BETWEEN THE LINES
August 9, 2016
Blog: finding family
About two months ago I received a letter in the mail. The postal mail, not email, which has become an unusual treat. As he handed me the envelope, Robby looked at the return address and asked me if I knew the sender, whose surname was the same as my maternal grandmother. “Could be a long-lost relative,” he said.
My second cousin (who I did not know existed) wrote that she came across a blog I posted in February titled “Hanging with grandchildren and ghosts in Brooklyn,” in which I mentioned my grandmother’s name and that she once lived on Keap Street in Williamsburg. My cousin wondered if my grandmother could be her great aunt of the same name. The details she supplied – the name of the town in Ukraine that my grandmother and her brother left over a century ago, the dates and circumstances of their immigration – were enough to convince me. The photograph of her grandfather, who looks just like his sister – my grandmother – took my breath away.
Over the past two months, my sister and I have been getting to know this new cousin. My sister has been filling in blanks in our extended family genogram. As with many Jewish families from Eastern Europe, there are big holes in that family tree and each new name, each newly discovered connection is precious. I now have three new cousins, dozens of new/old family photographs, and some wonderful family stories. I hope to meet these new relatives before too long.
Like I said: precious.
July 6, 2016
Ava’s husband has left her for a yarn-bomber (Ann Hood’s fans will appreciate this!) and her daughter Maggie is out of touch and in trouble in Paris when Ava’s best friend Cate invites her to join her library book group. The theme is “the book that matters most” and each member chooses a book for one of the monthly discussions. Ava chooses FROM CLARE TO HERE, the book that saved her life the summer after her sister died and her mother killed herself, and she promises to bring the author to the discussion.
The book discussions (ANNA KARENINA, THE GREAT GATSBY, CATCHER IN THE RYE) are both fun in themselves and in the responses they evoke from the group members. Ava finds herself revisiting her childhood losses as her own daughter struggles with her own demons in Paris. The chapters from Maggie’s perspective, as she flees her study-abroad program and gets into increasingly dangerous situations, provide a thoughtful mirror to Ava’s process as she faces her own losses.
This novel has a mystery at its core and it has emotional depth. The story made me weep, but never lose hope that people can deal with past pain and can heal. Most of all, THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST reminds us of the power of reading, and the many ways that books connect us to each other and to the world.
Pub date is August 9, but click on the photo to pre-order the book.
April 18, 2016
My workshop leader was Manette Ansay and she was terrific. But she was (correctly) pretty critical in workshop about the story I submitted for the conference and about my writing. I had a lot to learn and I wasn’t at all sure I had the talent to be a writer.
On the last day of the week-long conference, participants were invited to read aloud a short excerpt, five minutes maybe, to the conference community. We gathered in rows of folding chairs set up on the grass under a tent; it was a hot afternoon. I don’t remember what I read. What I do remember is this: as I walked back to my seat, Lee Hope, the director of the program stopped me. She leaned over and whispered, “I want you to come to our MFA program.”
Lee had talked to us all about the MFA the day before, and the idea was bouncing around a bit in my brain. I didn’t see how I would manage it, even a low residency program, with my full-time job. And, like I said, I wasn’t at all sure I had what it takes to be a real writer.
Lee’s comment changed everything. That moment, I knew I would apply for the program. I knew I would be accepted. I knew I would love it. I knew I would write novels and stories and people would read them. All those things came true.
Like I said, Lee Hope changed my life.
March 23, 2016
At book events, it’s not unusual for someone to ask a particularly hard question and I have to think fast. I know that my immediate answer isn’t the whole story, isn't the best response, and later I chew on what I could have said. That happened Monday, when a woman asked, “Doesn’t the government have the right to protect us from terrorists like ISIS? Even if they make mistakes every once in a while?”
What I said: Yes, the government’s job is to protect its people. But if we acknowledge that terrorist attacks are criminal acts by individuals and groups, not acts of war by nations, then we should use our criminal justice system to charge and try them. We should not respond by shredding the constitution and ignoring the rule of law. I also said that if we stopped invading and bombing other countries and killing their people with drones, there would be fewer terrorist attacks against us.
What I wanted to say: “The U.S. government made one of those “every once in a while mistakes” when it executed my mother-in-law. Ethel Rosenberg was held hostage to try to pressure her husband into confessing. That was NOT okay.
What I could have asked her: “Do you have grandchildren? If the government by mistake detained and interrogated one of your grandchildren, like they treated Gandalf in my novel, would that be okay with you?”
What I could have said: The logical conclusion of what you are saying is that it’s okay to do anything necessary to protect our country, as long as that anything is being done to someone else, someone you don’t know and love.
Or I could have quoted Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Of course, whole books could be written on this topic and I keep thinking about other responses. Do you have suggestions of other things I could have, should have, said?
February 24, 2016
Most of all, I love Brooklyn because my grandchildren live there. Last week, Robby and I were in Brooklyn, hanging out with Josie and Abel during school vacation week. We painted pottery and played Chutes & Ladders and Zingo. We colored and drew and drove trains around the living room floor. There were Shopkins and Lincoln Logs and Legos and extraordinary combinations of all the above. There were parks and playgrounds and Transit Museum; and I can’t leave out the delightful and overpriced (everything in Brooklyn is overpriced to this Easthampton wallet) Curiosity on Court, with climbing wall and playscape and subway station.
I also love Brooklyn because of the ghosts. My family ghosts. Both my parents lived in Brooklyn; they met at Brooklyn College. In the medium days of her Alzheimer’s, my mother used to ask me if I remember the apartment she lived in on Keap Street in Williamsburg, decades before my birth. At sixteen, my dad moved from Manhattan’s lower east side to Bensonhurst with his family; I remember visiting my grandparents in that house. My grandmother was short, and I loved that the kitchen sink was built low enough for me to wash dishes. The el was close-by and the corner store sold tasty penny candies.
Those two Brooklyns – of my parents’ youth and that of my grandchildren – exist many decades apart. But walking those streets last week with Josie and Abel, I felt the company of my family ghosts.
February 3, 2016
In honor of book groups
For many passionate readers, book groups are our reading family. Like all families, there may be a few dud selections, the equivalent of the second cousin who spends holiday dinners staring at a screen, or the uncle who farts, but we still love them. I have two book group families. One group, which has been going for over a decade, is through a local indie bookstore. I love the fact that it’s open to anyone who has read the month’s book and wants to discuss it. I also love that about 1/3 of the time we invite the author to join us.
The other group, which we call Stones and Bones, started in 1994 as a group of friends, originally convened at the Odyssey Bookshop. We chose the name because we noticed how many books we discussed that first year or two had “stones” or “bones” in the title (Stones from the River, The Bone People, Stone Diaries.) Over the past 22 years, the group has lost and gained members and has moved from meeting at the bookstore to members’ homes, but continues to offer us an opportunity to read books we otherwise probably would not have chosen, and to enjoy the books a second time through discussion. Although most meetings involve sitting around someone’s living room talking about a novel, we’ve tried different bookish activities, ranging from weekends on Martha’s Vineyard (discussing novels set there, of course) to reading poetry to each other.
In honor of this group, and all book groups, I’d like to share our twenty-two years of literary selections.
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Indian Lawyer, James Welch
Bless Me Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya
The Bone People, Keri Hulme
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez
Middlemarch, George Elliot (more…)
December 10, 2015
SPEAK by Louisa Hall is told by five narrators spanning five centuries and several continents but they all explore the human need to communicate, to connect, to be understood. Each character tries to bridge gaps – between friends, lovers and non-human intelligence. This book is dark and smart and sometimes pretty disturbing. I loved it.
GIRL AT WAR, Sara Nović’s debut novel set in Croatia in 1991, is also both dark and emotionally gripping. The ten-year-old narrator Ana is our guide through the frightening realities of civil war – the shortages and bombings, suspicion and losses. The novel moves back and forth in time between 1991 and a decade later, a college student in New York, returns to Croatia to make peace with the legacy of her childhood. Strong debut work.
Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was published a couple of years ago. I’m so glad I finally read it. From the first pages, 22-year-old Rosemary shares her grief at the loss of her sister, her twin, Fern. When we learn that Fern is a chimpanzee, and that the family was part of a scientific experiment, this moving and often-humorous family saga opens up into something much larger. This book gave me a lot to think about.
THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard was also published in 2013 but I heard the author read from it this year. I bought the book partly because she uses an omniscient narration, something I was working on, but mostly because I was so taken with her story of Chinese laborers brought to North Adams, Massachusetts in 1970 as strikebreakers. This is historical fiction at its best – an author’s imagination forging connections between past and present that offer the reader insight into the current issues of immigration, race, and xenophobia.
THE BEGINNING THINGS by Bunny Goodjohn. Tot is twelve, sizzling with an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother sews to support the family after her husband’s desertion. Dan, the father of said missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink. Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues. Using British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.
THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, Jacqueline Sheehan’s forthcoming novel, has it all: heroes and villains, death squads and family loyalties, massacres and soccer, heartbreak and redemption. This novel is both an emotionally intense mother-daughter story complicated by secrets and danger and a sizzling love story, set against the background of civil war in Guatemala and U.S. dirty tricks. Very highly recommended.
MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. The young protagonist is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.
Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.
DESIRE OF THE MOTH by Champa Bilwakesh follows a shorn and shunned 15-year-old widow ostracized by strict 1930’s caste customs. When Sowmya meets a devadasi and begins studying the forbidden dances, her transformation parallels the intense social, political and cultural changes in South India during the struggle for independence. The writing is lush with music, sensuality and artistic gravitas. A wonderful novel.
Simon Van Booy’s FATHER’S DAY won’t be out until April, but this novel is worth waiting for, especially if you admired THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS like I did. This book weaves in and out of time to bring us a girl named Harvey, orphaned and adopted by her felon uncle. Van Booy’s beautifully-written story of loss and hope and second chances is quiet and sad and engaging. I loved this book.
November 18, 2015
Published by Underground Voices, November 2015
Three members of the Thompson family narrate this engaging novel about endings and beginnings and how they fit together. Tot is twelve, sizzling with yearnings, hormones, and an urgent crush on the wrong boy. Her mother Elaine, sewing to support the family after her husband’s desertion, gets a job fabricating a silver spaceman suit for a male stripper who wants more than shiny cloth and quick-release Velcro fastenings. When Dan, the father of Elaine’s missing husband, moves into the house on Stanley Close, newly widowed, penniless, and very fond of his drink, Tot has a male relative to ask about her boy trouble.
Four generations of Thompsons, and Elaine’s sewing business, squeeze into a small council house. In addition to Dan, Elaine and Tot, Elaine’s older daughter Dorothy and her out-of-wedlock toddler son add to the chaos. The details of Goodjohn’s descriptions of crowding and room repurposing are both biting and tender, and the reader roots for the characters.
Tot and her “Dangrad” have always been close and share an affinity for spoonerisms. These linguistic twistings add humor to the prose and provide an oblique way for Tot and Dan to talk about their uncomfortable and difficult-to-discuss issues: his drinking and her growing understanding that her unfortunate romance skipped the “beginning things.” Tot can admit to her grandfather that a boy put his “ningers down my fickers” and she liked it a lot. He answers her questions about how to build a friendship and romance, offering a step by step approach. In return, Dan accepts her interference with “mucking fess” of his drinking problem.
With the pleasure of British slang and a poet’s ear, UK-born Goodjohn weaves the three Thompson voices into a cohesive and tightly paced story. I love the toughness of this book as much as I am grateful for its compassion and tenderness.
November 16, 2015
Writing fiction takes you places you never expected to go. My stories and novels have transported me to cults and islands, to interrogation rooms and quarry caves, to Caribbean palace guards and gun stores and courtrooms and sacred dingles. But I thought that once imagination has brought the words to publication, the creative part was done. Turns out that’s not entirely true; there’s also room for invention and exploration in bringing books to readers.
We all know that publishing with an independent press – probably with ANY press in today’s market – requires significant author involvement in promotion. My first novel taught me to look beyond bookstore venues for readings and book-signings. HOUSE ARREST took me to libraries and house parties, to book fairs and reader retreats and conferences and book groups. I took advantage of all those additional venues when ON HURRICANE ISLAND was published. But this novel, because of its topical content, presented an unexpected opportunity: to develop a “platform.”
The idea of “platform” is usually reserved for nonfiction books. It refers to the author’s authority in a subject area and her access to a group of readers already interested in that subject. Novelists may have a fan base and literary credentials, but it’s challenging to identify new readers based on what the book is about, since fiction’s subject matter isn’t so easily identified or defined. It’s also tricky because many readers seem to read EITHER fiction or nonfiction, not both.
The plot line of ON HURRICANE ISLAND is frighteningly topical. Actually that makes me laugh, because when I started writing it seven years ago, even my husband said that the premise was possibly too unbelievable. It’s the story of an older woman, a mathematics professor, who is picked up by federal agents at an airport, hooded and cuffed and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. Snatched right out of the headlines, isn’t it? Which suggested to me that perhaps I could interest people who don’t usually read fiction but do follow the news.
This train of thought led to the “Disappeared in America” events. In each one, I partner with an attorney and/or a justice-oriented organization to explore the literary and the legal issues brought up by the novel, and the intersection of the two. Usually the event consists of a short reading from ON HURRICANE ISLAND, a response from the attorney and conversation with the audience. So far, event venues include libraries and law schools and churches; sponsoring organizations include the Center for Constitutional Rights and chapters of the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International. Upcoming events will be held in Amherst, MA, Springfield, MA and Ft. Lauderdale, FL – and wherever else people are interested in these issues.
I can’t claim that these events sell a lot of books, but I’ve been surprised – amazed, really – at how much I’ve learned. And how rich the conversation can be when it includes different perspectives on story and reality, on imagination and social justice.
September 21, 2015
Fiction is the best way I know to understand the world. Oh, I read the morning paper and follow online alternative media, and watch the evening news. But my deepest delving into the big issues, the messy complicated and critical issues, is through imaginative works of fiction. Of course the facts, the details of time and place and person are often changed (re-imagined) to serve the story. But if the novel works, it takes the reader across otherwise insurmountable borders of time and nation, of race and ethnicity and gender and age, to experience – “first hand” – the thorny and challenging issues facing our world.
Three recent novels took me to new/old places, and illuminated segments of the world – both historical and contemporary. MOURNER’S BENCH, by Sanderia Faye, took me to 1960’s small-town Arkansas through the eyes of eight-year-old Sarah Jones. Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW is set in contemporary Northampton, MA and in Jerusalem, as a family responds to the terrorist bomb that kills two of its members. THE HOURS COUNT, Jillian Cantor novel’s about Ethel Rosenberg, brought me home, to my own family. Each of these novels successfully bring to life an important moment in history. Each offers an experience that readers might not otherwise access.
I was thrilled to hear that MOURNER’S BENCH was being published. I met the author Sanderia Faye, about ten years ago in a Contemporary Novel writing workshop led by Dennis Lehane. It was an enormously productive week for me, but the thing I remember most was Sanderia’s chapter from this novel. Her young protagonist Sarah is so beautifully brought to life; we feel the Arkansas summer heat, the struggles within her family, her religious yearnings. As the civil rights movement and school integration come to her town, Sarah guides us through an emotional landscape of change and growth. This debut novel is assured and confidant and the window it offers into our shared history is unique. Read this book.
I’m just finishing my second reading of Judith Frank’s ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, in preparation for leading a book group discussion. Some novels fade a bit with rereading, but not this one. Daniel and Matt, a gay Northampton couple, travel to Jerusalem to bury Daniel’s twin brother and his wife, killed by a terrorist bomb, and to take custody of their two young children. Frank is masterful at balancing the personal stories of her characters with the explosive political and social issues that propel the plot. Her use of an omniscient point of view works beautifully to integrate Middle East politics with parenting, sexual politics with generational negotiations. Plus, it’s a really, really good read.
Finally, I want to talk about THE HOURS COUNT, by Jillian Cantor. I heard about this book from a friend and contacted the author, requesting an advance copy. I did so with mixed emotions, because – as I’ve written about previously – I haven’t loved most of the fiction based on my family’s story. (I’m married to Robert Meeropol, younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.) Cantor’s story is told by Millie, a fictional character who lives in Knickerbocker Village and becomes close friends with Ethel. A mix of fact and fiction is always tricky and some of Cantor’s choices don’t make sense to me. Why name one of her characters Jake Gold, when Harry Gold was a “real” participant? Why name Millie’s son David, to be confused with the “real” David Greenglass? Why rewrite how the bomb sketch was used?
That said, I found the novel emotionally compelling. The relationship between Millie and Ethel was complex and tender. The depictions of the parenting challenges shared by the two women was well done and felt true. On a personal level, I have spent decades wondering who Ethel Rosenberg really was – reading her letters, examining photos of her, listening to stories from those who knew her. I’ve spent years writing about her as a way to try to know this woman who gave birth to my husband. Reading Jillian Cantor’s novel, I was surprised at how close I felt to this novelist’s fictionalization of my mother-in-law, whose 100th birthday, by the way, is September 28 . Thank you, Jillian, for that gift.