Saturday, August 18, 2018

Catching the End of Innocence

I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger many moons ago, either in junior high or high school. I remember liking it without totally understanding it. But there was something relatable about it, I remembered. A few weeks ago, I came across a copy on my mom's bookshelf and read it again. Of course, it was relatable! While my journey through adolescence was some time ago, I still remember the angst and the excitement. I also have a front row seat as my kids are growing up. This is why I have an entirely new appreciation for Holden Caulfield.

I didn't go to a private prep school. I have no sense of what it's like to grow up in the '50's. New York is almost a foreign country to me. But I still connected to this story – this strange, stream-of-conscience narrative about a boy who paints himself as an outsider and is disgusted with any bit of superficialness. Who doesn't relate to the angst of growing up, discovering others' imperfections, and trying to figure out who you really are? Not long ago, my daughter and I were having a conversation with someone who told us how difficult high school had been for their daughter – lots of pressure to fit in! Later, Alex said to me, "And she was one of the mean girls." Everyone struggles. Even the mean girls. Maybe, especially the mean girls.

Holden is a literary hero. He's so utterly self-aware, honest, tormented, and, yet, not without hope. I love that he understands how all mothers are insane (I agree), but he truly doesn't want his own mother to worry about him. It's almost a lesson in parenting. Salinger reminds us that kids do care about their parents, but they'd prefer them to back off a bit. Ageless wisdom in this era of the helicopter parent.

I'm also amused by Holden's obsession and confusion over women. He seems to be equally in love and annoyed by them. "... I didn't even like her much, and yet all of a sudden I felt like I was in love with her and wanted to marry her." Ahhh, the joy of young love. Or young lust. You decide.

Holden is most interesting because of his contradictions. He hates movies, but he seems to watch a lot of them. He worries desperately about an old crush, but he's not willing to reach out to her. His conversation with a cab driver captures this see-saw nature of Holden's sentiments:

"I let it drop... Besides, he was such a touchy guy, it wasn't any pleasure discussing anything with him."

Then Holden asks the driver to go out for a drink.

"He didn't answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking. I asked him again, though. He was a pretty good guy. Quite amusing and all."

The story takes place over a few short days, after Holden is kicked out of school, again. We don't know what lies ahead for him. But somehow we get the feeling he'll be okay – even if he isn't quite okay right now. After all, he's extremely self-aware.

"I know. I've very hard to talk to. I realize that."  –Holden Caulfield

Holden doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life, but it's obvious he's clinging to the innocence and sense of wonder of childhood. This is most obvious when he relates a recurring dream to his beloved little sister. Holden stands in a field of rye and catches children as they fall off a cliff. Now that's a metaphor.

Salinger reminds us how intensely we felt in our youth. The extreme highs and the extreme lows. He reminds us that it's okay to be different and to be uncertain. It's challenging stuff, but it's what connects us all. And as a parent, it reminds me to be more tolerant when I wonder what in the heck is going through my kids' heads. So, yes. It's a great coming-of-age story. But it's not a bad parenting guide as well.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Homegoing and the Power of Family Lore

It's time  to review some books! I've been reading aplenty, but I have this rule of only posting positive reviews. Don't worry. I have a few on my list to keep this blog from going dormant! But I'll start with one of my top reads from last year.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a stunning book by an up and coming author. She happens to be a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop and came recommended by my smart and poignant daughter. I actually read this book twice in one year. And I'd read it again. It's just that good.

The story tracks the descendants of two half-sisters from a Ghanian matriarch during the height of tribal wars and slave trade. One sister, Effia, stays in Africa. The other, Esi, is sent to America on a slave ship. The novel cleverly weaves several short stories with unforgettable characters, African folklore, and history that would impact society for many decades. You'll definitely want to bookmark the family tree at the beginning of the novel since it begins in the mid 1700's and ends in current day.

Ms. Gyasi's writing style is effortless, lyrical, and chock full of symbolic imagery. Themes of water, earth and fire pervade the book in a way that masterfully avoids cliche. To read this novel fast would be a crime, as there are so many lovely and thought-provoking passages. I was actually somewhat reminded of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. (In truth, my plan was to skim it the second time for book club. But I couldn't. The language and the stories were meant to be absorbed.)

As an author and avid book reader, I will admit bias. But I strongly believe storytelling to be a critical aspect of human development. I almost feel it's child abuse when parents don't read to their children! And for anyone who only reads "non-fiction," so as not to waste time with fluff, I ask them to reconsider. Don't get me wrong, I love my share of non-fiction. But when a well-written narrative places you in an unfamiliar world and stirs you to genuinely sympathize, you cannot possibly discount the power of a story.

Such is Homegoing.

Obviously, the book reveals the oppression of Africans and African-Americans which sickens and disturbs. But. Ms. Gyasi never fails to pepper her stories with a lesson in morality and the glimmer of hope.

"You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as thought they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I read this and think to myself, how does one summon strength and courage through tragedy and persecution? I think of my own cushy, little life. I'm ashamed to admit the things that cause me anxiety. One of my book club friends mentioned how they thought the book was depressing. I responded that I thought it was important for us to hear these stories, to give us perspective. She tilted her head and thought about my comment. Later, she said that perhaps I was right. 

"This it he problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on."
–Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

I keep thinking about family stories – and all those that become lost through the years. I have always loved to listen to my parents and grandparents tell stories. As I grow older and as relatives pass away, I crave those stories even more, especially as the memories and details of those stories fade. For example, there's this story of an ancestor who left the Confederate Army and ended up fighting against his brothers. Who was he? What happened? I'd like to think his actions somehow formed my family's sense of justice. Of course, I have no idea what really happened. But neither did Yaa. And she created a masterpiece worth telling over and over again. 

There's lots of stories needing to be told. And as long as we have ears, we need to listen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Maladroit and the Misanthrope

Forget fairy tales and princesses. Give me a misanthrope over Cinderella any day! I just read The Accidental Tourist and A Man Called Ove (back to back) and suddenly have a new appreciation for the skeptics in my life. I will mention no names.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler was written in 1985, but the story feels timeless. Macon Leary is a travel writer who doesn't particularly like travel writing. Beyond the burden of doing a job he doesn't like he has just experienced two heartbreaks: the senseless murder of his son and the subsequent departure of his wife. Macon is methodical, logical, and a bit of a maladroit. To cope with his loneliness he takes his dog and moves back to his childhood home with his sister and two brothers who also exude "Macon-like" characteristics. How many adults do you know would move back in with their siblings to find comfort? (Imagine a family who makes up an esoteric card game called Vaccination with such complex rules, no one outside of the family could possibly participate.) But it's this move that allows Macon to meet the vivacious Muriel when he takes his nasty dog to a training facility. Macon's life begins to transform in unpredictable ways.

When I began to read A Man Called Ove by Fredric Backman, frankly I was a little bit disappointed. Was this just going to be a story about your typical curmudgeon? That old guy who's quick to judge the no-good youth and is disgruntled by everyone's incapability? But I kept reading. And I wasn't disappointed for long. As I observed Ove's quest to end his life because of his immense grief, I found myself either laughing or crying. Similar to Ms. Tyler, Mr. Backman, writes his stories with humor and tragedy with an authentic subtlety. In one chapter, Ove's new neighbors disrupt Ove as he's attempting to hang himself. Not funny, but the tale is told with a wit as Ove contrasts strikingly with an awkward young IT guy and his brash wife. Haven't we all experienced that annoying disruption of a neighbor when we're trying to accomplish something? Poor old Ove continues to experience this kind of "luck" as he explores other ways to commit suicide.

Both of these books could've fallen flat by painting Macon or Ove into cliche. But these authors aren't acclaimed for nothing. The heros' journeys in these stories have a eerily similar formula:

Loner has a tragic past.
Loner is committed to a mangy pet.
Loner meets a brash women who teaches him how to connect.
Loner finds love and peace.

We begin to learn that Macon and Ove are much more than they appear–especially when we understand their love of others. This quote from Ove reflects this aspect perfectly:

"People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had."

The stories have vastly different endings; however, the only disappointment I felt at the end of each of these books was only that I was done reading them. When characters become so real, you really don't want to leave them behind. Luckily, both Ove and Tourist have been made into movies that have been added to my Amazon watchlist. I'll see them both again soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

27th Lucky Agent Contest

Listen up novelists!

Information on this great contest can be found here:

Lucky Agent Contest

The contest will be judged by Irene Goodman through Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog.

                

Good luck!

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Books

Two books. Vastly different flavors. 

One book is light, refreshing, funny. The other is dark, disturbing, haunting. The books do happen to share this in common: both true stories, both take place in the Midwest.

Sweetness, honesty, and self-deprecation: great characteristics for a lovable protagonist. We’re Not Sixteen Anymore by Becky Andersen is an amusing memoir of a widow’s calculated leap into online dating. Her conversational style and witty demeanor gives off a real gal-pal essence. Imagine sitting on a deck, drinking sangria with your girlfriends, and being heartily amused by a Becky Andersen story. (What beats an anecdote about a date who makes a sport out of fishing coin out of a public toilet?) She’s a funny girl with a flair for storytelling. When a friend haughtily says to Becky, "If something happened to my husband, I'd never date or marry again. I would never let anyone else see me naked!" Becky didn't hesitate to respond. "Oh, no! I'm all for beautifying America...That means no one sees me au naturel! Ever! I just want to find someone who can come over if I need my mousetrap emptied."

Touche.

Not only is this book funny, but it offers suspense! Does Becky meet "the one?" If so, who is it? The hip grandmother doesn't just dabble in online dating. She rallies to become an expert. The subtitle “A Baby Boomer's Adventures with Online Dating" could have been modified to "A Baby Boomer's Guide to Online Dating." But I think 'Adventure' is a more apt description. 

As a member of Gen X, I didn't catch every Boomer reference. However, I was easily pulled into the author's nostalgia. Who can't love the spirit of the Baby Boomers? So youthful. Charismatic. Who can't love the generation that brought us The Beatles?

While the stories are entertaining and Becky writes with a particular flourish, the book isn’t just a fluff piece. She writes with purpose and by the end of the book you realize why you’re so drawn in. At some level, we all want to connect. This is a story about connecting. Connecting with each other. Connecting the past and the future. The story ends happily-ever-after. I'm looking forward to a sequel to find out how happily-ever-after is working out.

On the other side of lighthearted, is a book I read for book club: Gitchie Girl by Phil Hamman and Sandy Hamman. My mother warned me about reading it before I went to bed. I didn’t heed her advice, but managed to stave off nightmares. The book is a horror story--a horror story about a true event.

In 1973 four teenage boys were murdered at a campsite by Sioux Falls at Gitchie Manitou State Park. Unbelievably, one girl survived. This is her insider's story. More than a factual chronology, the authors integrate the characters' histories with the events that occurred on that fateful night–making for an incredibly suspenseful read. We get to know a pretty, tender-hearted thirteen-year girl named Sandra Cheske, while reliving the details of the night, which are intricately painted with sensory detail and foreshadowing.

An excerpt:

November 17, 1973 10:30 PM

"Hey," Roger yelled. But there was no answer, and the sounds of cracking twigs ceased...Minutes passed before the soothing sounds of the flowing river and raccoons emerging from their daytime hideouts to scour for food fell into a peaceful rhythm.

The Hamman's take us back to the night. It's impossible not to read the story without developing a huge knot in your stomach. Powerful and engrossing writing.

Stuff like this can't happen in small town Iowa. But it did. It's what makes the story fascinating and immensely disturbing. While the book superbly depicts the evil act, more importantly it heralds the heros and the survivor. Sheriff Craig Vinson exudes patience, vision, and compassion. Thirteen-
year-old Sandra helps crack the case with maturity beyond her years. But a person can't live through something like that without scars. The story after her horrifying experience is as heartbreaking as the experience itself. The teenage girl who witnessed four gruesome deaths and was tortured herself didn't receive any counseling. And she was ostracized by a community who didn't want to be reminded of the terrible act.

Eventually, Sandra Cheske finds a way to make a purposeful and admiral life by raising a family and running an animal rescue organization–overcoming the evil she has witnessed. Gitchie Girl is an incredible story of survival which might leave you feeling wary of the world. But it will also leave you feeling inspired by courageous acts of tender souls.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Blindish Date

I was happy to learn my short story submission "My Blindish Date" received an Honorable Mention in the 85th Annual Writer's Digest Competition. Here's the story which began as a writing assignment in my Gotham Writer's Workshop. Hope you enjoy.



My Blindish Date

Incurably prompt is how my mother always described me. And there I was, fifteen minutes early, sitting at a table for two at Lo Sole Mio. I had calculated my approach to conversation by combing through the paper that day. Conflict in the Middle East. The volatile stock market. The election. The World Series. Of all the articles I skimmed, the one on taxidermy is the one that lingered.
Arriving first to a blind date is undoubtedly uncool. I tried not to fidget with my phone which I was certain would offer me a text with an apologetic cancellation. As the seconds ticked, and no such text arrived, I nibbled on the warm, sourdough bread to alleviate my nerves. Just as a grabbed another piece, I realized something. I had nibbled through the entire loaf.
Once 7:00 hit, regret consumed me. It was my first date in three years. Allison, my best friend in the office, had been trying to set me up as soon as the signatures were dry on the divorce papers. For obvious reasons, such as my profound distrust in men, I had no interest. But one Monday morning, on a whim, and after a weekend of Nora Ephron flicks, I gave in.
At one time in my life, I was confident. Maybe even indomitably. Isn’t it funny how shaky indomitably can be? I was climbing the corporate ladder at an alarming rate, lioning the ranks our social circle, vacationing in Spain with Dr. Romero. Then Dr. Romero, also known as my husband, made an ear-numbing confession.
The flirty nurse. The new one.
I was zombied.
For three years, I’ve been a zombie. Still immersed in work, but only work. And romantic comedies on the weekend. I’m well aware watching such movies needle the wound. It’s like a bruise I can’t stop pressing.
So, back to the story.
My impending date was precisely three minutes late when I began to panic over my apparel. I looked down at my bloated belly of bread and cursed the sales woman for convincing me of the clingy, rayon dress. Black wasn’t working its magic. As I adjusted the fabric and practiced sucking in my gut, a smooth, deep voice startled me.
“Alice?”
I jumped out of my seat. And swallowed a chunk of bread whole. I stood to meet a specimen of man fitted in a steel-hued, shimmery suit. His dark eyes and tousled hair made him seem a beautiful fixture of the restaurant.
“No need to get up.” He coached me back into to my chair. Then introduced himself.
“I’m Ben. So pleased to meet you here, Alice.”
I nodded, now mute. Ben kept talking.
“I love this restaurant. Delicious food and even better service. And this music!” Ben lifted his hands to Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. “Well. It’s romantic.”
Romantic. Within the first two minutes, the man was talking romance. Instead of responding, I picked up the menu. And was relieved when our server checked in.
“Give us a bottle of your best Merlot.” Ben smiled at the waitress in a charming sort of way. If she wouldn’t have been in her seventies, I might’ve thought he had designs on her. 
He turned to me after she scooted off. 
“Red wine okay with you? I hear of its health benefits.”
Again, a nod with no words. The cat had devoured my tongue.
“You look really pretty. Nice dress.”
“Thank you.” 
My words sounded meager. I tried to study the menu, but I wasn’t comprehending the words. No, it wasn’t written in Italian. You see, I had been ambushed. I let my eyes drift to the rippling fountain in the middle of the room. Ben took hold of my hand. I stiffened.
“What are you trying to do?” I asked.
Ben released my hand, and let go of his dapper smile. Even in suddenly serious mode, he was incredibly attractive.
“I’m trying to apologize. Again. And convince you to come back to me.”
Before I had a chance to respond, the server brought us the bottle of wine and poured it into our glasses. Ben went back to charming grandma waitress, and I slurped the largest drink I could manage. My mind took flight as Ben chatted with his new friend.
Suddenly vexed with my recurring thoughts of late, I wondered how many women he had been with. I wondered what movies he had seen without me. I wondered what books he had read and discussed with someone else. I wondered how many lives he had saved that I knew nothing about. Mostly, I wondered how many women he had been with.
“Too difficult to choose!”
His voice interrupted my momentary splosh as I realized our server had been standing there, communicating the specials of the evening. When he recognized my bleary expression, he asked her if we could have a moment. Then he asked, “Have you been eating?”
“Obviously.”
As Ben sipped his wine, he kept an unflinching gaze at me. 
I told him I wanted to leave. 
“Do you remember when I said you would always be the love of my life?”
Words I did not need to hear. I wanted to cover my ears, but instead I kept listening as he drew in closer to me.
“I fired her. The day after it happened.”
“I know. That’s why she told me all about it.”
“Ashamed doesn’t come close to how I feel.”
I had heard him say this before. The words bounced off me when he said, “Did you hear my mother died?”
That punch landed. I felt tears well up. Ben’s mother was a saint. An Hispanic Mother Teresa with seven kids. The opposite of my bulldog mother, who found her only child a burdensome distraction.
Ben took my hands again. His eyes, glossy.
“Before she died, she told me to fight for you.
“What if I don’t want you to?” I asked with an embarrassing sort of sob.
Ben didn’t respond. I watched his face fall, his head drop.
I stonewalled the sobbed growing in me. 
I ached for him. His mother had died. I knew he adored her. I felt a crack in the wall between us. But I did not want to go there. I didn’t want to be on his side. Sort of. My mind rummaged through other topics. The highly charged air seemed to be clouding my brain. Then I spoke. Words from my subconscious invaded. 
“Did you know taxidermy is becoming a lost art form?”
What else could Ben do but grimace?
I wasn’t sure how to retract. So I said the next thing on my mind. “How can I ever trust you again?”
Ben’s posture lifted. “Maybe you never will. I can only tell you this, I won’t do it again.”  
The server stepped in to take our order. Thankfully, Ben pushed the task away. “A few more minutes sweetheart?” Grandma blushed as she backed away. The interruption revived my manners.
“I’m really sorry about your mother. She was entirely lovely. How’d she pass?”
“Pancreatic cancer.” Ben was solemn again. “I keep blaming myself for not getting her into see a specialist sooner.”
“That’s tough.”
Ben shrugged, as if he were unconvinced. “I should’ve told you.”
“About your mom or the nurse?” 
Ben responded by blinking. 
“I’m sorry,” I said with sincere regret. “That was mean.”
“Deserved.”
“No, it’s not.” I sighed.  “I wish I would’ve been with you at her funeral.”
“Me too.”
“I wish you wouldn’t have cheated on me.”
“Me too.”
“I wish I wasn’t so sad about it. Still.”
Ben gently took my quivering hand. “My nature is to fix things. All this aching.”
I let him squeeze my hand to stop the quivering. Then I whispered, “Okay.” 
“Okay? Okay what?”
“I’m not really sure.”
“You still love me,” he said with an annoying stamp of confidence.
I had a notion to leave. I had a notion to stay.
I went to the ladies restroom. To pace. And splash water on my face. And decide how to proceed. After a few deep breaths, I stepped back out.
Ben was gone.
I stammered to the exit as my heart verged on exploding. As I opened the door, Ben met me on his phone, conferring over a patient. He touched my shoulder while continuing to give medical instruction. Compassionately. Instinctively. Expertly.
I turned back inside and settled in at our table. Then waited for him to return. I anxiously waited for him to return.
He did. And we ate dinner together, as if it were our first, or possibly last date. I couldn’t decide. 
Maybe I’ll know next week, if I take him up on his invitation. And bail on Nora Ephron.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


"Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912...Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in late summer."

These opening lines of Betty Smith's classic "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" immersed me from the start. Francie Nolan and I would be forever friends, souls linked by the nostalgia of our past and the steadfast determination to experience the world. So what if Francie is fictional. Or born in 1900. Or Irish-Catholic. Or a Brooklyn girl. I could've written a similar paragraph something like this:

"Serene was a word you could put to Kirkman, Iowa. Especially in the summer of 1981. The countrysides were beautiful and a horse whinny was a beautiful sound, but that wasn't quite Kirkman. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in late summer."

The first time I read this book, I remember classifying it as a favorite. So when it came up for our lunch and library pick, I wondered if I'd feel the same way. I can staunchly proclaim, it remains a favorite. Maybe even the favorite.

There is so much I love about this coming-of-age story. Relatable symbolism. Strong female characters. (Betty Smith was a solid feminist!) Punchy dialogue that somehow transcends the period of the novel. As I read this early 20th century piece, I realized how the challenge of growing up is a universal and timeless theme–whether you're growing in Brooklyn or Kirkman.

The story of Francie Nolan as a child in Williamsburg, Brooklyn offers a collection of stories featuring her dependable mother ("Mother never fumbles"), her lovable but alcoholic father, and her younger brother who seems to be Francie's only real friend. Francie is clever and as we watch her grow up, we witness her cleverness transform to wisdom. She is acutely aware of her dire circumstances, yet she lives with resolve.

I underlined almost a million passages.

On imagery and symbolism:

"No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district."

A tree that grows out of cement. Haven't we all seen something like that, but not been particularly astonished by it? This is how a great writer transforms the power of observation.

On writing:

As Francie discovered her knack for embellishing a story, an English teacher provides the following lesson:

"Tell the truth and write the story."

This is my new personal mantra.

On growing up:

"It is a good thing to learn the truth one's self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch." 

Betty Smith manages to integrate lessons on life through the dialogue of interesting characters (like Grandma Rommely and Francie's colorful aunts). Smith is also crafty with bits of exposition:

"Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference. Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt."

At one point of the book, after tragedy and heartbreak have befallen Francie, she prays, "Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat...Only let me be something every blessed minute..."

This passage is written just before we learn that war is declared.This book is more than a coming of age narrative, it's a story about experiencing every moment of your life no matter what your circumstances or what happens around you. It's not a book about survival, it's a book of celebrating your survival.

At the end of the novel, when Francie is getting ready to move from her childhood apartment, she notices the tree–the tree that men had tried to chop down and burn. It was still intact.

"It lived. And nothing could destroy it."