Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Where is home when no one understands you?

Chia-Chia Lin, a graduate of Harvard College, has an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize, an annual award of $10,000 to a graduate fiction writing student. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. 

Her novel, The Unpassingpublished in May 2019, is up for a First Novel Prize at the Center for Fiction in New York City. It is so superior it raises in my mind an impossible question: How will she be able to write a second novel of equal—or higher—quality? Rather than fret over the unanswerable, however, we can take pleasure in The Unpassing we have in hand.

Lin's first-person narrator is ten-year-old Gavin, the child of immigrant parents from Taiwan who speak Chinese and Taiwanese at home. He has an older sister Pei-Pei, a younger sister Ruby, and a younger brother Natty. They live thirty miles outside Anchorage, Alaska, in a decaying house that stands by itself at the end of a gravel drive. "We had lived briefly in Michigan," says Gavin, "but my father had lost his job as a wastewater engineer. He mistimed our move to Southcentral Alaska; we could prove only five months of residence instead of six, and so we missed the first and largest payout from the Permanent Fund . . . which would have meant five thousand dollars." 

The mistimed move is just one of their father's problematic decisions. The five thousand dollars would have been manna to the family which, in the course of the novel, is evicted from their house. (Two weeks later they return to squat in it). When the book begins, Gavin and his classmates have been following the goings-on of Christa McAuliffe. The Challenger launch would be broadcast in class, but the day before Gavin comes home from school feeling sick. At home he roughhouses with Ruby and Natty . . . and falls asleep. He wakes up a week later. He has recovered from meningitis; Ruby has not.

"What happens when young children grieve a sibling?" writes Ruth Lefave in a Rumpus blog. "How do bereaved parents nurture their surviving children? Where is home when no one understands you? Even as Lin’s book explores these devastating questions, her magnificent prose builds an unflinching and ultimately endearing portrait of each character."

Lin does it by showing the characters interacting with each other and with outsiders and with the landscape. It is clear from the first page Gavin is writing as an adult: "During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose, washed grapes. She collapsed." Gavin and his sister Pei-Pei who watch the grapes roll across the floor do nothing. When a minute later their mother sits up, she says angrily, "I was testing you. Why were you just sitting there? Why didn't you call for the ambulance? What kind of children have I raised? Tell me, do you want to be orphans?" It sets a tone for the entire book.

Gavin is trying to make sense of the world. Adults do things he does not understand although readers do. He makes the mistakes a ten-year-old would make. He loves his mother and father, Pei-Pei, Ruby, and Natty, even when he can be oblivious and when, to me at least, they are not lovable. The Unpassing's story at heart is simple: Ruby dies, the family struggles to stay afloat economically, the parents separate,  Gavin, Pei-Pei, Natty, and their mother leave Alaska. Lin, however, somehow manages to make this story engaging, dramatic, and compelling. 

She does this, of course, is through incident. detail, and language: "Ruby never stayed in her own bed; there was movement in these deep nigh hours. She drifted between our bed like a vagrant, favoring my parents' and Natty's. But once in a while she crawled under the covers with me. In the dark, she rooted in the folds of fabric; her fingers whittled upward. We held hands under my pillow, and within seconds we were out."

Here is Gavin holding Natty, "His fingers would not curl around mine, but he allowed me to hold his fist. For a long time I clutched it, the end of a livelier, the last tangible evidence I was not alone. I wiped my palms one at a time, transferring his fits between my hands. I felt like I was cradling a peeled egg. In the dark the stairs seemed steep, a tremendous way to fall."

When the Rumpus interviewer asked Lin what she's working on now, she said, "I can tell you what it’s not: narrated by a child, set in or near wilderness, a story about immigrants. I hope it will be funny. I’m also thinking about plot, for once. Basically, I want it to be as different from this book as possible." I look forward to it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

An actress in love and in trouble

Lucinda Yates is 28 years old, single, and a renowned Canadian actress at the beginning of The Indulgence, Leslie Hall Pinder's new novel. Cast as Hamlet, Lucinda is interviewed by Eva Ryder, a freelance journalist who happens to be lovely and seductive. They begin a passionate, obsessive affair. Lucinda would like Eva to leave her husband so they could revel in a less secret, less stressful liaison. Eva, however, is unwilling to  divorce Lance; the affair with Lucinda ends; and Lucinda begins a relationship with—and eventually marries—Jack, a therapist.

Thirteen years later, Lucinda, now even more renowned, remains childless and her marriage to Jack has hit a rough patch. Eva is now a world-traveling, successful writer and has a 13-year-old daughter Norma back in Vancouver, and is divorced. Norma, suffering from her mother's indifference and her father's emotional abuse, runs away repeatedly, ultimately hiding out for five days with Lucinda. Norma is reported kidnapped and when the police find her with Lucinda, Lucinda is accused of kidnapping and sexual abuse of a minor (she is, after all, immoral). The Crown prosecutor has a cause, and the press has fresh meat. The last section of the book covers Lucinda's trial for these crimes..

Pinder studied English at the University of Saskatchewan and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. She received her law degree from the University of British Columbia and began practiced law in Vancouver in 1977. She was a courtroom litigator for 28 years. In her first job at a large firm, she was told she had to enter the firm's exclusive men's club by way of the servants' entrance because she was a woman. She went through the front door. Her employment ended.

The Indulgence is Pinder's fourth novel, joining Under the House, On Double Tracks, and Bring Me One of Everything. Margaret Atwood no less said an earlier book was a "haunting . . . novel by a writer of great talent and sensitivity. It treats a difficult theme with humanity and admirable complexity." If Atwood hadn't said it first (and better) I would have sad the same about The Indulgence. Here's an example of the author's writing: "A law firm on a Saturday had the feeling of a place where something counterfeit was being produced to send into the market first thing Monday morning."

My two paragraphs at the beginning of this piece do the author and the novel a disservice. They do tell you the story, but they do not begin to suggest the richness and complexity of the characters and their emotional lives. Nor have I mentioned a major character, Judge Terrance Semple who presides over Lucinda's trial. "Maybe he hadn't always been portly. He had the thin legs and barrel chest of a man past middle-age who had gradually become top heavy. He'd be tough to push over, so long as he was expecting it; but if he were taken unaware, or was especially tired, even a slight nudge would topple him. He often wondered how would he get up again."

Here's an example from several possible that evokes Lucinda's existence as an actress: "Shedding herself for a new life each night on stage was thrilling and Lucinda flourished. The problem was the ordinary. The theater was so intense, having to notice everything, respond to what another was doing, whether scripted or not; it took all her power. At home, she didn't want to be in charge of anything; blindness set in, even before the cocktail hour. Part of Lucinda' myopia was she didn't see that Jack had become a bit flat and predictable, in service to the exhilaration and exhaustion required of Lucinda's high wire profession."

Presumably because Pinder is writing from the inside, her evocation of the judge's thoughts and her report of the trial are persuasive. The text jumps forward and back in time and from Lucinda's to the judge's to Eva's point of view but the reader (this reader, anyway) never becomes lost. I thought Pinder was writing herself into a corner, into a situation where a last minute witness would have to appear to set everything to rights. But no. The Indulgence ends plausibly and satisfactorily and without a surprise witness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

What would you do if you lost all your memories?

Although I've now read Burhan Sönmez's Labyrinth twice, I'm afraid I'm going to have to rely heavier than I would like on the press material that accompanied the review copy (and, like the book, forgo quotation marks), mostly because the publisher's description says clearly what the novel is about and does not get lost in the maze as I might well have.

Turkish blues singer Boratin has attempted suicide by jumping off Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge, which, crossing the Bosphorus Strait, links Asia to Europe. He has suffered a broken rib and almost complete loss of memory. The novel, translated by Ümit Hussein, is a stream-of-consciousness look inside a mind that doesn't know itself. Sönmez uses amnesia as a literary device to explore memory and identity, and what happens to a life when everything that makes up a person—his memories, opinions, thoughts—are stripped away.

The text switches between first- and third-person point-of-view as if Boratin is sometimes regarding himself as a figure independent of himself. As he does so he tries to reconcile who he might be (devoted son, responsible brother, popular musician, feckless lover) with the person people have known for years. In trying to rediscover himself—from how he likes his coffee to whose heart he's broken—he must rely on others to fill in the blank spaces. Trying to rebuild his life from the roots is more than difficult when his friends and family know much more about him than he does. Hearing snippets of his past, with no context or sense of how they fit into his life, is more frustrating that having nothing.

Wandering Istanbul's streets and exploring the crevices of a new (to him) home, Boratin wonders if it would be better to leave his past behind. He is afraid that if he were to recover old memories they will come with the feelings—knowledge? despair? anguish?—that led him to try to end his life. But without memories, what is he? Even as friends declare he was lucky—managing to escape whatever pain he'd been in, yet alive to create a new life and new memories—Boratin struggles to move forward in an unfamiliar life in a stranger's body.

The author, Burhan Sönmez, has written four novels; two others, Istanbul, Istanbul and Sins and Innocents have also been translated into clear English by Ümit Hussein (although I do not envy her chore in following Sönmez's Turkish). Sönmez was born in Turkey and grew up speaking Turkish and Kurdish. He worked as a lawyer in Istanbul before moving to England as a political exile. His Labyrinth explores the value of memories in how they form our identities, challenging whether it's our past or our future potential that forms its base.

Given the challenge Sönmez has set himself—to create a consciousness that is struggling to create a reality on a tabula rasa—the writing itself is clear and interesting. "Within the mute walls [of my apartment]. I wonder which of us has become forgetful, have I forgotten my house, or has my house forgotten me?"

A couple more examples: ". . . I regard even my own face in the mirror as a stranger. I'm like a blank sheet of paper. I have no inside and no outside. My east and west are hazy, as are my north and south. No matter where I step, I feel as though I am about to tumble into a void. I spend my days waiting for night to fall . . ."

". . . He remembers this taste, even though it's the first time he's eating simit [a small loaf of ring-shaped bread]. The brain works in strange ways. It's got me in the palm of its hand, without saying a single word to me. Who belongs to whom, do I own my brain, or does my brain own me?" (To that question I would ask: Who wants to know?)

Labyrinth raises more questions than it answers, which is not a criticism. It is worth, I believe, more than one reading. As a meditation on the meaning of life and the inevitable and cruel passing of time, it will not be to every reader's taste. But then, what is?

Monday, October 7, 2019

After this I want to read more Alice McDermott

The fall issue of the Paris Review has an interesting interview with Alice McDermott, a writer I'd never heard of, this despite the fact that she won the National Book Award for Charming Billy (l998), and her novel That Night (1987) was a finalist for another National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. Her At Weddings and Wakes (1992) was also a Pulitzer finalist.

My ignorance would not, perhaps, surprise McDermott. Reportedly when she won the National Book Award, she settled her class of fiction-writing students by offering a hundred dollars to anyone who could name the previous year's winner. Not one of her M.F.A. fiction students could recall the book or the author. Such, such is fame.

Among the points that I found interesting is McDermott's remark that she always has two novels in progress, "in one stage or another. It's a terrible thing to do, don't do it. It just means it takes me twice as long to get one finished." She also remarks about sentence-making: "As soon as a sentence calls attention to itself, demonstrates how clever the author is, how astute, how talented, I know something's gone wrong." This is one of my complaints about much MFA writing; the sentences seek to dazzle rather than serve the story.

Now introduced to McDermott, I found her 2006 novel After This. It follows the ups and downs of John and Mary Keane, a Catholic working-class couple, from before they are married after WWII to the 1970s. They have four children, move to Long Island, John works, Mary has children and remains friends with a woman she'd known when she worked in an office in New York. During the course of the novel, the  family visits a Long Island beach. Mary and her daughter Annie go to the New York World's Fair. Jacob, the younger son, is drafted into the Army for the Vietnam war, and more, and more. It's a family saga in less than 300 pages.

Ordinarily I don't care for family sagas, so I'm trying to decide why I think I got sucked into After This and to explain why I think it's so excellent and certainly worth your time, especially if you are interested in writing yourself.

Ordinarily, I don't care for constant shifts in point of view, but McDermott does it and it did not bother me, but it added depth and diversity to the novel ( probably her point). She could not have told the story she tells without using multiple points of view, which is another way to say that the novel as it stands feels as if this is the only possible way it could have been told.

McDermott is able to use language to describe the world and the people in it in a way I find masterly. Here's the first paragraph in the book: "Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks--the slivered shards of mad sunlight in her eyes She paused, still on the granite steps, touched the brim of her hat and the flying hem of her skirt—and felt the wind rush up her cuffs and rattle her sleeves."

The."pinprick of pebble and grit . . ." The "slivered shards of mad sunlight . . ." The "rush up her cuffs and rattle her sleeves." It's not showy writing, sentences that say "Look at me! Look at me!" but tells us we are reading something special. And she's able to sustain it. Here's another sample paragraph I've taken from a random page toward the back of the book:

"In the vestibule after she left, there was the lingering scent of her perfume, a whiff of mothballs from her fur, and something else—the good wool of her skirt warmed by her hour on the upholstered dining-room chair? Annie, on her way upstairs to read Faulkner, said to herself 'the odor of aging female flesh,' and found some recompense in the phrase for the long, annoying dinner."

After This was a nominee for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, which Cormac McCarthy's The Road won. It had to be a a difficult choice for the committee. Me? I would have gone with the family saga over dystopia almost any day. McDermott's novel closes on a positive—although entirely earned and justified—note. I'm embarrassed it's taken me this long to find her, and I'll now read more of her work.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Trying to make sense of one's life (and a parent's)

Honor Moore has published three books of poetry: Red Shoes (2005), Darling (2001), and Memoir (1988). She is the editor of Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, of The New Women's Theater: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women, and co-editor of The Stray Dog Cabaret, A Book of Russian Poems, translated by Paul Schmidt. She teaches in the graduate writing programs at The New School and Columbia University's School of the Arts. She's also written a singular memoir, The Bishop's Daughter (2008).

Honor was born in October 1945, the first child (of nine) of Paul and Jenny Moore. Paul (1919 - 2003) was "the beneficiary of vast wealth." His grandfather had made a fortune in corporate mergers at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a founder of Bankers Trust and US Steel. Paul grew up on an estate with horses and golf and tennis. He was sent to private schools, including St. Paul's in New Hampshire where a visiting priest was instrumental in encouraging young Paul to become an Episcopal minister—High Church Episcopal ("Bells and Smells Episcopal") a form of the church that would be Catholic except for the Pope.

Paul became a Marine captain in WWII, was wounded on Guadalcanal, and met and married Jenny while still in the service. Once he was mustered out, he enrolled in General Theological Seminary and in time became a Father and a father. The family moved to Jersey City where Paul became the pastor of an inner city church that they lived beside. They did not live in voluntary poverty, however. Honor writes that "the life they made in Jersey City was modest compared to how they could have lived, and they made a commitment to try to share the lives of those they ministered to."

Paul was so successful in building the Jersey City parish, he was invited to become the dean of the cathedral in Indianapolis and eventually became the bishop of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. At St. John's, as The New York Times obituary writer reported, "Bishop Moore spoke out against corporate greed, racism, military spending and for more assistance to the nation's poor, pursuing his political and social agenda in both the city and within the national Episcopal denomination. He was an early advocate of women's ordination and, in 1977, was the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a gay woman as an Episcopal priest."

Honor has a sure hand leading the reader through her family history so that we are never bored by the births, deaths, crises, and tensions within the family. It's an extraordinary story not simply because Paul Moore became an Episcopal priest rather than, as his family planned, a Wall Street banker or lawyer or because he had nine children. It's exceptional because he was gay. Or, if not gay, bisexual.

In The Bishop's Daughter, one senses Honor attempting to make sense of her father and her mother and herself as she writes. She is fairly candid about her own sex life: She was first sexually active with boys and men, then for twenty years with women, then she returned to men. As a child and girl she struggled, without saying as much, to obtain her mother's attention, but her mother had eight other children who also wanted their mother's attention, plus the usual responsibilities of being the minister's wife. Honor says in the memoir she spent years in weekly sessions on a psychiatrist's couch.

She write about her own discovery of Paul's homosexual desires and that her mother "became certain my father had lovers outside of marriage, and that the lovers were men. She made the discovery, I was told by a friend in whom she confided, not as the result of a single event, but from putting things together—a series of suspicions suddenly becoming in her mind enough of a certainty for her to consider leaving my father . . . " She did not, however, leave him; she died in 1973 and Paul remarried two years later.

For most of Paul's life, being gay was a stigma. The unanswerable question: How would his life had been different if he had not had to live much of it (a major part? an insignificant part) in the closet? Would Honor Moore and her siblings even exist? Unanswerable, and thankfully she does live on through her poetry and this remarkable memoir.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Trying to make sense among the surrealists

Courtney Maum has written three novels. Because I heard her speak at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference this summer, I looked up her second novel Touch, which was published in 2017. It's a fairly conventional story set in the near future; the self-driving car which ferries the narrator around New York City is virtually sentient. It's wonderfully well-written and in places made me laugh out loud. And while the surface is slick the underlying theme (message?) is serious: We are in danger of losing our humanity to our devices. Put down that damn cell phone and look at me! Touch me!

Maum's first novel, I'm Having So Much Fun Here Without You, was published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, so she started with a major publisher. G.P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin published Touch, suggesting (to me at least) that Fun did not meet Touchstone's sales expectations. And although Touch was one of NPR's "Best Books of 2017"; a New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice; one of Glamour's "The 6 Juiciest Summer Reads”; one of the New York Post's “The 29 Best Books of the Summer”; and one Huffington Post's “24 Incredible Books You Should Read This Summer” I suspect it was not the breakout best seller Putnam had hoped it would be. Which brings us to Maum's third novel, Costalegre, published in July this year by Tin House Books, the publishing arm of the now defunct Tin House literary magazine, and hardly a giant publishing company.

Costalegre is so different from Touch in setting, mood, tone, situation, and story that one could make a case that they were written by different people who happen to share the same name. I suspect this means that some of the readers who loved Maum's first two novels are going to feel betrayed by Costalegre.

According to Wikipedia, "Costalegre is a series of different beaches, capes and bays of all sizes and extensions distributed along the Pacific Ocean on the western coastline of the Mexican state of Jalisco, in an area located between two other major and very well-known tourist centers, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco and Manzanillo, Colima. In recent years, the Jalisco state government has promoted this zone as a tourist attraction, grouping all these beaches under the common name of 'Costalegre,' which literally translates as 'Coast of Joy,' but the area has been known as 'The Virgin Coast' of Mexico for a long time."

Costalegre is set in 1937. Leonora Calaway, a wealthy, thrice-married American art collector, has brought a group of surrealists to a Mexican resort to save them from a Nazi regime that certain artists, writers, and thinkers as "cultural degenerate." The book is a series of diary entries of various lengths by Lenora's neglected fifteen-year-old daughter Lara.

Lara is lonely, bored, and observant. There are no other children her age, and her mother forgot to engage another tutor for her. She fills her days as best she can: "I changed for lunch. Who cares. Sometimes it feels as if my beauty is this expected thing I must show up with, so I try not to, but I guess I'm vain, as well. I didn't want my mother to whine about how she would have preferred the white dress to the pink one, how my hair shouldn't be banned. Even Baldomero puts his word in: says when my hair's down, that it's striking. Legrand reaches for it, runs it through his stubby fingers. A treasure, he says. An international one."

Costalegre was inspired by the actual relationship between Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter Pegeen. I didn't know that when I read the book because I do not usually read the flap copy. Too often  it either tells me enough to spoil the story or is badly inaccurate. At the end of the book, however, in the note from the author Maum writes,"I researched maniacally for this project, until some of the experiences I read about became part of my own makeup. It is a testament to the personality of the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim and the artists she supported that so many of them felt moved to document their time creating—and promoting—art under her protection . . . ."

Because you've read this, you cannot not know that Lara Calaway is Maum's idea (notion? conception?) of Pegeen Guggenheim, and I don't know whether that makes Costalegre more or less satisfying to read. I do know that for all Maum's research, the novel does not read like a research project. It reads like the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl trying to make sense of a world drifting into a senseless war among a group of ex-pat artists and writers for whom "sense" is concept to be subverted. Without knocking the pleasure I found in reading Touch, I found Costalegre more thought-provoking and ultimately more rewarding.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Stories from the carnage

Alex Kotlowitz is an American journalist, author, and filmmaker, a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University. His book There Are No Children Here was a national bestseller and was named one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century by The New York Public Library. It is the true story of brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 11 and 9 trying to make it in a violence-ridden public housing project. The boys live in a gang-plagued war zone on Chicago's West Side. "If I grow up, I'd like to be a bus driver," says Lafeyette at one point. That's if, not when. The book's title comes from a comment made by the brothers' mother: "There are no children here. They've seen too much to be children."

Kotlowitz has now published An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago. In the introduction he writes, "Since the publication of [There Are No Children Here] in 1991, four of the kids I befriended have been murdered . . . The numbers are staggering. In Chicago, in the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another roughly 60,000 wounded by gunfire. And the vast majority of these shootings took place in a very concentrated part of the city."

He decided to report on events in that very concentrated part of the city—the black and Hispanic part—over the course of a single summer, 2013. He wanted to write "a set of dispatches, sketches of those left standing, of those emerging from the rubble, of those trying to make sense of what they've left behind." There was nothing special about the summer of 2013 (and to provide context and conclusion to some of the stories, he occasionally has to go back and forward in time).  During those three months, "172 people were killed, another 793 wounded by gunfire. By Chicago standards it was a tamer season than most."

The stories are horrific, depressing, inspiring. We meet a man who as a teenager killed a rival gang member and who, twenty years later, is still trying to come to terms with what he did. We travel with a devoted school social worker who struggles with her favorite student who refuses to give evidence in the shooting death of his best friend. We spend time with a witness to a wrongful police shooting who cannot stop thinking about
what he has seen. We visit an aging former gang leader who has built a place of refuge for himself and his friends.

Kotlowitz evokes a society in which it is all against all. The most depressing story is that of Ramaine Hill who had been the victim of a shooting by a fifteen-year-old on a bicycle. Ramaine identified the shooter who was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Then for two years the shooter's friends tried to get Ramaine to recant, threatening him, offering money, even attempting to kidnap him. Then "a man in a red hoodie and red jogging pants, with a distinctive limp" shot and killed Ramaine. It happened at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Saturday in a public park. The police identified four witnesses. The police identified the shooter, but without witness testimony the prosecution had no case. Not one would testify. And given Ramaine's experience who would?

An American Summer is a description, not a prescription. "It's not a policy map or a critique," he writes. "It's not about what works and doesn't work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying . . . Antiviolence gurus insist they have the answers. I've seen one—the founder of a local program—take credit for the reduction of shootings in the years before his organization even existed. What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don't feel like I'm much closer to knowing."

So what you have in An American Summer in an incredibly well-reported and powerfully-written account of certain American lives in a certain American place at a certain time. It's an unforgettable account.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why keep a daily journal

One of the people interviewed for the book, A Better World Starts Here by Stacy Russo, was Carol J. Adams who is identified as a writer who has a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. One of the topics she talked about is the practice of keeping a daily journal.

Adams says that although she had made sporadic journal entries in the 1970s she was inspired to begin keeping a daily journal after she read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way in 1996. Cameron suggests writing "morning pages," which actually came from Depression-era book Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

The idea, says Adams, is "you write when you first wake up in the morning. Now I know a lot of people do not handwrite any more, and that people are very busy in the morning; but this is often when the subconscious is closest to us, including remembering our dreams."

Within a month of beginning her daily journal, Adams read Morton Kelsey's Adventure Inward, and she quotes him: "It is important to remember that journal-keeping is a living process, like exercise. One does the same thing over and over to develop and maintain skill. Healthy living in body and soul and mind requires the constant repetition of certain practices." Adams says that when she gets up in the morning now she writes three or more pages in a dedicated journal.

She also rereads old journal entries. "I can go back to the journals from the time when I was caring for my mom, and there she is. If I miss her, I can go to my journal and find the sort of repartee that I had recorded just because I was recalling the day."

She says she writes the entries on one side of the page. "When I go back, I write the date at which I'm rereading it. And then I'll put comments on the other side of the page, so that the journal becomes something with which I'm interacting. I find a lot of serendipity related to which journal I decide to read at what time and how that intersects with what I'm experiencing as I read it. I think keeping a journal is one of the greatest gifts I've given myself."

I agree that keeping a daily journal is an invaluable exercise for anyone who wants to write. It's a way to capture observations, ideas, stories, experiences, snatches of dialogue. And while I do not return to my journal often, I have reread enough entries to realize what is most likely to interest my future self and improve tomorrow's entry. A journal is a gift you can give yourself—cheap, legal, and non-fattening.

Friday, July 5, 2019

A Better World: A great idea fumbled

A Better World Starts Here: Activists and Their Work sounds like a great idea for a book. The author, Stacy Russo, a community college librarian and professor at Santa Ana College, describes herself as a writer, poet, and artist. Her books include Love Activism, We Were Going to Change the World, Life as Activism, and The Library as Place in California.

Her idea: interview 25 activists in different areas about their backgrounds, ask them what set them on their activist path, and describe their organizations (or activism if they have no organization). A receptive reader may be inspired to become active, even to start her/his own organization. It's great idea for a book that could have been much better than it is.

Russo asks one soft-ball, bold-face question after another and apparently transcribes with light editing whatever she was told. These are questions like, "How do you continue to stay positive in your activism?" "Do you have any final thoughts on your work that you would like to share?" "Did you notice any differences with the treatment of women versus men in your field?" (The answer—surprise!—is yes.) The technique means that the interviews all follow a certain pattern and a certain blandness. A 300-page book of transcriptions by its very nature tends to be boring as opposed to a single page Q&A with an author, an expert, or a celebrity in a magazine.

I had another problem with the book: It's sometimes difficult to see how the interviewee is actually making the world better. The first interview is with a "trans activist/certified holistic life coach." This woman says that in 2017 she and a friend formed TranSpectrum, "a social and support group for people who do not identify as cisgender, the gender/sex they are assigned medically at birth, and those who are questioning their gender." But she's no longer leading the group, and I'd like to know what the group actually accomplished (is accomplishing). How does it support? How is it making the world better?

One interviewee is a feminist who had to abandon Orthodox Judaism to become one. But her story implies the world would be better if Orthodox Jewish women renounced Orthodox Judaism for feminism. It might be better for certain women—it apparently was for the woman Russo interviewed—but would it be better in general? It might be possible to make that case, just as it might be possible to make a general case for veganism, caring for elderly dogs, or publishing books like A Better World Starts Here (Russo interviews her publisher), but the book often assume the case need not be made. The goodness is self-evident. A skeptical reader, however, will on occasion want the case made.

The most rewarding interviews are with activists who have started an organization for which a need is apparent. Michelle Carrera began Chilies on Wheels on Thanksgiving, 2014 when she prepared fifteen vegan meals in her New York City apartment and gave them to homeless people on the street. The response was so strong, she realized the need was greater than she thought. "We have expanded to other cities and the amount of meals we have been able to provide keeps growing. Right now, we prepare about 100 to 200 meals each week in New York."

Steve Bell served nearly 17 years of an indeterminate life sentence in the California prison system. He had a BA when he was sentenced but realized in prison that a frightening number of the inmates are illiterate and that led to the Prison Library Project. Once Bell was released and discovered the organization volunteered with it. It has now grown to the point where, "we send out abut 30,000 free books to prisoners every year."

Sara Vander Zanden is now the executive director of Facing Homelessness in Seattle, whose mission is to "invite the community to be part of the solution to homelessness." And while this involves a number of activities, the most extraordinary (to me) is to actually build a small house for a homeless person in the back yard. of a host family (flipping NIBY on its head). "We think that someday it will be just as normal to think about your backyard as a platform for social justice as it is to think about your spare room as a potential income generator through AirBnB."

Inspiring as several of the book's examples are, I'd have preferred fewer and deeper stories. Over and over I wondered, where does the money come from? From grants? From foundations? What foundations? What are the major challenges you have to deal with? If you were starting again, what would you do differently? How do you find board members? Volunteers? How do you measure success? What are your results?

A Better World Starts Here is a great idea that is disappointing because it could have been so much richer, deeper . . . better.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

You got a book inside you? Get it out

Ann Marie Sabath believes everybody has a book inside of them; all they need are forty-nine targeted tips to get it out. With that as a premise, she's written Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them: How to Bring It Out.

What Self-Made Millionaires Do That Most People Don't: 52 Ways to Create Your Own Success . . .  The Wealthy Gardener: Life Lessons on Prosperity between Father and Son . . . Business Etiquette in Brief: The Competitive Edge for Today's Professional . . .  and One Minute Manners: Quick Solutions to the Most Awkward Situations You'll Ever Face at Work.
Sabath is writing from the inside. Although she's the founder of At Ease Inc. a 32 year-old business courtesy training firm, she's written nine other books including most recently,

Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them, a 177-page paperback, has forty-nine very short chapters, many answering a question: Are you ever too young or too old to write a book? (No.) Why write a book in the first place? (Nine reasons, including sharing your expertise, the book acts as your legacy, it will help you brand yourself, it can help generate additional income, and more.) How long does it take to write a book? (Sabath's answer: writing an hour a day for thirty-two weeks will give you a 180-page book.) How soon is too soon to write your second book after writing your first?

Most of the chapters, however, are common sense advice: How to identify the book inside. The value of a sounding board advisory group. Know your reader. Ways to stay motivated. Six things NOT to do with your manuscript. (Keep the only draft within reach of the dog. Give the only copy to an angry spouse. Give family members easy access to your manuscript. Store your only copy in a spot subject to flooding. Give your only copy to someone for review. Forget where you put the only copy. To which one should add: Don't back up routinely.)

Sabath has heard all the excuses why someone doesn't write her book: "I have no idea where to start." If you're reading her book, she points out, you've started. "I don't have the time to dedicate to writing a book." That's just a way to say writing your book is not a priority. "English was not my favorite subject." So what? "I would feel vulnerable writing a book." Then think twice about your topic. "I don't have the discipline to write a book." Do you the discipline to do other things, like getting to work on time? Paying your bills? Give yourself some credit.

One of Sabath's more interesting chapters (for me) itemizes the contents of her grab-and-go tote: two iPads, earbuds, iPhone, two power cords, a charging base, two pens, a small notebooks, snacks, a bottle of water, and business cards.

One of the few quibbles I have with her book is her chapter on titles. She encourages readers to trademark their catchy title to protect it and the licensing rights, recommending a trademark attorney. She does not point out that trademarking a title—if you can do it at all—is both time-consuming and expensive. She also does not note that you cannot copyright a title, so because there is no ® indicating that she's registered her title you're free to call your book Everybody Has a Book Inside of Them: How to Bring It Out (although why you would so when there's a perfectly good one available is another question).

Also, Sabath says nothing getting your book published. That's her next book: How to Get Your Book Published and Sell It as Though Your Life Depends On It. No kidding. She has a two-page chapter titled "Why the 'How to Get Published' Section Is Not Being Addressed in This Book."

With those caveats, I recommend Sabath's How To to anyone who believes she has a book inside her and simply needs a nudge—or two—to just do it. (Hey, that's not a bad title: Just Do It: How to Free the Book Within You.)