Thursday, March 22, 2012

In a Café

Why are there so many wonderful Irish women writers?  I read more than a few short stories while contemplating what to post for Irish Short Story Week (which actually runs for about two weeks), hosted by Mel from The Reading Life, many from my book Women & Fiction: Short Stories By and About Women, edited by Susan Cahill.  I read stories by Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Alice Munro (not Irish), and the author whose story I've chosen to focus on, Mary Lavin.  As I read, I became more and more enthralled by short stories as a genre; I even read some online, which is not my favorite way to read stories (I prefer the intimacy of reading from an actual book, in a chair or in bed).  Mel often credits me for sparking his interest in short stories, but now it's his Irish Short Story challenge that has reinvigorated my interest in them.

Mary Lavin (1912–1996) was an Irish short story writer and novelist.  Her work often featured feminist issues and concerns, and she is considered to be a pioneer.  Born in East Walpole, MA, she moved to Ireland with her family at the age of ten, and later attended Loreto College,  a convent school in Dublin, before studying English and French at University College Dublin (UCD).  In 1943, Mary Lavin married William Walsh, a Dublin lawyer, and also published her first book,  Tales from Bective Bridge, a collection of short stories about life in rural Ireland.  She was widowed in 1954, after she had achieved considerable success as a writer (she received numerous honors and awards), and was left with a farm and three children to take care of.  Although she wrote two long novels, she was partial to short stories, and wished she could break her novels up into short stories.  Mary Lavin felt that it was in the short story that "a writer distills the essence of his (or her) thought",  that the short story "is determined by the writer's own character",  and that short-story writing is "only looking closer than normal into the human heart. . . ."

In a Café by Mary Lavin is a short story about a meeting in a café that highlights her talents as a writer.  Set in Dublin, Ireland, this story begins in a back street café run by two students from the Art College (who often leave the place unattended, to have coffee in a café across the street).  The story is astonishing in its ability to convey the inner life of the main character, Mary, a widow, who's meeting with a recently widowed, younger acquaintance, Maudie.  In this café, while Mary waits nervously for Maudie, she meets and converses briefly with Johann van Stiegler, a young artist (with plump hands that fascinate her, and that are unlike her deceased husband's slender hands). She's surprised and pleased and unsure about Johann's interest in her, all at the same time.  The artist provides the address of his flat (which is also his studio) on a piece of notebook paper,  and invites Mary to come and see his work anytime, although it's Maudie who takes the paper from him and hands it to Mary.  (I will say no more about the plot because I don't want to spoil the story for potential readers.)

This is a remarkable story about two meetings in a café: Mary meets Johann by chance while waiting for Maudie.  A visit to a café may sound like a simple, ordinary occurrence, but the author transforms it into a larger event by presenting the emotional life of the protagonist, Mary, in an uncannily realistic and believable manner.  Mary compares herself to Maudie (who is young and attractive enough to remarry), and feels old and dowdy in comparison--and lonely.  She find herself drawn to the artist, and yet she is also thinking about and remembering her deceased husband, Richard.  Mary Lavin depicts many varied human emotions in this short story through the innermost thoughts of Mary, including love, worry, resentment, guilt, despair, loneliness, and hope.  In a Café is a marvelous example of short fiction by Mary Lavin.  It's somewhat autobiographical in that both the author and the protagonist were widows named Mary who had farms and children to take care of.  I read this story in my book, Women & Fiction, a terrific source of short fiction by women.

Special thanks to Mel from The Reading Life for hosting Irish Short Story Week for the second consecutive year.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blogger Glitches

I've been having some blogging difficulties lately.  Are these glitches due to changes or "improvements" made by Blogger?  Everything was working very well until the beginning of this week.

First of all, the quick edit icons are suddenly missing from my blog, even though the quick edit boxes are checked.   I can still edit and change things on my blog,  but this now requires additional steps (and a bit of savvy).  I'd like the little icons to return, the sooner the better.  


Also missing are Labels below my posts. They are no longer visible, yet I did nothing to make them disappear. I've painstakingly typed them in over the past years, so I'm upset that they're gone!

My blog list of "Bodacious Blogs" was emptied. This may or may not be related to the fact that I changed to a custom domain a few days ago through Blogger. I had to add the blogs I formerly had listed to my list (and I found that I could not rename them). If the old list reappears, then I will need to get rid of duplicates.

I'm trying to be patient with Blogger, but it's been frustrating to me because I do not have a lot of "extra" time to spend trying to figure out what worked so well before (if it ain't broke, don't fix it!).  Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mailbox Monday

The best thing about this back-to day is Mailbox Monday!  During the month of March, Anna from Diary of an Eccentric is hosting this meme, which is "on tour".  Last week, I received two books in the mail.

The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch arrived from Putnam for an upcoming TLC book tour.  I took a look inside and noticed that many of the chapters begin with short quotes from popular songs (and the title of the book is the name of a film, album, and song by Led Zeppelin).  Blue Monday, the first book in a new series by husband and wife writing team Nicci French, is a thriller that I won on Naida's blog, the bookworm.  I'm eager to read both of these books!

Thanks for stopping by for a peek into my mailbox.  What new books have you received recently?

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Conversation with Helen Schulman

Helen Schulman is the author of a short story collection, Not a Free Show, and the novels, A Day at the BeachP.S.The Revisionist, Out of Time, and the book I've just read and reviewed, This Beautiful Life.

Welcome, Helen!  I'm honored to have the opportunity to interview you.  I'll start my interview with a confession. We went to the same high school, The Bronx High School of Science.  I'm not sure that you knew me, but you became friends with a good friend of mine, so I knew who you were. When I first heard your name in relation to this book, I wondered if it was you from my high school days. Then I saw your picture, which confirmed that it was you. That made me interested in reading your work.  

1) Tell us about what inspired you to write This Beautiful Life, a gripping story about a 15-year-old boy, Jake, who impulsively forwards a sexually explicit video sent to him of and by a younger girl, Daisy, to a friend, who then forwards it to others, and which soon goes "viral" and is viewed by countless others around the world.  I know you've been asked this before, but I think it's important to discuss. There are serious technological dangers for young people related to the Internet and cell phones which were not present while we were growing up, such as what happens in your book and "sexting". (How do we warn kids?  How can we prevent them from doing things that they'll regret--can we?)

HS: The novel was inspired by many real life events—more than I reckoned for when I first starting thinking about it. This Beautiful Life is set in 2003, the year I sort of woke up to the fact that incidents that once would have lived and died in a private sphere of embarrassment had through the ease of the internet become huge scandals with a worldwide audience. Over email, a friend sent me a photo of a bridesmaid reaching joyously to catch a bouquet at a wedding, only to have her breasts pop out of her strapless dress. A young woman in the U.K. sent a recent date a sexy email and he forwarded it to a few friends and within days the email had gone global and the woman was afraid to leave her house. And then there were kids and their indiscretions, incidents I read about in the New York Times about cyber-bullying, but also thoughtlessly self-inflicted wounds where kids sent pictures and videos of themselves naked or performing sexual acts. I think of myself as a private person, and I found by proxy the after-effects of these actions haunting and painful. There were several incidents in New York City, where I live, involving teenagers and their schools and I found the gossip surrounding them overwhelming—some compassionate conversations to be sure, but also some needlessly vicious. I was working on my last book then,  A Day At The Beach, and was thinking ahead to my next project. I thought to write a non-fiction account of one of these incidents but was stymied, so since my first instinct is to make things up, that’s what I did in writing this book.

As for your question regarding how things have changed since when we were kids (re: the Internet, sexting, etc.), I think in a lot of ways my book was meant to be a defense of privacy.  It goes without saying that the Internet has changed the way we live now--in great ways in terms of collecting information, forming communities, even inspiring and maintaining relatively peaceful uprisings like the Arab Spring or our own Occupy Wall Street. But it can also be a risky forum in terms of privacy violation, and the fact that the Internet does not forget (at least at this moment) presents new hazards for adults and kids alike. I don't think any of us really have come to terms with its powers yet, and certainly adults seem to be making the same mistakes kids make all the time (Anthony Weiner is a case in point). There is something about typing alone onto a screen that seems to shed inhibitions, at the same time as it makes it possible for one's actions to become public and irretrievable--a very dangerous combination.

2) In This Beautiful Life you write in the third person, from the perspectives of members of the Bergamot family, Jake, his parents, Liz and Richard (Coco, their precocious Chinese daughter, is of course too young), and Daisy ("Great Gatsby") Cavanaugh. Why did you chose to use multiple perspectives, and how difficult was that?  You seem most sympathetic to Jake and Daisy (or at least I was), probably because they're young (and innocent), and didn't mean any harm.  Daisy presented herself to Jake as a gift, and he was just puzzled about what to do, and a bit proud of the video (look what I'm getting!).

HS: I used third-person limited points of view so that I could get under the skin of the different members of the family. I had a great deal of sympathy for all of the characters, even when they made terrible choices and did terrible things, which is why I chose to employ their different perspectives.  I had a lot of territory that I wanted to cover with this book--the Internet was only part of it. Even though I see the technological revolution as a real earthquake in the culture, and a divide between generations, I was also frankly interested in other aspects of post 9/11 America, the greed and selfishness that led to the banking crises of 2008 and the world-wide recession. I was also interested in sex roles, the early sexualization of girls for example (poor Daisy and Coco, they are taught from a very young age that that is where their power lies).  And I was pretty interested in what happens to highly trained women of a certain economic and educational class who choose not to work, and also what happens to their partners. When we were in high school, which was the '70's, I did not think that we would be embracing such rigid sexual roles again, but I think many of us have, often out of good, loving parental reasons, but not without cost. Richard and Lizzie are both really talented academics and, at heart, parents who love their children, and yet the way they have divided up their roles in their family, coupled with their ambitions, has warped their strengths, their relationships with their kids and with each other.

3) Jake, along with his family, is quite distraught, but at school he is almost seen as a hero by the boys, and is now the recipient of a new girl's ardor.  As awful as the events are in this book for the Bergamot family,  isn't part of the point of this story that even negative events may have some positives, and that things eventually blow over or die down?

HS: I often think about Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" when I'm writing, because his play about the Salem Witch trials (written as an allegory of McCarthyism) profoundly illustrates the effects of a specific time period on people's lives.  Even if someone declares themselves to be a witch now (or a Communist) they won't be hung or blackballed (we sincerely hope). So yes, everything has its moment, and the moment when Daisy sends her email and Jake forwards it, is the hottest moment for a scandal of this kind.  It happens in 2003, before "sexting" really, and before this kind of teenaged behavior became ubiquitous.  I'm not trying to devalue its impact now--there are plenty of kids who have really suffered recently over sexting scandals--there are kids labeled as sex offenders for sending them, and kids who've committed suicide after being bullied because of them.  But my novel takes place at the start of this phenomenon, so it's all the more shocking to the community.   As a writer, I always want to put as much pressure as I can on my characters--that creates dramatic tension.  But there's another factor at play here that I think you are alluding to, and that is that some things in our culture, which were formerly "shameful" are now career or social calling cards.   Paris Hilton is a prime example. She achieved celebrity via a sex tape.  So for some of these kids, some of this notoriety is sort of cool. Rachel, the girl you mention above, is so damaged, she gets off on degradation. I think that the boy who is being kind to Jake is telling him that there are way worse things in the world than this episode, and they blow over too, so that this one will as well--there's wisdom and generosity in that. The kids in the novel also talk about ubiquity and what ubiquity does to shame (which is that it dilutes it). I think some of the characters wrestle with how inherently "shameful" they think Daisy's act is--Richard, for example, sees the bravery in it, the desire to connect and to be known. 

4) Let's talk about Daisy, the girl who made the explicit video of herself for Jake. She's an interesting character, and becomes famous or infamous (the distinction between the two seems to have lessened) as a result of her actions. While you are not telling young girls to do what she did, you are saying, I think, make the most out of the situation that you're in, even if it's devastating, which is quite empowering.

HS: I don't think I'm saying make the most out of this situation.  I think what I am trying to convey through Daisy is that a) she has been taught from practically the moment that she was born that her value and currency in the world is primarily sexual, so that it makes sense that she would see this video as a means to getting love.  And b) that she is a survivor.  I don't think she is unscathed by this episode, not by a long shot.   I think it hurts her deeply and it costs her tremendously.  I just think she is not stopped by it.  Jake is.  He is more vulnerable and weaker.  And the parents and the school and all the lawyers rob him of any chance really of learning to grow, to accept responsibility and to make the reparations that he can, and then learning to live with the baggage of what he can't repair.  This leaves him feeling crippled.

5) Your story is set in New York, my hometown, and I enjoyed the references to various parts of NY and the culture.  I do think, though, that it's a story that could have happened anywhere in the U.S., or in other countries that are also technologically advanced.  How important was it to you to set the novel in NY? (Do you subscribe to the belief that we should write about what we know?)

HS: I set the story in New York because once again it was Ground Zero, only this time in terms of the banking crises, and the novel is meant to be, among other things, a bit of a time capsule on Post 9/11/ pre-crash America. This same story has occurred all over the country--I've done some traveling for the book and some radio, and wherever I go people have a similar story to tell (with different details of course). I picked New York because of that city's "big guns"--money, media, litigation--and how explosive the community's eruptions were in utilizing them in response, which seemed emblematic of America during that time. But every community has its own big guns and I suppose I would have employed those if I'd set the story in Texas or Kansas or California. You are right in suggesting that I do know this city well--I do. I've lived here for most of my life. But I don't think writers have to write about what they know, they have to write about what they can fully imagine.

6) How do you juggle all of your responsibilities as a writer, associate professor of writing at The New School, and mother?  Do you have any advice to aspiring writers who also have a lot demands on their time?

HS: I just got tenure last year at The New School and so I am on sabbatical this semester, my first Spring semester off in about 20 years. It's interesting, because usually I am so stressed out and so scrambling, and now I have the luxury of time. The break came at a good moment, there was more work to do promoting my book here and in England, there was a screenplay to finish, etc.,  and the hard work of dreaming up what comes next (which is the hardest work of all, for me at any rate). I am really enjoying it--I've traveled some, read more, seen friends and thankfully I've spent more time with my family (I teach at night which is hard on everyone). From where I'm sitting now, I keep thinking, how did I do all of this stuff at once, while teaching?  But I have, and I will do it again, starting in June when I go back into the classroom.  I guess I just find ways to slip in time to write when I can--it's not a very comfortable or steady schedule, but over time books get written.   I've learned not to count the hours at my desk or the years on projects, but just to do what I can, when I can.

7) What are you willing to reveal about your next book or writing project?

HS: I just finished a screenplay, an adaptation of a super-short story of mine, for an independent producer.  Floating on the horizon is the prospect of adapting This Beautiful Life for the academy award winning Danish director, Susanne Biers, but we're still looking for funding for the project, so that's on hold (I hope temporarily).  I'm working on short fiction now, nonfiction, and researching my next long project.

Helen, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, some of which were really multiple questions. Your responses gave me more insight into your book, This Beautiful Life.  Best of luck in all of your future  projects!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This Beautiful Life

While some mothers may adopt a French, laissez-faire attitude, or  relinquish their worries to a guardian angel, for many of us, worry is a constant. When you have teenagers, the worry-load increases, your worries worsen, and center around dating, drugs and alcohol, driving, and other potential dangers. And with technology that allows us to capture and record nearly everything at the touch of a key, the Internet and cell phones pose new (or newish) dangers, especially for teenagers (or anyone who doesn't consider the consequences of their actions), such as explicit photos, videos, and "sexting", which can be shared far too easily, and can be incredibly damaging (to people of any age).  As the mother of two teenage girls, when I decided to read This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman, I expected that it would increase my anxiety level, but I also thought that this novel, a modern story set in New York in 2003, sounded real, "relatable", and thought-provoking.  I also had another reason for choosing this book, which I'll mention in my upcoming interview with this author.

Published in 2011, This Beautiful Life is the story of a "perfect" American family, parents Richard and Liz, fifteen-year-old Jake, and six-year-old Coco (an adorable, sassy Chinese girl), told from multiple points of view.  Recently relocated from Ithaca, New York to New York City, they enjoy a high standard of living and "privileged" lifestyle on one income, and are content yet expectant.  Richard, perfect-looking and energetic, is flourishing in his career at the city university, and Liz, who has a Ph.D. but has given up her career aspirations, at least temporarily, to take care of the kids, are concerned and involved parents. Jake and Coco attend special schools and are invited to exclusive events, including, unfortunately as it turns out, parties.  Their lives are drastically changed in an instant, as a result of an email from an eighth-grade girl Jake met at a party, Daisy Cavanaugh. When Jake impulsively forwards the sexually explicit video sent to him of and by Daisy to a friend, who then forwards it to others, it quickly goes "viral".

"It was all over the country, maybe the world, even.  So fast.  Just like that.  Forward and Send. It was kind of incredible how fast it went.  Faster than fire.  Practically the speed of sound or even light."
~This Beautiful Life, Helen Schulman

As a result of this video,the Bergamot family is thrust into a very uncomfortable spotlight and a legal battle,  in a provocative story that forces you to think about the gravity of many contemporary issues, including the influence, downside, and dangers of advanced technology, and of the early sexualization of girls.

Although it was painful for me to read this story at times, it was difficult precisely because of Helen Schulman's talents as a writer.  In This Beautiful Life, whose premise is sadly too believable and realistic, her characters spring to life, real, flawed, and unforgettable. As parents, the Bergamots are not perfect--Liz gets stoned occasionally before school meetings, and Richard seems  self-absorbed--but they are caring people trying to do their best with their children, although there are factors outside of their control.  Jake is also a very real character, an "ordinary" teenage boy with a crush on an attractive, unavailable girl, Audrey. He struggles with numerous things and is shell-shocked by this event, which has totally spiralled out of control and now dominates his life (and that of his parents).  Daisy is greatly affected by everything, too, naturally, but she's able to cope in a way that allows her to move forward, eventually.  I read this pithy yet richly-detailed book quickly and anxiously; it seized my complete attention from the first shocking chapter until the conclusion (with  no dull spots in-between).  And while I can't say that I "enjoyed" it,  I did feel the impact of a potent story that I'll continue to think about for a long time.

Special thanks to Trish from TLC for sending me a copy of This Beautiful Life.  For other reviews of the book, please visit the other stops on TLC's This Beautiful Life book blog tour.  Please stay tuned for my upcoming interview with author Helen Schulman.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday, hosted this month by Anna from Diary of an Eccentric,  provides a socially acceptable way for us to boast about our new books.  Here's what arrived in my mailbox last week.  Actually, my mailman very kindly delivered these directly to my front door!

For an upcoming TLC tour I received a new novel, The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone.  A slim book, Ten Healthy Teas, arrived from the author, Valerie B. Lull.  I also received Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone, which I won on Leslie's blog,  Under My Apple Tree.  I also recently won (but have not yet received) a thriller,  Blue Monday by Nicci French, on Naida's blog, the bookworm, and I just found out this morning that I won a novel about the antebellum South, The Rebel Wife by Taylor M. Polites, on Kathy's blog, BermudaOnion's Weblog.  I'm very excited about these new books!

What new books did you get in the mail, or from other sources, recently?  Your comments are welcomed.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friends Like Us: Discussion with Belinda and Brooke

"I spend my days watching Ben and Jane become a couple, and I will myself to happiness.  I make myself a scientist of them, an expert in my narrow field, a Ben-and-Jane-ologist.  How close can I get without compromising my subject?  Move closer, a little closer."
~Friends Like Us, Lauren Fox

I think we may need to agree to disagree! Today I'm taking part in a small group discussion about the book  Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox, with Belinda from BookBelle and Brooke from Books Distilled.  Please stop by BookBelle to see what we have to say about Friends Like Us.

Some of the books featured here were given to me free of charge by authors, publishers, and agents. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


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