Sunday, March 25, 2012

Happy Birthday Amy!

This will be an extremely brief post - I just need to note that this Tuesday will be my baby daughter's 16th birthday.  How could this be?  And yet, it is.  In her honor, I will report a short conversation I had with her recently.  I said something much like, "Wanna know how stupid I am?  I just put my laptop onto the chair and then, one minute later, was looking around for it in its usual place and thinking it got stolen."  To which she replied, "That's not stupid.  You're confusing stupid with senile.  If you're stupid, you can always do something about it.  You can learn stuff.  But if you're senile - huh!  Good luck with that."
     I love you, Amy.  Happy birthday.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Patrick and His Mission

Where were we?  I remember: Patrick, now a bishop, sets out on his mission to Ireland, where he remains for the rest of his life.  And what does he accomplish during those 30 years?  Enormous things.
     1.  In Cahill's words, he becomes "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery."  Having been a slave himself, he is able to feel empathy for the dregs of society.  "Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt."
     2.  He establishes indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inhabitants provided the people with an alternative ideal to the warlord/kings' might-equals-right: monks and nuns, by devoting themselves unselfishly to God, demonstrated that "the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society."
     3.   He became one with the Irish people, and as a result, "found a way of swimming down to the depth of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination - making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish."  He did this by the brilliant technique of stabilizing the Irish worldview without sacrificing its magical underpinnings.  In ancient Celtic lore, "traps seem to lie hidden at every crossroads, and trickster-gods lurk behind each tree."  As I discussed in my previous post, "An Offer You Can, But Shouldn't, Refuse," the cailleach, or hag-goddess, was one of those shape-shifting, terrifying, untrustworthy creatures whose presence made life so precarious and unpredictable.  Patrick pulled off the trick of accepting the existence of magic, in the sense of a force inexplicable and unknowable to us, but he attributed this magical force to God - making it comforting rather than frightening.  In Cahill's beautiful words: "This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread.  Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out."
     Of course, even after converting to Christianity, many of the Irish clung to their pagan ways, to a greater or lesser degree.  And it's this tradition that led, through a long and torturous path that violently intersected with Puritanism, to the burning of witches in Salem, Massachusetts.  But none of that was Patrick's fault.  More than just a saint, he was a visionary, a man ahead of his time, and he spread his kindness out over Ireland like a warm cloak.  Let's try to remember who he was when we celebrate his day.

Erin go bragh!

The most wonderful thing has happened to me!  I've had people from other countries view my blog: Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Germany, Brazil, Colombia.  But, for the first time, sometime between about 6:00 p.m. yesterday and noon today, someone from IRELAND looked at my blog!  I've told you about the fact that my next book is set in 17th-century Ireland, and that I've immersed myself in research and am trying to even learn a bit of Gaelic.  But I haven't mentioned that my obsession with things Irish is of long standing.  How can I help it?  These are people who open their mouths, and poetry falls out.  I was born to parents of Russian-Polish descent with the misleading surname of Brody, and eventually, enough people asked me whether I was Irish for me to start believing that I actually was.  I was definitely the only girl in my Jewish parochial high school who made a point of wearing green each St. Patrick's Day.  Years later, I even went so far as to marry a man named Eagan the first time around.  So perhaps, knowing all this, you can now understand what a magical confluence of events it seemed to me when someone from Ireland happened on my blog, on or about St. Patrick's Day.
     To commemorate this occasion, I've decided to blog about St. Patrick.  The source for all the information I'm about to share is Thomas Cahill's incredible book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization."  They did, as a matter of fact, but that was centuries after St. Patrick lived and died, and it's revealed in a whole different part of the book than the section that discusses Patrick, the man.  Patricius, as he was known when he was growing up, a British citizen of the Roman empire, was kidnapped at age 16 and sold into slavery to an Irish tribal king.  He had been more or less an atheist up to then, but the deprivations of his life as an underfed, underclothed slave/shepherd in an isolated outpost of a foreign country turned his thoughts to prayer.  Six years later, as he slept, a voice told him that it was time for him to escape, and that his ship was ready.  Following the voice, Patricius walked 200 miles to an ocean inlet where he saw a cargo ship being loaded.  At first rejected by the sailors, Patricius prayed to God, and before he had finished, he heard the sailors calling for him to come on board.
     After performing a miracle for the sailors en route, Patricius returned home, but again a vision came to him in his sleep.  He heard an Irish multitude begging him to "come and walk among us once more."  The visions persised, and Patrick followed the voices to Gaul, where he joined a monastery and began to prepare for his ordination.  After a grueling experience (his education had been interrupted when he was first kidnapped, and he had little theological background or formal Latin training) he received his ordination and became, in Cahill's words, "virtually the first missionary bishop in history" - to Ireland.

     And there I will leave Patrick for now, because my husband and I are going to take our dogs (Murphy and Finnegan, as it happens) for a hike in the nearby Reservation, but I will post a Part II after we return.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

No Jokes This Time

I haven't posted anything recently about the Republican primary race, because frankly, I was feeling pretty satisfied that things were going well.  The GOP candidates were aggressively attacking each other; they were spending a lot of their own and their supporters' money; the race was promising to drag on indefinitely.  What wasn't to like?  But lately, the more the candidates begin to reveal their true colors, the more frightened I'm getting.  The other day, in a speech to some of his supporters, Sanctum Santorum dismissed global warming as some sort of unholy liberal trick.  I guess he hasn't just been through the same Northeast "winter" I've been through.  Sanctum sees no reason to protect the environment, and none of these boys see a need to protect women's freedom.  Mitt Romney, the one whom we have to presume will be left standing, has just announced that as President, he would eliminate Planned Parenthood.  Would he really?  Or is he just saying that to play to his audience?  And here's the big question: which of those two options is scarier?  It's not just Planned Parenthood, of course; his goal of wiping it out is just a symbol of where he plans to take the country.  There are so many places in this world where to be a woman is, by definition, to be unsafe in a host of different ways.  Do the women I see cheering for Sanctum understand that throughout history, up until fifty or so years ago, it was impossible for a woman to be sexually active, safe, and free of the risk of pregnancy, all at the same time?  Do they understand that in many parts of the world, that combination remains impossible, and that we are so much more fortunate than so many women who happened to have been born in, say, Afghanistan?  or Iran?  or Sudan?  And do they really think that, by preaching abstinence-only to their daughters, they have thereby eliminated any chance of unwanted pregnancies occurring within their own families?  If they truly allow themselves the luxury of accepting that foolish proposition, then they are not just deluded, but irresponsible.  I am not laughing at the two potentially viable GOP candidates any more.  I am afraid of them.  All women should be.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

For Our Daughters

The demeaning way women are portrayed in the media sends our daughters a terrible message about the goals toward which they should strive.  Let's try to stop it!

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Here's the interview I promised, with my friend Yvonne Ventresca.  She doesn't want to jinx her new project by talking much about it, but I think it's safe to say that she has jumped (at least for now) from nonfiction to fiction, and that we're hoping to hear good things on that front soon!

Yvonne Ventresca (

  • When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? What was your very first effort? Do you still have it in your possession?

I’ve always loved reading and writing. I still have notebooks filled with hundreds of bad-to-mediocre poems I wrote as a child. Sadly, I threw away my opening chapters of a novel called The Flood. I remember writing them by hand on loose leaf paper when I was about thirteen.

  •  What is it about writing for kids, as opposed to adults, that most interests/inspires you?

My favorite author as a kid was Zilpha Keatley Snyder I knew exactly where the SNY shelf of fiction books was located in the library. My best friend and I could lose ourselves for hours in books like hers. When I began to write, I realized I wanted to create that experience for other kids.

  • Your first published book was about careers, “Publishing.” How did that come about? Ditto for your second book, "Avril Lavigne?"

While I worked on some of my earlier fiction, I also freelanced, writing a series of articles about careers for high school students. Having that on my resume probably helped me land the Publishing assignment, since the book profiled several careers in the book publishing field. I worked for the same publisher (Lucent Books) on Avril Lavigne, which was for their “People in the News” series.

Your website offers a lot of helpful links and advice for new writers. What's the single most important tip you would give someone who's trying to get a start?

For the very beginner, making time to write has to become a priority. It’s helpful if you can train yourself to be creative during odd bits of time (like idling in the school pick up line) instead of waiting for a block of hours to magically become free.

Once you’ve written something, finding a good critique group (or partner) is important. They can motivate you, advise you, and help make your writing stronger. You don’t want an editor to be your first reader. The flaws need to be smoothed out first, and a helpful critique group can kindly point out the weaker points. Critiquing other people’s work in return helps hone your own skills.

My favorite book about writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird . She shares lots of writing wisdom.

  • For you, what's the hardest part about writing? The most fun part?

The hardest part is beginning a brand new project with lots of characters to create and blank pages to fill. There is a certain leap of faith you have to take, hoping that the ideas come together. The most fun part for me is revising once the story has a clear direction. It’s rewarding to watch the novel evolve and become stronger with each revision.

     That's it!  Thanks a million, Yvonne!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Back in the Saddle Again

Okay.  Kids' lit.  The ostensible reason I started this blog in the first place, and what with my obsessions with the GOP race and whatnot, I seem to have gotten off track.  I never did mention that last month I read "Dead End in Norvelt," by Jack Gantos, this year's Newbery winner.  I expect a lot from a Newbery winner, as I think I have a right to, and I was disappointed.  I much preferred "Moon Over Manifest," last year's winner, also a middle-grade novel set in an earlier 20th-century era, also featuring a lively and just-precocious-enough protagonist who proceeds to discover the secrets hidden within a seemingly uninteresting small town.  In each of the books, the narrator forges a connection with a wise older woman who holds the key to unlock the town's mysteries, which include at least one murder.  But "Manifest" makes no bones about its undercurrent of magical realism, whereas "Norvelt" professes to tell a straightforward, realistic story, but doesn't.  One major problem I have with the book is that the chief villian, who is depicted as a buffoon and seems to be satisfied to indulge in rather low-grade evil (fining the narrator's impoverished family for failing to cut their weeds, for example), turns out to be a serial killer.  But, bizarrely, this fact is revealed in a rather offhand way, as if it ranks not much higher in the general scheme of things than the killer's harmless pecadilloes.  There are a few things I feel compelled to point out about this.  First, I would have to say that I live in a much larger town than Norvelt was when the story takes place, and yet, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of serial killers I've known among my neighbors.  And second, as a career criminal defense lawyer, I feel qualified to assert that those who commit multiple homicides are taken quite seriously by the criminal justice system, regardless of their other foibles.  This is, in my opinion, an appropriate stance, and I am troubled by Gantos' seemingly relativistic viewpoint that seems to consider murder as not much more than a public nuisance.  Not only is this perhaps not the message we might want to be teaching our 8-to-12-year-old children; in the context of the story, it simply doesn't make sense.  I also felt that the insertion of many of the book's references to historical events, while interesting in themselves, seemed quite random, and failed to either advance the plot or reveal anything new about the characters.
     In sum, my reviews are: "Manifest," thumbs up, despite some flaws; "Norvelt," thumbs down, despite some strengths.  Feel free to disagree with me.  But if you do, LEAVE A COMMENT, OKAY???

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Eating Disorders

I just read Laurie Halse Anderson's new post on her blog, Mad Woman In the Forest, to which I've linked.  Read it.  And if you have a teenage daughter or friend or relative, make her read it too.  Ditto for Anderson's Wintergirls.  Eating disorders are killing girls and women, and the fashion industry is helping them do it.  Take whatever action you can to help make it stop.  Aren't there enough insane ways for people to die in this world without the addition of cultural directives to our daughters to starve themselves into oblivion?