pending senior editorial approval when Rules won the Newbury Honor Medal. Scholastic immediately made an offer on that book and another one I have yet to write.

What is the next book about?

Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane takes place on an island off the coast of Maine with a protagonist whose mother teaches at the school. I drew from both my own experience as a teacher on Chebeague Island and an historical incident on another island. In the 1960’s Frenchboro Island tried to head off closure of their school by bringing in foster children from the mainland. For me the ethical question is the most important part. Do the means justify the end?

You won’t have to wait too long to find out. Halfway Between Hope and Hurricane is projected for a fall 2008 release. Since the Newbury Honor, Rules has spent 10 weeks on the NYT bestseller list and is in its fourth run. Cynthia Lord is on the fast track!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Irony in the Closet

Kennebunk Beach

Just my luck to have a big snowstorm on the day my parents were due to drive from NYC to Maine. Undaunted, they followed the storm all the way up the coast. My mother said it was fitting since I was born in a freak two-foot snowstorm in NYC forty years ago. She’s always loved storms.

We met my parents for dinner at the best restaurant in Portland. My favorite dish at Fore Street is the wood oven-roasted mussels, and the quail is always fabulous too. Outside the snow swirled in dizzying circles, but the open-fire kitchen and raw brick walls lent a warm atmosphere.

After dinner my parents drove our kids home while Henry and I headed south to Kennebunkport. The White Barn Inn houses a gourmet restaurant, a spa and luxurious accommodations. It felt like a European four-star hotel right down to the courteous foreign staff. A young man pointed out that there was “irony in the closet.” He meant an ironing board. I’ve made more than a few similar mistakes in French so I didn’t laugh.

Meals were served in the old barn with an eclectic mix of fine oil paintings, life size cows, stained glass and table ornament animals forged out of cutlery. The eight-course dinner by the English chef transported us to gourmet London. I especially enjoyed the palate cleanser of beet sorbet in balsamic vinegar. The accompanying wines were perfect as was the raspberry soufflé. It was hard to chose among all the cheeses, both local and European.

Add to the experience a massage in a fire-lit couples room followed by an English high tea, and I realized turning forty wasn’t half bad. They even dug our car out of the snow.

We had a simple lunch at Alisson's in Kennebunkport. The cute little bungalows stilted over a canal made me think of a European hamlet, but the wild, marshy expanse of river feeding into the ocean was pure Maine.

We spent a good hour browsing at the Kennebunk Book Port. If anyone has a dream of owning a quaint bookstore, it’s for sale. There wasn’t a huge selection, but it had been carefully chosen and housed in the loft of a 1775 rum warehouse overlooking the water.

Even though I travel with a bag full of books, I picked up Alice Hoffman’s Blue Diary. It’s a book somewhat similar to mine: a well-written page-turner about a family in jeopardy set in a quiet New England town. It explores relationships and betrayal. I’m halfway through and enjoying it.

Back at the inn by our fire, Henry read aloud Pierre Daninos’s Major Thompson and I (1957.) It reminded us of P.G. Wodehouse with amusing tales of the English upper class. The passage tying English temperament to the erratic plumbing was hilarious.

I know England well thanks to my British husband. Henry and I met at Harvard 19 years ago in off-campus housing. My phone wasn’t working so I went down the hall to try it at a friend’s, but she wasn’t in. I randomly knocked on another door, and there was Henry with his gorgeous green eyes and charming accent. He was flipping pancakes with a room full of Brits for Shrove Tuesday. He listened to my explanation and then said, “Get rid of the phone and have a beer.”

Henry said that it was love at first sight. On our first date we saw the movie of James Joyce’s The Dead and ate sushi. Henry brought me daisies and chocolates the next day and was nonplussed to find me with another man – he didn’t know my handsome friend was gay. When I caught the flu, Henry looked after me, cooking a delicious chicken tarragon stew. He could recite Monty Python and Shakespeare.

Three and a half weeks after we met, Henry proposed. Four months later, I accepted. We were living together that summer in London. He kept trying to trick me with the triple negative: “Is it not true that you would not consent to refuse to marry me?” Other times he’d conjure a double rainbow over the Thames. I didn’t stand a chance. I’m still crazy in love with him now. There’s nothing like a romantic weekend away to bring it all back.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Next Meal

My family has a rule (too often broken) that if you’re still eating one meal, you can’t talk about the next meal. We’ve planned entire vacations around fine dining. Depressed in Switzerland, we once drove across the Alps to Italy just for lunch on Lake Cuomo, and it was worth it. In the 1970’s, before Zagat’s and food bloggers, my dad got written up in The New Yorker for his personal computer program allowing you to pick a NYC restaurant by cuisine, quality, atmosphere, price and location. When I visit my parents in Manhattan, I’m going to eat well both in the home and out most of the time.

I flew in a day early to avoid Friday’s big storm that flooded New York and dumped a wintery mix in Maine. My mother prepared sole in capered tomato sauce from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. My father broke out the last Mondavi Blanc, which had aged since 1978 in his self-made wine cellar (an insulated closet with an AC.) My dad’s a venture capitalist so the conversation is often interesting. That night we discussed funding a proposed expedition for sunken treasure.

For lunch on Friday my mother and I crossed Central Park to the West Side for Vietnamese food. The Saigon Grill at 90th and Amsterdam has a sister restaurant on the East Side, but it’s closed for renovation. To call Pho Bo an oxtail noodle soup does not capture the subtle flavors of the paper thin sliced beef in the piquant broth. Fresh Oriental basil, sprouts and hoisin sauce come as condiments. You can easily eat lunch for $6 a person, but you won’t be alone. The cavernous restaurant was packed, but the service was prompt.

We met my father for dinner at Maya (1st Ave at 65th), a gourmet Mexican restaurant with high ratings in Zagat’s and even a mention in the Michelin guide. I don’t know if the chef just quit or what, but the food was disappointing. The special ceviche tasted like rubber in ketchup. My father ordered his favorite chicken mole, but it was no better than my special tuna nor my mother’s red snapper. At least the margaritas and mojitos were good enough to drown our sorrows.

Saturday night I went out with my old Dalton School friends. Deb drove us downtown to 20th and Broadway for Abigail’s and Andy’s joint 40th birthday party. Deb can find a parking spot anywhere, which is quite a skill in Manhattan, especially given the size of her Range Rover. In the city if you see a parking spot you take it, even if you don’t need it.

Craftbar is known for its excellent food and cool décor. The two-story open space dining room was all black, white and red transected by what looked like a fire escape. Abigail had booked the private dining room below, which was perfect for 30 guests. Remember the banker who was reading War and Peace on his Blackberry at the last NYC party (see first blog)? Well, he’s quit, but only because he didn’t like the book. Everyone laughed to hear that I too had quit after 150 pages.

On my recommendation, my friend is now reading and enjoying Lewis Robinson’s Officer Friendly. Robinson is a young Maine author who has an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He also apprenticed with John Irving. A gifted and original storyteller, Robinson writes in a very male voice, which is, perhaps, part of his appeal. His perfectly crafted stories are about sensitive but manly men set in small town Maine under extenuating circumstances. I hear he has a novel coming out soon – I’m awaiting it eagerly.

On Sunday I met my cousin for lunch. I don’t have a sister, but Gabrielle has been like one to me. Our lives have intersected and reversed over the years. She grew up in a southern college town with an academic father while I grew up in NYC with an investment banker father. At my wedding, Gabrielle met our best man Fabio, a banker, and they fell in love. Now they live in NYC, and I’m married to a college professor in small town Maine.

The lunch at Boucheron Bakery was very good, but the setting was even better. It was worth the ridiculous price and long wait for a table. Suspended on the third floor balcony, the view over Columbus Circle to Central Park is spectacular. The AOL/Time Warner building is an oddity in the city – it’s really a mall if an upscale one at that.

After lunch we scanned the new titles at Borders, and then walked up Broadway towards Gabrielle’s home. We stopped into her local grocery store, crossing a picket line against (I kid you not) foie gras. I agree it’s too cruel to force feed geese, but only in NYC would it be worth a demonstration. Gabrielle abandoned me at yet another bookstore (I admit to being a junky.) I resisted the urge to buy since I was half way through a library book (Debra Ginsberg’s Blind Submission – very funny parody of the literary world.) I walked home through Central Park in time for a fine dinner of spit-roasted chicken stuffed with cellery and ginger crafted by my dad.

Before I flew back to Maine, my mother and I visited the Neue Galerie and had lunch overlooking Central Park. Café Sabarsky is known for its Viennese desserts – an excellent place for tea in an Old World setting. Most of the museum was shut in preparation for the Van Gogh and Expressionism exhibit (3/22-7/2,) but we could still admire the golden Klimt’s on display.

The first day back home in Brunswick, I was afraid to go outside even to walk the dog. I woke up to minus two and high winds. Stella popped out her dog flap and then promptly went back to bed, hiding her ice-cube nose in her paws. The temperature never made it into double digits. Still, it’s great to be back home with my family and time to write.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Literary Heroes

On Valentine’s Day it’s snowing and nine degrees. The kids are home from school with up to eight inches expected. They're outside, installing a second ice window in their fort. My husband is coming home rather than meeting me for a romantic lunch in town. Still, fresh snow is good, like a blank sheet of paper waiting for new words.

My favorite non-fiction author,Tracy Kidder, had “a problem of goodness” when writing Mountains Beyond Moutains. It is a chronicle of Dr. Paul Farmer's global quest to cure the poor of illness. Kidder explained to a packed auditorium at Bowdoin College last Friday that it is the reporter’s duty to dig up the dirty secrets. And yet Kidder couldn’t find a chink in Farmer’s armor. A friend had told me that Farmer is called “the saint” by his coworkers. He seemed too good to be real. “Honesty is necessary but not sufficient to make what you believe to be true to be true to readers.”

In order to make the book believable, Kidder inserted himself as a character in his book for the first time. He became the everyman foil to the selfless, brilliant Farmer and takes the reader along for a ride through a world of darkness, following the light of hope. We travel with Kidder and Farmer to poverty stricken Haiti, Russia and Peru and see first hand what a difference a small group of people can make in setting up clinics to cure the poor of TB and other illnesses. Partners in Health succeeded where governments had failed.

Kidder’s other literary problem was that he might alienate his reader. “Good provokes and makes us think about things we are not comfortable about.” Such as the fact that our American “life of privilege is built at least in part by misery elsewhere.” Employing the first person narrative, Kidder candidly shows how he, like you the reader, is less than perfect and even selfish. Even so we can still so do our bit to narrow the gap between rich and poor to a more “dignified poverty.” It’s a message of hope instead of despair.

At the end of the moving presentation, a preppy Bowdoin student turned to her friend and said, “Now, I want to be a doctor!”

I joined a long line of students and professors at the signing. Bowdoin senior Selina Asante was raised by grandparents in Ghana before moving to New Jersey. Like Farmer, she chose to study anthropology and science at college. After graduation, she will return to Ghana to volunteer with Unite for Sight. She found Kidder’s words inspiring as I did hers. Kidder was thrilled to hear about Selina’s plans from me. He said that his own daughter was in medical school but modestly took no credit for it.

Kidder, so well spoken and charmingly funny on stage, seemed almost shy when talking one-on-one unscripted. I was surprised that the author, who won a Pulitzer for his engaging book on emerging computer technology, had never read a blog, but he asked for my website address with the curiosity of a journalist. What I love the most about Kidder’s writing is how he sucks you completely into the world of computers, house builders, school children or health aid workers. His characters are believable and his true books read like novels, which was why I had wrongly assumed he was a computer nerd.

Then again Kidder also wrote Hometown about small town life in Western Mass. and his first question to me was, “You live here?” This from a man who had just visited Farmer’s plumbing free shack in Haiti! Maine in winter must appear equally remote and not the first place where you’d expect to find a blogging novelist in a black turtleneck and boot cut jeans. I love that when talented writers, like Kidder, come to Maine, I actually get the opportunity to meet them.

I met one of my favorite fiction authors, Haruki Murakami, in my mudroom. My husband was taking him out to dinner with other Japan scholars at Bowdoin. I had just that day finished writing the first draft of Moose Crossing. Odder than the talking cat in Kafka on the Shore was the reclusive author’s appearance in my home on that auspicious night.

Murakami was soft-spoken and surprisingly down to earth given the surreal, disturbing tone of his original work. With almost child-like delight, he spoke about discovering some rare jazz records at Vinyl Haven in town and found Maine charming. Murakami shared my joy in finishing a manuscript and wished me the best of luck in getting published. It must have been good karma because that draft of Moose Crossing led me to my agent, Jean Naggar.

There are many fine writers who reside in Maine. My favorite elementary school author is my daughter. She wrote a scary story, The Nevergreen Forest, featuring a white-faced witch with a “voice like fingernails screeching against the chalk-board.” Even adult writers can learn a lesson from her book. Remember to employ all the senses, not just sight, when writing descriptive prose, and draw from your own experiences even when writing fantasy.

When she grows up, my daughter wants to be a writer or a photographer (she took the photo of me on skis in the second blog 1/24/07.) With help from friends, she is starting back up the school newspaper. Always drawing, writing or reading, my daughter won’t leave the house without a notebook. She’s been very curious and excited about my book. I read only the first chapter of Moose Crossing to my children (with a few sentences removed.) They laughed and loved it. It’s fun to be a literary hero, if only in my nine-year-old daughter’s eyes!

Haruki Murakami photo by Marion Ettlinger.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Good Beginnings

I met my last reader, Mary Sreden, for lunch at Renaissance Bistro in Brunswick. Across from the old mill on the Androscoggin River, the tiny restaurant is a crimson gem of local art and ingredients. I have to admit I enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food, but that was only because the mint dressing was too oily on my duck salad. My starter, an apple-pear-squash soup, was very good. It was cozy and warm, which was a relief since the morning’s minus five was still below plus five at noon. The bright sun helped, but the stiff breeze did not.

Mary is a nurse who grew up in the Midwest and attended state university. Last June she left her four children with her husband and joined a male crew to deliver a sailboat across the Atlantic. She was the cook and nurse but had no previous sailing experience aside from day tripping. The seas were rough, and she came home bruised yet loved it. I figured she could tackle the novel experience of reading critically, especially since she’s a voracious consumer of women’s fiction. I had noted and admired her ability to speak her mind but with tact and sensitivity.

If you don’t count my family and my literary agency, I’ve had six readers. These women have read drafts of Moose Crossing and offered invaluable commentary. Half of my readers were writer/editor friends, but the others were typical readers of my genre, commercial women’s fiction. Half were local and the others “from away,” as we say in Maine.

When I asked Mary to read, I had just added a prologue and cut over 30 slow pages from my opening. The problem was I had the 101 other versions in my head. I needed fresh eyes to find the flaws and the vestigial traces of old plot.

Mary found an irritating dialogue and one embarrassingly corny line, but she enjoyed the rest. She mentioned several scenes that were either funny or emotionally resonant. The characters felt real to her. Most reassuringly, she was totally hooked on the new prologue and eager to read beyond the opening chapters.

I often find what a reader doesn’t say is as important as what she does say. If she doesn’t mention a scene, perhaps it is too slow and could be cut. The trick is to preserve what is working and prune out the rest, no matter how hard you worked on it. This is no more crucial than in the opening chapters of a novel.

I love the first title in the Lemony Snicket series: The Bad Beginning. Openings are so challenging partly because you write them before you truly know where you’re going. You need to grab the reader’s attention in those first few pages or you’re lost.

Just remember your last trip to a bookstore. How far did you read? I spent a morning at Bookland reading first pages before I tackled my new beginning. Search inside Jodi Picoult’s novels for the catchy first sentence.

Even with a punchy prologue, the job isn’t over. You must move the narrative along while introducing characters and setting while weaving in back story. Good writing takes not only talent, it takes the ability to absorb criticism and use it constructively.

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