Archive for the ‘Writing and books’ Category

The end is near (of the novel, not the world)

June 30, 2015

I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel for slightly more than a year. Progress has been in small steps punctuated by constant breaks: My halftime job at Golden Gate Audubon gives me the rest of the week to write, but the paying work often creeps over into the unpaid work and then there are all the other interruptions of family, holidays, life.

This week, though, I’ve reached the last chapter.

Audubon work was relatively contained in June so I got on a roll. I saw the end of the book ahead of me, a long straightaway after winding through mountains. I was writing a lot! I became unusually spacey, caught up in imagined conversations between my characters while driving or taking my spin class or buying groceries. I was so distracted that I locked my keys in the car at the gym last week.

locked-out

Evil zombie woman looks at her inaccessible car keys

Then Sam went backpacking for the past five days, so I had my own private writers’ retreat here at home – nothing to do but write, go to the gym, and heat up canned soup.

Yesterday I was exhilarated to reach this point. To get the whole darn thing down! To have a narrative that goes from point A to point B! To write  down on paper all the ending episodes that I’d had in my brain for months!

I had to restrain myself from posting jubilant cheers on Facebook. Huzzah huzzah huzzah! Champagne for everyone! Wait, I told myself, until you are actually done.

Today I got even closer. I started what will be the last chapter.

And now I don’t feel exhilarated at all. Quite the opposite.

I’m sad because something very sad is happening to my main characters. I’m anxious because once the first draft is done, I need to put on my critical hat and look at all the things that suck with the manuscript and make it better. I’m worried because I’m not going to have a chance to finish the draft until this weekend, when Sam will be out of town again and the post-draft letdown will really hit and I will be by myself and I will feel REALLY AWFUL.

For me, one of the necessary tasks in writing a first draft is to suspend all critical voices. Like many writers, and I suspect particularly women writers, I have a very persistent internal critic that is happy to point out every way in which my work is hackneyed, melodramatic, overwritten, predictable, boring, cliched, shallow etc. Over the years, I have gotten very good at shutting the valve on my critic while I plow through a first draft.

But then the first draft is done, and it’s time to edit and revise. I need to be critical. But there’s no halfway setting for my critic valve.

Once released, the critic blasts out with the power of a New York City fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and I’m flooded with self-loathing:

NYC hydrant, 1969

NYC hydrant, 1969

This book sucks! I can’t write decent dialogue! I’m no Virginia Woolf! I’m no Tom Wolfe! I’m not even Wolf Blitzer! This book should be flushed down the toilet before anyone can laugh at its incompetence, which is only exceeded by its hubris!

I’m worried that’s what happens next. With Sam out of town. So…

To-do list for the weekend:

Trip to Ace Hardware. Look for a Critic Wrench that can open the valve part way. A little bit at a time. Drip by drip, revision by revision.

But first, finish the book.

And second, open that champagne. Even if I’ve forgotten that I earned it.

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The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

Reading (and writing) apocalyptic fiction

November 11, 2014

When I was a kid, I read a ton of DC Comics. I started with Batman because of the 1960s TV show, moved on to Superman and other superheroes, and along the way read a short-lived comic book series called The Atomic Knights about a band of post-nuclear-holocaust survivors.

Atomic_Knights_h3

That was my first taste of post-apocalyptic fiction. I occasionally read other end-of-the-world novels like On The Beach and even wrote my own nuclear-survivor short story in junior high in which a research crew in Antarctica return and discover that all of New York City has been levelled except for the rotating animal chimes in the Central Park Zoo. Of course two of the researchers realize amidst the debris that they are in love and vow to create a new better, civilization together.

Shut up. I was in junior high, okay?

Several years ago I read The Road and its uncompromising bleak vision blew me away. Probably among my top five favorite books of all time.

stationeleven

This fall I’ve read a string of new dystopian novels, spurred by a New York Times story about the genre. The Times contended that The Road opened the door for “literary” apocalyptic fiction.

(Background: The publishing world has its own self-constructed silos where novels are slotted into marketing categories such as romance, crime, chick-lit, fantasy, literary fiction, and so on. The Road’s success meant that well-written novels with an apocalyptic theme didn’t get automatically locked into the “science fiction” silo. They could be marketed both to science fiction readers and to people who like thoughtful, character-driven general fiction.)

I’ve read three of the books mentioned in the Time story – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, and most recently, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.

I was regretfully disappointed by the first two. They were well-written, with fully drawn characters and nuanced relationships. But…

Station Eleven seemed weirdly bland for a post-apocalyptic book. It mostly takes place more than 15 years after a super-contagious virus has devastated the world’s populations, and the few survivors seem pretty happy and well adjusted amidst the ruins. Many don’t even remember the details of the cataclysm. There is one power-hungry madman but he kind of fades away and there is never a real confrontation with evil. Everyone lives happily ever after in a suburban airport that has been turned into a refuge.

Station Eleven’s author is Canadian, and (sorry, Canadian friends!) I couldn’t help thinking: Take out the unrelenting evil, the hopelessness, the cannibalism on which Cormac McCarthy built The Road… this is a Canadian view of the apocalypse.  ;-)

california

California follows one young couple who leave L.A. to homestead in the wilderness in the wake of societal breakdown. They eventually encounter a utopian-type settlement nearby, and get enmeshed in drama with the leaders of the settlement. Again, this was unsatisfying for me. At times, the whole apocalyptic setting seemed merely a vehicle for Lepucki to write about the challenges of two people alone in a marriage. And then the machinations of the the settlement got tedious. The stakes seemed low and boring. I didn’t care about power struggles in the settlement – I wanted to know what had happened in imploding L.A.!

Which brings me to The Book of Strange New Things, which I have just finished.

I LOVED it.

Like Lepucki’s book, it centers on a marriage. Peter, a former addict turned committed Christian, has signed on to be pastor to the alien residents of a distant planet where a mysterious global corporation has set up a human colony. His equally devout wife Bea stays at home, where it turns out that natural disasters and social disruption are starting to doom the earth.

It is SO well done. I love that Peter and Bea are thoughtful, intellectual Christians whose faith you can respect, something you rarely see in contemporary fiction. There is tension and drama on multiple levels – Will the aliens be friendly? Will the mysterious corporation turn out to have an evil agenda? What happened to the previous pastor who mysteriously disappeared? What will happen to Peter and Bea’s relationship with all those billions of miles between them? What will happen to Peter’s faith and his sobriety?

strangenewthings

And it is all realistic, consistent, and believable within the universe that Faber has created. There are no unexpected monsters lurching out of volcanoes on the planet, no cataclysmic rocket explosions, none of that Hollywood-type stuff.

This is all of particular interest to me right now because the novel I’m currently working on is also a work of speculative fiction. It’s not apocalyptic, but it does something similar. It takes parts of our culture and uses them as the base for a completely different reality – a world that is not our world, but has recognizable elements of our world. It’s a novel that starts with the premise, “what if such-and-such were to happen…

So I ask myself: What is it that succeeds in books like The Book of Strange New Things, The Road, and The Time-Traveller’s Wife (another favorite of mine that bridges the divide between science fiction and literary fiction)?

Some thoughts:

  • Internal logic. These created worlds and scenarios have rules and logic. They may be completely different from the science and logic of our world, but they are consistent within themselves. Once you accept the premise of the book, the things that happen all make sense. No deus ex machina resolutions where friendly aliens suddenly descend and make everything right, no unbelievable coincidences where the man in the mask turns out to be the hero’s long-lost brother.
  • Character development. They center on characters – people’s relationships to each other, their existential choices. There is nuance, ambiguity. Unlike a Hollywood sci-fi movie, the question isn’t “will the hero save the universe” but “will the hero understand herself, how will she respond when her belief system crumbles etc.”
  • Larger issues. They raise provocative larger issues about our future as a society, how we relate to each other, the purpose of our lives, and human morality. They leave us thinking about our current world in a new way. Why bother creating an alternate universe if you’re not going to use it to explore large issues and look at our world differently?
  • Unflinching. For me, at least, these books need to go to a dark place to be fulfilling. They need to confront our worst selves – our mortality, evil, the limits of human love — and see what happens. No sugar-coating things.
  • High stakes. These books convey high stakes and urgency. That needs to happen on an individual level; it can happen on a societal level too but the individual level is paramount. As readers, we have to really care that something important is at stake here. With The Book of Strange New Things, I felt that so much was at stake – Peter’s entire life as a recovered addict, his faith, his marriage, his ability to go on living with some sense of purpose and integrity.

Right now, with my own manuscript, I am struggling to keep things character-driven and consistent and not slip into action-movie melodrama. There’s a kind of gravitational pull to the action movie, like driving a car where the wheels are out of alignment and it keeps veering to one side.

It would be very easy to add lots of hustle and bustle and battle and magic. But that’s not what I need to do. I need to keep hold of the steering wheel and stay with the characters and with the internal consistency of the world I’m creating.

What do you think? Those of you who are writers? Those of you who are readers?

Ilana’s Little List of Superfluous Words

November 11, 2013

Hallelujah! I’m almost at the end of my latest round of novel revisions.

And once I’m done with the substantive revisions, I’m going to try something new — a Microsoft Word “search” for superfluous words.

Noodling  around in the manuscript, I’ve noticed that there are certain words that add little or no value. Sometimes they are “hedge” words that undercut what I’m saying. Other times they state the obvious. Or they are just a flabby cliche.

cliche-t

I don’t notice these words when I’m writing a first draft; they roll easily off my pen. They seem so natural that I don’t notice them on reading the completed manuscript, either. Thus the computer search.

Prime example: suddenly. 

I use a lot of suddenlys!  My characters look up suddenly. They put down their forks suddenly. They hurl chairs suddenly.

(Have you ever seen a chair hurled in a non-sudden manner? Now that would be an adverb worth using: “He hurled the chair gradually.”)

So I’m starting a list of superfluous words that should be weeded out. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • suddenly
  • somewhat, some
  • sort of, kind of
  • little
  • simply
  • just

Here are a few examples from different sections of my manuscript:

“What does Marta have to do with this?” her mother asked with some bewilderment.

There were more stars in just one small corner of the sky than you could see over all of Manhattan.

I felt suddenly uneasy. 

I jerked my head around, suddenly paranoid, and shoved the boa back inside the bag.  (Well, maybe I should keep that one. I’ll think about it.)

Talking with my lawyer friend Beth yesterday, she described routinely excising certain words when editing her colleagues’ briefs. In her case, they are legal jargon like heretofore.

I suspect every genre of writing – every profession – needs its own unique blacklist of superfluous words. Every writer should probably have her or his personal list too: The flabby words that slip into my draft may be different from the ones that slip into yours.

How about you? Any words that routinely roll off your pen that should be rolled off to the landfill?

Kotel in the kitchen: a happy Internet story

February 24, 2013

Amidst all the spam, porn, stupid cat videos, and Facebook Scrabble addictions, every so often there is a happy Internet story. This is one of them.

When I was in Israel in late 2011 working on a book about the Technion, I took some tourist snapshots of close-ups of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I liked the different textures of the stone, the irregularities amidst the rectangular blocks. I liked the visual parallels between the stones of the Kotel and the stone houses of Palestinian East Jerusalem. You might vaguely remember: I posted one of my Kotel snapshots here.

Then, about six months ago, I got a message out of the blue from some Israeli designer or design student who said he liked the photo, and could he use it?

Of course. I was delighted that someone had noticed my photo, and gratified that he had the courtesy to ask permission. I sent him my highest-res version, asked him to credit me in whatever project came out of this, and promptly forgot about it. I pictured some kind of  abstract collage or installation. Actually, I didn’t picture much of anything.

Then yesterday Sam told me there was a package on the porch. I opened it up and was amazed to see:

kotel board

It’s my Kotel photo, turned into a magnetic metal note board! The kind of thing you’d hang in the kitchen and post notes like “buy milk.”

It’s ingenious and gorgeous. To my surprise, my snapshot blew up with good clarity. I also thought of a use going beyond household notes — a kind of personal prayer board. Like the real Kotel, you could post notes on it of your greatest yearnings. “Help me find a way to resolve this plot problem in my novel.” “Help Aunt Edith fight off her cancer.” “Give me the courage to change jobs.”

I don’t believe in a God who reads notes on a magnetic bulletin board any more than I do in a God who reads notes stuck in an ancient wall, but I do think it is a ritual that can focus the mind and bring peace, determination or clarity. Seriously. I am thinking of hanging it in my study as a tool to help myself solve fiction writing problems.

In any case, the designer, Shaul Mualem, has a Jerusalem studio called Yahli Design that specializes in products that “blend traditional Jewish elements with modern ones.” You can find his online store on Etsy, including the Kotel note board for $26.50.

I know some people might say, “Hey, he’s making money off of your photo! Why didn’t you ask for payment?” but I couldn’t care less about payment. I hope he sells a gazillion note boards. I’m just delighted with the whole episode: A photo I took for fun is discovered by someone on the other side of the world. He makes an ingenious and useful product out of it. Unlike the vast majority of Internet surfers, he even asks permission to use it and credits me for the photo! And then follows up with a thank-you gift that might help my own creative process.

Cool, eh?

And then there’s what Sam said when he saw the note board, referring to the continuing arrests of women who try to pray at the actual Kotel in Jerusalem:

At least they can’t stop you from praying at this one. 

Game of Thrones and (our need for) happy endings

September 25, 2012

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and thinking about happy endings.

If you’re not familiar with it, A Game of Thrones is the first book in a humongous, sprawling fantasy series that gained a lot of fans when it was recently made into an HBO series. With five volumes totaling some 5,000 pages, its size makes Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings look like a 98-pound weakling on the beach. And five volumes isn’t the end of it. I just finished number five and everything remains cliffhangers; author George R.R. Martin says there is at least one more volume to come, maybe two.

Like Tolkien, Martin has created an entire cosmology with thousands of years of back history, religions and civilizations, largely derived from feudal Europe (knights, kings, castles, the only light is fire). But as my friend Nick Herold pointed out in recommending the series to me, Martin differs from Tolkien in the depth of his characters.

Game of Thrones is made up of chapters with alternating protagonists — dozens of them. Each chapter, you’re inside someone else’s head, seeing their rivalries and desires and feeling their pain as they get imprisoned, seasick, maimed or betrayed. And there is a LOT of maiming and betraying. I like that Martin doesn’t sugarcoat his feudal kingdoms a la Disney. Villages are muddy and starving, wounds fester with yellow pus in a world without antibiotics, rats and dogs are a dinner staple for common people while the royalty eat elaborate, gout-inducing banquets.

That grittiness applies to the plot(s) as well as the details of daily life. No one seems to catch a break in Game of Thrones. Good, honorable characters are killed. Evil characters are killed. People who should be allies become antagonists. Well-intentioned plans go awry. Children are orphaned; innocents are betrayed; heroic gestures lead to disastrous outcomes.

Sometimes I wish I could take all the “good” characters and bring them together, in one place and on the same side, but they are scattered across two continents and don’t even know that their family members or friends are alive. They experience one setback after another. Really, it would feel like The Perils of Pauline — damsel now tied to the railroad track, now dangling from a bridge, now up against a firing squad — if the flow weren’t broken up by moving between the ups and downs of those dozen-plus different characters.

About halfway through the five books, I realized these aren’t really novels. None of the volumes end with closure. There is no visible narrative arc — no rise toward a climax, followed by resolution. The story just goes on and on. Ups, downs, ups, downs, more complications, more characters, more ups and downs. It could go on like this for a dozen volumes. A hundred.

Which makes me wonder how Martin is going to end the series. At any point, he could wrap things up and bring all the dozen plot lines to tidy conclusions. That’s what I yearn for as I read it — the good characters all uniting, the lingering mysteries revealed, the triumph of a Good King (or Queen) who brings permanent peace and justice to the beleaguered lands of Westeros. But to some extent, that would feel like a betrayal of the rest of the series.

The series is like life — nothing ever seems to really end, and one “resolution” just leads to a new set of conflicts. Compare it to world politics. Our involvement in Iraq is “ending.” Obama is bringing our troops home. But the internecine conflict and sectarian tensions there continue, and at any point there could be a new eruption of violence that spills over and affects the Middle East and us in unforeseen ways. In Game of Thrones, none of people’s efforts to establish a just and peaceful kingship have succeeded so far. Why should we believe they will succeed at the end of the series?

So I started thinking about happy endings. We crave them. We want good to triumph over evil, but perhaps even more, we want things to be resolved. Static. In tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, the heroes die but as readers we are still satisfied because things are wrapped up, static, concluded. Everything is known. The story stops.

And this is of course pretense, artifice – no less on the individual than on the political level. Pride and Prejudice ends neatly with the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley. But marriages begin, not end, on the wedding day. There are a zillion conflicts that happen afterwards – illnesses, jealousies, power struggles, intergenerational conflicts, who knows what. But we don’t want to see any of that. We want things to be wrapped up, resolved, static.

My favorite Darcy and Elizabeth – Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – at their static, happy ending

Would anyone buy a novel where everything — everything — was left unresolved at the end? Could you even call that a novel?

And why is narrative resolution so important to us, when the only thing in life that is truly static and permanent is death?

How much bigger is an empty nest?

July 21, 2012

All year I’ve been moaning in this blog about Daughter’s impending departure for college. Loss, separation, passage of time, reminder of mortality, and so on. But in fact, I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about all the things I’m going to do once she’s gone.

Measuring a bird’s nest in the tundra / Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I’m going to cook kid-unfriendly vegetables like kale and cauliflower and cabbage. I’m going to sign up for a boot-camp program at my gym from 6 to 7:15 on weekday mornings. I’ll go to movies. To synagogue. To First Friday art walks in Oakland. Sam and I will bike from winery to winery in Sonoma. I’ll go on countless Audubon field trips….

Above all, I’ll return to revising my novel. I’ll work like a maniac, like life is one non-stop writers’ colony, and resolve all the plot and character problems, and bang that sucker out. I thought about it a lot this spring when I found myself the underachiever of my writing group, feeling guilty for not producing new drafts or rewrites: Just wait until September, then I will be amazingly productive….

It occurred to me the other day that September — the empty nest — has become an Emerald City. It’s shimmering in the distance at the end of the road. Magical things will happen. The Scarecrow will get his brains, the Tin Man his heart, the Lion his courage. Ilana will get the time and focus to finish her novel.

So then I started to wonder, Just how much more time will I actually have? 

It’s not like Daughter is still four years old and needs me to play with her and bathe her and read stories at bedtime. In fact, most of the time  she’s out with friends or in her room with the door closed. She makes her own lunches and does her own laundry. I don’t even need to drive her around anymore, since she got her license last month. Some days we hardly say twenty sentences to each other.

How exactly is she keeping me from working on my novel?

The critic in me says that she isn’t keeping me from the novel; I’m keeping myself. Revising is hard, I feel stuck on certain things, and she’s simply providing a good excuse not to deal with those challenges. I already have a relatively ideal situation for writing — a half-time job, and a beach house “retreat” that we share with friends and thus have access to every third week. Why aren’t I writing my little fingers off right now?

But in fact, I do believe that having a child at home tends to consume one’s attention, even if that child is an independent teenager.

Having a child — particularly for women, I think, but maybe for some men too — colonizes part of your brain like some alien Star Trek spore. A whole section of your brain is roped off with “seat taken” signs. When your child is nearby — even shut in her room texting friends — millions of your neurons are firing away non-stop on autopilot, vigilant for sounds of distress, sounds of happiness, sounds of misbehavior. When all this is going on, it is hard to summon up the level of concentration needed to work on a novel.

What will change when Daughter is gone:

  • I’ll feel free to spend four-day weekends at the beach house. With Daughter here, I don’t like to be away overnight. But once she’s gone, I can join Sam there on weekends and then remain there writing by myself on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • I’ll have uninterrupted early mornings. I can wake up at 6 a.m. and get right to work.  No half-listening for sounds of showering, dressing etc. No need to remind anyone that they need to be out the door in ten minutes. No driving anyone to BART. By 9 a.m., I can have three hours of work under my belt.
  • I can work evenings without a chunk of my brain hovering down the hall to see if homework is really being done, chores have been completed etc. (This is after Sam and I eat our kale-cabbage casserole,  of course.)

So yes, I think I will have more time for writing when she is gone. Or at least more focused time for writing.

But still, I wonder if I am heaping too many expectations onto September. If I’m slipping into a bit of magical thinking. The Emerald City shimmered from a distance but the Wizard turned out to be an ordinary man with no special powers.

How many ambitions can one empty nest hold?

Bestsellers

July 15, 2012

Wahoo! I’m trendy! I looked at the New York Times Book Review today and saw that of the #1 hardcover bestsellers, I just finished reading the non-fiction one and am in the middle of the fiction one.

And no, since I’m sure you were about to ask, neither is Fifty Shades of Grey. (That’s #1 on the paperback and e-book lists, not the hardcover list. )

The nonfiction one that I just finished is Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, the story of a young woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to get her deeply messed-up life back together. I tore through it in two days while accompanying Sam to the Sierra for the Markleeville Death Ride. He and I took a five-mile hike through beautiful wildflower meadows near Carson Pass on Thursday morning, and I was delighted to see that for about a mile our trail overlapped with the PCT.

Pacific Crest Trail near Carson Pass / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This wasn’t a section that Strayed walked (it was snowed under so she bypassed it), but it was one of those fun moments when reading and living get to intersect, like reading Victor Hugo in Paris, Dickens in London etc.

Wild is enjoyable because, while it’s about hiking the PCT, it’s really about Strayed’s struggle to emerge from the depths of her mother’s untimely death,  the dissolution of her family and her marriage, and her own grief, self-destructive behavior and despair. It was much more than “Then, at Mile 23, I came to a really gorgeous lake…”

The other great hiking memoir is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, about his attempt to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, the East Coast cousin of the PCT. Bryson is much funnier, with a number of laugh-out-loud sections. But I found Strayed’s more compelling and deeper. Both would be great summer vacation reading. Both might make you want to get out of the beach chair and hike — okay, not 500 miles, but maybe five.

Then the fiction best-seller I’m currently reading is Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It’s one of those welcome books that transcends the publishing industry’s genre boxes.  It’s a murder/suspense story, but also a psychological portrait of a failed marriage. And it’s very well-written as well as well-plotted. The author drops clues all over the place, but you can read them multiple ways and so you’re never sure what is going on — is the narrator a garden-variety flawed spouse, or a murderer? I’ve found myself paging back to earlier sections to re-read something the narrator said, and parse what it might mean. For fiction writers trying to create what is called an “unreliable narrator,” this should be a classic study.

I’m so happy to have stumbled into these two books this week. It had been a pretty dry spell, from a reading point of view. We are taking Daughter to see the musical of Les Miserables next week, so I had decided to actually read the book. Which is a great work, but LONG. Something like 1300 pages. I admit to skimming Hugo’s point-by-point analysis of the battle of Waterloo and his history of the Paris sewers. It was a slog — not as unpleasant as Jean Valjean’s journey through the sewers with Marius over his shoulder, but still a slog. And I remain more perplexed about 19th century French politics than ever.

Wildflowers along trail to Lake Winnemucca, Carson Pass / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Next up: The Liberated Bride, by A.B. Yehoshua, which I’ll be reading for our temple’s Israeli Fiction Book Group.

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P.S. Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, will be doing an event in S.F. on July 27. This is in relation to her *other* new book, Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of the advice columns she has written as “Sugar” on The Rumpus web site. Thanks to Abby Caplin for the heads-up on this!

Reading by Cheryl Strayed – 
Friday, July 27th, 6:30pm
The Rumpus party in honor of the publication of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
The Verdi Club
2424 Mariposa Street
San Francisco, California
Also featuring:
Host and all-around excellent person Stephen Elliott
Readings by Elissa Bassist and Yuvi Zalkow
Music by Baby and the Luvies
A special performance by The Rumpus Ensemble Players
$15 admission includes a signed copy of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

J “First Edition” – a new source for Jewish fiction & poetry

June 2, 2012

Consider this a birth announcement, of a literary sort —

J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for the Bay Area, has just launched a new monthly literary section!

The first week of each month, J will feature original poetry and fiction by northern California Jewish writers, as well as book reviews. The inaugural “First Edition” section came out this week, with a poem by Elizabeth Rosner called “Sixty-five Years Past Liberation” and an excerpt from Ellen Ullman’s novel By Blood.

Poetry submissions are being edited by Joan Gelfand, a terrific Bay Area poet and teacher and a former editor at Zeek. Fiction submissions are being edited by… yours truly.

Incorporating fiction and poetry into the J is something I’d been thinking about ever since I joined J’s board two years ago. When Sue Fishkoff came on board as J’s new Editor last fall, she turned out to have similar ideas… The goal is to inspire readers with Jewish-themed poetry and fiction, showcase the best new works by Jewish writers, and nurture an active Bay Area Jewish writing community.

It’s a win-win for everyone. J gets to reach out to readers who may identify culturally as Jewish but aren’t part of the “organized” Jewish community; while goodness knows writers are in need of places to showcase their work in this era of dwindling bookstores; and readers get good stuff to read.

Want to follow the section every month? You can sign up for a free weekly email from the J, which will include a link to the online literary pieces. Click here for the e-newsletter.

Or subscribe to the print paper. Support local Jewish journalism and writing! J offers a free four-week trial subscription to people in the Bay Area; click here.

Know anyone who might have work to submit? Contributors must identify as Jewish and live in northern California. Work can be previously unpublished, soon-to-be-published or recently published. Fiction submissions must include some kind of Jewish content — characters, or setting, or themes etc. For fiction, we’re seeking very short excerpts of 750-800 words for the print edition and a longer version of up to 2,500 words for our web site. Send poetry submissions to poetry@jweekly.com, and fiction to prose@jweekly.com.

Learning to bird

April 22, 2012

This month has been Birdathon, the annual fundraiser for Golden Gate Audubon Society, where I started working in January. (Think of a walkathon, although instead of soliciting pledges for every mile you walk, you ask friends to pledge for every bird you spot.)

It’s been a good excuse for me to get outdoors and actually do some birding, rather than writing and posting and Tweeting about other people birding. Two weeks ago, I went on a four-hour trip led by a really experienced pair of birders. Today I co-led a trip for friends of mine who had never birded before but wanted to try it: We had four very experienced birders, me, one other mid-level birder, and four “baby birders.”

The BabyBirders Birdathon team / Photo by Ilana DeBare

This has gotten me thinking about the skills that go into birdwatching. It’s more than just “Boy, you really have to learn the names of a ton of birds that all look small and brown.” There are in fact a variety of different skills:
  • Peripheral vision. Walking through a wood or a meadow, you’re surrounded by 360 degrees of things to see — clouds, trees, grasses blowing in the wind. In one small corner, a bird flits between branches. A good birder notices the movement. It’s partly peripheral vision, and partly an ability to notice slight changes in  a broad panorama. It’s like the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, where you scan for the tiny figure with the red striped cap in a page that is busy with hundreds of other tiny figures.
  • Pattern recognition. One of the first things a birder notices — in a split-second, without consciously thinking — is the shape of a bird. Is that distant figure on the water shaped like some kind of duck, or some kind of cormorant?  Toddlers learn to do this when they sort plastic triangles and squares into triangle- and square-shaped holes. We adults do this every day with images from our urban environment — the hexagonal traffic sign that means “stop,” the triangular one that means “yield.” But I learned the traffic signs decades ago, and I’m only now trying to learn the shapes of birds.
  • Noticing and remembering colors. This is where I frequently get stuck. In distinguishing among similarly-shaped birds, you have to notice all these minute differences in colors. One kind of grebe has black around its eye, while another has white. One kind of gull has pink legs, while another has yellow. Not only do you need to be able to notice these differences, but you need to remember them. And the males and females often have different coloration, as do adults and juveniles. I fear my mental database is not large enough to store all the various kinds of gulls. Can I get an upgrade, please?
  • Deciphering layers of sound. The birders who led our trip today were experts at birding by ear — identifying birds just from their calls, without ever seeing them. This requires a good memory for sounds, and remembering which pattern of tweet or trill  belongs to a particular species. But it also requires an ability to isolate the calls from each other. Walking through the Oakland hills today, there were easily six or eight different birds singing at the same moment. At first all you hear is a dense wall of sound. It’s like listening to a symphony orchestra and trying to isolate the viola from all the other instruments. Musicians can do it; people who bird by ear learn to do that too.
  • Attentiveness. This underlies everything else: You have to be mentally present and paying attention. You can’t be birding and texting on your iPhone. You can’t be birding and yakking about the great new restaurant where you had dinner last night.

There are probably more. These are just the few that come to mind right now. What struck me over the past day or two were some of the similarities to learning to chant Torah. (Maybe because I’m working on a portion for my nephew’s bar mitzvah next month!)

Learning to bird and learning to chant Torah are both mental challenges with no real practical value. They won’t get you a job like learning HTML; they won’t help you go places like learning to drive a stick shift. Basically, you learn them for their own sake. They both involve memorization of a bunch of arbitrary names and words. There is pattern recognition. There is sound recognition.

I suspect that both learning to bird and learning to chant Torah challenge our middle-aged brains in similarly healthy ways. It’s like suddenly being a toddler again, forced to learn a language from scratch.

They both feel daunting at the beginning. There is no shortcut to repetition: Practice, practice, practice.

I return to that famous Anne Lamott line that inspired  the title for her great book about writing, Bird by Bird.

(Holy cow! I’ve now worked Torah, writing and birding into a single blog post! Will someone give me a stuffed panda, please?) 

When Lamott was a kid, her brother was overwhelmed by a homework assignment on birds that he had left until the last minute. He had far too many birds to write about and one night to do it. He was despondent and freaking out. Then, Lamott wrote:

My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

My own goal is to come away from each birding trip with one new bird that I have seen clearly enough and long enough to be able to remember and identify on my own. If I can add one new bird each time, I’ll eventually know a lot of them.

Today my bird was a Fox Sparrow. There were two of them, amazingly close to our trail in the hills, kicking up dirt with their feet like dogs at the beach. That’s apparently a characteristic foraging behavior. They were kicking and rustling leaves and making as much of a ruckus as you can imagine a sparrow making, and they didn’t seem to care a bit that we were about three feet away.

One of our expert guides said, “When you hear something making a lot of noise in the woods, it’s either a Fox Sparrow or a grizzly bear.”

That line is a keeper, and worth hauling out in a variety of situations that have nothing to do with woods, trails or birds.

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Shameless plug: Want to support my Birdathon team and the conservation work of Golden Gate Audubon Society? You can make a tax-deductible online donation here.