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Hesitating Before the Dive

There is a moment in Olympic diving that every diver takes as they walk out to compete on the world stage.  They climb up to the diving board, then breathe in deep and square their shoulders.  After this moment, they walk out confidently onto the board, which bounces predictably beneath their weight, the way it has done thousands of times before, and then they take their shot.

Although my athletic prowess is limited to being able to run three consecutive 10 minute miles without immediately dying, I love watching Olympic sports.  The divers are a particular favorite, as they combine gymnastics and swimming — two areas far beyond my wildest dreams of ability — and fly through the air, bending their bodies in ways that seem impossible and then slip into the water with barely a splash to mark their passing.  They inspire my imagination, even as they please my love of beauty.  They are tremendous, frightening, inspiring people.

I’ve been thinking a lot of that sigh at the beginning lately.  I haven’t spoken much of it here, but I am at a similar point in my writing.  I’ve spent the last three months deep in research and plot, scrambling to work in the small bits of time that I have each day for writing, and putting together a framework that I can only hope will be strong enough to carry the weight of the story that I want to tell.  It’s a story that I’ve already told many times, over glasses of wine and lunches, to friends and family who listen politely and nod and tell me that it all sounds very interesting and they can’t wait to read it.

And now it is time to begin the actual writing.  Yet I’ve found myself delaying over the last few days, as I’ve taken a much needed break away from the ideas so that I can approach them again in a fresh and objective frame of mind.  I’ve never been the kind of writer that falls in love with the sound of her own voice; I will actually cringe my way through most of the rereading that I’ll do before hitting publish on this post.  And this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to tell this story, so I keep hearing the echoes of where the past efforts have stuttered out, even though I know that my new angle is much stronger.

Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said he never failed, but just found a thousand ways not to light a lightbulb?  I certainly have learned from the two previous beginnings, but there are only so many times you can take 40,000 words and throw them into a folder that you’ve named “Old Manuscript” without wanting to shy away from similar grandiose sacrifices. 

And so, here I am, having climbed the rungs of the ladder, trying to take that deep breath that will propel me out onto the board, to bounce in a place that is more familiar to me than standing here on the edge, wondering if I have the courage to go on. In another day or two, I will come back to the page and take those first steps out onto the board, just praying that this time, my mistakes will only propel me forward, as I finally learn what it is to write a full novel.

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Human Moments, No. 11

Baba stands up in her sleep sack and balances precariously on the rocking chair.  She reaches out for the light, which I have just switched back on in order to let her turn it off again.  She twists the switch, then settles again in my lap and throws her head back into mine.

“What song will we sing?” I ask her, as I always do.

She doesn’t answer.

“See saw?” I ask.

“No,” she says, giggling.

“ABC song?”

“No, no ABC song.”

“Twinkle, twinkle?”

“NO TWINKLE TWINKLE.”

“How about horsies?”

She’s silent for a moment and I take my chance.

Hush-a-bye,” I sing.  “Don’t you cry.  Go to sleep, my little baby.”

“No baby!” Baba says agreeably.

“When you wake, you will have all the pretty little horses.”

“No horses!”

Blacks and greys, dapples and bays–

“No bays!”

“All the pretty little hor-es-ses.”

“No horses,” she says, snuggling into my armpit.  “No horses.”

 

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Among Us by Jo Walton


Jo Walton’s Among Others tells the story of 14-year-old Mori Phelps, who has fled her home in the hills of Wales to escape her half-mad and magical mother.  Still reeling from the death of her twin sister and learning to live with a crippling injury, Mori finds herself dropped on her father’s doorstep by the foster care system, even though she has never met him before.  When his sisters insist on sending her away to an upper-class boarding school, Mori finds herself removed once again from all that is familiar, including the fairy companions that she grew up with.

As a Hugo and Nebula award winner, you would expect Among Others to be something quite different and new.  It absolutely delivers.  Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of fantasy any more, but I’ve certainly read my share of farmer boy adventure novels.  Mori is no farmboy; her journey is the metaphorical one of adolescence.  Left alone in an English town where her Welsh accent marks her permanently as an outsider, Mori struggles to find connections with others.  Alone and lonely, she wishes that she had people that she could talk to, who understood her the way that her family in Wales does.  Like many lonely children, she turns towards books to entertain her as she tries to survive the last few years of her education.  And it is books that provide salvation for her, as she finds her way into a science fiction book club at the library, where she finally meets some other young people worth talking to.  Although I did not recognize most of the books that Mori discusses with such passion, Walton provides enough context that it was easy to follow along.  Mori certainly provides an education for the reader of most of the major science fiction authors and I’m certain that serious science fiction fans will enjoy that element of the novel.

For all that the book is somber, Mori’s analytical nature keeps the pages turning.  A naturally academic, Mori seeks out answers to the world around her.  When she returns to Wales for a visit, she goes seeking the fairies that she grew up with, looking for answers to the ethical questions that she has about magic.  But fairies are unreliable — instead of helping her understand, they bring Mori the sight of her sister, who has not yet progressed to the underworld.

I took a step towards her, and then I remembered her clutching me and dragging me towards the door into the hill, and stopped.  “Oh Mor,” I said.

She didn’t say anything.  She couldn’t, any more than the robin.  She was dead and the dead can’t speak.  As a matter of fact, I know how to make the dead speak.  You have to give them blood.  But it’s magic, and anyway, it would be horrible.  I couldn’t imagine doing it.

Mor’s shade gives Mori more questions than answers.  Although Mori knows that her struggle with her mother was not ended the night that her mother killed her sister, seeing Mor again makes Mori realize that she will have to confront her mother again some day.  When her mother starts sending her letters filled with magical malevolence, Mori burns them and tries to befriend the fairies in England in order to figure out what to do.  But fairies being fairies, they don’t cooperate, and Mori is left to discover enough about magic to stop her mother once and for all.

Although Mori has lost so much — a family, her health, a home, a twin — her reflections often have a delightful optimism and love of life.  While reality is dour, her secret, magical world and love of science fiction fill her wonder and keep her intellectually engaged.  It is a delight to read small nuggets like this:

And I thought all that was wasted, all that time practising up there, because Mor is dead and I can’t run and neither can Grampar, not any more.  Except it wasn’t wasted, because we remember it.  Things need to be worth doing for themselves, not just for practice for some future time.  I’m never going to win Wimbledon or run in the Olympics…but I wouldn’t have anyway.  I’m not even going to play tennis for fun with my friends, but that doesn’t mean playing it when I could was a waste.  I wish I’d done more when I could.

You can’t help cheering for a young woman that has lost so much, but still maintains hope.

There isn’t another book that I can think of that is quite like Among Others.  For the rest of this, Among Others is an enjoyable journey of a young woman that I would certainly like getting to know.  Distinctly creative, it is well worth a read, even for readers that don’t typically read fantasy or science fiction.

 

  • Publisher: Tor Books
  • Publish Date: January 3, 2012
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • ISBN: 0765331721
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Genre: fantasy
Subjects: adventure, coming of age, dysfunction, family, fantasy, magic, survival, wales, youth
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Human Moments, No. 10

“I think that we’re the bourgeoisie.”

“The what now?”

“You know.  Like Lenin and the Communist Revolution.  The great experiment of the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie.  I think we’re the bourgeoisie.  We’re the bad guys.  Look at this house.”

“…..yeeeeeeeaaaah?”  My Beloved’s eyebrows wag.

“We have two bedrooms we don’t even use.”

“They’re guest rooms.”

“Exactly.”

“If having guest rooms makes us bad guys, I think…I can get used to being the bad guys.”

My Beloved rolls over on his half of our new king sized mattress and promptly begins to snore.  I lie awake longer, wary in our new house, uncertain when it will begin to feel like home.

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May You Live in Interesting Times

This is not a great time to be a sensitive person walking the world.

I’ve read a number of lovely blog posts that are clinging to hope, despite the dark and interesting times that our new administration seems to have put us in.  I’ve read poems and shared in the general outcry of the many, many people that are horrified at the recent actions of our country to tear apart Muslim families.  As the wife of a former green card holder, it’s been difficult not to walk around in panic, because our story can’t be told without also being an immigrant story that is very much like the people that I am reading about now — people who are being detained not 10 miles from my house.

My heart is not light, so I’m finding it hard to write light-hearted.  I have half a dozen blog posts that are queued up in draft, because I can’t quite seem to get to the right frame of mind to put something silly and frivolous into the world.

There is much that I could tell you about, much that I should have told you about by now.  We moved into a new house at Hallowe’en and settled into it. There were new couches and holidays and visitors and movies and books. I’ve been deep in research for a big writing project that’s now transitioning into plotting and draft writing.  I even went to a really big feminist party the day after the inauguration and cried at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people with me that were standing up to say that they were watching the new administration.

I even got a new hat.

 

 

But it all feels very trivial, when turning to news or Facebook is such an onslaught of terrible things.  I found myself crying at work as I came across an article of a breastfeeding 11-month-old that was separated from her mother for a full day because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban.  Each story of adult children just trying to get their elderly parents back home or spouses trying to reunite or refugees that nearly made it onto what were once safe shores has hit me so hard. My Irish in-laws keep asking me what is going on in my country and I am terrified by all the answers that keep coming out of my mouth.

It is very tempting to go hide in fiction for the next four years.  That is, actually, part of what I’ve been doing to restore myself.  Each night, after we talk at dinner of all the terrible things that have happened each day, I hide on the couch and cover myself in blankets and let myself luxuriate in story telling.  If I close my eyes, will it just go away?

Unfortunately not, not if I want the world to be a place for Baba, with her double passports and international family.  Not if I want to lift my head and look back at these days and respect myself for not standing by the side and letting others speak out against deep injustice.

And so.  There is work to do, even if it feels like my efforts accomplish very little.  I saw a tweet recently quoted somewhere that said that if you always wondered how you would have behaved as you read about history, then you’re getting a good chance to know, because whatever it is that you’re doing now is what you would have done then.

That’s stuck with me – as both a calling and a command.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2016: A Year in Books

Historical Fiction

  • Mozart’s Sister, A.M. Baud
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • War Brides, Helen Bryan
  • At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier
  • The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende
  • The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, Louise Erdich
  • Belgravia, Julian Fellowes
  • Mozart’s Sister, Rita Charbonnier

Perhaps it is the events of 2016 that have thrown me into a desire to see the past brought to life, in only the way that historical fiction can. But, looking at the list, I can see that it’s more that some favorite authors put out books this year.  Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, wrote a beautiful novel about a terrible family dysfunction that was haunting and terrible, in the most meaningful sense of the word.  Louise Erdich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club puts together the story of a town between World Wars, where the daughter of the town’s drunk returns home and finds an unlikely life among German immigrants.  Isabel Allende, who I loved for her novel The House of Spirits, took on the fortunes of two very different families affected by the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  These were all memorable novels, written by authors that are masters of their craft and genre and they move the reader by reminding us of some of the best parts of being human, even when confronted with the worst of history.

Speculative Fiction

In speculative fiction, I spent a year thinking about The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a novel unlike any that I’ve ever read before.  It came to me as a recommendation that I might enjoy and it’s true; it haunted me all year and gave me a lot of food for thought, which is exactly what good speculative fiction should do.  This year also had retreads of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Johnson’s In Another Life.  Both were worth it.

 

Mystery & Crime

  • The Second Stage of Grief, Katherine Hayton
  • Broken Harbor, Tana French
  • The Secret Place, Tana French

Tana French continues to be a favorite writer in crime.  It’s not a genre that I’ve read much of since the days when I shelved books in a mystery section as a volunteer high school student, but I’ve always loved French’s police procedurals for their deep dives into human psychology.  Her newest novel, The Trespasser, came out this year, which I am really looking forward to reading in 2017.

 

 

Contemporary Fiction

  • Three Weissmans of Westport, Cathleen Shine
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  • The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout
  • Her Name is Rose, Christine Breen
  • Monkey Bridge, Lin Cao
  • The Taming of Roses with Thorns, Margaret Dilloway

In contemporary fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad took the cake, even though I wouldn’t have picked it up without a nudge from a book club.  Egan took on the rock n roll industry, writing a novel of interrelated short stories about the people surrounding an aging record executive.  The experimental nature of the book adds some fun to the story as well, with an entire story told via a Powerpoint slide.  It does actually work.  The Burgess Boys was another favorite, though much of that came from how well Strout managed to peg the New York import’s feelings about New York.  As an aging import myself, I found myself nodding and laughing along with some great passages.

 

Classics

  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I always know that the world is unsettling when I feel a need to reread Pride and Prejudice, which happens at least once every few years.  I’ve spent hours wondering what it is about this particular novel that is so delightful and could probably spend at least a few coffee dates speculating.  I love Austen’s work very much, but Pride and Prejudice is definitely the literary equivalent of your mom’s mac n cheese.  Little Women was a new read for me, though – a novel I’d always meant to get around to and somehow missed.  Although some aspects of the story have aged over the century and a half since it was published, I really understand how it has such a following.  The sequels are on my reading list for the future.

 

I’ve ended this year with the same regret as last year; I simply wish that I had read more.  I still can’t read with Baba around, because if she sees me reading a book without pictures, she pushes it out of my hands and brings me one of my books to read to her.  And so, if we’re counting board books, my number would triple.  I’ve read five books just today, in fact!  And there is much to admire in such simple story telling.  Some of the books that we read are just beautiful, between the artwork and the storytelling.  They may not be designed for adults, but this adult has really come to love books made for very small children.

As it is, this is the time for New Year’s Resolutions and, also, a new Goodreads reading challenge.  I have some books that I’ve really been looking forward to on my next-to-read list, like Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria and Elizabeth Strout’s much-talked-about Olive Kitteridge.  I’m halfway through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and have just begun a biography of the Mozart family by Ruth Halliwell.   I’d love some recommendations — what have you read this year that blew your mind?

 

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The Dark Days of Winter

december-solstice-winterThese are dark days.

I mean that literally and figuratively; the winter solstice is, after all, upon us.  I am headed towards Manhattan in a grey and bleak morning that has barely lifted into day.  It’s raining, just enough to make me seem strange without an umbrella, but not enough to inspire me to take it out.  I am alone in this, one bare head in an army of black umbrellas.

Like most of the world, I’ve also been reeling from the U.S. Presidential election for the last month.  I’m sure it’s not hard for regular readers to guess which way I voted, so I’ll spare everyone all of that.  Watching the post-mortem has been painful, as the pundits looking for ratings try to blame someone or explain away a result that very few people predicted.  I, for one, am tired of trying to dissect American psychology, like we are all one big mass.  I’m even tired of reading explanations about the white working class or white middle-aged women or Latinos for Trump!, because it all simplifies the picture and does not lead to much listening.  It doesn’t even ring true.  I have a white working class husband who would never vote for the anti-union candidate.  I am a white woman who has been walking through the world with a new level of fear and anxiety.  For the first week, my stomach literally ached.  As the high level administration appointments have been coming in, starting with a literal neo-Nazi, I’ve had a hard time thinking about much else.  This is not who we are, except that it is apparently exactly who we are.  It is not who I want us to be.  Maybe I am just naive, but I’d thought we could all at least agree on the Nazis.

This anxiety is not sustainable.

I want to reach across the aisle and listen – and to reach across the aisle and be heard – but how do you do that with so many people shouting?  How do you do that when our elected officials are looking at the Japanese internment camps of World War II as a legal precedent?  How do you shut your eyes and ears when a man who ran a “news” site that runs articles like “How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill” is now one of the chief advisors of one of the most influential and powerful people in the world?  Just yesterday I read an article about a man with a gun showing up on a street that I know well because he chose to believe the vilest of Internet rumors.  A childhood friend’s family church was vandalized with white supremacist graffiti within days of the election. Another friend’s cousin, living on the other side of the country, had a swastika painted on her garage.  Closer to home, the NYPD is dealing with such a large spike in hate crimes that they are creating a special division just to deal with them.

I am afraid to shut my eyes.  I’m afraid that if I don’t shut my eyes, I will never live a normal life again.  How do you strike the balance?

I haven’t a clue.  I put big pink safety pins on all my jackets and purses.  In those first few days after the election, I was terrified to wear them, but I swallowed the fear and thought about how much braver it is to wear a hijab right now.  It is a little enough thing to put a pin on my clothes – a pin that can easily be removed to let me blend into the crowd where my pale skin and blue eyes will protect me. The KKK has been dropping flyers on my train.  Yesterday, another woman on the subway was attacked for wearing a hijab. When I tell myself that adding a safety pin to my clothing is the least that I can do, it really is the absolute least that I can do.  I have decided to be accountable to my pin, that I will not blend into the background when I see that someone is afraid, but I also despair that I won’t live up to it.

So here we are in the literal darkest days of the year, trying to find a way to creep back towards the light of summer.  On Sunday, we put up a Christmas tree in our new home, right in the giant bay window that I have fallen in love with.  When I turn the corner at night, I see it shining its manufactured light out into a world of darkness.  In a normal year, it would give me hope.  This year, I am trying hard to open myself up to be able to see its light.

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