Archive for the ‘Writing and books’ Category

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.

Adrienne Rich, z”l

March 29, 2012

A few words on the death this week of the poet Adrienne Rich:

Adrienne Rich /AP Photo by Stuart Lamson

I first encountered her work in the early 1970s when my high school boyfriend Ron was assigned some of her poetry. Today, almost 40 years later, I still remember the opening lines to one of those poems, “Trying to Talk With a Man,” about a marriage at the breaking point:

Out in this desert we are testing bombs
that’s why we came here.

I next encountered Rich in person, in the late 1980s, when I was living in Sacramento and involved with the local chapter of a national group called New Jewish Agenda. We were a motley collection of Jewish ex-hippies and Old Leftists and young yuppies who shared progressive politics and didn’t connect with the organized Jewish community. We needed a speaker at some kind of event… and somehow we got her phone number and called her…. and she came! All the way from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, to speak to our little group of a few dozen people, for free. Or maybe we paid her $50, I don’t remember. But she was already a National Book Award winner. She could have demanded hundreds or thousands of dollars. And she didn’t.

When I found Rich again — perhaps the most important encounter for me — it was shortly after I had given birth to my daughter. I was home with the baby, exhausted, disoriented, fearing I’d lost my identity as an independent adult forever, and wondering why I wasn’t feeling blissed out with motherhood like everyone else seemed to be. This was before the spread of mommy blogs, before Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, before all those jokey coffee table books about three-martini play dates. There was really nobody giving voice to the ambivalence I felt except maybe Anne Lamott and… Adrienne Rich, in her book of essays called “Of Woman Born.”

Now I’m looking for my copy to quote from it, and I can’t find it. But I remember an essay where she unflinchingly described the dark side of motherhood — the murderous impulses, the anger as passionate as the love. It was a stunning beam of light in the darkness. It helped me feel I wasn’t crazy. I carried Rich around in my head while I wrote my novel The Mother’s Group. If I ever get it published, she is one of the people to whom it will be dedicated.

With her death, I’m ashamed by how little I have actually read of her writing over the past four decades. And amazed by how much she affected me, especially given how little of her work I’ve read.

Adrienne Rich was one of our modern-day incarnations of a Biblical prophet — driven by a moral compass, speaking truth to power, and speaking it with precision, clarity and beauty.

May her memory be a blessing, and may there be someone like her for my daughter’s generation.

Stinson alone

March 25, 2012

I drove out to Stinson Beach on Saturday afternoon by myself to spend a couple of days writing. I haven’t touched my novel since the fall. Now I finally had a little window of time. This was what I imagined when we bought the Stinson house with our co-owners two years ago. It was on my mind when I took the half-time job at Golden Gate Audubon. Having Mondays and Tuesdays free gives me a solid block of time to have my own mini “writer’s retreat” every few weeks, especially once Daughter is in college next fall.

But it was hard coming here yesterday. I always feel torn leaving Sam and Daughter, homesick, even when they are busy with their own activities. It was pouring rain. I arrived and it was almost dark, the house was cold, and I forgot a bag of groceries I’d meant to bring. The only heat is a wood stove, so the first thing I had to do on arrival was make a fire, which is an area of chronic anxiety for me. I am a bit of a pyrophobe and feel like there is some magical art to starting fires that I will never master. We all have our “oh, I can’t xxxx” activities, and this is one of mine.

But….

Photo by Ilana DeBare

The house gradually warmed up. And this morning we had a break in the rain. The clouds were high and blue sky started to emerge. I took a long walk to the end of the beach. On the way there, I wore my iPod and practiced the Torah portion I’ll be chanting at my nephew’s bar mitzvah service in May. On the way back, I thought about the structure of my novel. By the time I was back at the house, I had taken off two of the three layers I’d started out in, and I’d visited the little Stinson market to replace the missing groceries.

Stinson hills / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Stinson Beach between storms / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Now it’s enough procrastinating and time to work!

“Reading” audiobooks

March 11, 2012

Last week I finished listening to my second audiobook.

I listened to my first one last summer, when I drove down to L.A. to pick Sam up from the AIDS LifeCycle ride. Normally I don’t spend enough time in the car to  do much more than turn on NPR. But my new job involves a commute across town of about 15 minutes, which is just enough time to plug in an iPod and listen to a bit of an audiobook.

Image by Jeff Daly / Creative Commons

I’m intrigued by how the experience of listening to a book differs from that of reading a book. (Particularly when the listening coincides with trying to drive, observe surrounding traffic, watch out for sudden movements by pedestrians and bicyclists, etc.)

I’ve loved the two audiobooks I’ve listened to so far — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot  and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, both nonfiction.

I had also tried a third audiobook, Bill Bryson’s At Home, and while I’ve enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, the audiobook didn’t work for me at all. I stopped after about a chapter and a half.

So what makes for a successful audiobook?

The Bryson book, a discursive history on the furnishings of the modern home, didn’t have enough narrative flow to keep me focused in the car. It rambled along through various interesting factoids and digressions but had no clear direction. I would get distracted by a traffic maneuver and then re-focus with no idea what he was talking about or where it was going. Unlike a print book, the audio version didn’t let me glance ahead to see how long a particular digression would last and whether I wanted to skip over it.

Both the Henrietta Lacks and Glass Castle books had much stronger narratives. Glass Castle is a memoir about an extremely bizarre and dysfunctional family, where the author manages to convey both the horrific nature of her childhood and also the love she felt for her irresponsible, alcoholic, narcissistic, eccentric parents.

Henrietta Lacks is a brilliant combination of scientific and social history — interweaving the story of HeLa cells, a set of fast-growing cancer cells that have been the basis for huge quantities of medical research over the past fifty years, and the dirt-poor, barely-educated African American family from whom the cells were taken with no explanation or consent. The writer tells both the family and medical stories in the context of her own journey — tracking down the source of the original HeLa cells, and trying to build a relationship with the justifiably suspicious and aggrieved members of the Lax family.

In any case, they both had plots. 

But they were also both non-fiction. Which is interesting, since probably 90 percent of what I read is fiction.

I’ve found myself reluctant to choose fiction for audiobook listening. With fiction, I care a lot about the way things are written. If there’s a nice phrase or image, I want to stop and read it again or savor it. Which I can’t do while my iPod is babbling merrily on into the next paragraph and I’m steering the car around  a double-parked garbage truck on Alcatraz Avenue.

I suppose I could listen to novels that are more plot-driven than literary, where I wouldn’t care much about the writing — detective novels and so on.  But somehow I haven’t wanted audiobooks where I would get too caught up in the plot, since I have to turn them off after each 15-minute commute.

When I’m reading a print book in bed, I can just keep going if it’s really gripping. (Haven’t we all had the experience of staying up until 1 a.m. with a novel we just can’t put down?)  But again, you can’t do that with an audiobook on your daily commute.

Plus nonfiction makes me feel like I’m doing something “productive” with my otherwise useless commute time. I’m learning facts about something in the real world. This is completely spurious. But it appeals to my multitasking, Type-A, overachiever self.

So… my ideal audiobook, it seems, is a well-written, accessible work of nonfiction with a strong (but not too strong!) plot or narrative.

Any recommendations?

And do you find that your reading tastes vary between print books and audiobooks?

Come to think of it, if you use a Kindle or similar e-reader device, has that influenced the types of books you like to read?

I have a job!

January 8, 2012

I have a job!

Three years after leaving newspapers, I’m starting a new job on January 17th. I haven’t exactly been lounging around eating bonbons all this time — I’ve drafted one novel, reworked another, revised the one I drafted, wrote queries and collected rejections on both of them, and worked as a freelance writer for a variety of clients, most recently the Technion.

(Oh, and there was an adult Bat Mitzvah in there, wasn’t there?)

But being on staff somewhere is different. This feels like grasping the wood of a dock after treading water for a long time. It feels like feet on solid ground after drifting weightless in space.

There are many wonderful things about freelancing. I’ve appreciated the ability to set my own schedule, accommodate family needs and put time into fiction. But I also love many things about a traditional job — being part of an organization, connecting with co-workers on a daily basis, having a dependable paycheck.

Now I may have the best of both worlds. This is a halftime job, at least for the near future, so I will still have time to work on my novel, maintain some freelance clients, and be available to Daughter during her last semester before college.(In theory! In reality, I know it will be a challenge to make time for the novel.)

By now, you’re probably asking, So what’s the job?  (Trumpets, please.)

I’ll be communications director for Golden Gate Audubon Society, the independent local chapter of the national conservation organization. GGAS has an incredible grassroots volunteer base who lead dozens of free bird-watching walks each month throughout San Francisco and the East Bay. It provides nature education for inner-city kids, and political advocacy on behalf of birds and other native species. One of GGAS’ recent achievements was a San Francisco ordinance requiring that new buildings be “bird-safe” — i.e., take steps such as using frosted or textured glass to prevent migrating birds from flying into large glass-walled skyscrapers.

So you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about birds in this blog in the future.

Maybe it morphs into Midlife Bird Mitzvah?

No more adorable kitty photos? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

More seriously, this feels like the end of a phase of being in the semi-wilderness. Perhaps transition is always a wilderness — like the ancient Jews in Sinai, when you are no longer what you used to be, but not yet what you are going to become.

I was a newspaper reporter when I entered the wilderness. I hoped to be a published novelist when I came out the other side. But would I succeed? And in between… what was I? where was I?

One of the reasons I undertook the adult Bat Mitzvah process two and a half years ago was to help tame that wilderness. I hoped that studying to become a Bat Mitzvah would serve as a small anchor — providing structure, connections, and achievable goals — when everything else in my life felt amorphous and uncertain.

It did fill that role. But even so, I’ve felt a little unmoored.

It’s nice to touch a dock.

Reading the Steve Jobs Biography

January 1, 2012

When Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs came out during the fall, I scarfed up a copy to give to Sam for the holidays. Almost immediately I regretted that because then I had to wait for the holidays to read it myself! In any event, I finally got to sit down with it this weekend at Stinson Beach and am loving it.

Photo by Ilana DeBare

Isaacson does a great job of showing both Jobs’ genius and his (many) flaws. He is a terrific storyteller, and Jobs’ life is perfect fodder for stories — both because of his own intensity and oddities, and the way his life paralleled and influenced the zeitgeist. From being a Bob Dylan fan in the 60s, to living briefly on a commune and traveling to India for spiritual enlightenment in the 70s, to… well, you know what Jobs did from the 80s on. I’d also like to give Isaacson big strokes for telling vivid stories that are entirely reported — not imagined or reconstructed or whatever it is that Bob Woodward calls the narrative scenes in his books.

I just switched from owning PCs to a Mac in 2011, so had never followed the world of Apple closely and a lot of Jobs’ story is new to me. As a business reporter, I’d covered a little bit of tech and an occasional Apple story — but very occasional, so I’m not someone with any real connection to the company. I’m as much of an outsider as anyone else, except with the frisson of living in the Bay Area and knowing that all these events happened a stone’s throw from me.

But because of that stone’s-throw element of geography, and the fact that we are pretty much the same generation, reading about Jobs is sparking constant comparisons with my own life.

  • In high school on the East Coast in the early 70s, I heard of friends-of-friends who had some kind of box that allowed them to make long-distance phone calls for free. It sounded weird, a little unlikely, and more illicit than anything good-girl-me would do. And why would you want to make long-distance phone calls for free, anyway? But this was one of young Jobs’ early forays into technology.
  • In 1980, I finished college and moved to San Francisco. With no clear career direction, I applied for a couple of social-change type jobs including one with a group called the Electronics Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health. It was located someplace called “Silicon Valley,” which I’d never heard of but apparently could reach on a commuter train. I didn’t get an interview. If I’d gotten that job, would I have spent the past 30 years in the Valley? Haranguing folks like Steve Jobs over their labor practices? Maybe crossing over and working with those folks at some point?
  • In 1981 Xerox introduced the Star, a farsighted desktop computer with a Macintosh-like graphic interface that pre-dated the Mac. It failed and became a minor footnote in tech history.  I was working as a temp in 1981 at the San Francisco offices of Bechtel (after none of those social change jobs materialized). Selectric typewriters were state-of-the-art. But I remember being tantalized and excited to get to work on a newfangled Xerox office machine with a screen and black and white images — in retrospect, a Star.
  • Almost everyone who was around in 1984 remembers the Super Bowl “1984” commercial that introduced the Mac. I never saw it or even heard of it until years later. I was living in Jerusalem in 1984-5. There is a whole chunk of American experience that I was oblivious to — the 1984 political conventions and presidential race, the 1984 Olympics, the 1984 introduction of the Mac. Those eighteen months are like a black hole in my life when it comes to American culture and history.

I guess that, over all, reading about Job’s early life gives me a kind of “so near, and yet so far” kind of feeling. With a couple of minor circumstantial changes, I could have been someone in the orbit of the Apples and Steve Jobses of the Bay Area — maybe someone working in marketing or communications at a place like Apple.

Or maybe not. I might not have had clear ideas about a career in 1981, but I had very strong political views and values. In the early 80s, while Jobs was aiming to revolutionize the world with a human-scale computer, I was spending my volunteer time trying to reverse Reagan’s wrongheaded support for Central American dictatorships. My car had a bumper sticker that read “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.” I was interested in political change, not technological change. I had zero interest in phone-hacking boxes or “personal computers.” And I would have died rather than go “into business.”

Now, thirty years later, I am typing this blog post on a Mac. I learned my Torah portions on an iPod. My husband and daughter have iPhones. All my old Windows PCs were influenced for the better by Apple.

Thank you, Steve!