Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

February marks a full year of what started out as a 3rd grade book club, and is clearly on its way to becoming a 5th grade one. I began this out of frustration and dismay at some of the books K was bringing home, sometimes at the suggestion (insistence?) of the school librarian, endless series of books about school life where “weird” and “gross” make appearances on nearly every page, where teachers exist merely as objects of derision, where all the characters are white and usually suburban. I knew from having seen K and her friends reading more substantial books, if they happened upon them and the mood struck them, that they were capable of much deeper thought, that in fact their brains were hungry for a greater challenge, for being expanded. I knew, and they knew, that they could handle and enjoy much, much more. (One girl was hesitant to join, saying she only liked to read books with mice that wore clothes. We managed to change that.)

We began with The Secret Garden, the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first meeting left me giddy with delight, as I recount here. I went all out, decorated with vases of roses, served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. A minute before the eight girls arrived, I panicked. What if they thought this was silly? What if they wanted to make fun of me like some of their books made fun of teachers? My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced.

Over the past year, with a break in July/August, we tackled:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blue
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Garcia Williams (which gave K’s father an excuse to put together a fantastic soundtrack from 1968)
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (which made for the most animated discussion)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (“too easy,” the girls said)
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

Every meeting starts with ten minutes of chatter while everyone arrives and gets settled, a 30-45 minute discussion, a snack related to the book in question, a related activity, and a vote on the book for the meeting after next (so that I have time to order it, distribute it, read it and plan the meeting). The children have been surprisingly enthusiastic about how the snack matches the book. They pounced on the corn kernels and shredded cheese I put out for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with squeals of delight. Their parents shook their heads in a mix of wonder and amusement when they came to retrieve their children.

I’ve been very impressed with the depth of thinking and the level of analysis these girls have demonstrated, and the caliber of the discussions we’ve had.

The topics we’ve discussed include:

Oppression, the Black Panther movement, the power of imagination, self-consciousness, the death of a parent, sibling relationships, autism, story arc, character arc, running away from home, storytelling techniques, what defines a “classic,” the ethics of scientific research with animals, loneliness, finding happiness, the meaning of “civilization,” sacrifice, civil disobedience, peer pressure, prejudice, unwritten rules, sadness, point of view, film adaptations, responsibility, cerebral palsy, book cover design, devotion to art, pacing, what made a book “good” a century ago versus today versus what makes a book just plain “good” all the time.

I’m planning out the selections for the next year. Now that I have the girls’ attention, now that they are invested, I’m going to mix it up a bit more, and designate a category for each month: poetry, biography, mystery, fantasy, adventure, Africa, Asia (not enough months to break down into smaller categories, but there’s always the following year), Europe, Latin America, Pacific Islands/Australia, Middle East, and probably different regions/historical periods in North America. I could get lost for hours in noodling around the various options.

 

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The walls of old Delhi

The walls of old Delhi. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

New year, new feature: the Friday Round-up. Below are some features that I found noteworthy over the past week of so (although not necessarily dated within the past week). Filed under some of the rubrics that tend to garner my attention. Morsels for the mind and soul.

Art (Photography)

A while ago I discovered Tasveer Journal, an online magazine for photography in India and elsewhere, and I was struck by many of the collections and articles it features. For example: spend some time with Renunciation. These photographs that Pooja Jain has taken of the world of Jain nuns in Rajasthan will transport you to another time and place, not only of this planet but perhaps of your mind as well.

And in a completely different direction: the pictures that Elena Shumilova takes of her children and animals on her farm are magical. They will make your heart sing, if it doesn’t melt first. The noble, shaggy creature in the first few reminds me of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, many of these look taken out of a fairy tale. The comment stream is interesting, if not particularly eloquent, because of the debate regarding photoshopping and other means of altering an image. Is it the photographer’s natural skill with a camera that matters most, or the final image?

India

This article in The Atlantic, and its accompanying videos, depicts a certain side of the Indian capital: what is left today of Delhi as a sanctuary. (This is not the Delhi that has been so infamously featured in the news of late.) Over the last eight centuries, wave upon wave of immigrants have washed into Delhi, seeking refuge. By conservative estimates, there are now about 30,000 refugees in the city, says the article. Video interviews put a human face to their experiences: an Afghan man who has yet, after 26 years, to feel a sense of accomplishment; a Burmese doctor offering free health care; a musician who found an opportunity which never existed for him at home.

Meanwhile, photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has dedicated herself to documenting the harmful repercussions of child marriage, shares these pictures of young children in Rajasthan who have taken a stand against their own parents and refused to be married. Cynics may point to the fact that this is yet another western woman going into the dark recesses of Indian society and pulling out horror stories, but the mission is undeniably important, and these snapshots are compelling.

Food

This series has been going around for a while, but it never grows old, and it certainly bears looking at several times: what a week of groceries looks like around the world. As they say in France, sans commentaire.

Journalism

“This is Danny Pearl’s final story.” Intense, and very well told. A decade after journalist Daniel Pearl is beheaded on video (the story and images are haunting), his close friend and colleague Asra Nomani comes face to face with his killer at Guantánamo.

The craft of writing

“The what of the story … doesn’t matter one whit if you’re missing the why.” Read this piece by Ann Bauer who brings home the importance of focusing on reader-based writing, not writer-based writing.

The business of writing

“Should Women’s Fiction Have its Own Category?” Don’t get me started. Just about anyone who writes, and probably anyone who purchases books, is likely to have an opinion about this. The idea of categorization is on my mind these days as my publisher needs to provide the distributor with three categories in which to place my book. Here’s one take on the subject, by Yael Goldstein Love: that category needs to go. (via Lisa Borders.)

Writing and India

The Code of Writing: Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self.” On computer programming, Sanskrit, storytelling and the culturally split self, among other things. Lengthy, but a good read, especially if you have read at least part of Vikram Chandra’s body of work. (I highly recommend Love and Longing in Bombay.)

Urban history & development

The historical soundscape of New York City. Here is a fun reconstruction of the sounds of the city in the Roaring Twenties.

Art (Dance)

Returning to the stage at 55, and with an artificial hip, Alvin Ailey dancer Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish has some beautiful reflections and video footage here. “When you’re younger, you have everything — you have the flexibility, you have no fear. But you don’t savor every step, every movement of every fingertip, every beat of the music. I feel like I’m tasting food for the first time.”

 

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I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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Mocking_Bird_Argument

Mocking bird kerfuffle. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The kerfuffle

By now, if you vaguely follow news of the writing world, and perhaps even if you don’t, you will have become aware of the kerfuffle around Jonathan Franzen’s latest curmudgeonly diatribe, published in The Guardian last week, in which he waxes eloquent, in 39 paragraphs, no less, on much that is wrong with modern life, especially the plethora of phenomena (such as Twitter), companies (such as Apple) and people (such as Jeff Bezos) who in his view exemplify the general shallowness of society.

Nestled in his commentary, there are some nuggets of what many will recognize as truth. It is too bad that they are dissimulated in an overwhelming salvo of irritation and general grumpiness regarding “yakkers and Tweeters and braggers” and the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon who “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” (For an amusing read on the horror of agreeing with Franzen, read this.) On the very same day that the Guardian piece came out, there was a response which some viewed as spot on, while others, including a very well-spoken commenter using the handle “Ivan,” pointed to as precisely embodying Franzen’s critique. “Ivan” comments that “Franzen writes the type of unabashedly old-school creative literary/cultural critique that many of today’s smart folks ‘don’t have the time’ to read anymore because they’re too busy backstroking through the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs. Wrapping his argument in a thoughtful historical comparison, he maligns the speed, form, instant gratification, and coolness embodied by our technoconsumerism– a germane topic.” One could argue with the part about “the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs,” but Ivan goes on to ask quite validly whether the article’s writer has “even had time to process, or if is he “actually being paid to be pithy, sardonic, digestible and prolific at the expense of being thoughtful, astute and fair.”

Scathing denunciations

But enough already about Franzen. He is of course not the first “literary” writer (we’ll get back to the reason for those quotation marks later) to issue scathing denunciations of technology or social media (which of course were wildly propagated to thousands, if not millions, of people–or should I say users?– among those selfsame media). Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, in his tremendously popular blog, wrote in Feb 2012 a post titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” in response to a spate of articles and interviews on this topic. In this post, he mentions, among others:

Jonathan_FranzenJonathan Franzen’s (I guess not enough of Franzen quite yet) statement that ebooks are damaging society and that “serious” readers read print.

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.)

 

 

 

Jennifer_EganPulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complaining about social networking “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.” (Interestingly, or perhaps not, Jennifer Egan has a Twitter account, with over 8,000 followers despite only 8 Tweets.)

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Zadie_SmithZadie Smith writing of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” (Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Ray_BradburyRay Bradbury’s 2009 response to the suggestion of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451: “To Hell with you and to Hell with the Internet.” (And lo! Two years later, the ebook came out. One could argue about whether Ray Bradbury is a “literary” writer or not, but he’s certainly part of The Canon.

(Photo by Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Each of these outbursts prompted much discussion, commentary and writing. The most beautiful of which (at least among the pieces I encountered) was Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith, delving deeply into the intersection of technology, communication and relationships. If there is one link you click on with the intent of reading it fully, make it this one.

These statements, while they spark interesting debate and prompt many to exercise their writing muscle, do a disservice to today’s new “literary” writers.

(Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.)

Here is a fact: Literary writers in the 25-45 year age bracket have come of age, at least career-wise, in a new era, when opportunities for seeing one’s work published by “traditional” publishers (and getting paid for it) have slimmed to almost nothingness, and when the dollars put forward by publishers for marketing and promotion of one’s work, even with a publishing contract, have dwindled drastically. An anonymous comment on Nathan Bransford’s post hits the nail on the head: “I love Franzen, but he writes a book a decade and laughs all the way to the bank. Who on earth has that kind of a sweet deal? If I were him, or John Iriving, or any other of those authors who’ve found a great thing and have milked it for years, I’d be against technology, too.” (I don’t think the term “milked it” here is fair, given the true greatness of these authors’  writing. Franzen is a wizard with words. I may not have liked any of the characters in The Corrections, but every single sentence in that book sings. It’s writing at a very, very high level. Nonetheless, I agree with the commenter’s general sentiment. Such opportunities are far from available for the vast majority of good, strong, worthy writing that is produced now.)

The aloof, disconnected literary writer

The pontifications or blustery explosions of established literary writers, no matter how well-written and based on kernels of hard truth, solidify the image of such writers as aloof and disconnected from the general population, from the realities of day to day life of the general population (which is ironic given that much of their work focuses on the very human experiences of the average person.) They propagate the notion that literary writers craft their Great Work–full of gorgeous writing, searing imagery, stunning insight into the human condition, true art–from up above in an isolated ivory tower, that they are ethereal, evanescent, a collection of ideas. And therefore they risk solidifying the publishing industry’s prejudice against unknown or debut literary writers because they illustrate the lack of “platform” or “reader engagement” which these days, whether one likes it or not, are two of the things that publishers look for to drive book sales for new authors. To the publishing industry, then, “literary” becomes equivalent to “un-sellable.” At least, I clarify again, in the case of new authors.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

So what are upcoming literary writers to make of all this?

Those who have come of age, at least with regard to their literary development, at a time of intense proliferation of social media, when many if not most of their friends are active on a minimum of two or three platforms. An age in which blogs offer a means to get one’s work “out there” without depending on the one-in-ten-thousand chance that their essays might end up being purchased (yes, for money) by an established publication with a wide readership. Would such writers discredit themselves by having a social media presence and (gulp!) engaging with people through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Are they then not truly literary? Will they never be accepted by the circle of authors who routinely review each other’s works in the New York Times Book Review? Are they wasting precious time that could be spent on our own Great Work?

Here is what I fear: that because literary writers are not on social media, the assumption will be that any writer on social media is not literary.

A friend of mine whom I met when our older children were tiny is a well-reviewed literary writer. She is lovely, smart, funny. She and I have had conversations, while the children smooshed Play Doh together, during which we laughed, saw eye to eye on many topics, generally “connected” well. She is someone who would no doubt post interesting links, have thoughtful observations and commentary to share on social media. Except she is not there. Even her web site is outdated. She has two published books. I don’t. Coincidence? It does make a girl wonder.

In this, as in many things, I am a hybrid. Several agents and editors have termed my first novel “literary.” And yet, I confess: I enjoy social media. I see where it has value. I use Facebook to maintain a connection with friends around the globe, and I use Twitter both to keep abreast of topics of interest to me, and to connect with others doing the same. For me it is about community, and finding a comfortable place in it. I find great satisfaction in conversations with strangers about topics close to my heart. It gives me energy to hap upon someone–a person out there in the great wild world, someone I would otherwise never encounter–who makes me laugh, or sees something the same way I do, or points me to a beautiful piece of writing or an artist’s photography. I like to write occasionally in a conversational style, or to write about un-literary, mundane things such as food or children, things that resonate on a simple level with many people. I like to post photographs. I embrace the term “literary” but refuse to be bound to it or by it.

Perhaps we are turning a corner, one in which there can be a happy medium, in which one can be a hybrid, a writer of literary fiction who is also known and liked as a person, who has an active online presence and whose writing has a far reach. Not that he is a shining example of an author who is well liked as a person, but Salman Rushdie’s response to Franzen’s “disappointment when a novelist who [he believes] ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter” was encouraging. Rushdie tweeted “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.” But I am not sure we are there yet. Rushdie names a handful of literary writers, and there are some others (Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie, Teju Cole) who engage in social media. Teju Cole, in fact, has a wonderful “small fates” series that he posts on Twitter, using the constraint of 140 characters to storytelling advantage. (Click here for a useful piece on why Twitter is good for writers, which lists several reasons without even going into the whole connect-with-your-readers bit.) However, these are established writers of literary fiction, who can afford to engage minimally with people via social media, who can have 48,000 followers but only follow 50 people. (I suspect they might just not have time for more, being busy teaching, giving keynote addresses and of course writing.)

Making art and feeling fine

What gives me hope for myself is that there appears to be a new wave of literary writers who are very active in social media. The writer Cathy Day points to it in the course of an interesting discussion on April Line’s post: “The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. (…) The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine.

Have you heard of any of them? Perhaps, perhaps not. They all have books out, they all write thoughtfully, they are all committed to their craft. They’re feeling fine, and I’ll take my cue from them, too. But it sure would help if some of those at the helm of the literary writing world didn’t issue disparaging statements regarding the practices of those who are still trying to make it.

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Brookline_Booksmith

Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

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Writing Retreat Sun Porch

Writing Retreat Sun Porch, photo by Crystal King

I spent last weekend in the company of my three writing group partners, in a rambling old house on the coast of Maine. It was one of those houses that should be the setting for a story, and in fact makes a cameo appearance in one of our members’ works in progress. Doors and corridors open upon room after room, and even more rooms, with extra mattresses squirreled away under beds. There was flowered wall paper and high ceilings and closets full of family history and old books, and views of the craggy rocks, the pebbly beach and the ocean from most windows. There were plenty of nooks and crannies in which to work, including a massive sun porch, and lots of old roll-top desks with relics of past times still nestled in their cubbies. There were even a couple of functioning rotary phones, a mysterious Back Stair, and an Ice-O-Mat affixed to the pantry wall. It was, in a word, perfect.

Ice-O-Mat

Ice-O-Mat

But even without such an idyllic setting, a writing retreat can be a fantastically invigorating way to remind oneself of those aspects of writing  of which it is all too easy to lose sight, especially if one is also juggling a job, children, and other responsibilities: the commitment to write, one’s reason to do so, one’s capacity for sustained focus over a period of hours. And of course, a writing retreat is an excellent way to make some tangible progress on an existing project. Herewith, 7 tips on how to make this happen.

1. Choose your company well.

It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people, fellow writers or other artists who will abide by the schedule (see tip #4) with seriousness and also provide for stimulating conversation and good laughs during your breaks. The ability to be both silly and serious together is key. (Unless you are the type to favor a solitary retreat. Personally, I balk at the silence and me-ness of a retreat alone, but folks like Joyce Carol Oates would probably revel in it. Since JCO is unlikely to be reading my blog any time soon, I’ll continue with my more social-minded retreat tips.)

Fabulous Writing Group Partners

Fabulous Writing Group Partners, photo by Crystal King

2. If possible, select a setting amid nature.

The coast of Maine is rugged, craggy, salted. Striated rocks jut out into the water, wild rose bushes grow in a tumble along scraggly paths. The ocean is take-your-breath-away cold, the air turns crisper just as soon as one passes the state’s Welcome sign on I-95. One can, of course, retreat to any place that is away from the hubbub of one’s regular life, but being out in nature offers, literally, a breath of fresh air. The brain is oxygenated, the eyes can rest on the horizon, or on a vista of trees or flowers. The blood can pump through the body during a run or a hike on a sand or dirt path, and ideas flow more freely.

Biddeford Pool beach, ME

Biddeford Pool beach, ME, photo by Crystal King

3. Articulate a goal beforehand, and share it out loud.

It’s all about accountability. For some, accountability to oneself is all it takes to sit down in the chair and just do it. For most, articulating a goal to others makes the goal more real and more necessary, and therefore more likely to be met. One writer, of historical fiction, wanted to change the point of view in her existing chapters and pound out at least one more chapter. Someone else wanted to revise an entire section of her novel. Another wanted to get herself to within spitting distance of querying agents. I wanted to plough through a writing block and write a new chapter as well as develop a new character. We all made it to, or acceptably close to, our goals.

4. Set a reasonable schedule, and then adhere to it.

You are here to work. That is the primary purpose. Therefore, you need a schedule that includes a good amount of work time. We set our start time for 9:00 or 9:30 am, allowing for a good night’s sleep and ample time for breakfast, or even for fitting in a morning run. Then 3-4 solid hours of work time, each of us settled in a different corner of the house. I loved the companionable silence, the knowledge that as I worked, three other people were chipping away at their projects as well—musing, pondering, creating. Every now and then, one of them would pass me on the way to the kitchen for a piece of fruit, chocolate, or a cup of coffee. There would be a quick exchange of smiles, in silence as each acknowledged the importance of not disturbing the other’s writing state of mind. We repeated the experience in the afternoon for another 3-4 hour stint.

5. Take long breaks, eat well, and get some exercise.

Perhaps these should be three separate tips, but in my mind they are intrinsically linked. In addition to the solid wake-up and breakfast time we gave ourselves, we took two hours at lunch time to make and pack a picnic together and bring it down to the rocks at the beach, then go for a stroll on the point. And after the second 3-4 hour writing stint of the afternoon, we took the evenings off, exploring the area a bit and eating out. Our group always meets around food, so it was natural one night for us to head to Fore Street in Portland for a fabulous farm-to-table meal.

6. Bring snacks, mostly healthy but some treats, too. No, not quite that many.

In our giddy enthusiasm, we over-packed in the snacks and drinks (as in boozy drinks) department. We’ll know better for next time. But it was great to have a stash of wasabi chick peas, chocolate, almonds, dried apricots and home-made fig cake in the kitchen, sometimes just as an excuse to get up and walk around and ingest a little sugar. And the gin-and-tonics didn’t hurt, either. (What? It was five o’clock somewhere.)

Writing Nook

Writing Nook

7. Make arrangements for your pets/children/spouses/plants, and then put them out of your mind, or at least in its far reaches.

This is your time. You may have several small children at home. You may have a new puppy or a senile cat. You may have other dependents for whom you are usually the main source of care. But chances are that if you have planned a writing retreat, or even if you are simply seriously considering one, you are willing to make arrangements to cover for their care and feeding while you are away. Do what you can to give yourself peace of mind that everyone is in good hands, and then go Do Your Thing. Those who are helping you out back home are doing it for just that reason.

(Bonus tip #8: Bring music. This might not work for everyone, but our group found it inspiring to write to the strains of wordless classical music. When I am on my own, I favor Indian classical: Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Bannerjee and L. Subramaniam among others. The rhythms and surges of the music may well come to match the patterns of your writing. Visit The Undercover Soundtrack by Roz Morris for a great blog series on writers who use music as part of their creative process.)

For additional advice and details, including how we came across the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks and other wonders, head over the Crystal King’s blog.

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BookClub

Yesterday afternoon, as I prepped my home to host and run the first meeting of K’s book club, I felt an odd nervousness. What if the girls—the gaggle of eight year olds arriving straight from a birthday party—were just not interested? The book was The Secret Garden, which I knew for a fact some of them did not enjoy, and did not finish. K was among those. For the first couple of weeks of the month, I had reminded her repeatedly to read the book, until it became clear she just was not nearly as absorbed by it as she was by the Goosebumps series with which she’s recently become obsessed. I worried that the other girls would come grudgingly, that their lack of interest would be indicative of a failure on my part or, worse of society in general.

I used the precious time that the toddler was asleep and K was at the birthday party to make afternoon tea sandwiches (cuke and butter, cuke and cream cheese, salmon and cream cheese) and set out a bone china tea set, to dash out to buy a bouquet of roses (the main flower of the garden in the book) and set up a table of pencils and markers for the girls to draw their own secret garden. I created personalized binders, and book review sheets, and all the while I thought: I could be using this time to read, to write, to exercise, to do any number of things for myself which are always the first to fall by the wayside. I grumbled at myself for, once again, putting too much of myself into something that could yield disappointment, for caring too much.

At exactly five o’clock, they arrived, carpooling from the birthday party. I opened the door and let in a gush of cold air and a tumble of jabbering kids, one of whom immediately showed me the copy of the book she read and told me how “cool” it was that she was reading the selfsame copy her mother read 30 years ago. They flung their jackets on the newel post and disgorged their birthday loot (panda-themed bracelets, goodies, stuffed pandas) on the couch and chairs and floor. They set upon their binders, looking at the book review sheets, and coloring the stars to rate the book. Are there snacks? they asked. I told them there was tea, finger sandwiches and scones, and they squealed in delight and asked if they could have tea right away. (I spared them treacle and porridge and beef-tea, which would have been more true to the book. What is beef-tea anyway?) My worries dissolved.

What followed was the most enjoyable and satisfying 90 minutes I have ever spent with a bunch of 8 year olds. We fell into an animated, engaging, literary discussion of the language, plot and characters of The Secret Garden. We talked about the use of “broad Yorkshire” and how the choice of language, although at times difficult to decipher, added immeasurably to the sense of place. We discussed the ways in which the book is different from what the girls usually read, and they made astute observations about “the Harry Potter era” of books. We talked about attitude, how it can change, what made Mary a “sour” child, whether she helped Colin for himself or for her or for some other reason. The girls told me about which parts they “connected” with the most. We discussed the “magic” of the garden. We talked about what constitutes a “classic.” The girls were raising their hands, jumping up and down for a chance to express themselves. We could have gone on for much longer, but we had not budgeted enough time.

They all had tea, and downed the scones and sandwiches and berries. They drew elaborate secret gardens of their own, with tree houses and swimming pools. They discussed and negotiated the choice of the book for May (From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and clamored for their copies of the April book (Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing), announcing they were going to start reading it right away. And then they all left in a whoosh like flock of twittering birds, gathering up their birthday goodies, riffling through the pile of clothes for their pink and purple and blue jackets, and clattering down the stairs to the cars of the three parents who were going to redistribute them to their respectful homes in the neighborhood.

They left behind scone crumbs on the rug, a coffee table strewn with teacups and plates, a water bottle, a plastic bag from a party favor, and a very pleased hostess. Among all the things I have volunteered to do, this one so far has yielded the highest satisfaction-to-effort ratio.

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Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Jain temple inside Jaisalmer. Photo by Sangeeta Dhanuka (Wikimedia Commons)

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. For centuries, the monsoons have been elusive, and it was no different when I was young. So it is understandable that when I was born during the first rainstorm in so long, some considered me special. In the royal palace of the citadel not far from our home, the walls of children’s rooms were, and are still, trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so when the gods finally did send rain, the little ones would not be afraid. But for others such as my brothers and sister, who grew up looking at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, the day of their first rain can mean an intensity of both fear and hope.

I have no doubt that I now possess an unusual gift, but it came late in my life. I began as all children do, accepting of my lot for it was the only one I knew, and living by the decisions my father made for me. When I was old enough, I began to understand that I could shape my own path. And although I struggled greatly along the way, the gods must have approved of what I chose to do with it, for many, many years later they gave me this gift. I am not sure why they acted as they did, or how they chose what knowledge to grant me and what to keep concealed. Was it a moment of selfishness on their part? Was it for our dance? For humankind? Or, possibly, just for me? Whatever the reason, knowing now the minds and hearts of some of those close to me when I was a child allows me to tell this story. It is not the story of me alone, but mine alone to tell.

www.faintpromiseofrain.com

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Every time my oldest comes home with a book club flyer from school, my heart sinks. I understand and fully support the motto of “building confidence in young readers,” but does that have to mean that each flyer must be a compendium of mostly the following:

  1. Books pertaining to underwear and bodily functions;
  2. Endless series of vapid characters in interchangeable stories;
  3. Books packaged with items such as zombie glasses, glow-in-the-dark slime or Ninjago figurines;
  4. History and science presented in terribly uninspiring and reeks-of-school titles;
  5. Books derived from cartoons or other TV characters?

Lost among all these are a few gems: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, Eleanor Este’s Ginger Pye, Charlotte’s Web. But those are not the ones the child clamors to buy (but look, Mom, it’s only $3.99 and it comes with a cupcake charm!)

For a while, I went with the whatever-she-reads-is-great attitude, because I just wanted her to discover the joy of reading. But now that she’ll happily curl up on the couch with a book, I find myself very discouraged with the books she’s exposed to through the library at school, or the book fair, or the abovementioned flyers. Sure, she can read all the Captain Underpants books and giggle with her friends about how often the word “fart” shows up in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I’ll hand it to those authors that they’ve nailed their audience on the head), but I feel compelled to help her dip her toes into the vast, rich, magical world of wonderful children’s literature – the kind that transports you, haunts you, affects your very soul and stays in your memory forever – that exists out there. The one that sustained me, nourished me, when I was a young child.

And thus is born our book club, for her and up to seven of her friends from school. We held our first, organizational meeting this past weekend. There were snacks, coffee and tea for the parents, several girls piled onto each arm chair, and lots of pink-and-purple-socked feet waving around. We discussed ground rules, respecting opinions, what to do if you don’t like the book (read at least 25 pages and come prepared to explain why you didn’t like it), what the name of the club should be (there were evocations of bookworms, pandas, panda worms – ew – without any consensus), and of course what the selections would be. I handed each girl a booklet with a list of titles and authors, a picture of each cover, and a description, and asked each one to nominate three from among the 22 or so on the list.

The first vote was almost unanimous for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Remember that one? I thought so. I can’t wait to see what the discussion of the book will yield. The book was written one hundred years ago (I don’t think the girls know this yet), takes place for the most part in Yorkshire, England (after Mary’s parents die of cholera in India) and is quite unlike anything these girls have read yet. It’s a far cry from the school-based series revolving around someone’s best friend moving out of state, or a weird substitute bringing the class on an adventure, or a band of classmates solving the mystery of the disappearing lunchboxes. I wonder how much of their decision was based on my use of this particular cover? (On a very abridged, Scholastic version from 1993.)

The Secret Garden

 

I’ve written before about the drastic variation in covers on editions of old classics, and how that predisposes today’ children to shy away from some of these gems. What if I had used this cover image instead? (Simon & Brown, Dec 2012)

The Secret Garden

Or this one? (Random House abridged version from 1987)

The Secret Garden

And here’s the list of book options that I have compiled so far. Other suggestions welcome!

  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by e. l. konigsburg
  • The Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear
  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar and Julie Brinkloe
  • Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins
  • The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
  • The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
  • My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brian
  • Frindle, by Andrew Clements
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
  • Poetry for Young People: William Carlos Williams
  • Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
  • The Double Life of Pocahontas, by Jean Fritz

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