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BETWEEN THE LINES

Honoring our three mothers

Anne Shaffer Meeropol, 1909 – 1973
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg, 1915 – 1953
Pauline Taube Diamond, 1918 – 2008

Robby and I have had three mothers, all born in New York, all gone now. Of course, I never met his birth mother; Ethel was executed when Robby was six. But Ethel lives in our family history and in my imagination. I’ve written poems, dramatic programs, and stories about her, trying to find my truth of the woman among the multitudes of others' journalistic and literary interpretations. Robby's adoptive mom, Anne, was the woman who raised him, who I met and loved as his mother. My own mother, dead four years now, returns to me in quick gestures and phrases – sometimes remembered but more often glimpsed in the mirror or heard from my mouth. I’m only now starting to be able to write about her, to transform her into fiction.  Read More 
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Books and imaginary friends

Like many of you, I read a lot – several books a week. I choose them for different reasons. Some to admire and learn from. Some because of commitments to my two book groups, including the group I lead at the Odyssey Bookshop. Some because the author is a friend, or perhaps a Facebook friend. I read advanced reading copies (ARCs) as a member of the First Edition Club selection committee at the bookstore. I love novels that tackle big political/ethical/moral dilemmas and I look for those, but sometimes a totally different kind of book will choose me and surprise me.

That’s what happened with Matthew Dicks’ Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, which I picked up from the wobbling piles of ARCs on the kitchen table at the bookstore. I met Matthew last year when we were both invited to participate in the wonderful Books on the Nightstand readers’ retreat in Manchester Center, Vermont.  Read More 
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The Grandmas of Brooklyn

My daughter’s Brooklyn neighborhood is swarming with grandparents this week. On the sidewalks and playgrounds and parks, in the libraries and coffee shops and museums, gray-haired out-of-towners push strollers and hurry to keep up with scooters. We lug cotton bags with sippy cups and snack-keepers, with fruit gummies and pirate booty and goldfish (these, at least, I recognize) – all of us thrilled to hang out with our grandchildren during April vacation. Much of the experience is expected: the pleasures and delights of the barely-remembered rhythms of a small child’s day, the challenge of getting down on the floor to do puzzles and build Lego palaces, and then get up again. The exhaustion at the end of the day.

The biggest surprise for me this week has been play-dates. We didn’t use that term when my daughters were little, but of course the activity is familiar. The twist is that many of the playdates are shared by little kids and their grandparents. AND an added delight that these Brooklyn preschoolers are amusingly creative when it comes to their names for said grandparents.

Yesterday, my granddaughter Josie and I hung out with her BFF and her “Gabby” and “Keepa.” Today it was another friend and her “Gaga.” And I should mention that Josie calls me “Meema” and her grandfather “Peepa.”

All these grandparents, and so far not a "Grandma" or "Grandpa" in sight. Read More 
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What I've been reading. And loving.

Every few months I like to write about some of the books I've been reading, especially those from debut authors or small presses, the books you may not hear about elsewhere. Today, I want to share three novels that I enjoyed immensely, and think you will too.

GROWING UP DELICIOUS by Marianne Banks is a totally yummy and satisfying read. I'm fascinated and captivated when authors are able to use humor to illuminate important (and often not so funny) events. That's what Banks does in her debut novel about coming out, going home, and revising your personal history in the process. This book made me laugh out loud, and weep, and I wish I could read it again for the first time. (Bella, 2012).

In OFFSPRING, Michael Quadland’s second novel, the yearnings of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile actress intersect wildly as each character searches for a way to fit into an unwelcoming world. The characters are quirky but utterly authentic in this fast-paced story of reproductive adventures, bookstore culture, and the deep longings of the outsiders among us. With humor and enormous empathy for their circumstances, Quadland weaves his characters’ histories seamlessly into the story, challenging the reader’s preconceptions and prejudices along the way. Offspring is an excellent read – a page-turner – with characters I will not soon forget. (Red Hen, 2012).

The third novel won't be out until June, but is well worth the wait. Nichole Bernier's debut novel, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. asks the question: What happens to your journals, the place you share your secret life, if you die suddenly? After Elizabeth’s sudden death, Kate inherits a trunk of her close friend’s journals and brings them on vacation to read. This is the summer after 9/11, a time of intense re-examination of both national and personal safety. As Kate discovers Elizabeth’s secrets, she questions both their friendship and her own choices and yearnings. This book is tender and compelling. And it made me wonder what I should do with the dozen dusty journals in the bottom of my closet. (Crown, 2012).  Read More 
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Can fiction change the world? Should it even try?

I know. I know. This topic is likely to make you roll your eyes, unless you’re one of the 8.9% of writers who are – like me – obsessed with it. Another 35% believe that art is for art’s sake alone: spectacular sunsets, striking metaphors, startling insights about the human condition, but don’t step too close to the line. Over that line lurk propaganda, didacticism, partisanship, the literary equivalents of activist judges. The other 56.1% don’t care and have already clicked away. (Disclosure: these statistics are made-up.)

Seriously though, you can’t live in my family without believing in the power of literature to effect change. My father-in-law Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan) wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” often quoted as the most important protest song of the 20th century.  Read More 
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Life Imitates Art

A couple of months ago I started a new novel. One of the first scenes I imagined took place in a grocery store, much like the chain store where I shop when I’m too lazy to drive to the food coop. In the scene, an older woman with early dementia is doing her weekly shopping with the help of her teenage granddaughter. The older woman is furious when the bagger, texting on his cell phone rather than paying attention to her veggies, smushes the lettuce. She throws a large onion at him and is hauled off to the manager’s office.

Today, in that market, there was no bagger, just me and the cashier.  Read More 
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Reflecting on AWP 2012 and literary sisterhood

I’ve been home two days now from the AWP annual conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). For me, the conference started slow this year. The panels I attended on Thursday and Friday weren’t very useful and I didn’t feel inspired. I started to wonder if the panels were just an excuse for writers to get together with far-flung writer friends. I loved hanging out with Janice and Jean and Rosellen and Carol and Marie and Margaret and Jeanne, and with folks from Red Hen Press and Stonecoast MFA. I bought and started reading fellow Red Hen author Michael Quadland’s brand new novel, Offspring. (It’s a wonderful read; check it out). But the chaos and noise of 10,000 writers was overwhelming. And not in a good way.

Saturday, day three, didn’t start well either. First of all, I didn’t sleep well Friday night – insomnia and bad dreams chased me into dawn. And several of my friends had to leave early. So I was looking forward to my political fiction panel with Rosellen Brown and Tracy Daughterty (assigned the last slot of the three day conference) but not much else.

My attitude changed in the ladies’ bathroom at 8:30 a.m., when the woman drying her hands at the sink said hello and we began a conversation. Turns out she is Edith Pearlman, whose recent story collection Binocular Vision, I’ve read twice, and loved. We were both en route to her panel – Women of a Certain Age. The panel was totally delightful, inspiring even, as five elegant and eloquent women writers opened their hearts. I was not the only person in the audience with tears in my eyes and a catch in my throat. This was because the panelists embraced the audience as sisters rather than passive listeners, and because of the truth of their observations and the beauty of their prose. The panelists, all with long and successful careers, also embraced those in the audience who are – like me – literary late bloomers, and welcomed us into their literary sisterhood.

Enjoying the brisk air and occasional snowflakes on Michigan Avenue afterwards, I realized that it took a while, but I finally hit my AWP stride. Once again I felt a profound gratitude to be part of a community of people for whom words are magic and books still live.  Read More 
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Thinking about transformation

My new website is up (thank you, Authors Guild) and I’ve been thinking about transformation. About reinvention. On our fast-walk last weekend, Robby and I saw a large house being built in the backyard of a much smaller, older home. We guessed that once the new house was finished, the residents would move in and demolish the old. That’s what happened at the children’s hospital where I worked for 24 years. A spiffy new building was constructed behind the old-fashioned, two-winged brick structure with open wards for boys and girls. Then, in with the new and out with the old. It was a fascinating process to watch.

The building wasn’t the only transformation I experienced in those buildings; I kept reinventing myself as well. I was an RN for seven years before, armed with a new Masters degree, I began working as a Clinical Nurse Specialist. About seven years later I went back to school for a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner certification. This reincarnation lasted a bit longer – ten years after earning that degree and working in that role, I left patient care entirely, to write fiction. My husband likes to joke that I’ve got the seven-year-itch, but luckily relationships are spared.

Of course, writing fiction is about constant transformation. We transform fragments – crumbs of acquaintances, flecks of personal history, slivers of the news, flashes of image, morsels of emotion – into full-bodied and multi-layered narratives. This usually takes many tries to re-envision those pieces into something whole.

Sometimes we tear down the old brick buildings. But sometimes we coexist with the plaster dust and torn up walls, with the layers of truth and imagination, memory and longing. Read More 
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