Distracted

February 28, 2012

Though I have planned a full writing day—no teaching, no evening plans, all my students’ manuscripts read for the workshop on Wednesday—I could not get down to work this morning. Instead, I answered emails and, even worse, a voice mail message from a talkative friend. There was a time and a time of day when such a phone conversation would have pleased me greatly, but this morning it did not. And it was all my own fault. I could have called my kind and generous friend at the end of the day and not in the midst of my struggle to get going. And then, once on the phone, I could hardly concentrate on the stories she was spinning—stories I would normally enjoy—because I was so distracted and annoyed with myself for having made the call and not paying attention, which every good friend deserves. I had the phone on speaker so I could continue answering emails—multitasking!!—paying even less attention to her stories or the emails I was writing. And the phone was resting on my cuneiform stone, a real cuneiform stone, a reminder that there have been writers for millennia. When it was given to me by an expert in antiquities, I was told to use it, not to display it. I looked at the cuneiform stone and lost the thread of my friend’s story and the email I was writing.

So there it is, a full morning’s work.

Now I am writing this blog but also watching the time. I’ll have to catch a swim in the pool during the window designated for serious lap swimmers. I’ve got a few minutes before I have to leave the house. And I am hungry and must eat before I swim. Then chores on the way home and, hopefully, some energy to return to the computer and continue with the research and journal notes about my new murder mystery before I do the laundry.

War Reporters

February 20, 2012

Tags: Anthony Shadid, war reporters, Jon Lee Anderson, Scott Anderson

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Anthony Shadid who died from an asthma attack while he was reporting from Syria with NY Times photographer Taylor Hicks. Most reporters who enter a war zone clandestinely travel with security personnel one of whom is usually a medic. Shadid and Hicks, probably for logistical reasons, decided to travel solo, relying only on one another. Hicks did the best he could to revive Shadid who collapsed on their way out.

Lebanese-born, fluent in Arabic, and experienced in the field, Anthony Shadid had recently been in Libya where he had been taken hostage. After his release, he had returned to his new wife and baby in Lebanon before setting out again to cover the uprising in Syria.

I did not know Anthony Shadid personally though I have known other war reporters and photographers. I first began to meet them at press events in London and then at parties. The word bloviating comes to mind; most were cowboys. So dehumanized by their work, I rarely heard a kind word spoken about the refugees they were interviewing or the horrors of war. If they’d been shot, so much the better for the tale, always a great adventure, adrenalin pumping. But when women entered the news rooms in the 1980’s, the culture of reporting changed, and although women war reporters can be as macho as any of their male colleagues, some seemed interested in more human stories and bravely humanized their reporting. Of course, this shift cannot only be attributed to women, but I think in large measure their presence began a larger cultural shift in the news rooms. Strange that Shadid’s writing is described as lyrical and personal— stereotypical female qualities—when it is simply human.

And there have been so many wars, so much to write about, so many stories since my years in London as a young reporter. When I began my book, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” in 2000 one of my greatest champions was Scott Anderson who covers wars for the New York Times Magazine. When he is not in harm’s way, he returns to the city and to his home upstate where he spends his days or weeks between assignments writing fiction and chopping wood. Like Anthony Shadid, his writing is driven by his feelings for the people he encounters, how they survive, or don’t. How they endure, or don’t. And like most good reporters, he does his homework. How does the history and politics of the region become a labyrinth of fate, impossible to escape? Scott’s brother, Jon Lee Anderson, reports for The New Yorker out of the UK. He had met Patrick Dillon, one of the contributors to “Another Day in Paradise,” in Baghdad just before the American invasion and, when Patrick went missing, he contacted me immediately and then kept track of him and tried to protect him. Recovered from a recent heart attack, Jon Lee Anderson is back at work.

And then there is James Nachtwey who calls his photography “witness photography.” In harms way most of his working life, he was shot in Iraq, but has not boasted about it. The home page of his website reads: “I have been witness, and these picture are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated." One phone call, and he agreed to give us a picture for the cover of “Another Day in Paradise.” The picture was taken in Afghanistan. The money he asked was nominal.

I thought of the war reporters I know when Anthony Shadid died. And I am honored to know them.

Edith Wharton

February 14, 2012

Tags: Jonathen Franzen, The New Yorker, Edith Wharton

I'm been re-reading the Marilyn French introduction to my frayed edition of Edith Wharton’s "The Custom of the Country," and that has set me straight on Jonathan Franzen’s odd review in The New Yorker of her work on the occasion of her 150th birthday:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/02/13/120213fa_fact_franzen

Franzen begins by complaining that because she was born into privilege it is difficult to feel any sympathy for Edith Wharton or her writing. That’s odd as I have found Franzen’s writing cold and unsympathetic. And this brings me back to Marilyn French's observation that it is very interesting what men writers make of the women in their lives. I suppose one could also say the opposite: It’s very interesting what women writers make of the men in their lives. But Franzen's decision to attack Wharton for her "privilege" on her 150th birthday seems chauvinistic and cruel—chauvinism is cruel—small-minded, perhaps even envious of her great gifts.

For years, Edith Wharton’s work was relegated to the dusty shelves of libraries and she was mentioned only in passing as a contemporary of Henry James. We now know better. She was better, richer and truer in many ways than James as a writer. And Franzen is far from her class as a writer; I use class differently here, of course, though the word has some relevance.

Shame on The New Yorker for not honoring Edith Wharton and publishing one of her stories in celebration. Instead, they published Franzen's odd review. What an introduction for a new generation of readers who have never read Wharton. How are they to know that Franzen is utterly wrong about her? She wrote with empathy about many other people less fortunate than herself. She was an aid worker during World War I. Her generosity, both material and emotional, were legend. Three of her novels are masterpieces: “The Custom of the Country,” “The House of Mirth,” and “The Age of Innocence.” She wrote in bed, and that was a luxury, but she also had a serious nervous breakdown and much sadness and struggle in her life. She never had children yet she adored children and wrote tenderly about them. One could go on and on. Franzen has no such empathy or vision. He is a cold writer caught in the web of his own narcissistic middle-American origins, and blinkered by them.

Amazon.com

February 9, 2012

Tags: Amazon.com, Kindle Touch

I am so unhappy with Amazon today. After three years as a Kindle aficionado, enjoying the etchings of authors—Joyce, Austen, others—on the screen saver, my new Kindle Touch has an advertisement for some sort of health spa. And not only when it’s shut down; advertising banners appear at the bottom of the Home screen which I have to look at when I am selecting a book to read from my library.

I knew nothing about this before I made my purchase. And I have just looked at the Kindle site again and see no mention of advertising in the description of the Kindle Touch. Why did they omit this tidbit of information, or is it in such small print that I missed it?

Amazon has been in the news of late because of lending library practices for their “prime” customers, bypassing authors and publishers consent, and what else? I can hardly keep up with all the issues in discussion and litigation in the emails I get from The Authors Guild regarding Amazon and Google these days. Have these two innovative, sometimes socially conscious companies succumbed to corporate greed?

These were my thoughts when I called customer support this morning, initially to get a helping hand on managing the tablet, but I also hoped that the advertising could be eliminated. Not a chance. I was told, politely, that if I had decided to spend $49 more, I’d have the benefit of no advertising. In other words, Kindle Touch customers who economize are also penalized: we have to endure advertising. Yet the price we pay for Amazon books is the same for everyone. So, frankly, I don’t get this.

Is it the same situation as Pandora? For $36 a year you can subscribe and bypass advertising for their music genome project. It doesn’t seem comparable. And the terms of the contract with Pandora are clear.

I’ve written a letter to Amazon corporate headquarters and I’ll send this blog posting to Kindle Feedback which has always been helpful in the past. A cc will go to the staff at The Authors Guild.
I’ll keep my readers posted on what everyone has to say.

Essay

February 6, 2012

Two days before the start of the NYU teaching term and I have finished an essay that has been in my head for weeks. It’s 2,000 words, written in the third person, all on the page but still inside me. I wrote it for myself, no audience in mind, a respite from what must be written. It was fun, relaxing, absorbing, just the tonic for the hiatus between one long project and another.

The essay is still in my mind, I cannot let it go. I must get up from this desk and go for a swim to break this post-partum mood and begin some other work this afternoon or tomorrow morning, the beginnings of a second murder mystery, the third if I count the rewritten first murder mystery, “Say Nothing,” which is now called “Collateral Damage.” My agent is getting some good feedback on the revision—a new, younger protagonist, an Iraq war veteran—is gaining interest, even excitement, so we are hopeful. Some editors are finding the writing too literary, others not literary enough. It’s impossible to write to please this particular audience, always with their eyes on the marketplace. My mind drifts back to the essay. I will let it sit for a while, then show it to a reader or two, revise, and send it out. My agent won’t have time or inclination to read it. There’s no money for her in one essay. Perhaps, one day, a collection might interest her. It’s important just to keep writing every day even if it’s only in my journals, I tell myself when my optimism flags. Every viable idea begins in the journals and after a while, if I persevere, the projects line up like airplanes on a crowded runway.

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