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Beach Books

“Summers are for reading,” my parents told me and my sister as soon as we could read on our own. Cultured and educated, my refugee parents insisted on providing a list of “important” books to finish before the start of school in the fall. (This was before schools assigned summer reading.) I usually managed about one a week in between day camp, a round of soft ball after dinner, and a bit of television. My parents were strict and they wanted a report when I was done with each book. And it was summer; all I wanted to do was have fun. Dickens wasn’t fun. A biography of Albert Einstein wasn’t fun. A discussion about the definitions of words I didn’t understand wasn’t fun. I was expected to be serious, astute at a young age, and to excel in every subject.

I was serious but I was also an athlete, good at hitting the ball as hard as the boys and riding my bike down a steep hill as fast as the boys. None of the boys I hung out with had to read important books during the summer, nor did the girls for that matter, and I never let on that in private, late at night in bed or early in the morning, I was reading. That wouldn’t have been cool.

So I grew up with highbrow tastes and a judging distaste for low class genre fiction and for idleness and games, unless they were educational. But my mother was holding a secret: she liked murder mysteries, a fact she only admitted to me later in her life. They had to be Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. Only the British knew how to write murder mysteries, she explained. Only their language was expressive enough. She took them out of the library but was never seen reading them anywhere, not even on the beach where every woman was lying on her stomach lathered with oil and reading fat, pulpy, sentimental paperback books, trashy books, according to my mother. What did my mother bring to the beach? The New York Times. If it was too windy to flip the pages, she folded it down and tackled the crossword puzzle, thus differentiating herself, her nose upturned, from the hoi polloi.

And then, one day, far beyond my childhood summers, I decided to try writing a murder mystery—an effort I have written about here—and it seemed to make sense to try reading one or two. Which is what I did. And to my great surprise, most were very well written as well as entertaining. And I liked the detectives, especially if they were women, because, on the sly, like so many girls of my generation, I had read Nancy Drew murder mysteries, and adored them, adored her. But when I was done, my agent said a very strange thing to me: “You haven’t written a murder mystery, you have written a thriller. And there aren’t many women thriller writers so how are we going to market this?”

“They can only be written by men?”

“No, of course not. But will men read your book if they know a woman has written it? That’s the question.”

Interesting. I’d written a suspense novel, a thriller. So I decided to read one or two to understand what I’d done. And because there are so many to choose from, I decided to move backwards from movies I’ve liked to the books they are based on: Jack Reacher for example. It surprised me what a good script that was, and how much I had enjoyed the story and liked—actually liked—the vigilante protagonist. The movie, starring Tom Cruise, is based on a book by Lee Child, a pseudonym for Jim Grant, a former British television director. The books have tinsel covers, embossed with evocative images. My parents would have called them tacky. They would have said they were beach books. They would have said that anything available on a drug store rack can’t be any good. And they would have been wrong. Jim Grant aka Lee Child, classically educated and a trained lawyer, can write:

“She looked preoccupied and a little confused. But she showed a measure of vitality, too. A measure of authority. There as still vigor there. She looked like the part of Texas she owned, rangy and powerful, but temporarily laid low, with most of her good days behind her.”

Simple evocative prose by a master of genre fiction.  Read More 
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When The Fever Stops

The copy-edit stage of book production is the hardest for me, and many authors, apparently. It’s the moment when the fever of writing stops and the malaise sets in. What have I created? Will it sell? If so, who will want to read it? What’s next? I never have any problem with this last question: my projects are lined up like an airplane on a runway. In fact, I begin to resent what I have just completed—the time it is takes to enter all the copy edits and then get the book into production—and can’t wait to get started on something new. That “in the moment” blissful sensation may be the reason writer’s always answer similarly when they are asked: “And what has been your favorite book/article to date?”

“The one I am working on right now. I’m just crazy about it. I think it’s the best I’ve ever done.” And so on.

Of course, we are usually wrong; we have no perspective. And, of course, we can’t really jump into a new project instantaneously; we need rest periods, breaks, a time to refuel.

What do writers do when they are not writing, someone once asked me. The answer is: the laundry. Even if there are maids and nannies to do housework, I am sure you get my drift. I think it was Margaret Atwood who once said: I always clean my own toilets. I, too, clean my own toilet, shop, do the laundry, and I also try to get outdoors into the fresh air as much as possible, no matter the season. And having finished a draft of my new book—“What Returns to Us”—I took my laptop and headed to upstate New York to visit my daughter and son-in-law who are homesteading there.

Day 1, Thursday: I sat for five hours in their kitchen nook, watched the mountains and the sunset, entered all the copy edits and sent it off to my agent. Finito, for now.

Day 2, Friday: I was awakened at 5 a.m. by the rooster. It was still dark. Was he confused? I read and drifted back to sleep. The blinds were up and I could see the white birches and the ornamental cherry tree causing everyone sneezing problems. Before he left for work, I asked my son-in-law to put me to work at some hard, physical labor. I had already walked with the dog on the road; it wasn’t enough. So he pulled out bales of hay and asked me to spread it over some fresh seeding for a pasture he’s creating. I did that for nearly two hours.

Day 3 , Saturday: It was raining. I read, wrote in my journal—the journal never stops—did some email, made a couple of phone calls, and worked with my daughter and son-in-law creating a bed for a blueberry patch. First the rocks had to be pulled out—wonderfully hard work—then roots of the felled trees pulled and cut, sawdust from the felled trees sawn into planks (all recycled) scooped onto the bed, then the loamy peat on top of that, and wood chips on top of that. Hours of work in the soft, misty rain. The dog stayed near us the whole time, sniffed and romped. The cat came out to have a look. They were in Heaven and so was I. We were all wet and muddy. It didn’t matter.

Day 4, Sunday: Mother’s Day which I have renamed “Nurturing Day,” and a communal brunch with friends and neighbors: French Toast, fruit salad, bacon (for those who eat meat), fresh home-grown maple syrup, and fresh-laid eggs. Then, reluctantly, a journey back to the city.

As I write, it is Monday, and I am at my computer full of energy for a new project which I will begin this week. I’m already feeling feverish about it.  Read More 
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Online Scrabble

I recently began playing online Scrabble with a couple of friends. One of my opponents is an old high school friend. We live in the same city and have maintained our friendship over these many years—our kids even went to the same nursery school—and we get together for dinner and Scrabble regularly, alternating from one apartment to the other in a cycle of deepening friendship. Our online Scrabble is of the “normal” variety and a relaxing supplement to our three-dimensional games.

My second opponent—and a short-lived one as you will see—is the grown daughter of a good friend of mine, raised in Britain, who is now living in Italy. I have always found her so adorable and interesting that I thought it would be fun to reconnect via online Scrabble. So I invited her to play. Suddenly I found myself in a competitive game for points using filler words I had never heard of, nor could I find them in any dictionaries. The only pleasurable aspect of this game were the surprising British words—such as fairings—which, as an Anglophile who lived in England for a decade, I appreciated. American English seems attenuated by comparison and I cherish all words in the English speaking world, far and wide.
I spoke to my husband—who I can rarely beat at 3-D Scrabble—about my observations. Was my young friend using a tool to create words to get this kind of a score, close to 400 each game? “Most definitely,” he said.

Well, how did I feel about this? And, if true, is it cheating? I went online again, this time to see if anyone had written about the phenomena of “enhanced” electronic Scrabble. Many had. My favorite was this commentary: http://www.musingsat85.com/myblog/?p=5832

I wrote to my young friend to ask her if she used electronic “teachers” and “tools” and she admitted that she did. I understood that this new way of playing Scrabble is entirely normal to her, that it’s okay, it’ s not cheating. And, perhaps, if she had told me in advance, I would have felt differently, I’m not sure. At one point, I commented on the imbalance in our scores and was told, with an icon smile, that I wasn’t trying hard enough. In any event, I decided to say goodbye to my young friend on the electronic Scrabble board and to wish her well. Our two games were not fun for me. And Scrabble should be fun.

I remembered when my parents purchased their first game, the simplicity of its rules, the board, the wooden tiles, the invitations to friends and family every weekend to play a game, the breaks for food and conversation, the egg timer. As children, we were allowed to participate as helpers and later we were allowed to play with our own racks and tiles. Our parents were not native English speakers and finding words in English was a test in itself. The dictionary was only used as a final “authority,” and no one was allowed to crack it until a word had gone down and was challenged.  Read More 
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