Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A TREE A TREE

Is a tree important? So important that we must drive out to the countryside and walk the wilderness underneath the mountains to find one.. Well, maybe not the wilderness exactly. More like a Christmas tree farm... And yes, I've posted about such excursions before.  Ones that ended in Lowes. So clearly it is not the tree so much the quest for the tree that's important.


We've decided to make an excursion with two of our beautiful offspring, in from out of town. That's why we drive with them down dirt roads past blue spruce and white spruce and Douglas fir. This is a Christmas tree farm. "Doesn't Douglas Fir sound like the name of a confederate general," Alex asks.

Because we are in Virginia, in the heart of the countryside. Rosalind keeps trying to imagine how our lives would be, if Ben and I were to retire out here. "You see?" she says. "If you lived here, people would come and visit you on the weekends. We'd go on walks. Look at this beautiful countryside? You would live here.. And that woman, the one selling pumpkin butter and jars of blackberry jam - she'd be one of your friends..."

Yes. That's super. Yes.  I'd like that.  In theory.  Waking up each morning under an enormous sky, with the rolling hills before me, and the mountains on the horizon - and the pancake diner down in the center of town where we'd take our breakfasts. Yes of course. That could be our life.

Meanwhile, we examine different trees. There's a Dr Seuss tree with a gap in the middle - maybe we should choose something like this - or else something along these lines - this a tall slender tree, with an element of eccentricity.
Hmm... might this be the very tree, the one of our dreams

Except it might be too tall for our ceilings.

Bummer.

Then there's this one, Ben suggests.  Perfect in circumference. Sure there's a bald spot - but that part would be against the wall.
Tree hugger, Ben

 It becomes all important to choose the right one.

And there are others too - Charlie Brown Christmas trees which need a few seasons to grow and which nevertheless break my heart.
 Why don't we chose one of these?





The excursion is the thing.  Because in the end there will always be a tree.  We'll position it in the stand. Decide which room in which it should be placed.  Then we will proceed to adorn it with the usual ornaments, those with which we have adorned all our trees in the past.  Do we remember them individually ? Not at all.  Does that matter?  No, again.

It's all about the excursion.  And after the excursion will come the ritual decoration. And after that come more and more rituals. Feasts, preparations, present givings. Laughter.  Engagement.  A meal or even two meals of importance, shared.

Also, we get ourselves tied up in knots about how that Christmas meal should be prepared and who will do the cooking. But actually in the end, it's only about being together and feeling a sense of occasion.

A meal shared.  Some commemoration involving presents and a tree.  Most of all, it isn't so much about something to wrap our presents in as it is about an occasion - to wrap our family in. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

LOOKING FOR INTERESTING HOLIDAY READS? CHECK OUT MY STAFF PICKS!

I've been furiously reading and writing staff picks at my job as a bookseller - and here are a few I came up with in recent weeks. The list below includes recently published novels as well as ones that you might have overlooked - and a couple of lesser known titles by well established authors - Patrick Modiano and Stefan Zweig.  So if you want something good to read over the holidays, or are looking for a book to give - take a look!

Also half finished and much savored on my night table are Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff,  A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and The Lying-Down Room  - a mystery by Anna Jaquiery. 

Enjoy!




Rock Paper Scissors by Naja Maria Aidt

This debut by an established Danish poet is a kind of literary whodunit set in an unnamed city - could be Stockholm, could be Brooklyn, depending on your perspective. The action kicks off when the owner of a stationary store learns of his father’s death. While cleaning out the apartment with his sister, he salvages a toaster, in which he finds a package. The discovery brings on a kind of psychological unraveling – and the novel ends up exploring the rock paper scissors one-upmanship of some male interactions. Aidt’s characters are intelligently and warmly drawn, her voice is fresh and original and she’s particularly good when writing about complex family dynamics. It’s a suspenseful well-paced book all right, but you’ll never take the poetry out of this poet! Beautifully translated by K.E. Semmel.


Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano 

Within the space of a few pages I was fully taken in by the sparse dreamlike narrative of this novel.  It’s set in 1960’s Paris, where a handful of drifters spend their days in parks and cafes and their nights in shabby hotels.  The narrator, a young bookseller, is looking for meaning when he attaches himself to an interesting couple, and subsequently becomes infatuated with the girl.  The attraction seems mostly one sided, until they escape to London and he begins writing. The conclusion returns us to Paris and a strange reunion that had me furiously turning pages. Modiano seems to repurpose the same material again and again in his books. There’s always a haunting tone, a sense of loss, the notion that identity is malleable.  The first time you go into Modiano’s world, you realize you have never been in such a place before. But once you’ve been there, you’ll want to go again, in his other books. 



The Goodman Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman

In this short but fascinating novel, Pullman hypothesizes that the heart of Christianity lies not so much in a trinity as in a duo: Twin brothers named Jesus and Christ.  Jesus is the hero, the masterful storyteller with a deep moral conscience. Christ is the weaker brother, quick to self-justify and cover his tracks. Jesus is the better man, but Christ has a bent for theology and a jaundiced eye on posterity. In betraying his twin, he ensures that the Christian message is broadcast to subsequent generations. Some might find this novel offensive.  Others, especially those who know the gospels well, will hear rhythmical and syntactical echoes of the King James translation.  Be on the alert for the ways that Pullman switches up beloved stories with subtle and decisive changes.  By separating church theology from the simple story of Jesus, as well as by addressing inconsistencies in the gospel narratives, Pullman offers his readers a serious theological exercise, which is both moving and illuminating.


Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

I wasn’t far into this masterpiece by Stefan Zweig, before I knew it would be one of my favorite novels of all time.  Toni Hofmiller, an ambitious Austrian cavalry officer makes a faut pas at a party, when he invites a crippled girl to dance.  In order to make amends, he gets more deeply involved in her family. Then, unable to extract himself from the benefits of their society, and realizing that the girl has fallen in love with him, he finds himself in a self-made trap. Set before the First World War and rife with Freudian analysis, this is a psychologically complex story about how lack of judgment and the inability to make firm decisions, exacerbated by the desire to please, can change the course of a life. I never wanted this book to end. I laughed out loud. I also cried. It is an unwieldy novel and over the top in many ways, but that is part of its charm. Wes Anderson gave Zweig the nod in Grand Budapest Hotel but this novel is more than that film. It’s an unsung classic, which will capture your heart and your mind.


Boyhood  Vol 3 My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard 

I devoured all volumes of My Struggle as soon as I got my hands on them, but this one is my favorite.  If you are interested in getting a taste of Knausgaard but don’t fancy committing to 3,600 pages, Boyhood is the perfect choice. It is by far the most lyrical and transporting of the volumes thus far and easily stands alone. Having read A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, I was initially reluctant to embark on a narrative about boyhood.  But the descriptions of Norwegian childhood and of Karl Ove’s visits to his grandparents in the fiords are nothing short of transporting. Reading this novel is the closest I have ever been to becoming someone else.  And isn’t that what good writing is all about? How does Knausgaard do it! You will also find some gut-wrenching backstory here, about Karl Ove’s relationship with his father – the relationship that inspired this stunning multi- volume contemporary classic.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

DISJOINTED SCRAPS of the FUTILE and PROFOUND



Pat's wall - the power of inspiration
The world changed profoundly on Friday afternoon.  While I was chatting with my daughter Rosalind on Facetime - she was in her Paris apartment - all hell broke loose around her.  We learned of the carnage and brutality, of the senseless violence directed at people who were simply living their lives, out for an evening at the end of a busy week, in the most beautiful city in the world.

 Rozzie listened to sirens in Paris all through that night. But we, her parents, were far away in a different city - not the most beautiful, but perhaps the most powerful, and we were going to our friend Pat Sachs' art opening in DC.

On the way there, my phone kept buzzing - people were sending text messages - was Rosalind all right - had we heard from her? She was fine, I assured them - but what does it mean? What is fine under such circumstances? The meaninglessness  of violence like this weighs heavily on all hearts.  And what did it mean? What was it for?

 My mind keeps going back and forth between meaninglessness and profundity. The profound loss. The meaningless loss. The profound waste and the meaningless waste. The enormous weight of sadness and fear.  The disconnect between young people living their lives in Paris and the ISIS agenda. The sense that there is nothing we can do to make it sensible or stop if from firing off in all the wrong directions. The sense that we have GOT to make it stop.

Patty's gallery opening was underway when we got there and she greeted me with an enormous hug.  It was an exhibit of new collages - miniatures mounted on several walls.  Pat fashions tiny worlds - she makes tiny places. But of course they are not places at all. They are torn fragments which seem to articulate space and reveal further vistas, tricking the eye and enticing it forwards.

"Come into my studio," she told us after a while, and she took Ben and Helen and me into the back. "This is where I work."

Her studio was small but it had the expansiveness of vision. A wall of different postcards, photographs and sketches ran the length of the studio. Then there was her desk - a beautiful meaningful clutter of art materials.

Pat's workspace


She showed us a box of clippings and torn magazine pages. "I sit with these little scraps of paper," she said, "and sometimes I ask myself is this what my life is about? Is it just about little scraps of paper?  At other times, I find a scrap and want to make it work.  But I get too attached and then I have to let it go.  It's like writing. Sometimes you have to let a piece go because it isn't working."
Pat Sachs showing us her scraps of paper

I've been thinking about Pat and her scraps of paper ever since, and how she assembles them into worlds. They might be tiny worlds but they never seem constricted. She assembles her pieces into a vision with meaning.

Today is Saturday and I spoke to our daughter again in Paris - this morning as well as this evening. Everything was normal outside, she said.  People were in the cafes, laughing, talking.  She saw a puppy and made a fuss of it.  People were out riding bicycles. And yet it all felt false.  Sadness and loss hung over the city.

Saturday is my day off and I wrote all morning.  I walked the dogs with Ben at 2:00 and at 4:00 I decided I'd go to the yoga studio.  I felt a mess. I wondered if I'd make it for the hour and a half of Bikram practice because tears had sprung in my eyes suddenly and without warning all day long.  But yet I should be grateful, shouldn't I? I was not the one dead, nor was my daughter. We were the lucky ones.

 Nevertheless, I  dedicated my practice to the people who had lost their lives in Paris and to those who were trying to survive without their loved ones - those who had lost their former lives.  Shakespeare's words about Mercutio came to mind... "His soul is just a little way above our heads."  I felt these souls were just a little way above our heads, that they were still with us somehow. In my yoga practice, I was moving for them. I was honoring them. It might have been futile but it felt profound.

I thought about Patty's pieces of torn paper. The way she manages to suggest worlds and realities in placing one piece of paper in front of another. The way she makes something profound out of something futile - the way she  takes scraps and assembles them with meaning.

 I may just have to buy this one

I wondered if some of those who had died had helped the others along.  I wondered if they had found themselves in new realities or if they had just become nothing.  Maybe life is just nothing, just a scrap of paper.   Or maybe these assembled scraps of experience and impression hang together and lead elsewhere. To somewhere profound.




Sunday, October 18, 2015

WAKING UP THE BOOKSTORE


As the books wake up
One of the things I love most about working at Politics and Prose is waking up the bookstore on a Sunday morning.  That is, on these mornings I am often the first to arrive, to turn on the lights and order the stacks, to bring in the newspapers and put out the dog water bowl.  I feel like I'm untucking the books after a long night's rest. The store is quiet. It feels almost like a temple, and I am the vestal virgin ( a bit long in the tooth, it has to be said) but tending the alters and chapels, preparing the incense as it were and sweeping the steps.  There's a lot of humility when you serve books.  I know that well from trying to write them as well as trying to get the finished product noticed - but it also rings true on these mornings in the bookstore. You can't get high on your horse if you intend to serve books.

Because the books are why we are here.  We serve them. And there's a world of difference between that first hour alone in the bookstore, and the hours that follow - when the place comes alive with browsers and book lovers, writers and readers.  It all slides together so very gradually - and soon you are in the thick of your day and all you can do is go with the flow. In order to go with the flow you must forget about yourself. You must serve the customers and the books. And it's a wonderful feeling.

A lot has happened since I last posted on this blog.  There's been the Fairfax Book Conference, where I ran two workshops on reading the classics - and signed copies of my book side by side with Celeste Ng.  Actually, she was the one signing copies of her book most of the time. But I did sell and sign a fair number of my own book too, in between obligingly taking pictures of her and her fans and eating my lunch and also, Celeste and I did get in a lot of good conversation about our writing life. When it comes down to it, our writing lives are very similar - whether or not we are celebrated.  It all comes down to moments of quiet, and to a sense of humility - a sense of serving the word, and serving the book.  We are the servants. They are the masters.
with Celeste Ng


Also there was Fall for The Book Festival for which we hosted almost 150 writer events.... great to be part of it - and to have the opportunity to lunch with Angela Flournoy and attend her event. I feel proud to have reviewed her debut novel The Turner House   and to have written a staff pick at Politics and Prose - well before the book made the long list for the National Book Award. Did she expect the nomination? No! And when I met up with her at Starbucks, there she was, just like everyone else, waiting to serve her time at the festival - sitting in a chair and checking her iphone and feeling a bit out of place.  She is humble.  She is serving the book.  She is traveling across the country giving readings and attending events - but the events are not always glamorous. She is the servant. The book is the master.

There was also an amazing Tim O Brien event at Fall for the Book - hosted by Stephen Goodwin, friend, mentor and wonderful writer.  And  a great event with Naja Maria Aidt  and her translator where I was introduced to her debut novel Rock Paper Scissors. What beautiful people. And what a fascinating novel it is - with a voice completely original.

Then last night I had the privilege of speaking at the Fairfax Library Foundation jubilee - about Changing Lives Through Literature.. great to spread the word about this program which is so close to my heart.  Again, it is the book we read that sets the tone for our interactions in this program. My job is mostly to listen and to get out of the way.

I've also got in a lot of good writing time too - on my new novel LADYBOY. And that involves a lot of writing and rewriting.  As Naja Maria Aidt said at her reading, she often found she was writing and rewriting the first fifty pages or so - and she had to do that for months before she was up and running. I think it has to do with feeling out the terrain of your novel - with understanding its language and listening to the story and the characters so that you know them well enough - so that you know them better than the readers do, by the time they read those first fifty pages.

Yes, there's a lot of humility in being a writer. And this is underscored for me, in those early grateful mornings as I prepare the bookstore for a new day. I wake up the books with a vacuum cleaner.  I am their cleaning lady and the books are my boss. It falls to me to vacuum the store and let me tell you, that can take a good forty five minutes!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

LOOKING FOR A BOOKSHOP? TURN LEFT AT THE CIA!


Browsing through books on my day off might strike you as a busman's holiday. I work as a bookseller three days a week - and other days I'm often running book groups in a local library.  Nevertheless there can be few places quite so odd or worth checking out as the bookshop I'm about to describe.   We went there today - and have been twice before.  It's on the road to the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean.

It's very poorly marked. In fact, unless you are already on the road to this bookstore, you don't know you're headed there -  because you are actually on the road to CIA Headquarters.

On one side of the winding road is a wood, shrouded in vines.  On the other side is chain link fence topped with razor wire - and at a distance, the CIA.

Soon you will be veering to the left, towards the Claude Moore Colonial Farm.  On the right is a CIA checkpoint.

Finally, right at the end, you'll see an abandoned nursery with an ancient greenhouse and various pallets of dead plants. 
Last time there was a sign: plant sale. But the potted plants were dead.


Today when Ben and I went there, they were having an 'estate sale' in a building adjoining this nursery.  Apart from a rack of hideous garments in the hallway, there was a shelf of old toys and board games, some shelves of dusty plates, knickknacks and a table of costume jewelry.  There were also an inordinate number of women, ostensibly providing customer service.

We didn't linger.

The bookshop is to the right of the nursery, in what looks like a small barn.  
I kid you not.  But open the doors!
 It's like Dr Who's TARTIS.  You open the doors of this tiny building, and step into another dimension. How is it possible that the rooms are so expansive? One leads to another, and another, each one crammed from floor to ceiling with rare and second hand books. They also have a large selection of LPs.

one of the many rooms
In August we spoke to the owner, who told us this store had once been next to Greenberry's coffeehouse in Mclean.  Yes, we remembered it, and had been sad when it became a Pink Pony.

But the Claude Moore farm website suggests otherwise. It says the bookshop is comprised of 100% donations and  that all proceeds go to maintaining the farm.  I have no idea how they make money, though, since they are all but giving books away. In August, we came away with an enormous haul for $5.00. And today, almost a month later, that sale - $5 for all the books you can fit in a bag- is still on!
I got all this for 5 bucks.

As you can see, the books are good! Today, there was also a motley assortment of wicker furniture and old lamps under a tarp behind the bookshop.  It was raining.  No one was on hand to help, but a sign said if I didn't like the price, I should feel free to negotiate.

What is this place and why is it here? Your guess is as good as mine!



Friday, August 28, 2015

THE EDGE OF THE STAIRS

Several years ago when we adopted our greyhound Adam off the racetrack, we had to teach him how to climb up and down the stairs.  We had to stand behind him and beside him and lead him, coaxing him through the daunting process, until at last he took them automatically.

But over the last couple of weeks, he has developed a new fear of going down the staircase and we don't know where it came from. He stands at the top and backs away.  He stiffens his legs and whimpers.  He waits for Ben to carry him.

I've spoken to the Greyhound Adoption people and they say this happens quite often to greyhounds.  They just have to be encouraged and talked through it. No one knows why.

When Ben isn't here to carry him, and Adam follows me upstairs unthinkingly, he will back off from following me down again. He retreats from the edge and trots off into another room, makes his peace with a carpet in the sun. He relaxes.

Unless I'm going for a walk with the other greyhound Izzy.  Then he stands at the top and barks plaintively.  It's awful.  And it's completely self inflicted. Right now he is sleeping  peacefully on the carpet beside me as I type this.   But when it's time to go down, he might not be able to manage.  It's because he's overthinking them.  He's like Mr Bean on the top of the high dive - suffering vertigo.
me coaxing him towards the edge

Yesterday, for one brief moment, he forgot he was afraid.  Someone came to the door, and without thinking he ran downstairs. Then on the landing, he remembered his fear. Whoops.  Up he ran again.

I guess when it comes to stairs, you have to forget them entirely.  You have to trust that you know you can do them, then on automatic pilot, go down anyway.  But it's a bit like not thinking of the pink elephant.  If you remind yourself that you have to forget, you are in essence remembering.  It's also like trying too hard to fall asleep. You have to forget you are trying. Then suddenly you are asleep without realizing it.  But the catch is self awareness.  You have to let go of the satisfaction of being there mentally to realize it!

It occurs to me that everyone in my immediate family is currently standing at the top of their own metaphorical staircase.  We are starting new projects and moving to different cities.  One is off to new prospects in Chicago another back to a daunting doctoral at Oxford that has been on hold for a couple of years.  Another has moved from Sydney to start a course at GSD.  There is ambition in these lives and it's scary as hell.  Sure we could lie on the carpet and dream like Adam is doing right now.  That's easier and a lot more fun. At first. In essence it's what we've been doing all summer. Hanging around and talking.  Watching movies.  Eating meals together. Going to the beach.  But summer is over and taking the staircase is difficult.  The lead up isn't fun.
stairs are scary things

I'm also at the top of my own staircase. I'm trying too hard to finish a book. I've been overthinking it.  I keep going over the same pages with a fine tooth comb, inching forward to the edge where there is nothing yet written - then I stop in fear. I can't do it. I can't let go of myself enough to forget that it's me who is writing. So instead I busy myself with trying to rewrite and I'm not actually producing or even making it better. There's madness to this method.

Bracing yourself doesn't work because in fact, you don't have to jump after all.  You don't have to do the stairs all in one go. You have to breathe and relax and head off the edge without thinking.  The precipice doesn't exist.  It's one step after another.
the green green grass downstairs

Saturday, August 1, 2015

THERE HAS PASSED A GLORY FROM THIS EARTH: A TRIBUTE TO ALAN CHEUSE

I read recently an article in The New York Times about writers who should be loosed from the Literary Canon.  James Parker suggests that Wordsworth must make his exit.

And yet it is a line (paraphrased in this blog title) from Wordsworth's Intimations to Immortality  which comes to me now, as I learn of the death of Alan Cheuse,  my teacher, mentor, editor, friend and world class lover of books and life.

I first encountered Alan listening to NPR.  He was the voice of book reviews - short sweet and engaging. His commentaries came from the mind of a deep and serious reader.   So when I returned from Brussels to Northern Virginia, looking for ways to reignite my writing career, I knew Alan's name as connected to the MFA Program at George Mason University- and that's where I went.

I began my studies there in 2001, and instantly connected with Alan.  I remember chatting with him in his book lined office, and leaving him a short story I'd written while living in Brussels.  When I arrived at his class later that evening he took me aside. "I want to publish that story," he said.  "And I will pay you for it."
the cover of Rattapallax 7 in which my story appears

Of course, I agreed.  He subsequently included that story in Rattapallax 7. You can imagine my joy when he told me he thought it the best use of 2nd person he had ever read.

I learned so much from Alan over my four years at Mason.  It was under his guidance that I  completed my MFA project - a novel entitled THE DOVE PURSUES THE GRIFFIN. Alan told me  the reading was a pleasure and that the most difficult part was re-affixing the clasp I'd used to hold the pages together. His endorsement of my work meant that I submitted it to agents - and landed a London agent.

That agent subsequently got me a book deal for my second novel I KNOW WHERE I AM WHEN I'M FALLING. While the first novel remains unpublished, it is currently under consideration at various independent presses, substantially reworked  - and renamed NO ENEMY BUT WINTER. I owe that book to Alan's guidance. If it finds a home - I will dedicate it to him.

I could tell many stories about Alan here.  About his wise counsel on writing, or my family visit to San Francisco - where my sister lives.  It turns out my sister was the housekeeper for Alan's great friend - Oakley Hall, who also taught with Alan at the Squaw Valley Writers Community.    My sister had arranged for my family and me to stay at the Halls' beautiful home on Macondray Lane - the summer we visited Alan in Santa Cruz.

What an amazing coincidence!  We could hardly believe it  - and yet it seemed to solidify the tribe of writers I had joined.  It suggested  I was woven into a communal tapestry - that my contribution was another thread of the writing life which extended across the North American continent.

It was also because of Alan that my daughter Rozzie was treated for emotional difficulties, during her teens, by Alan's good friend Jim Gordon.  Without Jim's intervention and wise counsel, I don't know where we might have turned or what might have happened to us.  Because of his counsel, our daughter weathered the crisis and - surprise surprise - she is also a writer today.

I am now thinking of Alan's daughter Emma, holding her young baby after a reading at the home of Alan and his lovely wife Kris.  I think of a choreographed performance by Kris to which Alan invited us, years ago - involving a piano and a solitary dancer.  I think of the bond that united Alan and Kris - a love match, pure and simple. Anyone who saw them together could see it.  I think of the many readings I attended at Politics and Prose where Alan read from his latest publication.  Now I work as a bookseller at Politics and Prose. Is this just another coincidence?  Or is it because Alan put this incredible independent bookstore on the map for me.

There is an enormous hole in the literary community of Washington DC with the death of Alan Cheuse. Alan was the deepest of readers.  He had digested more work and had more interesting things to say about books and putting them in perspective than almost anyone else I know.   Now his perspective has gone.

But to read is to enter other worlds.  When Alan went into a coma a few short weeks ago, he entered yet another world - one into which we could no longer follow.   We don't know where that world has led him.  He took a detour and left us.

But he is somewhere.  At the very least, he exists in the hearts and minds, in the literary consciousness of our entire community. He used to say that even if you didn't write to publish, following the MFA at George Mason made you a better READER.  I for one am a better reader  because of Alan Cheuse.  I also believe I am a better writer.

Godspeed, my friend.  You will be profoundly missed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THINKING ABOUT SANDRA BLAND - A WHITE WOMAN'S VIEW

I cannot wrap my mind around the injustice of Sandra Bland's death.  And one of the reasons I can't wrap my mind around it, is because but for the grace of -  I'd say GOD - but I think it's less about God and more about skin color - there but for the grace of my white freckled skin, go I.

The Washington Post  reported today that according to the FBI, 50 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2014.  But 544 civilians have been killed in encounters with the police.  THINK ABOUT IT~  Look what those statistics say about civilian encounters with police officers.

A few years ago, I too was pulled over by cops, for no apparent reason.  I am a white woman living in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, but my encounter with the cops left me shaken. It left me wondering what sort of of a county I lived in -and how this was possible in America the beautiful - the land of the free - the greatest country in the world - as our politicians  love to remind us.

I'd had a kir earlier that evening.  Even beginning my paragraph about a police encounter like this sounds twee.... Are you for REAL, Amanda?  Yes - my friends - I had had a kir ---- (a glass of white wine with creme de kassis) -   and then my son Elliot asked me if I would drive him to a friend's pool party.  I said I would.

We got in the car and drove up the road... and as we approached its far end, we noticed that the street was lined with cars.  We commented that it seemed strange, but continued on, and as I drove down the gauntlet of cars, a flashlight was shined in my windscreen.  I didn't know who had shined the light, but I continued the 100 yards to the end of our street and in due course, turned left and continued on the 15 minute ride, to my son's friend's house.

I dropped him off and drove back home.

But as I came back down my street - a street which has a posted 25 mph limit, I was stopped by cops.

I wound down my window. "Maam," the officer  barked at me.  He was a boy of about the age of my eldest son. "Do you remember that I shined a light in your window a few minutes back? Do you realize you were driving to endanger?"

Driving to endanger?  I had no such recollection. I was driving down my own street, a street I had driven thousands of times before.  Why would I be driving to endanger?

"Have you been drinking?"

"Well, I had a kir," I said. Big mistake.

"A WHAT?"

"A kir," I repeated.

The cop commanded that I get out of my car. "This is my street..." I told him. "I live just a few doors down..."  

Nothing I said made a difference.  He proceeded to put me through my paces. He took my license and registration.  He made me recite the alphabet from L to Z.

"Hold your arms out straight, MA'AM," he said. "When I call RIGHT or LEFT - I want you to place your index finger on the tip of your nose.  I don't want it ABOVE the nose. I don't want it BELOW the nose.  But ON the TIP of the NOSE."

Then we went through a drill, with some of my neighbors looking on in shock. "Right, left, right, left. Left, Right, Right. Left," he shouted - while I complied. My wirehaired dachshund sat in the back of my PT Cruiser, waiting. 

He asked what my highest  level of education was.

"Graduate school," I told him.

"GRADUATE SCHOOL?!?!" he repeated mockingly.

He asked me if I was wearing heels.  I told him I was.

He told me I had been speeding. "It's a 20 mph limit here."  I corrected him. I said it was 25.

He then told me he would let me go. "BUT..." he warned, "I don't want to see you out on the road again. Because if I DO - I will arrest you for driving to endanger. Do you understand me?"  I said I did.  I then drove 200 yards up the road to my home.

What had happened? I had been treated like a criminal on my own street - and WHY? For NOTHING..  

Later I found out, that the cops had been called to that house up the road for a domestic abuse case.  They must have been pumped up.  They must have come out of the house with a lot of aggression inside them - and needed someone to take it out on.

A couple of people I've talked to about Sandra Bland suggest that she should have got out of the car.  They cannot believe she talked BACK to the cop.  That she didn't put out her cigarette. 

But, I remind them, she was annoyed. They were pulling her over for NOTHING  and she knew it.  She hadn't signaled, no - but all she had done was try to pull over and let the cops behind her pass.

She was also vulnerable.  She'd had a miscarriage.  She was in a strange and alien city and about to start a new job.  The cop pulled her over and treated her like she wasn't deserving of respect - didn't deserve to have emotions about the affront of being pulled over.  Then she was left in a jail cell for three days.  She must have thought she had crossed to the dark side. That this was how it was going to be, from now on.

My heart goes out to her. She was young.  She was trying to start a new life.  I have been there too.

When I think of the way the cops responded to her - I am also reminded of El Salvador - when walking the streets without an ID could get you killed.  It's a sliding scale.  How far along that scale is our society prepared to go?




Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOKSELLING: MY NEW VIEW ON THE LIFE CYCLE OF BOOKS

My book, not, I might add, for sale at Politics and Prose
I've been working as a bookseller at Politics and Prose in DC for the last couple of months, and the experience has given me a whole new view on the life cycle of books.   As a novelist, I had always imagined that once you got a book into print, it would be smooth sailing.  In fact, I had thought that once you got an agent, it would be smooth sailing.

But friends and fellow writers, this is not the case.  I got an agent.  I got my book into print. But in fact, these milestones are merely doors in a series of many doors, which pass into new opportunities. As in the Monopoly game,  you pass GO and collect two hundred dollars.  But is it a win? Not in the least.

Let me explain.  So you've got yourself an agent and the agent has got you a book deal. You have passed GO twice. You've collected your  first four hundred dollars.

But NEXT you have to market your book. Who is going to buy it?  Your publisher is responsible for getting the book out there. But more and more, it is also up to you, the author.  So you must blog about your book, you must drum up reviews. You must send the manuscript to book bloggers, reviewers, friends, Romans, countrymen. You must go on Twitter and Linked In. You must do your utmost to make your book stand out.

Let's say your publisher then gets a few bites.  Bookstores show some interest. They buy maybe two, maybe four copies of your novel.  Then they try to sell it.

They put them on display.  I once thought that "face outs" were the best way to get your book sold. That is, when your book is displayed on the shelf - not spine out - but FACE out, you will sell more copies. However....books are not usually faced out unless they are bought in quantity - and thus, would ordinarily take up more space on the shelf. Success begets success.

Usually, three copies of your paperback book will be put on display in a bookstore. In hardcover, two copies might be displayed.  Mind you, a book that starts its life in hardcover is unlikely to go into paper for at least a year.  This depends on sales. A huge best seller like Anthony Doerr's  ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE remains in hardcover simply because sales continue to climb.

But even if your book is put on the NEIGHBORHOOD FAVORITES table, at a bookstore like Politics and Prose, this does not guarantee success.  It must earn its place on that table. If it doesn't sell, it will likely soon be taken off.  It will then be allotted to mere section shelving.

I made a case for one book recently. I had reviewed Angela Flournoy's debut novel THE TURNER HOUSE. It wasn't selling as well as the bookstore hoped - so I suggested they  place it on a different table. I also wrote a 'staff pick'.  Staff picks  boost sales. But by how much? It's hard to tell. We shall see!

In other news, down in the receiving room last night, I saw a pile of books on their way out. They were being shipped back to the publishers and were written by an acquaintance of mine.  I had been to his well attended reading only two months earlier.

But this is the book biz, folks - generous to a fault for a time, but cut throat in the end.  Before working as a bookseller, I often wandered the stacks in agony. WHY ISN'T MY BOOK IN HERE - I used to think to myself.  WHY.  WHY.

Now I feel a bit differently.  Now I am actually amazed that my novel found its way into print at all.  I am thankful to my publisher and to my agent. I am even grateful to Amazon - arch enemy of the independent bookseller.  They are getting my novel out there, after all, and I owe them a debt of gratitude.

I also realize, when I see the sales of other more successful authors, ones I had envied and revered in the past, that success is not always what it seems.  Not every book of value sells - even if it is well placed by publishers and booksellers.  I feel confident that my own novel is selling just as well as some of those I most admire.

Also, there are often shelves and shelves devoted to a single author - to Daniel Silva for instance, to Alexander McCall Smith or PG Wodehouse.  At the same time, there are extraordinary authors, like Andrea Barrett for instance, whose writing to me seems luminous, exemplary and deeply moving.  Hers are books I have given to friends as gifts.  But they might have just a single title on the shelves.

My library.  How books arrived here is nothing short of a miracle.
This is the independent bookstore world, my friends.  A world that reveres serious books.  A world of people who live for the best writing. Thousands and thousands of titles are produced each year - so many books that deserve to be read. It is the best place to spend your days and a beautiful place to work. And yet it is also a business. Even here, the best books sometimes fall right through the cracks.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

UNTANGLING IDENTITY MARKERS - DOLEZAL, JENNER and...

 Is there such a thing as transracial? After all, we now understand the designation of transgender, and I tend to think gender is a more fundamental marker than race.  Maybe that's just me. But I identify myself as female before identifying myself as white.

I was therefore fascinated by Osomudia James succinct explanation in her Washington Post article .  The problem with Rachel Dolezal's “transracial status” she writes is that "Dolezal was neither incorrectly assigned her whiteness at birth, nor subject to the social experiences — good and bad — of blackness in her developing and formative years. Rather, Dolezal merely performed, appropriating a character."

A helpful and important distinction. But she also writes about playing into stereotypes about how blacks look and behave, and here I am reminded of Elinor Burket's recent article "What Makes a Woman." Caitlyn Jenner's first appearance as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair showed her dressed in a satin corset. Gender stereotype or real woman? "They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails," Elinor Burket writes.

Costume does not define identity.  Yet it does send a message. We all send messages in how we present ourselves to the world - even though our physical appearance doesn't speak to who we are on a deeper level.  And yet there is this desire to shape the message we send to the world by our appearance. We live in a low context society - and therefore cannot always tell who somebody is by how they dress.

Going off on a bit of a tangent here - I often wonder if some high context markers might still be useful today - such as, for example, the practice of dressing in mourning. You dressed in black for a year after the loss of a loved one - and after that you went into half mourning.  Thus people instantly knew when they looked at you, that you had suffered a loss. And they treated you accordingly.  You didn't have to explain.

On the other hand, it might often have happened that you were forced to dress in mourning for a close relative you weren't very fond of! That would be sending a mixed message.

Mixed messages.  Herein lies the problem. We don't know and can't always believe what we perceive to be true of identity.

And as if this isn't confusing enough - try this one on for size. I heard a fascinating, though disturbing interview on Radio Q while driving home from work last week.  The program was about BIID- Body Integrity Identity Disorder.  Those who suffer from this condition identify as handicapped even while they are able bodied. In some cases they go to extreme lengths to fit their appearance to a perceived disability - including trying to mutilate their healthy limbs.   Dr Michael First who had treated many patients with this disorder was speaking on the show, and claimed that to be "transabled" was very similar to being transgender.

HUH?

Something doesn't sit right with me about that.  I ask myself if sufferers of BIID feel inadequate in some unidentifiable ways and therefore want outward validating evidence of their inadequacy. In other words, they feel handicapped and therefore wish to be perceived as such.

Meanwhile, those who actually are handicapped wish their handicap to be a secondary consideration to who they fundamentally are as human beings.  Does a handicap speak to the core of a person's identity? Hardly.

Transgendered people do not wish to get special consideration. They merely want to be perceived as the gender they feel themselves to be inside. Maybe there's a difference between being female and being a woman or between being male and being a man. I don't know.  But I'm thinking about it a lot and trying to puzzle it out.

That's why I'm writing a novel about it - about what it MEANS to be female - regardless of your gender of birth.  I think it's important that we don't conflate "trans" markers as we go forward.

Comments welcome - of a compassionate and thoughtful nature.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

GENDER IDENTITY and HAIRCUTS

My friend Daya is recovering from an Adam's apple shave and chin reshaping. The surgery involved cutting the skin entirely along the jaw line and peeling it down, shaving the jawbone for a more feminine contour, and sewing it back up.  It was agony.  Daya tweeted afterwards, "Knew there would be pain but didn't know there'd be PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIN!"


Daya in one of her signature hats

She came down to visit us for a few days while she was recuperating.  Our friendship began when I was researching for a novel I'm writing about transgender friendships and what it means to be female.  Daya wants her appearance to align with how she feels inside - a perfectly natural desire.  She resists caricature, doesn't want to be "cartoonish" as she puts it. She simply wants to be perceived by others as the gender she feels she is inside.  That's why she went through the surgeries - and it's why we were talking about haircuts.  Her hair is fine and thin and she was afraid there was nothing she could do about it.  She didn't want it to scream out MALE.

So I asked my friend Irina who cuts my hair if she had any thoughts.  We sat in her salon together and she considered Daya's options.   "Should I go darker?" Daya asked.

before

  "I wouldn't go any darker," Irina said. "But I would cut off some of this length."

"But is that a style choice or because of the condition of the hair?"

"Both," Irina replied. She suggested mixing tones, warmer colors, along with blonder highlights. But she would think about it and we could come back in the morning.

We returned to Irina's at 9 o clock on Wednesday. "I have been thinking all night about what we can do with your hair," she said, and then showed Daya four colors which she would combine to give the illusion of depth and body.  She would cut the hair to taper at the neck, and angle it in front.


The transformation began.



We chatted while Irina applied the color foils.  I watched her work her magic, with sensitivity, thoughtfulness and skill.

She showed Daya how to back comb the hair for volume.  Daya's featured softened as she looked at her reflection in the mirror.  Tears sprang into my eyes and I couldn't hold them back.



"Stop," said Daya, "or you'll make me cry too."



a sweet moment


"You have good hair," said Irina.  "It isn't a problem with the quality of your hair."

We embraced her and thanked her.  "No more hats," said Irina.

"Thank you for the support," Daya said. "It's like what I said about how I felt when I put on my sister's clothes. I felt right and now that is projected."

"I had tears after you left," Irina texted me later. "You are very special soul. I am glad you are in my life."

Daya's new haircut





Thursday, May 21, 2015

FOOLS WITH NOTHING IN THE MIDDLE

Me and Ben smelling the roses in our middle age
This evening, Ben and I had dinner with our friends Ian and Francesca, who we've known for thirty years.  It's amazing to realize and beautiful to celebrate.  We've lived our lives - we've had our babies, we've had our various US Foreign Service experiences - we've watched our kids grow up.  So here we were now in a DC restaurant, comfortably conversing in the middle of our lives and talking about our past, our present, our future. Yes we're in the middle of life.  And this evening, that felt wonderful.

The Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear - talks about the folly in LACKING a middle.  "I had rather be any kind o' thing than a fool. And yet I would not be thee, nuncle," he says, meaning Lear himself. Lear has divided his kingdom between two daughters. "Thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides," says the Fool, "and left nothing i' th' middle."

Nothing in the middle.  What a horror! I remembered this passage the other morning when I was walking the dogs. I was between breakfast and work and this passage struck a chord and I needed to think about it. There's no celebration of the MIDDLE these days, I said to myself.  And that is the problem with the world today!

I've been thinking about this because I was teaching my college students about Carl Rogers and Rogerian argument - the need to find a common ground. It sounded old fashioned, and almost preposterous. And yet, my students liked the idea - the idea of actually LISTENING to the other side of an argument before jumping in with your rebuttal. What a beautiful world it would be if there was more of that, we decided.

We can see that it's a problem in politics. There's right and there's left, but never the twain shall meet.  It used to be politicians in the middle, who understood the art of compromise, who went across the aisle to say - you know, this might not be precisely how I'd get things done if it was all up to me? But, hey, let's make it work!

It's a problem in the economy.  The middle class is ever shrinking.  We now have the very very rich, and the poor who can't make ends meet.  It's a problem in publishing.  Publishers have their heavy hitters and their low end low brow market - but they've done away with midlist titles.

It's a problem in marriages. People say 'I wish I could do things MY way.'  You can.  But that's called being SINGLE!  In a marriage you have to settle for solutions that aren't always to your liking. In order to get along - you have to...


                                                                       compromise


And while I'm at it, let's hear it for middle children. They are the ones who bridge across the divide - the ones who traditionally make peace.

What if we do away with bridges? What if all we have is one bank  - a gulf - and then another bank.

Is middle wishy washy - or might it be more about forward momentum? I heard Anne Tyler in an interview recently saying her favorite place to be was in the middle of writing a book.

So the middle of life? It's a beautiful place to be - a place from which to go forward mindfully.
 Ben and his friend Tony in the middle of life and friendship

My college boyfriend recently turned sixty. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE!  I sent him a birthday greeting.  "Hard to imagine," he replied, "that it's been over forty years since I was head over heels for you!"

So I inscribed a copy of my novel and sent it to him for his birthday. When we were young, he had also once inscribed a book to me with a verse from AA Milne.

And in that spirit, this is what I wrote:  "Now that we're sixty we're as clever as clever. So I think we'll be sixty now, forever and ever!"

My beautiful friend, Gail, in her prime
Let's  here it for the middle.  Let's celebrate the joy of middle age.  From this perspective you look at the banks on either side, as Ben and I did with our dear friends this evening over dinner.  You remember who you were and you continue with joy to build a bridge towards who you might one day become.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

HOW TO GET PAID FOR YOUR WORK IN THE ARTS



 Oh, we'll always support each other, we artists, no matter what.  BUT. 

The pattern of undervalued artists, devoted to their craft, started in my family way way back when.



 Me, in She Stoops to Conquer, with my father, actor Derek Holmes

How come it's so hard to make a living in the arts, I asked my friend Walter in our g chat conversation last week.  I had been watching finches build a nest in the vines outside my window - and Walter was thinking of going for a bike ride round Kensington Gardens. Walter lives in London and I’m in Falls Church, Virginia.  He is an actor; I am a fiction writer.     

uuuuughhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” wrote Walter, when I asked him this question. “DON'T EVEN START!!!!!!”


But for the next half hour, we couldn't stop talking about how hard it was to get a creative project launched and how rare was the financial pay off when you did. We talked about near misses: mine in publication, his as an actor, and my brother Robert’s as a musician.  My son Elliot is an actor graduating from VCU School for the Arts, so these questions were in our minds mostly on account of him.  Elliot has all the raw material of great artistry and now he has the craftsmanship too, as well as a lot of business savvy. But so what?  As Robert puts it, he's about to “head off into the mire.” He’s about to join our tribe. 
 
Elliot congratulated after a performance by his grandmother Alice Duffy, a working actress.

There are so many hopeful and talented artists, fully trained and doing superb work, who often get close to giving up, or else end up working for no or little pay.  “Blimey,” said Walter. “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” 


Salaries in the London theater, Walt tells me, have, if anything, gone down in recent years.  Evidently it was recently noted that even the most successful theater directors in the West End make on average about £10,000 a year.  Can you believe it?    

 “That's a crime,” I said. “It’s so dispiriting.”


Last night, our friend Stephen was here for dinner. He lives in the UK and in reflecting on the woeful compensation for work in the arts, he commented that many top British actors these days come from moneyed families. He cited Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, both of whom come from money. Gone are the days of the Michael Caines and angry young men of the theater.  The angry young men may well still be angry, but they're no longer working in the arts. They’ve been priced out of the market. 

"I do think it's getting even tougher,” said Walter, "because literally everybody on the planet now is a star for 30 seconds via You Tube and Facebook. We use to think how naff it was when Sally Field vomited you LIKE me, you REALLY LIKE me. But I can sort of see where she was coming from now.”
 
It's not like we're asking too much. Is it greedy or presumptuous to expect a dribble of cash now and then, to keep you going at your craft?  I told Walter I’d be living on the streets if not for my husband Ben's salary and his pension. I don't even get paid a living wage to teach - because I'm an adjunct - and adjuncts are paid on contract, rather than salary.  

Even so, I’m grateful for the work. That's how pathetic it's become. I'm grateful that my publications give me cachet in teaching, in judging writing contests, running book clubs and other such literary endeavors. But oh, the HOURS I’ve spent writing! It’s impossible to calculate the net loss in financial terms - although that became painfully obvious whilst doing our taxes last week.  On the other hand, my gain as a human being, as a writer who is able to develop a craft I love? Somebody with readers, no less? That, as the credit card ads like to tell us - is absolutely priceless!
 

I know Mandy!” said Walter. “Thank God I have the photography now, in between acting jobs.” He’s been taking head shots – and he’s amazing at it.  Come to think of it, I said, there are probably well credentialed photographers out there who can't make the living that he now makes at photography.
Dinner with Walter in his Sussex garden


We decided that success meant different things, to different people.


"Hey,” I said – "I think I’m probably doing better financially than those top flight directors in the West End!”


“And when is your next play opening at the National, darling?” Walter asked.


“How is anyone to survive, my lord?” I retorted.


Well, the crazy thing is," said Walter, "the cost of living has doubled but salaries haven't. I don't know how young actors live in London."
 
"Everyone will just have to partner up with someone who DOES make money,” I said. 


“I feel like we are two characters in a restoration play discussing financial stability,” Walter said. 


“It’s enough to make you want to go for a cycle around Kensington Gardens, or go back to watching the finches build nests in a vine!” I said.


I know,” said Walt. “More tea, vicar?”


“Maybe the solution is to write a BLOG post about this troubling phenomenon,” I suggested.


Well, watching finches build nests from a cozy room, and cycling through Kensington Gardens emerging from a Notting Hill flat is a far cry from playing with turds in an open sewer in the slums of Mumbai,” said Walter.

Thus we decided to count our blessings.  “Off you go then,” I told him. “Cycle off. After all, what else is one to DO!”

We're cut from the same cloth, my dear,” said Walter.


“I suppose I must pull myself up by the boot straps, go downstairs and put on the kettle,” I reflected.


Don't strain yourself,” said Walter.


“Although,” I said, “this space heater is mighty cozy and it will mean venturing into a drafty corridor.”


How ghastly!” said Walter.My dear, do bundle up.”


"Yes," I said. “I’ve got my fingerless gloves on the ready."


“A veritable Florence Nightingale,” said Walt.


 “And now," I finished, "I simply must write up my blog post!”

 
Elliot with his other grandmother, Judy Holmes - an actress, director, and life long supporter of the arts

Friday, April 10, 2015

GARDENS AND LIBRARIES

Yesterday my daughter Rosalind sent me a quote from Cicero.  It was posted on Facebook by one of her old professors.  "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

We need nourishment for the spirit.  We need nature and quiet endeavor, and to value the life of the mind. Both libraries and gardens are cultivated and curated. They suggest work well done, as well as time for contemplation.


our library

But old houses that fit snugly in their land are being torn down all over our neighborhood to make way for big houses that do away with most of their gardens. I'd like to think these new homes will contain libraries - but it's more likely that they will have flat screen televisions and granite countered kitchens.

As I write this, I am looking out of the library window onto our garden - and in the vine directly outside is a little finch with a red crested head. He and his mate have been staking out the vine for the last several weeks. I'm hoping they are going to build a nest here. I've tried to get close enough to photograph them, but they are too quick for that.


our cherry trees are also blooming

 "It's sad to think of people who cherish gardens and libraries being forced to part with them by the forces of time and unimaginative people's money," Rozzie told me.  I had said we might have to move from here if it gets too McMansiony.   Why would we want to live in a place full of enormous houses and no trees, I said. The cute little yellow stucco house across the street is going to be torn down in the next few weeks.  Russian Alex's house down the road is slated for demolition too and the field where our children once played soccer now has two enormous houses.

Of course, this neighborhood was always meant for little children. It's in walking distance to a wonderful elementary school.  People with children need bigger houses and bigger is better in the minds of many people.  There is a community spirit about this neighborhood but while Ben and I like holding parties in our back garden, our friends across the street who have four children like to give parties in the middle of the road - block parties - with hotdogs and folding chairs set up on the tarmac and children playing on a water slide in the front.  The back yard is entirely neglected when they entertain. Maybe they think of it as wasted space. So perhaps it's time for a new era in this neighborhood. Different places for different types of people.

And who says that a library has to be in the home?  After all, we live in a county with a superb library system with twenty seven branches.  I teach a program for them in fact, called Changing Lives Through Literature and also run one of their many library book clubs. You don't need a dedicated library in the home in order to surround yourself with books.



A forgotten corner, which I wouldn't normally photograph


 But how nourishing it is if you can have your own private library.  And our garden is one of the greatest joys of our lives!