How Did Cinderella Get Into Her Stepmother’s House in the First Place?

princess bookHow did Cinderella get into her stepmother’s house in the first place? If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, then this book is for you. The Witch and the Baby Princess by David Rich is a fun, action packed explanation of Cinderella’s background along with the events that led up to the whole stepmother scenario.

More than just a prequel, however, this book is meant as a story for kids and parents to share. The author, an avid reader, active storyteller and involved father, didn’t want to just hand his daughters a book – he wanted to create something he could share with them and that they could read together, which is exactly what he has done.

This book does not have a big, glossy cover or thousands of pictures with a few words on each page. This is a full-on, meaty story. Oh, it has a bunch of really adorable illustrations, but that’s not the focus here. The focus is the story itself. It is meant for a parent and a child to sit down and read together. There are words in it that a child under twelve is not going to understand. There are concepts such as the shades of grey between good and evil, which parents should be excited to discuss with their children. The book is rife with big, tough topics such as friendship, love, beauty, goodness, envy, and expectations that are designed to spark good talks between children and the adults who love them.

What Rich has done is created a springboard for parents so that topics that can be hard to broach for adults and harder for kids to understand, become gentle and accessible for both parties.

The story itself is quaint, sweet, and lovingly told. In a land far away, a baby is born to a great witch, but the queen of the fairies does not want the baby to be evil and instills in the young girl a conscience and a particle of free will. What the child grows up to do and become, and how she uses her gifts in the context of her parents’ expectations of her becoming an evil witch, is the crux of the story. It’s easy to see how the idea of parental expectation is juxtaposed against the personality of the child – good lessons for parents and children alike. The characters are drawn with great care and attention to detail. At any moment I could “see” each person and the location as well due to the strong and exhaustive descriptions that only add, not detract, from the plot itself. Emotion is tended to with care and the plot moves along with a mix of action and feelings.

In a world where the bonds between children and their parents have become increasingly fractured, kudos to David Rich for creating a lovely story, as well as something to serve as a binder of families.

Approaching the Speed of Light by Victoria Lustbader – What I’m Reading Now

VickyRight up until the last moments of the book, Approaching the Speed of Light leaves readers wondering what will happen to poor, broken Jody. The author, Victoria Lustbader, draws the main character with such precision that any person who has ever been hurt or watched someone hurting can identify with some of his story. Somehow none of the options laid out for him seem precisely right, and Lustbader helps the reader come to terms with the varying array of hope and hopelessness so that the ending, which should be explosive, seems just right, almost sedate, – in the best sense of the word.

The inner life of Jody, the protagonist, comes through in several different ways, including first-person narration, but also in third person stories written by the character about his childhood.  Jody’s childhood was anything but normal, however.  There are elements of great kindness in it, but the kindness comes from an evil source. Somehow, the author evokes pathos for such evil by highlighting Jody’s starved boyhood and his craving for love, a craving that never quite leaves him, despite his protestations to the contrary. After all, don’t we all crave love and kindness at the most basic level? The variation of voice and style, as readers drift through and around Jody’s vision, does not impede the flow of the work, but instead adds variety.  When grappling with point-of-view issues, Lustbader keeps the reins tight, not wanting to get lost in other voices.  Make no mistake, however, the other characters are as deep and rich as Jody, as seen from his lens.

The plot of the book is not always straightforward, and readers have to have patience with the way it unfolds.  It is worth the wait.  What I found most interesting about the plot is the way Lustbader convinces me to mildly “suspend my disbelief” when a story takes a particular turn or something happens that seems too unreal to be true.  I didn’t mind “going there” with the prose.  Coincidences happen when they shouldn’t, and there seems to be something mystical afoot that the author does not address directly, but allows the reader to find for himself.

This book is one I will be recommending to my book club since it is rife with possibility for discussion. In addition, I will be looking at it further to learn how to create characters with such depth and emotion, painted with a few spare words.  There are so many ways to approach the story that I’m looking forward to sharing it with others – and to further make meaning of it for myself.


Writing, Editing and um… Cleaning Up The Mess.

clock“There’s a blog post in there somewhere,” said my writing partner, A, after a lengthy and funny conversation about time management, drafting and editing.

Of course she’s right; she’s always right.

The whole discussion started because we both receive the daily email from a group of female writers called “The Girlfriends Book Club.” Some of the entries are truly great –ranging from tips on publication, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, and various other topics including the work/family balance thing.  And then some of the posts are mediocre. But I’m always glad I get them and have the choice to read and learn, or to press the delete button.

The post that really struck A and me was by a woman named Maria Geraci, who discussed her “Secret Time Management Weapon.”  Well what woman wouldn’t want to know about a weapon for managing time??  Geraci, like most writers, has a “day job” – one that she loves. She says that writing completes her as a person, but nursing is part of who she is.  She is lucky to be able to juggle both careers, and she doesn’t take that for granted.  The big piece of advice Geraci offers is that there is value in the fifteen-minute pocket of time.  If you have 15-minutes, she says, you can write one sentence or maybe edit two. Even that little bit counts as progress. It’s all how you take advantage of the increments of time you’re given.

Much of what A and I do with and for each other follows this principle.  With writing, there are no bosses to answer to – no one cares if we spend one hour or one minute on the writing. So we hold each other accountable. Weekly, we each set goals and check in with each other pretty much every day to see if we’ve met the goals or not.  There’s accountability to each other which makes goal setting worthwhile, but we don’t have penalties for each other if goals aren’t met.  Both of us are able to follow this system because one personality trait that we share is how hard we are on ourselves.  Not meeting the goal of the day causes both of us to engage in more self-flagellation than we could ever envision inflicting on each other.

Time management is something A and I also discuss ad nauseum because I am a teacher in my “other” life and she is very active in Japanese/English translation, as well as journalism and other writing-related pursuits, including a recently debuted text book.  We both have kids. So our time is precious and valuable to us and our families.

What was funny about the conversation however, is the different tack we take for writing.  A is a wonderful writer, but she is also a crackerjack editor.  She can labor over a sentence until its perfect, with the result being these beautiful sentences that flow magically into each other to weave a story or article.  I, on the other hand, can spew out 1000 words in an hour without blinking – sometimes more, but when the story is done, so am I.  I don’t mean to denigrate my own writing or anything, but let’s face it: editing and revising are not my strong suits.  I would rather write a great story and hate taking the time to really refine it for the public.  A would like to refine and refine and refine – though she has great ideas, getting them out of her head isn’t always so simple for her.

What that means for time management is that she needs to spend her chunks of time committed to initial writing and I need to schedule dedicated time for editing and revising.  A different type of time management for both of us.

“Yeah,” says A, “Maybe we should pair up.  You puke out the mass and I clean up the mess!”

And this is why I love her.

Fifteen minute chunks of time.  We’re trying it – without the blowing of chunks, of course.  But hey, if you can’t have fun when you’re writing and holding each other accountable, then what’s the point??

Critical Thinking as the Basis for Writing

The only way to thrive and succeed in a knowledge-based economy like the one in which we live now, is to view all content through the lens of critical thought.  Not only do we have to focus on ideas, creativity and thinking, but we have to be critical about it, fostering self-awareness of our own cognition.  This is the theoretical basis from which we write – and read.  Sophisticated thinkers ask themselves questions as they read, whether they are aware of it or not.  We ask questions to intuit point of view, setting and character.  We predict and analyze, whether we think about it consciously or not.  I would argue that it behooves us to be meta about our own thought process and in doing so, teach our children to be excited and interested in in it as it leads to good habits in the future.  Just as we encourage kids to develop good eating and exercise habits that will benefit them in later life, so should we encourage a strong, directed, and self-aware thought process so that the of thinking is as automatic as our morning run or fruit with breakfast.  In addition, by fostering questioning, we ask kids to organize their thoughts into coherent ideas, which will lead to better writing skills.  In theory, by teaching reading and writing via teaching critical thinking we are preparing students for the knowledge economy in which they will exist post-academia.  Taking in knowledge, processing it, and then putting it out again in the form of our own ideas is the ultimate goal.

And this, my friends, is the basis for good writing – no matter what your age.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

As a writer myself, I often tout the benefits of reading as a way of improving one’s writing.  Not only do I read a lot, but I also listen to a lot of podcasts that have short stories read aloud to me.  One of my favorites is the the New Yorker Fiction podcast.  The reason it’s my favorite is that the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, asks a different writer to pick and present his or her favorite story from the magazine, so not only do we get the story read, but we also get discussion about it both before and after the reading.  Ms. Treisman is excellent at getting discussion going and asking pointed questions about why the story spoke to the writer.

Yesterday’s treat was writer Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro’s story, “Axis” which was published in the magazine somewhat recently – January 2011.  Ms. Groff pointed out that Munro has a particular talent with the structure of the story and an amazing ability to use that structure to play with the idea of TIME – to move in and out of it in various ways – so that the reader is always aware of the time-frame, but in such a way that it’s not an intrusive or obvious reference.  “Axis” is definitely such a story.  In it, the reader moves seamlessly from two girls sharing secrets in college in the ’70’s, to what happened to those girls in modern times.  The story arcs beautifully and sets the reader down so that he’s not precisely sure of what happened, but knows enough to make educated guesses.  It was masterful and the surrounding discussion brought out some interesting ideas that I might not have discovered otherwise.  The whole thing made my walk seem very short indeed.

Given the discussions last week of the elderly couple in the restaurant and the cemetery scene, perhaps I should take in some of those lessons given by Alice Munro and presented so ably by Lauren Groff.

Last Week, Franzen’s _Freedom_ and Now Nothing

The pic of the novel

I’m not reading this week.  That’s it – I have officially put my foot down.  Last week I spent an inordinate amount of time reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and this week I can’t seem to pick up anything.

Freedom was pretty good, though.  The book tells the story of a marriage – a thoroughly modern marriage, with all of the ups and downs – pitfalls and peaks.  Using various writing techniques, including a changing point of view, a person to whom everything must be “taught” so the reader learns, and long, yet satisfying descriptions and conversations, Franzen manages to take his readers into a politicized and polarizing world and manages to sound only a little bit preachy.  I learned a lot about dialogue and how characters can share ideas – whether or not they agree on them.  The reader can read the dialogue and not get turned off, even if he doesn’t personally agree with the character’s viewpoints either.

That bugger is HUGE though! It’s 576 pages and a lot of it is one of the main character’s autobiography.  So we do see more of one character than the others.  The story gets a bit unbelievable in parts – like since when can a nineteen-year-old buy and sell arms for a foreign country? – but on the whole I was engaged in the story and what was going to happen with these nutty, self-absorbed, and mildly neurotic people.  Make no mistake – they’re all like that.  Every character has a serious neurosis.

So maybe, after the strong dose of Franzen’s prose, I don’t have to read this week.  I feel a little weird about it, but perhaps a break from reading will make me miss it, and I will be caught up in the next book.  I guess I’m giving myself permission to slack off on reading when I know how important it is to a writer.

So tell me, since I’m not reading this week? What are you reading?? What should I pick up next?

Lessons Learned from Reading _The Imperfectionists_

I just finished reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  My writing group recommended it to me because it is like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, (which incidentally won the Pulitzer) in that it is a series of loosely strung-together short stories that feature the same people in them.  The novel I’m working on writing will hopefully function the same way.  (Ambitious, I know)

Whenever I read something, I learn.  I’m a writer; my job is to read read read so that my own writing shines.  Here are a few lessons I learned today:

  • If done properly, you can tell a lot about a character in one, succinct sentence.  “The editors gave him a tryout as a proofreader, and he had a knack for it – finally, arcane knowledge and pedantry came in handy.”  From this, you know that the guy was formerly rootless, fell into a good job and made a life for himself.  You also know something about his personality with the quirks mentioned, and that brings up a host of stereotypes, which is good.  Even if the stereotypes are not 100% right, they give the reader an idea.
  • Two people can be in the same room talking to each other and have completely different conversations – almost like they’re not speaking the same language – or speaking “at” each other.  In the chapter about Craig Menzies, he and his live-in-girlfriend Annika are NOT fighting about her affair.  She’s talking about how she can’t bear that she humiliated him, and he’s talking about how she shouldn’t have applied for a patent for him without his permission.  They misunderstand each other’s needs, but in one, beautifully conveyed conversation.
  • Sometimes the other character in the story – not the main one – is the method for the personality of the main character to show itself.  Winston Cheung is in Egypt vying for a freelance stringer job.  A seasoned reporter comes in and takes total advantage of him.  Beyond hating the seasoned reporter, the reader also gets a sense of Winston as a very fearful, easily trod-upon person.
  • You can grow to like a character over the course of several interactions with her, even if you get a bad initial impression.  Initially I thought Ruby was horrid, but then I grew to understand her as she touched the lives of several characters, and I grew rather fond of her.
  • Not every story has a happy ending.  Sometimes the endings are sad, and even characters who you like – despite their ridiculous faults – can get a comeuppance.  I didn’t particularly like Abbey, but I rooted for her, and in the end, she gets hers.
  • Sometimes the quirkiest characters are the best ones!
  • I really love it when a character does something unexpectedly kind for another character.
  • The best part of the multiple points of view is the chance to see a character in a different light.  To you, the reader, a character has certain personality traits.  But when you see that character from the point of view of someone else – daughter, mother, etc. – then the character becomes richer, fuller, more diverse.  His or her actions can be unexpected or different from the varying point of view than when the reader is in his or her head.

There are other things I learned today from just finishing this one book, but I’m going to leave it at that for now.  I hope I can take these lessons and apply them.

Happy reading!!

Sports, Reading and Belonging

First of all, let me start with the confession: I did not watch the Superbowl.  Okay, stop throwing rotten tomatoes at me – I know plenty of people who didn’t.  But, I do hope that those who watched it had a great time.  More power to you! My husband is a maniacal sports fan, as is my dad, so I’ve been exposed to sport my whole life.  I admit that sometimes I shake my head at their fanaticism and wonder why it all matters.  I think my husband’s dedication to his teams borders on the insane sometimes, but he insists that he’s no different from any other fan.  It has been an ongoing discussion for our entire marriage, the same way he shakes his head at my desire to read a novel in a day.  He’s a big reader, too, but he savors books while I tend to inhale them.

To that end, my husband pointed me toward this article on a site called the Volokh Conspiracy, which is normally one of his favorite law blogs (he’s a lawyer) but sometimes tackles other topics as well.  This particular post  compares sports fans to fans of literature and posits that one is not crazier than the other, and in fact, perhaps they have a lot in common.

My grandmother, who I called Grammy, was an educational psychologist and she always said that a human’s strongest need is to belong.  She said it didn’t matter to what you belonged – but belonging itself is a fundamental need.  She, personally, wanted her family to feel like they belonged to each other, and went to great lengths to ensure that we are all firmly tied together, but that’s not the point.  Clearly the undercurrent in this posting is that humans come together over sports – they belong to/in the city of the team and therefore root for it.  It’s the same for literature, I’d say, based on this posting.  Humans identify with the characters in novels because they yearn to fit in – to see themselves in a bigger context.  Sports fans cross barriers of race, class, and other characteristics.  So do literary figures.  The Walmart employee without a college education has just as much of a possibility to adore Jane Eyre as I do – the same parts of it might not speak to us the same way, but we could both love the novel – and the heroine.  Grammy would love this posting, I think – especially since she loved sports so much.

If nothing else, I understand my husband a little more.  And perhaps he can relate to me a little more, too.  We may not have a shared passion, but we have passions we can share.

Lore Segal, Master of the Short Story

Every now and then a story just hits you.  I’m sure you know what I mean – it hits a chord and stays in your mind.  In this case it is a short story called “The Reverse Bug” by a writer Lore Segal.  I actually listened to it on the New Yorker fiction podcast read by the author Jennifer Egan.  It was another one of those cases where I was in the gym and just stopped in my tracks as I listened and was simply awed by the events and complexities the author tied up and then unraveled.

As I writer, I tend to deconstruct stories as I listen to them or read them.  I am constantly thinking of how the writer evokes traits in the characters or about the subtleties of interactions between characters, or even of the structure of the story itself.  Sometimes something as small as an answering machine message explains a twist of a plot; or the fact that characters interrupt each other plays a major role in the unfolding of the drama.  Just these little bits of detail can have a major impact on the way a reader perceives the actions and the characters.

Segal, who is Austrian, escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child by getting on a kindertransport – a train of Jewish children sent to England.  This story is told from the point of view of a teacher who teaches English to immigrants at an institute of New York. Most of the characters are students in her class. One of the minor characters is autobiographical, but the rest are made up of sheer genius. The main action of the story actually happens outside of the classroom of immigrants, but takes place in a brand new auditorium inside the institute.  Segal is masterful at creating the plot devices that move the story forward.  Small details of the scene inside her classroom, which seem mundane at first blush, are actually foreshadowing the main action of the story.  The personality quirks that appear in the classroom, become magnified against the backdrop of the main action of the story.  The way Segal puts these devices together is nothing short of masterful.

This story, which asks important questions about the nature of torture, and the idea of pain – for both the villain and the underdog – uses the characters and their situations to force the readers to consider larger ideas such as genocide within the context of history, without giving the reader a moral hierarchy from which to base their thoughts.  The reader is forced to think for himself.

Every time I hear a story like this, I learn.  I learn about plot and characterization.  I learn about juxtaposition of events in a story.  I learn about using chronology to my advantage in writing the story.  What a gift!

Reading in Translation

Yesterday a few girlfriends and I went to see the movie “Eat Pray Love,” starring Julia Roberts and based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I wanted to see the movie, having read the book, and it was motivated to arrange a girls’ day out.

But the real impetus behind my interest was a conversation I had with a good friend a few weeks ago.  My friend is Korean, born in Seoul, but moved to Japan with her family in her mid-teens.  She went to International School in Tokyo, but then went to Boston University in Boston Massachusetts for her university education.  She speaks Korean, Japanese and English with equal fluidity, which never fails to amaze me.  On that particular afternoon when we were having coffee together, she was just finishing reading the book Eat Pray Love with the idea that she would then go see the movie.

“So in what language do you read?” I asked curiously.

My friend went on to explain that she was reading the book in its original English.  When I inquired as to why, she told me it was cultural.  She of course, went on to explain.  She began with Richard from Texas in the book.  There’s a certain cultural connotation of a guy from Texas that somehow doesn’t quite mesh with the idea of an Ashram in India where Gilbert meets him.  There’s a richness to their relationship that forms partially due to their backgrounds as Americans in a strange place.  But Americans understand that part of their dichotomy is because she’s a New Yorker and he’s a Texan.  There are certain societal norms inherent in the stereotype of the locations that my friend did not feel could be conveyed in another language.  “Sure there could be a word-for-word translation,” she said, “but how could someone explain the idea of Texas just with the word Texas?”  She felt the English would be true to the sense of the book, not just the words contained therein.

Yesterday, after the movie, the seven of us went to the Atelier Joel Robuchon for a beautiful French lunch.  “Now all we need to do is pray,” another friend said over appetizers, and we had a good laugh.

The conversation continued about the translation.  My friend explained that she reads the Japanese subtitles even while watching the movie in English.  The words just aren’t the same, according to her.  In many of the places when we all laughed, the joke was not carried over into Japanese.  She says that the Japanese are generally pretty placid movie-goers, but beyond their native reserve, the language barrier further separates them from the humor of the film, and sometimes even the sad parts.  I cried quite a bit during the movie, and my friend was sure that the Japanese audience members did not.

What’s the lesson in all this?  Well, frankly, one should read in the original language of publication, if at all possible, but not only for the words, but also for the richness of the cultural connotation.  It’s the author intent that has so much to do with making meaning.

But to be honest, another lesson is that a book, a movie and a lunch – including interesting discussion – between friends, is a great gift to any woman, and I for one, appreciate my girlfriends.