Sunday, October 27, 2013


 I've previously reviewed Meg Rosoff's novel WHAT I WAS in this blog, after having heard her speak at last winter's SCBWI Conference. I called Rosoff "ferocious and terrifying." None of that has changed with her newest young-adult book (Putnam, 2013).
    The first thing 15-year-old Mila tells us is that she was named after a dog. "It helps if you know these things," she says. But I, the reader, don't feel helped; I feel mystified. Aha! In the opening paragraph of this novel Rosoff has already succeeded, once again, at her devilish game.
     Mila, not the reader, is the one who's helped by the information about her name, because Mila, like her parents, works as an interpreter. Her mother, a violinist, interprets musical notes on a page into living music. Her father, a translator of books, interprets the nuances of one language into the nuances of another. And Mila's expertise is in interpreting human behavior. Whatever the reader might make of the fact that Mila is named after a dog, Mila knows the truth: that her name is a symbol of the deep love her parents have for her, and for each other.
     Reading a Meg Rosoff novel is like attending a master class in writing. This, for example, is how Rosoff tells us that Matthew and Suzanne, the couple whose home Mila and her father are visiting, had a child who died:

          Now that I am fully awake I scan the room - a small desk, a metal swivel chair,
          two pairs of sneakers neatly placed in a corner. A bookshelf holds the Guinness
          Book of Records from a few years ago, a US Army Survival Manual, an ancient
          copy of Treasure Island with a worn leather cover, a tall pile of school notebooks
          and sports magazines. Just above is a shelf on which silver swimming trophies
          stand side by side and I realize with a start that this is Owen's room. There's a
          picture in a silver frame of him with Suzanne. He's got his arm round her shoul
          ders and is already a few inches taller. The room has been tidied and dusted,
          but a set of keys, a birthday card and a bowl of coins still sit on the dresser as
          if he will come along any minute to claim them.

     Go ahead, Meg Rosoff. Twist the scalpel in my heart. Or there's this conversation between Mila, whom her father calls Perjuntador (Portuguese for "asker of questions") and her father, whom Mila calls by his name, Gil, about an old friend of Gil's that Mila has just met:

          "How much do you like Lynda?"
          Gil frowns. "Why on earth do you ask that?"
          I look at him.
          "Just the normal amount. It was a long time ago that we were close," he says. "What are you
          thinking?" He peers at me closely.
          I don't answer.
          Then he says, "You don't think I'm in love with her?" He removes his glasses, rubs his eyes
          and replaces them. "I'm not. Of course I'm not." He sighs. "Perjuntador," he says softly.
          "The past is littered with people we've loved, or might have loved. You'll find out in time."
          I say nothing for a while. And then, "Let's go."

     It's Mila's Easter school vacation, and Mila and Gil are about to leave London to visit Matthew and Suzanne in upstate New York when Gil is informed by Suzanne that Matthew, Gil's closest friend from childhood, has suddenly gone missing. After consultation with Mila's mother, Gil decides that he and Mila are going to set off on their trip anyway. So, like all  stories that don't being with a stranger coming to town, this one begins with a journey, ostensibly for the purpose of finding Matthew. But, as Mira observes (and as always happens with journeys), she and Gil keep finding other things.
     I've been finding something myself lately: that reading exquisite books like the ones Rosoff writes spoils other books for me. It's like shining a spotlight on the poor other authors' failings: the plot holes, the crude transitions, the inadequate characterizations, all the places the seams show. Because the seams in Rosoff's books are virtually undetectable. The books themselves fall away, and all that's left is the puddle of lives within the pages. There's no wading into that puddle. You're lucky if you have enough time to catch your breath before you're pulled under.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


That's right - they're MY State Supreme Court, the New Jersey one, and today I'm taking full credit for them.  I've been arguing cases before various permutations of this Court for some fifteen years now.  Some of my all-time favorite Justices are no longer there: booted out by Chris Christie for political reasons (Justice Wallace), recently retired (Justice Long).   But the three depicted in the above photo are some of my current favorites: all deeply principled people, for whom I have tremendous respect.  They're (left to right) Justice Jaynee Lavecchia, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and Justice Barry Albin.  I like all the other sitting Justices too, actually, but I've never been prouder of all of them as a group than I've been since Friday.  They could have made a wishy-washy statement about gay marriage and still denied Christie's motion for a stay.  They could have said that the public has an interest in postponing same-sex weddings until after the entire substantive case has been decided (it'll be argued in January, and decided some time months later), but that it was outweighed by the interests of the same-sex couples who want to be able to marry.  But that's not what they did.  Instead they said, unanimously, that there is NO public interest in delaying the weddings.  None.  None at all.  Got it?
     Perhaps the bravest of them was the Chief Justice, who will come up for reappointment during what will presumably be Christie's next term as governor.  The Chief is a very, very smart man, who no doubt knows full well that with this ruling, he has just kissed any chance of his being reappointed by this governor goodbye.  But, unlike some Speakers of the House I could name, he did not put his own job security ahead of what he believed to be right.  He voted his conscience. 
      My Court.  I think I'll keep them.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Look.  It's the Milky Way.  Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it?
      It reminds me of the end of T.H.White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, first published in 1939, on the very eve of the Great War.  Some of my favorite words in all of literature since I was 14 or so, describing the quiet death of King Arthur in his tent in the midst of a fierce battle:
     He saw the problem before him as plain as a map. The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing - literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause - political geography. It was nothing else. Nations did not need to have the same kind of civilization, nor the same kind of leader, any more than the puffins and the guillemots did. They could keep their own civilizations, like Esquimaux and Hottentots, if they would give each other freedom of trade and free passage and access to the world. Countries would have to become counties - but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth's surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.
     The old King felt refreshed, clear-headed, almost ready to begin again.
     There would be a day - there must be a day - when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no corners, just as the world had none - a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.
     But it was too late for another effort then. For that time it was his destiny to die, or, as some say, to be carried off to Avilion, where he could wait for better days. For that time it was Lancelot's fate and Guenever's to take the tonsure and the veil, while Mordred must be slain. The fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea.
     The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to met the future with a peaceful heart.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


     So a couple of weeks ago I was at work, chatting with my boss, and he revealed to me that a co-worker whom he knows much better than I do has just self-published a YA novel, orderable online.  My first impulse was to run and accost this co-worker, whom we shall call R (and whom I hardly ever see in the ordinary course of business), and talk to him about writing for kids, and our respective experiences, and what led him to self-publish, and yadda yadda.  And then perhaps I could interview him for this blog.  But then I realized I should read the book first, shouldn't I?  So I asked my boss, who owns a copy but hasn't yet read it, to lend it to me, which he did on Friday, and now I've read it.  Hence the title of this post.
     First off, it's not a YA novel, it's a middle-grade novel.  Which is fine.  Because it's just my boss who used the phrase "young adult," and he doesn't know squat about writing for kids, so I can't blame R for that - there's nothing written on the book itself to indicate grade level.   The premise is very interesting: a young teen boy and his family are in the process of living through a form of apocalypse which I will not specify for fear of identifying said book to anyone who reads this.  But trust me, it's a BAD apocalypse.  And the boy and his family, along with their besieged community, are attempting to survive it as best they can.
     The writing is good.  And so is the setting: R clearly did his research homework.  And he got the voice of the boy protagonist exactly right.  And he's created believable secondary characters.  But there's no plot.  By which I mean: the book begins during the siege, and continues through the remainder of the siege, and ends with the community's rescue by an outside force.  The protagonist does his part as circumstances allow, but his actions effect no change in the overall situation.  Mostly, he reports lucidly and well about the deteriorating conditions in which he's living, and wonders when, or if, the nightmare will end.
     It's not enough.  it's not a novel.  And, reading it, I suddenly stop fixating on my inability to get my own books published, and become aware of how much I really do know about writing books.  Fifteen or so years of attending writing classes and SCBWI conferences and workshops, and working with my wonderful critique group, has taught me A LOT.  I know (and this one is from Sesame Street - I can hear the song running through my head) that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I know that the action must build toward a climax, followed by a denouement.  And I know that in writing for kids, one must have a main character who is not simply buffeted by fate; he or she must, in some way great or small, seize the initiative and make something happen.  And R's main character, whom I like so much, doesn't do that.  The adults do all the planning and organizing; this boy serves as a witness and a reporter.  It's not enough.  This isn't a novel.
     And it makes me feel really depressed.  For one thing: there goes my fantasy of having a fellow YA writer to commune with at work.  Oh, I'll go talk to R, and tell him about all my positive reactions to his book, but I'll be holding back what I really think, because the book is out there already and any constructive criticism from me would be useless at this point, even if he had any interest in hearing it.  And I definitely can't interview him for this blog, because here I've gone telling this blog what I REALLY think, so I can never let R have access to it.
     And okay, here's the other thing I'm depressed about.  After thinking about the book itself, I return to fixating about me me me.  I've written four actual novels, none of which may ever see the light of day unless I, too, follow the self-publishing route.  Whereas R has written one not-exactly-novel, and it's OUT THERE.  Anyone on the planet can buy it and read it.  R doesn't know many of the basic principles of writing a novel, and yet he has something I don't have.  And I can call this emotion of mine sadness, because that sounds so much better than envy, but really, who am I kidding?
     So, to summarize:  OH SHIT.  How come R's protagonist gets a deus ex machina and I don't?  Where is mine when I need one?