Friday, February 27, 2009

Whiskey and Song

I can only get intermittent service here, so the postings are few.

Yesterday we saw Bunratty Castle, which is basically Ireland's version of Plymouth Plantation. Pictures to follow. We didn't want to eat in any of the pubs around there, so we went up the road, wandered into this place in, well, I forget the name.

Pub's name is O'Neils. Tiny place. We thought we could get lunch. Instead we wandered into a storytelling session. One of the historians from Bunratty was singing and telling stories in this old accent, which may have been a Kerry accent. And these oldsters were sitting all around heckling him and the like. It was amazing. It was a bit of a private party for the local senior group, called the Going Strong Club. We heard amazing music. We laughed while this guy told terribly dirty stories. It was great fun. And then Tighe (pictured above, center), who is 90 years old, got out his accordion and began to play. Oh, they whooped and danced in their seats. And then he sang. Beautiful love songs. He played the Highland Reel and the crowd, small as it was, could barely be contained. The shots of whiskey kept coming and we've never been happier. We walked in at 2 and didn't get out of there until 5. 

I went to kiss my new boyfriend Tighe (I'm truly in love here) on the cheek, but here's the thing about Irish men. It's right on the lips or none at all. 

So that's how it ended. They fed us, and we left a donation for the club. It was the least we could do. And we bought a round or two for the folks who were staying on. It was lovely.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cliffs of Moher, etc.

This, on the left, is my mother-in-law sleeping in the back seat of the car on the way from the Cliffs of Moher (which are beautiful by the way) and back to Lahinch, where we're staying. Jet lag is a bitch when you're on the far side of 70, but she's a good sport about it all.

This is Julie and Ellen at the cliffs. I do have pictures of the cliffs, but won't post them here. Suffice to say that they're big, breathtaking and scary when you walk past the sign that says, "Don't go past here," and then look down over the edge. As Julie says, "Chargies!"

Monday, February 23, 2009

The West Coast

We're here. It's beautiful. We've already been teased multiple times about the weakness of the dollar and one helpful shopkeeper asked of the US economy, Have you hit bottom yet? It's actually good to talk to people who refuse to pull their punches. More soon, when my camera is working and when I find a wifi hotspot. No promises.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reading on the Go

I leave for Ireland tonight, after many hectic days of tying up work details. I spent marathon sessions on the phone last week with my co-author to approve copy edit changes. Apparently, this publisher likes each copy edit suggestion to be addressed separately. We were expected to either "stet" each one (write and circle the word STET in the margin to alert the editor to restore the original copy, which we rarely did) or write okay in the margin in blue pencil. Three hundred pages worth. And I was gratified to find five typos and two grammatical mistakes that had been edited in by mistake. My co-author was really good at finding typos. Grammar geeks!

I have another short story ready to send out when I get back. We hosted a birthday party for S's fifth birthday. Very exciting. The work on the house was completed with just one grudge match between us and the contractor. Not bad. Bills, laundry, tidying up. The usual.

All that's left to do is pack. Many people obsess about clothing on trips. I obsess about books. Which books to bring? How many? Yes, they're heavy. Yes, they take up space. But the idea of having nothing to read is too horrible to contemplate. I'm halfway through this book right now. It's wonderful and worth all the praise heaped on it. But it's such a page-turner that it likely won't survive the plane trip. 

I want to read The Gathering by Anne Enright. In fact, having read the first page of this book, I now want to read all of her books. So that's in the suitcase already. I briefly toyed with the idea of bringing December Bride by Sam Hannah Bell. It could be an all Ireland theme. Or, I could be practical. I'm supposed to be reading this book for a class I'm taking in the spring, but do I want to carry it across an ocean? And of course, Ann Patchett will be speaking at the Muse in April, and I was able to snatch up her Bel Canto at a used book store. Possibility? I also have been meaning to read In the Heart of the Sea by Nthaniel Philbrick, which is the true story of the whaleship Essex, the inspiration for Melville's Moby Dick. And on the off chance that the jet lag is overwhelming I could bring this little truffle of a murder mystery. I'm too embarrassed to type the title, but it's set in Istanbul and the main character is a drag queen who looks like Audrey Hepburn.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bad Hair Day

In four days I go to Ireland, and I'm already having nightmares about being apart from the kids for several nights in a row. Not much time to worry about that, though, because the copyedited book manuscript has to be approved before then, one change at a time for 300 pages. I have student papers to read, a story to write, a birthday party to host (S turns 5 in two days! Alert the media!) and a large check to write to the nice guys who are finishing the roof that replaces the blue tarp of doom. They are pounding away on the shingles right now.

Not much time left over to freak out, but wait...

I came into the kitchen yesterday afternoon to find a pair of scissors sitting between the kids. They were at work on the kitchen table, each of them drawing away. G was writing a picture book about Spongebob. He does dialog and story lines. He draws the pictures. The story had this huge plot full of desires, obstacles, misdirection, puns. He writes better than anyone in the family. S was busy drawing detailed pictures of pirates leaping from a clipper ship. The details are incredible. The pirates have shoelaces, they have ears, they have buttons, they have sleeves. She has put multiple sails on each mast. I try not to show my shock. 

As to the scissors: these were not ordinary scissors. These are the scissors that the mommy person keeps hidden in the upstairs bathroom, because they are used for cutting hair. Back when G would let me cut his hair, back when S was too little to preen, I used these on the kids. What are they doing in the kitchen? I'm afraid I asked that question with a little more force than intended. They both looked up, startled, and said in unison, "Nothing." (They both lie now. Gone forever are the days when S will flip her hair and say "Well, of course" to the question, "Did you just pee yourself?")

I used my mommy psychic powers and zoomed in on S. "Were you cutting your hair?" No, she said. "Are you sure?" Why do mothers ask this? This question never yields a confession. Never. Not even in a four-year-old. I'm afraid I asked it twice. No, she said again and again. Then she did this thing that she does when she wants to impress on me how stupid my questions really are. She flipped her palms into the air and shook them at me, bouncing them for emphasis on each word. "We're just using them to cut paper," she said. Every syllable betrayed her frustration. And then she shook her head sadly, as though mommies this dumb should not be allowed out of the house. The only trouble is that huge hunks of hair were missing from her scalp. "Honey," I said. "Look at this. What did you do?" And that's when S screwed her shoulders up to her ears and said, "Well, my hair was stuck together." As though this explains everything.

I started in on the lecture, the one about how we don't cut our hair and how if you want long hair, as she does, then hacking at it with scissors is not a good strategy, but Larry intervened. Let it go, he said. Maybe a few days away isn't such a bad thing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saint Updike

In the "Talk of the Town" section of this week's New Yorker, Roger Angell remembers John Updike, the staff writer. It's one of two snooze-worthy pieces on Updike. 

In Angell's piece, we learn that Updike was "an editor's dream" because he was so involved in his own product. I quote:

"My end of the work was to point out an occasional inconsistent or extraneous sentence, or a passage that wanted something more. Almost under his breath over our phone connection, while we looked at the same lines, he would try out an alternative: 'Which one sounds better, do you think?' Sighing, he would take us back over the same few words again and again, then propose or listen to a switch of some sort, and try again. All writers do this, but not many with such lavishly extended consideration."

All writers do this? They do? On the phone? I've been a magazine writer for fifteen years, and I've never had an editor call me to ask about changes he was proposing to make in a sentence, or who would let me loiter on the phone for long minutes while I tried out this phrase and that in order to improve a passage that "wanted something more." Who is this guy kidding? And this is supposed to be evidence of what? Professionalism? Or narcissism run amok in both of them? But he goes on about Updike's involvement in the process:

"He wanted to see each galley, each tiny change, right down the the late-closing page proofs, which he often managed to return by overnight mail an hour or so before closing, with new sentences or passages, handwritten in the margins in a soft pencil, that were fresher and more inventive and revealing than what had been there before." 

Lordy, what a nightmare. Look. I've worked as a magazine editor. I married a magazine editor. What any real editor will tell you is that the writing should be done before the page proofs. An editor should rather expect that such a great genius of literature could manage to stumble on inventive and revealing prose in an earlier draft, especially if he's allowed to call his editor and spend hours tying up the phone line while parsing out alternative dependent clauses and questioning every proposed change in order to make his book reviews a tad more vibrant. At any other magazine, this would never fly.

I am reminded of a talk given by Charles Baxter at a recent Muse conference at which he recounted the publication of one of his short stories in the New Yorker. His enduring memory is of the conversation he had with a fiction editor there, quite possibly Angell, in which the editor demanded he remove a sentence from the story, an important sentence in which the narrator notes that the main character can't call a neighbor late at night because he knows that the guy drinks at night and won't be coherent. The editor's statement was "nobody knows that about a neighbor." Baxter said something on the order of: well, in a small town in the midwest, it's the kind of thing everybody knows about everybody else. (Having lived in a small town in the midwest, I say he's right. It's the kind of thing that you can't help but know.) The editor's response was that they wouldn't publish the story unless the line came out.

How interesting now to see that a pet writer, who essentially spent 40 years writing the same short story over and over again, was encouraged to soak up as many of the magazine's resources as he could, while other writers of equal professionalism were told to take bad edits (or else) and in fact to eat them and smile. It's a revealing little story, but it doesn't reveal Updike as much as the entitlement in which he flourished.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Uncertain Times II

We live in the suburbs, which means that the above magazine arrives on Saturday instead of Sunday. So, we've already read it, or as much of it as we can stand. The magazine is wildly hit and miss, but it did offer one smile of the day. The "Coupling" column, which is by far the most uneven part of the magazine, in which the ratio of the insufferable to the interesting is roughly five-to-one, is about men who love cats. The teaser line for this is something like, "If you're looking for a sensitive guy, look for cat dander on his clothes."

To which Larry said, "So if you're looking for a complete p***sy, check for cat hair." I tried to give him that look, but he wasn't having any of it. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "That's like..." Here, he tossed an imaginary softball into the air and thwacked it with an imaginary bat. "Had to be done," he said.

I couldn't argue. In this economy we're taking our laughs where we can find them.

The boy book has a new editor, and that editor has an assistant. We have the copyedited manuscript in hand and it's due back in ten days. The new editor checked in to say that she loves the book, believes in it, has boys of her own, can't wait to bring it out into the world. We were so thrilled and relieved to hear it. "The biggest concern is the environment it's coming out into," she said. Or something like that. Meaning that book sales are down across the board. Apparently, even good books aren't selling.  All we can do is hope.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Uncertain Times

The news across the publishing industry has been bad and getting worse for many months. I hear from my novelist friends that they've been cautioned against trying to sell something now, that the market for literary novels is bleak, or sometimes agents use the word deadly. In addition, I've heard of top, top editors who have been dumped from their jobs, people who have found and worked on many best-sellers. 

Then yesterday, I heard this news and the recession became that much more real for me. The entire publishing division that bought the boy book just ten months ago is gone. I have no idea how many of the good and talented people we've worked with during that time are now out of a job, but it's very possible that they're all gone. It was a little under a year ago that Larry got this same news about his editorial team, so I do know what they're going through. It's awful.

Nothing has happened to our book. It sits and waits, just as we do, to see where it will go and on whose desk it will land. It has been edited, and we've seen the cover design. We were slated to get copy edits on Friday with the understanding that we would turn it around quickly. They had worked so aggressively on this book and we were so impressed with their creative efforts all along. Now, nothing is certain.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Nothing Personal

The other day I got what I thought was a rejection slip in the mail. These are easy to spot because they arrive in a self-addressed envelope. That means I can see my name and address just as I wrote them when I submitted to this or that literary journal. In the past some of these rejections have turned out to be acceptances. Apparently, some editors are so busy that they can't pick up the phone or send an email to tell you that they're taking your story. Or even to address a new envelope in which to send the happy notice along with the contract. Once I got an acceptance that looked so much like a rejection that I didn't even read it for a couple of months. I just tucked it in a drawer with the rest of the rejections.  It was a sad, crumpled little piece of paper and at the top it said, "Congratulations" and then they'd written in the name of my story. And then at the bottom I was supposed to sign over the rights and send the lonely little piece of paper back. Of course, that never happened. I never read it until the editors sent me a little note wondering where my contract was.  As my four-year-old would say, "Oops-ees!"

The newest acceptance tops this in terms of anonymity. It's a little preprinted card with the words "Dear Writer" at the top. Then a big space. Then the words "We have chosen to publish" and then another big space in which someone wrote the title to my story in ink and then the rest of the one line acceptance letter "in a future issue of" and then the magazine title. Signed, "The Editors."

That's it. Are they kidding with this? They like the story well enough to publish it, but not well enough to have any contact with the writer. They provided no phone number, no email address, no way to get in touch with them. Never mind that the story has already been accepted by another journal. I'm sort of hoping these folks don't go ahead and publish it without further contact with me. That would be awkward.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Letters to Obama

G's class is writing letters to our new president. As a parent volunteer, I get to type these up and help "publish" them. They will actually get sent to the White House, and I see as I read these that more than one student is anxiously hoping for a reply. 

What's interesting about watching a little boy in early elementary school education is seeing how much and how quickly he develops month to month. A first grader is a kid who still hasto be reminded to flush the toilet and carry a dinner plate to the sink. Don't get me started on the teeth-brushing thing or the idea that dirty clothes go in a hamper. And yet these kids have got a lot on their minds. 

What's especially charming about these letters is that the sentiments in them don't seem to have been coached in any way. The spelling, punctuation and grammar are about as inventive as you'd imagine, and some kids seem to have less trouble figuring out how to spell the big words than they do the little words.

One boy wrote:

Dear Presidentobama in our school we votd you wood wen! I dont no what the vot count wus. And please help the economy and stock market do better!! I bileve your dodr sasha is 7. I am 7 too!!

One girl wrote: 

Dear President Obama, Please exceped this note. Please help cildrins hospitals and parint hospitals. Also help the pet hospitals. And get subs for docters and get cures for a cancer cure and other stuff they don't have.

Here's what G wrote:

Dear Mr president, some pepol need help because the're poor. they mite need you to help them. they need jobs, homes, food, and money. because if they stayd poor they mite die. Sincerely, G.

Little guys. Big, big hearts.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ireland or Bust

This is where I will be spending the last week in February. No, not at the top of a cliff, but hereabouts. A strange string of coincidences led to an impromptu trip. Can't wait. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Zane-y History Lesson

One of the perks of having two stay-at-home parents is that we get to share visits to our children's schools. If teachers are used to dealing with just moms, well, now they get both barrels. Too bad for them.

Just last week, Larry and I went to G's first grade class for "beach day." It's a day when the kids wear shorts and t-shirts and sunglasses and flip flops to school and shiver in the inadequately heated rooms while pretending it's summer. We were instructed to send a beach towel to school that day along with beach-y snacks and such to complete the illusion, as it were. The only thing missing was actual heat.  

There was also a party at which the kids ate the aforementioned snacks and made crafts. They made little crabs out of egg cartons and beach scenes on paper and the like. Larry and I were one of a half dozen parents who showed up to chaperone. Larry was the only dad, of course. We ran the "games" section of the party, which was this sad little bingo game with a nautical theme. There were these oversized bingo cards with pictures instead of letters. The pictures were of things like bivalves and the Indian Ocean and scuba gear and coral reefs. At first Larry took the educational part of this very seriously. He would draw a card and call out the name of the picture, say "stingrays" and then read all the information on the back of the card about where they live and what they eat and all that, when the kids just want the next card. They want to win. Also they pretend to know what you're talking about when they don't. First graders are over everything. Over it. And when you try to tell them something, they say, "yeah, we know," even when they clearly, clearly don't. 

So, eventually, the game picked up pace. And the kids were really into it. Seven-year-olds are pretty competitive, it turns out. And they pout when someone else is winning. So, Larry got to the card for the Titanic, and he'd learned his lesson. He didn't read out any of the information. But one of the girls playing said, "We know all about that. We read a book." I said, oh that's great and all. She said, "The boat hit an iceberg and it sank and everybody got on lifeboats." I said, well, that's pretty close. And one of the other girls who was playing said, "Well, not everybody. Just the women and children." And the rest of the kids playing all started nodding. "Yeah, women and children." These kids. They know it all.

And for some strange reason, Larry said, "Yeah, except for that Billy Zane." He was saying it mostly to me, trying to get me to crack up. "Sneakin' on that life boat," said Larry, shaking his head in disappointment. I was holding it together, but then one of the boys shook his head sadly and said, "Yeah, that Billy Zane. Sneaking on the wife boats." And then they all started saying it. And they were serious.

As we were leaving, G's teacher thanked us. She told us that the bingo game looked very intense. Larry said to her. "Um, if you're ever talking about the Titanic and the name Billy Zane comes up, just play along, okay?"

She just stared at him. I don't think we'll be invited back next year.

Just Thrilled

 I have a half dozen books piled next to the bed (as always). They include this and this and this. All important books that I should be devouring in the cold months. 

Not so. I've read nothing but thrillers all winter. Shameful. Among them, are this one and this one. They were both pretty good. Interesting narrative stance, good characters, a few emotional surprises. 

There's no explanation for this neglect of good books, except that our days are filled with hammering and sudden shots from nail guns all fueled by roaring compressors. At night, the blue tarp of doom covers the half finished renovations. We pray that no snow will fall, and wonder how much money we have left. 

Perhaps that's why this book by Morag Joss is such a fun read. In it, the setting of a house is a major character, as our house is for us just now. Also, I think it's ballsy for a thriller to be funny, and this one is. Each clever line is a happy surprise. 

The story is about Jean, an aging house sitter on what she knows will be her last assignment caring for an enormous estate while the owners are away on a summer-long vacation. She has had a tough life and a couple of events just send her right over the edge, where she decides that she owns the house. Then she decides to reclaim a son she gave up for adoption years before, even though she acknowledges that she's never been pregnant. She puts an ad in the paper for this son and attracts Michael, who is a petty thief and my favorite character in the book. He steals from churches, and he's not very good at it. There's an early, hilarious scene in which his getaway car breaks down. "The bloody van! On the way here he had been so busy feeling like Jeff Stevenson coping with a dodgy alternator or gearbox or whatever that he had not stopped to think about the van's next journey; it fell a little short of Criminal Mastermind standard for the getaway vehicle to be on its last legs." Michael acquires a stray character, too, a pregnant young girl on the run from her abusive boyfriend. The three of them make up a sort of family on this estate. And yet the way they manage this is through pretty dark means that get ever darker as the story progresses. 

But back to the humor. What I love is that the narrator has such wicked fun with the story, and especially the minor characters. Late in the book we meet Shelley, who is Jean's manager at the house-sitting firm and who is not a nice person. She's made an impromptu visit to the estate to check up on Jean and she's likely to learn that Jean has been selling off the furniture and drinking the expensive wine from the cellar. But we slow down as she arrives:

"Jean came out from the back of the house at the sound of Shelley's car on the gravel, patting her tidied hair and intending to give the impression that she knew her place and never used the front door. She had an idea that Shelley would notice and appreciate that sort of observance. But all of Shelley's attention was concentrated on heaving herself out of the hot car. She moved with a sense of grievance, as if she were being made to carry a weight that she considered privately was heavier than anything she could reasonably be expected to shift."

There's a very tense scene in which Jean introduces Michael and his new girlfriend, the runaway, and their ridiculous cover story. Then they walk together into the house as Shelley's phone continually sounds to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

"But Michael had started to lead the way down the path between the rose beds and Jean rather delicately dropped back and allowed him to. He was striding along rather fast now. Behind Jean, Shelley struggled along last with a lumpy shoulder bag on one arm and a ladylike black briefcase in the other. There was another volley of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which Shelley this time silenced with a couple of exasperated stabs. Jean turned and watched her. She was wearing low-fronted black shoes with heels like short pencils, which gave the impression that her thick legs ended in hooves. With each step her foot sank deep into the gravel, so she was taking dainty little steps, as if doing so would somehow make her lighter. The effect was of a cow trying to tiptoe."
Sometimes as a reader, I'd just rather have fun.