How One Writer Writes–Elizabeth George

Mastering the processI know there are writers among the readers of this blog and I keep an eye out for interesting articles about the writing life. Here’s one from Elizabeth George, the prolific mystery novelist. She writes about her writing schedule and comments: “I don’t require my career to be fun. I require it to be challenging and deeply satisfying. For me, fun is ephemeral. Satisfaction generally is not.”  The schedule she describes should energize us all even if we’re not writers.

I used to be a big fan of Elizabeth George and read all her books as they were published, but then there was one that I found distasteful so I stopped. She hasn’t given up on her readers, so maybe it’s time for me to give her another chance. Although she’s in the U.S., her stories are always set in England and filled with lots of atmospheric detail. For an Anglophile like me, that’s always a treat.

The recurring characters in George’s books are Detective Thomas Lynley and his associate Barbara Havers–maybe you’ve seen the TV series? There are always two things going on in the novels: the mystery that Lynley and Havers solve and the private lives of the two detectives. Lynley comes from money but has chosen to fight crime–what a noble guy! He’s also quite attractive and his love life is complicated. Barbara Havers has always believed that she’s not attractive and can’t believe that her very nice neighbor is interested in her. She also takes on the responsibility of caring for her elderly, cantankerous parents. Another reason why I dropped the series is that I began to feel like a voyeur into the lives of Lynley and Havers! That speaks to the way George is able to write such realistic characters.

In this time of social distancing, when the pleasure of books is more important than ever, Elizabeth George’s mysteries are definitely distracting. Since we can’t go to the library now, it’s helpful that her mysteries are available as ebooks and audiobooks.

Stories We Need

Roz in UmbriaWe all have stories to tell–sometimes they haunt us and sometimes they keep us going. Sometimes they’re powerful and sometimes we think they’re unexceptional. But sharing stories is a way to find out what other people think and feel.

A friend told me about the organization Narrative 4, familiarly called N4, that harnesses the power of stories to create empathy. Author Colum McCann is one of the founders and the current president of the organization. (I’m on the waiting list for his latest novel, Apeirogon, which has been getting excellent reviews.) N4 brings people, often children, together to tell their stories to others. Many of the events take place in schools with trained facilitators. Their motto is: “Tomorrow’s leaders must learn empathy today.” Take a look at the good work they’re doing.

I just finished the lovely new novel Exile Music, by Jennifer Stell, which is about a Jewish family who managed to obtain visas to Bolivia in the late 1930s. Once Hitler had annexed Austria, and they saw the Austrians rejoicing, they knew they had to leave. The story is told from the point of view of the young daughter, Orly, who spends her teenage years in La Paz with her parents, both musicians. Although life is hard, they are very grateful to be there. When Orly is finally able to start school in La Paz, her first writing assignment is to pick two things–people, objects–that are very different from each other and find a way to connect them. Isn’t that what literature–and our lives–are all about? Poets know that very well. Of course the exercise helps Orly think about the contrasts between her present life and the one she left in Vienna, but it applies to so much in our own lives. We’re always trying to make connections, find common ground between disparate things, especially now. Social isolation has made a break in time for us; we’re living in the space where our old life intersects with this new world of isolation and  we’re trying  trying to find connections.

If you’re feeling frustrated about not having access to your library and want to buy books, take a look at bookshop.org. This is a project that supports your local independent bookstores with a portion of the profits from book sales. Book orders are fulfilled by the huge book distributor Ingram, so availability isn’t usually a problem. And unlike Amazon, which has currently de-prioritized book sales, selling books is the only thing that bookshop.org does. At the moment they are offering discounts. If you want to support independent bookstores, take a look and buy a book!

The Light Inside

guineafowl (1)For the past few years I’ve been doing Buddhist meditation. On Sunday mornings I meditate with a Theravada Buddhist community on the Upper West Side. There are lots of opportunities to meditate with groups in New York, or, of course, you can just find a comfortable position and meditate alone. So many people I speak to now are anxious and finding it difficult to concentrate. A meditation practice can help.

With the usual venues closed, there are now virtual meditation groups that you can Zoom into. The Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side in Manhattan has a great weekday meditation practice twice a day. Before this time of social isolation, I always intended to go, but often forgot. Now that it’s on Zoom, what’s my excuse? The Community Meditation Center, referenced above is also doing virtual meditation sessions.

I started joining the 7:30am Jewish Community Center sessions sessions last week.  On Tuesday the session was led by Sheldon Lewis. It was wonderful. Before we dropped into silent meditation, Sheldon talked about darkness and light, referencing the 9th plague, the plague of darkness, and Passover. I won’t go into detail about Sheldon’s talk–you really had to be there. Meditating is a way to quiet the chatter in your mind, turning off the endless loops of regret, planning, anxiety, etc.–all those thoughts that can occupy our brains to the exclusion of everything else. We don’t want those thoughts to drive us nuts, but we don’t know how to turn them off. Maybe we don’t know that we can turn them off if we work at it. Meditation helps. Along those lines, I wanted to recommend three excellent books about Buddhism if you’re curious. It’s a good time to learn how to decompress.

Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfeld. Shambhala Press.

Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are by Andrew Olendzki. Wisdom Publications.

The Magnanimous Heart: Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation by Narayan Helen Liebenson

Dystopias

He She ItI’ve been thinking about how this pandemic and the experience of social isolation may change the kinds of lives we live. If people become used to obtaining more things online, including their food, the retail and restaurant worlds we’ve known may not recover. If the virus is with us for a year or so, until a vaccine is available, then the habits we’ve developed will be hard to change. High unemployment numbers may persist; income inequality will deepen. How will people react to that? What will our lives be like?

So I’ve been thinking about dystopian fiction, particularly about the novel He, She and It by Marge Piercy. Piercy’s heroine, Shira, lives in a future world where “multis” (read multinational corporations) are the governments we live under. If you don’t work for a “multi” in an urban area where your life is controlled by your employer, then you’re an outlaw. When Shira steps out of line, she loses custody of her son to her ex-husband. He hints that he may move to another planet and Shira becomes panic-stricken. She makes her way from her “multi” to the free town of Tikvah where her grandmother,  Malkah, lives with a group of brilliant rogue programmers. There, Shira hopes to devise a plan to retrieve her son.

That’s the barest of outlines. The novel is full of interesting characters and fascinating technology, some of which you’ll be sorry not to share. The alternating chapters contain the story of the golem, the mud-and-clay creature from Jewish legend who was created as a savior for the Jews in dark times. The two stories resonate against each other in very interesting ways and of course, they resonate with a third story, the narrative of our current lives. I don’t read science fiction too often, but He, She and It is special. It would be a great immersive read now.

 

Help From Birds

birdI read Shelf Awareness Pro every day to keep up with the news from the book world. Lately it’s equal parts heartening and disheartening. This morning there was an obituary for Molly Brodak, a poet and author of a memoir about growing up with a father who robbed banks to pay his debts. The obit included a poem from Brodak that seemed just right for today so here’s an excerpt below. I had terrible dreams .last night filled with crime and sadness, fueled, no doubt, by anxiety about the virus, so the poem was helpful. Maybe it will be helpful to you.

An excerpt from Molly Brodak’s poem “In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens“:

I know there is a river somewhere,
lit, fragrant, golden mist, all that,
whose irrepressible birds

can’t believe their luck this morning
and every morning.

I let them riot
in my mind a few minutes more
before the news comes.

A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy From Fascism by Caroline Moorehead

House in mountainsMarch is a good time to read about brave women! I’ve been reading A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead. The story Moorehead tells about women in the Italian Resistance is little known which makes it all the more fascinating.

Here’s some historical background: In 1943 the Italian military was in tatters, suffering defeat after defeat. They had lost the war in North Africa and Hitler was now expecting more Italian participation on the Eastern Front. The Allies were bombing Rome for the first time and were already in Sicily, preparing to fight their way north. In June, 1943 Mussolini’s council of advisers deposed him and set up an anti-Fascist regime headed by Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Through the summer, while pretending to continue the alliance with Germany, Badoglio negotiated a truce with the Allies. Chaos was unleashed. Germany turned on Italy and occupied roughly the northern half of the country, including Rome. The Germans found Mussolini and installed him as the head of a puppet government. The reinstated Fascists were vindictive, joining the Nazis in hunting down anti-Fascists and Jews, killing them or sending them to the camps. The Badoglio government was still functioning but the country was in shambles. Food was scarce and so were jobs.

It was in this chaos that Resistance groups formed. Moorehead tells the story of the women who were active in the resistance in Turin and the rugged mountains of the Piedmont. It was in this mountainous area of northwest Italy that anti-Fascists of various political persuasions banded together for acts of sabotage. They were united by their hope to return Italy to a pre-Fascist state. What would come after the war–what form that state would take–was yet to be determined. Resistance group politics ranged from the left (Communists) to the right.

The women in the Resistance groups were known as staffete; they carried messages, ammunition, food, and medical supplies. They spied on the German army, relaying troop movements and charming soldiers into providing information. They printed underground newspapers and bulletins. Like the men, many were captured by the Germans, tortured and killed, but their numbers increased through 1944 and 1945. Desperate and patriotic, these Italian women were determined not to be left out of the fight. Their lives are inspirational and I read the book in haste, hoping that they would all survive.

thread of graceMoorehead’s book reminded me of the novel: A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, published in 2005. A Thread of Grace is set in the same time frame and also in the Piedmont but it focuses on the French Jews who traveled to Italy over the Alps when Italy broke with Germany. They were hoping for a safe harbor from the Nazis but found something quite different. It’s a moving account of the intersection of the lives of Catholics and Jews; Germans, Italians, and French; Fascistis, anti-Fascists, and Nazis at a time when making life and death choices was their daily bread.

savage continentI was also reminded of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe, a chilling account of what happened after the War, when ethnic cleansing, revenge, and displacement made Europe a nightmarish place well into the 1950s. Resistance groups, governments in exile, and former political leaders all wanted to shape the new governments and reset boundaries. The British and Americans had their own agenda–to obstruct the Communist influence–the USSR clearly had another. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us about how  ending a war sometimes signals the beginning of another kind of conflict, often just as deadly.

Sheltering in place is a good time to read something challenging, something absorbing. I’ve spoken to friends who are having a hard time focusing their attention on anything other than the news about the pandemic. Any one of these three books would be a good choice for distraction. I am aware, however, that many libraries and bookstores are closed so it’s harder to get the books you need. I’ve been reading e-books and listening to audiobooks. Log into your local library and see what you can find!

The Controversial Semicolon

Semicolon2I subscribe to the daily literary news blog Lithub. For those who don’t have this particular addiction, Lithub gathers links to news from around the globe about writers and writing. There are links to articles about writing, literary prize announcements, interesting book reviews, and other assorted oddities. I scan it in the morning and sometimes there are 3 or 4 articles of interest to me; sometimes none. I can’t give it up, fearing that I’ll miss something really wonderful since it celebrates good, interesting writing and the lives of writers.

While we’re all isolated, during this time of Covid-19, we ought to have more time to read, so here’s a link to an article I enjoyed about good writing that I first found on Lithub. Ignore the fact that it’s about semicolons if that doesn’t seem appealing. A good writer can make anything appealing, and Adam O’Fallon Price succeeds here. The opening of the article will grab you immediately. It’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Hah! You’re hooked, yes? The article is much more than you think it will be. It’s not a screed about the dastardly semicolon; it’s about good writing and how punctuation can take it to a higher level. The samples of writing from great authors illustrate that point. (Full disclosure: I love semicolons and use them often to change the flow of a sentence.)

Here’s the link to the article:

On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing by Adam O’Fallon Price from The Millions, July 10, 2018

 

 

Frederick Law Olmsted

Genius of placeThe last book my non-fiction reading group discussed was Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin. We had a good discussion about FLO, as he’s frequently known, since his energetic, and contentious life touched and influenced many of the innovations and changes of the nineteenth century. He’s best known as the landscape architect of New York’s Central Park, but he left behind an extensive legacy in other fields as well. In fact, he created several fields of study and practice. 

Olmsted was born in Hartford CT in 1822; his father was a prosperous merchant and FLO grew up in comfortable surroundings. Like many young men–then and now–he wasn’t at all sure what he wanted to do. He tried attending Yale, like his older brother, but he dropped out after a few months. It’s likely that an episode of hysterical blindness may have been the cause. He went to sea as a sailor to see the world, but quit after one voyage; the privations of the sailor’s life were not for him.

Even at an early age he had a strong desire to be a social reformer and his love of the outdoors turned him in the direction of farming. He wanted to improve agricultural practices and apprenticed himself to an experienced farmer in upstate New York. After a year, convinced that he had all the expertise he needed, he purchased a farm in Staten Island with the help of his father. For a while he was successful, but ultimately abandoned farming for journalism. In 1850, when the issue of abolition was dividing the country, he was uncertain about his own opinions and undertook a trip through the South to see conditions firsthand. To finance the trip, he obtained a commission for a set of articles from the the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times).  The extensive and insightful dispatches that he wrote are still a valuable resource for historians. The result, for Olmsted, was that he became convinced of the importance of the abolition of slavery.

When the Civil War began, he became the director of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, precursor to the Red Cross. Later, for a few years, he was the administrator of the Mariposa gold mine in California. While in California, he visited Yosemite; stunned by its beauty, he became an advocate for preservation of the park in this era before the concept of national parks.

All of these experiences prepared FLO for his career as a landscape architect. There was no such profession in the mid-1800s but Olmsted was never reluctant to be the first to do something.  Central Park was his first commission, with partner Calvert Vaux, and already Olmsted had strong feelings that parks should be for the people. The site for Central Park was a wasteland, partially filled with squatter’s huts. Thousands of workers were hired and Olmsted put them to work clearing stones, grading, planting thousands of trees, and building stone walls. The roadways through the park were placed below ground level so they didn’t intrude on the beauty of the landscaping and the carefully  designed vistas. His experiences in agriculture and administration were essential in the success of this first project. Olmsted went on to design significant parks in Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, and his designs played a significant role in the magnificent World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. His designs and philosophy affected parks all over the U.S.

Olmsted’s energy was unflagging until his last years, despite a leg injury that caused him pain through most of his adult life. Martin, the author of this biography, makes a case for bipolar disorder as a source of his furious activity. While we can never know for sure, FLO’s life displayed so much energy and endurance, as well as periods of serious mental ups and downs, that it may indeed be the case. Whatever the reason, we’ve been the beneficiaries. If you look at the website for the National Association of Olmsted Parks you’ll see the list. Genius of Place, while it aims to be a definitive biography, is also a joy to read and I recommend it highly!

The Disharmony of Silence by Linda Rosen

Disharmony of silenceI haven’t read this novel yet, but since the author is a good friend of mine, I wanted to share the news of its publication. The Disharmony of Silence comes out tomorrow, March 5th, and Linda is already signed up for a blog tour, details about the book and the blog tour are on her website.

Family ties, grievances new and old, second chances at happiness all fill the novel. Here’s the publisher’s description:

“In 1915, jealous, bitter Rebecca Roth cuts all ties with her life-long friends, the Pearls. Eight years later, Rebecca’s son and young Lena Pearl begin keeping company in secret. Rebecca agrees to a truce when the couple marries. But the truce is fragile. Rebecca’s resentments run deep.

In 2010, Carolyn Lee, fitness instructor and amateur photographer, must come to grips with the fact that her mother’s imminent death will leave her alone in the world. While preparing her childhood home for sale, she realizes for the first time that her mother’s antique brooch is identical to the one pinned to the lady’s dress in the painting hanging above the fireplace. Coincidence or connection? Carolyn is determined to find out. What she discovers has the potential to tear lives apart or to bring her the closeness and comfort she longs for. It all depends on how she handles her newfound knowledge.”

The publisher is Black Rose Writing and you can order the book the usual way–from your local bookstore, bn.com or amazon.com either as a hard copy or an ebook.

Artists and Their Legacies

House Among the TreesI just finished reading A House Among the Trees (Knopf/Doubleday, 2017) by Julia Glass. Don’t know how I missed it when it came out, since I’ve eagerly read almost every novel she’s written. This one didn’t disappoint either! All her characters step off the page; it’s just as if she’s writing about people she knows and of course the reader begins to feel the same way. By the end of the book, it’s hard to say goodbye.

In this novel, we’re introduced to the writer Mort Lear, a children’s author whose early picture book Colorquake is loved by children and adults alike. When the book opens, Mort has recently died and there is a general outpouring of grief at the loss of so beloved an author. However, as happens in novels, Mort’s death–and the will he leaves–stirs up trouble. His longtime live-in assistant Thomasina (Tommy) learns to her chagrin that Mort left her everything, including the house. She’s the one who’ll dispose of his art. Tommy has devoted her life to Mort, happily for the most part, but looks forward to independence and leaving the isolated house among the trees in upstate New York. It’s time after so many years to learn to be Tommy without Mort and to repair her relationship with her brother Dani, her only remaining family.

To complicate matters, when Mort died, there was a biopic in the works, starring Nick Green, a rising star, the latest British heartthrob. Nick arrives on Tommy’s doorstep to soak up information about Mort so he can, in method actor fashion, “become” Mort for the movie. There’s also a museum curator who was expecting that her new museum of children’s literature would be the recipient of Mort’s works, the centerpiece of the collection, but Mort’s will has left everything to Tommy. The curator feels betrayed by Mort.

The reader knows there’s a dark secret in Mort’s life dating back to his childhood. It informs his writing, especially the beloved Colorquake. Many people believe they know what that secret is; it hovers over the book, dark and dangerous. Other secrets and betrayals complicate the relationships among the characters. Glass shifts back and forth from the present to earlier parts of their lives so the characters become richer and more familiar to us until we are living with them and sharing their thoughts. She withholds and releases crucial information with just the right timing. A House Among the Trees is a lovely novel that showcases Glass’s capacity for empathy and gripping storytelling.