Sunday, February 24, 2013



   Yesterday my mini-family (me, husband, daughter) saw HIT THE WALL, an off-Broadway play newly transferred from Chicago and still in previews at the Barrow Street Theater. The reason we went can be summed up in three words: Rania Salem Manganaro (above), who was in the original production in Chicago and is now inhabiting the same role in New York. My husband used to teach with Rania's dad at Rutgers and was a close friend of her parents, and he's known her and her equally amazing brothers approximately since each of them was born. I've only known Rania since she was about five, but even that is a fairly long time, don't you think? I can't describe how incredible it was to see her onstage in a New York theater, acting her heart out. Let the rest of her family be academics if they insist, but Rania is an ACTRESS.
     If you're in the New York area, you should go see this play, even if by chance you don't know Rania personally. It's set in The Village, in and outside of the Stonewall Inn (which is, in real life, right around the corner from the theater), and all the action takes place on the night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Just writing the date astonishes me. Can it really be true that less than 50 years ago, gay bars and clubs were illegal? That cops could raid them any time they felt like it, and haul people off to jail for being gay and wanting to drink and dance with other gay people? It felt so strange trying to explain this to my daughter before we went to the play, to try to establish a context for her. To her, it's history, something to read about in books, but I and many of the people in the audience remember Stonewall. I read about it in the paper; they, I surmise, lived it. And speaking of books, here's one my daughter, or anyone, should read to learn more about that era: Michael Chabon's THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. It's not only an extraordinary novel (they don't give out Pulitzers for nothing, ya know), but, among many other dazzling feats, it brings this chapter of history to sad, vivid life.
     To call Barrow Street an intimate theater is a bit of an understatement. We sat in the first row, which was at stage level, and before the show someone from the theater came over to ask me to push my purse and umbrella all the way under my seat, lest the actors trip over them! Perhaps you can imagine how mortified my 16-year-old daughter must have been to be sitting with her parents at the point when a handsome young actor ran nude across the stage within ten feet of her. But it was a thrilling experience (for me, at least) to be so close to the action. (All the action, not just that part of it.) The play was by turns funny, horrifying, and moving.The cast was very talented (especially Rania, of course), and it was worth the trip for me just to hear those young people, all born into the post-Stonewall era, standing tall and screaming, "Out of the closet and into the streets!" It's a good thing to be reminded of one night that changed history. Gay or straight, this play will make you proud. 
     ADDENDUM 3/19/13:  The New York Times likes the play too!! I wouldn't steer you wrong!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Meg Rosoff: WHAT I WAS

     If you've read my recent post about the SCBWI New York conference, you already know that after listening to Meg Rosoff's keynote address, I went to the conference bookstore at my first opportunity and bought two of her novels. They were HOW I LIVE NOW and WHAT I WAS - I thought the two titles created a nice symmetry.
     I should interject here that although I felt drawn to Meg Rosoff's books, I in no way felt drawn to her personally. I found her ferocious and terrifying, which was fine when she was up there on a stage and I was down there hidden among the audience, but would not be at all fine if I were ever to meet her. I had no doubt that Meg Rosoff would eat me for breakfast, spit out the bones, and then, in her patented, somewhat ridiculous AmBrit accent (cf. that other SCBWI keynoter, Julie Andrews, who has probably lived in the U.S. much longer than Rosoff has lived in England, but still sounds as if she'd never set foot on any soil but the Queen's), demand of whoever was standing nearby a cup of tea laced with blood.
     Anyway. I read HOW I LIVE NOW shortly after the conference ended. As agents delight in telling me after reading my submissions, I liked it but did not love it. This past weekend, I began reading WHAT I WAS. (Footnote: I know I'm coming late to the party. The book was published in 2008. But this blog is MY party, and so I assert my manorial privilege of arriving whenever I feel like it.) I finished reading the book this morning because I ran out of excuses to delay getting to the end.
     As the title seems to suggest, the narrator is approaching the end of his long life and reflecting back on its most seminal period: the year he was sixteen. But how strange... He chooses to call his memoir not "Who I Was," but "What I Was," as if from a distance of 80 years he sees that younger self not so much as a person, but as a force, or perhaps simply an agent of a force. It does not seem to be an accident that two inexorable forces serve to underpin the book's entire narrative: history, which sooner or later will get everyone, and geography, which sooner or later, in the guise of the sea, will get everyone trying to live on the coast of East Anglia near St. Oswald's school for boys.
     I knew as soon as I read the first paragraph that I had already fallen under the sway of this book and had no choice but to let myself get pulled all the way in.
     "Rule number one: Trust no one.
     By the time we reached St.Oswald's, fog had completely smothered the coast. Even this far inland, the mist was impenetrable; our white headlights merely illuminated the fact that we couldn't see."
     Is there anyone, do you think, who could read that and then toss the book aside, saying "Meh?" If there are such people, I'm not among them. I was instantly lost in the story of the nameless narrator, a boy who is almost entirely lost to himself in an impenetrable world until the day he meets Finn and his true life begins. But, as he learns later, the beginning of his true life is also the beginning of the end of Finn's, and so the novel is both a deep, abiding love story and an elegy.
     I was right: Meg Rosoff is both ferocious and terrifying. If she weren't, she would probably not be as qualified as she is to write about love.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


     I always have a bit of a problem when authors write about love that isn't tinged, however faintly, with hate.  The exception is the Romeo-and-Juliet story where the lovers don't ever get to spend enough time together to begin to hate each other, e.g., John Green's THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. But when people who love each other come to know the other intimately, love takes on many different aspects, including its opposite. Is there, anywhere in the world, a parent of a screaming toddler who hasn't fantasized, if only for a second or two, about throwing him/her out of a window?  Or a spouse who hasn't felt grateful at one time that there were no weapons nearby to help bring an argument with the beloved other to a close? If you say you've never felt that way - well, I'm not saying you're lying. But you know you are.
     I would like to offer a photographic example to support this claim. Anyone who reads this blog knows without question that I love my son, right? And yet -

and yet, when I am trying to make dinner and he is trying to force me to dance with him instead, the word "love" does not fully encompass the emotions I am experiencing. It does not even come close.
     I cite to Katherine Paterson's classic (Newbery-winning) novel, JACOB HAVE I LOVED. Louise hates her gifted twin sister Caroline because their twin-world is a pie chart, and Caroline has never left Louise any more than one thin slice of the pie. But Louise also hates her loyal best friend, Cal, for being clumsy and overweight and literal-minded and generally flawed. And when Louise develops a humiliating crush on the almost-70-year-old Captain, she hates him too, for putting her in such a ridiculous and horrifying position. She hates that she, and they, are slaves to the human condition.
     In John Green/David Levithan's WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, Will Grayson I deeply loves his lifelong best friend Tiny, which does not at all preclude him from hating Tiny too. Every time Tiny embarks on a new romance, he abandons Will, only seeking him out again when the romance (inevitably) ends. He takes Will and his devotion for granted. He makes unreasonable demands. He is, as Will finally tells him, a terrible best friend. Will hates that about Tiny, and yet loves him irrevocably all the same.
     Love makes us vulnerable. From the moment we begin to love someone, we reflexively begin to fear losing them, and the love becomes inextricably intertwined with the fear. Our ability to love another person is our greatest strength, and simultaneously our Achilles' heel. We love our children desperately, and question every decision we make on their behalf, and continue to feel responsible for them as long as we live. The more we love our partners, the less alone we feel, but the more we dread feeling alone. And how could we not resent that? What a terrible burden we've taken on. What a priceless, terrifying gift has been entrusted to us. And whom can we blame but the imperfect, annoying, mortal objects of our love?
     So when I read a book about ennobling, unwavering, eternal love, I have a hard time believing in it. I want to see love accompanied by passion and awe, but also by guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, doubt, disillusionment, and yes, a degree of hatred as well. That's what makes it 3-D. Anything less doesn't do full justice to the vast array of emotions of which we humans are capable, whether we want to be or not.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


     Okay then. My own completely idiosyncratic take on the Conference, which I attended this past weekend. Observations, in descending order of importance:
     1. Although this year's Conference, like last year's, was conducted at the Grand Central Hyatt, and I again booked a single room for the Saturday night, my room this year was NOT co-occupied by a malevolent, window-blind-opening spirit as it was last year. And I was very relieved. But also a tiny bit disappointed.
     2. Meg Rosoff was the morning keynote speaker on Saturday. She deliberately presents herself as a ticking time bomb that you can't defuse because you can't stop laughing until it's too late. I immediately went to the Conference bookstore and bought two of her novels.
     3. Julie Andrews. Julie Andrews. I was among the Conference attendees old enough to remember a pre-Mary-Poppins-movie world, old enough to have been astounded as a child by the then-state-of-the-art animation. She did a presentation with her daughter/coauthor, Emma Walton Hamilton, about how and why they write children's books together, and I sat there thinking: this must be the most
well-adjusted mother-and-daughter celebrity team on the face of this planet. But I must admit that I found myself much less intrigued to learn that Julie has been writing children's books for the past 40 years than I was by the fact that I was seated in the very same room as both The Nanny Who Fell From the Sky and The Moonbeam Who Can't Be Held in One's Hand. It was more than I could really absorb, to be honest. Which explains why I lay awake for hours on Monday night uncontrollably running through and analyzing every scene in The Sound of Music. I remember reading somewhere that Christopher Plummer hated the film, to which he referred as "The Sound of Mucus." To be fair, it couldn't have been easy trying to portray the psychologically improbable Captain Von Trapp, switching on a dime from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jeckyll.  But there was never a second when I didn't believe that the Maria I was watching on the big screen was utterly real.
     4. Mo Willems, the closing keynote speaker. I don't pretend to know anything about the world of illustration, and I'm in no way qualified to critique his artwork. Which is a good thing, because I really don't get why he is the current It guy. All I could think of the whole time he was speaking was: please. Someone get this man some Adderall.
     5. Shaun Tan was also a keynote speaker and is also an author-illustrator. He blew me away.
     6. I didn't mingle (because I'm shy), or hand out my card (because I don't have one), or make connections that will enhance my writing career (because I don't have one), but I saw some people whom I already knew but don't see often, and it was wonderful to have the chance to catch up with them.
     7. I was glad to be there. I attended two breakout sessions and learned a few things about the publishing industry. I choose to believe that every time I attend a writers' conference, I bump up my level of professionalism a notch.
     8. I can only be who I am, and write what I write. I'm not going to get any younger, but I will never be too old for either of those things to remain true.