Thursday, February 26, 2015

A woman named Joan

Crafts by the other Joan
Last year while sorting for a move, I opened a box of memories. Inside were two bulging scrapbooks, its unstuck film pages dropping dried daisies, wallet-sized school smiles, a surprise “Shhh, it’s a secret!” sixteenth-birthday invitation, and handwritten notes such as “evil green eyes” and “missing the beach.”  Under the scrapbooks were pictures of our drill team squad, red and gold event notices, ribbons and pom-pom fray, a smiling stuffed giraffe with eyelashes, a construction paper tasseled boot, encouraging poems from a woman named Joan.

Wheaton High drill team 1978
Many people dislike their own names, but I’ve always loved mine. There were no other Joans in any of my grade school classes as far as I’m aware and I didn’t know any in college. The famous Joans were gutsy or clever or fun or, in some cases, all three. Saintly badass d’Arc comes to mind, as do Plowright, Fontaine, Crawford, Rivers, Collins and Cusack. Joan Jett apparently rocked my high school, but before my time. And of course the brilliant Didion, whose prose I discovered late, which means there’s more for lucky me to read.

The mom of my dearest friend of forty years was gutsy and clever and fun. A transplanted New Yorker, she was coifed and on-the-go to Mahjong or Wednesday bowling with wine-colored lip liner, blue-shaded eyes and appliqu├ęd jackets. During junior high and high school, it was this mom who buoyed me when my own high-strung and detached mother was unapproachable.

Parade day

She kissed me as if I were her own child, locked eyes when asking a question, nodded and smiled as she got the answer. She crafted spirit gifts long before today’s high school football and cheerleading moms were born, wrote poetry that gave us courage to march and shake to a 70’s beat while hundreds of our peers looked on, inspired my stubborn self to perform in 20-degree parades and remembered everything – birthdays, pom-pom routine songs, favorite candies.

She was a vibrant and caring role model for her three children, inspiring smiles and warm hearts, facing medical challenges with steadfast fortitude. She was a supportive wife to a man with whom she shared an infinite optimism and energy and devoted daughter to her mother (called Nana), whom she called every day without fail, and father, who at 77-years-old was among the hundred hostages in the 1977 B'nai B'rith headquarters takeover. When she became a nana, her joy multiplied—by seven.

Joan and Karen, captain and co-captain

Until dementia cruelly stole her memory, her health, her spirit. Last month the Joan with whom I shared a name passed away. I’ve been thinking about her a lot, about her voice, about her twinkling eyes, about her spirit, about what she meant to me and so many others. About the memory she left behind.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sound claustrophobia

The sounds start harmless enough. Coughs, throat-clearing, nose-blowing, the crunching of apples. Later there will be a morning check-in with the wife and kids, and a quartet of blubbery sneezes, followed by harmonized giggles from a bookkeeping duo. In the afternoons, there’s a flurry of not-so-hushed personal calls and a heated talking-down from project leader to a team member who hasn’t delivered a deliverable. 

Japanese Gardens, Portland, Oregon, photo by Rick Mora

When I’m not writing, I hire out as a contract accountant. For the last year I’ve been working with a client on a long-term project, but this is the first time in my $%#*!!&? years that I’ve worked in a cubicle. Yes, I understand the cost savings of a footprint with cubes versus individual offices. But surely productivity has suffered. I’d like to see the numbers on that.

Most days my earphones are looped over my ears, blaring instrumentals such as the themes from Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or Last of the Mohicans on Pandora, but sometimes even those masterpieces don’t drown it all out. Lately, I’ve alternated between the soundtrack and live scores of Les Miz, but often this leaves me in a weepy mess as each note returns me, thunderstruck and emotional, to a stall in a London theater.
Such a noise fiasco would torture most introvert writers (aside from maybe Jane Austen, who apparently wrote in a noisy room, with siblings, nieces and nephews carrying on around her.) But being crushed by noise from all sides ignites in me a sort of sound claustrophobia. Sometimes I clap my hands over my earphones, nod my head on the desk, take deep breaths and think of Japanese Gardens, my peace on earth. 

But it’s not all gloom and noisy doom – I’m taking notes and culling idiosyncrasies. Sound brings life to the pages of a story and many of these characters will show up in a book one day.  

Sunday, April 13, 2014

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Franz Kafka

I understand this now, more than ever.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Art in Fiction

Today's memorable passages are inspired by my post on What Women Write, talking about capturing life in fiction

On paintings, from Donna Tartt's Goldfinch:
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” 

“He must have driven this way countless times, and yet he had no memory of the scenery. He must have been so caught up in the day's agenda, and arriving punctually at their destination, that the land beyond the car had been no more than a wash of one green, and a backdrop of one hill. Life was very different when you walked through it.” 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Memorable passages

When I started reading e-books on my iPad, I noticed sentences and paragraphs underlined in dots. An e-reader feature that confused me when I first saw it, I learned those dots indicated passages that readers often highlighted. Passages that perhaps defined a character or touched on the book's theme (or both). But also, passages that spoke directly to me, the reader, provoking two words to flash across my mind. Yes, this.

So every once in a while, I’m going to share some of my favorites. Hope the words seep into your world as they have mine. And to start, what better than a passage about words?

"There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Back to Italy

I've read two lovely novels recently that brought me back to gorgeous Italy, the backdrop for the first chapters of The Lost Legacy of Gabriel Tucci.

Christopher Castellani's A Kiss From Maddalena

The novel opens here:
From the air, the village of Santa Cecilia appears in the shape of a woman lying down. If you’d been a pilot flying over it—on your way to Germany of Africa or some other place to drop bombs—you’d have noticed how the main road forms a kind of spine leading to a round piazza, where green trees fan out like hair over the hills, and four narrow roads grow into limbs at both ends. One of the woman’s arms cradles a cluster of white stone houses; the other stretches lazily into fields, in a way that suggests she is resting. Her legs straddle farms and orchards and a few scattered vineyards. She bends her knee at a curve just before an olive grove. If you’d been a pilot—young, maybe, one of the thousands of boys soaring over every week—you’d have had a woman’s figure on your mind anyway, and you’d have longed to land in this place, to hide with her from Hitler and Russia and the passo romano, and to lose yourself in the parts of her body you can only see up close.

In this brilliant passage, we are transported to an Italian village on the cusp of war. In the spring of 1943, most of the men have gone to fight. Except Vito, who falls obsessively in love with Maddalena, the youngest daughter of a prominent family. Vito caters to his mentally ill mother, is gangly and goofy, and thought of as a mama's boy. Maddalena is young, naive and unsure of her life's direction, but falls for Vito's sensitivity and kindness. 

She has gumption and determination, and is perhaps more inclined to love him because her family considers him a joke. When war intervenes, her family flees to the country while he stays in the village. Both are changed by war and on her return, she must choose love or family obligation. A bittersweet tale of love, sacrifice and duty, A Kiss From Maddalena is a masterfully written and stunning novel. 

Pamela Schoenewaldt’s When We Were Strangers 

Another beautiful opening: 

I come from the village of Opi in Abruzzo, perched on the spine of Italy. As long as anyone remembers, our family kept sheep. We lived and died in Opi and those who left the mountain always came to ruin. “They died with strangers, Irma,” my mother said over and over in her last illness, gasping between bouts of bloody coughing that soaked our rags as fast as I could clean them. “Your great-grandfather died in the snow with Frenchmen. Why?”

Irma Vitale is a young Italian seamstress at the end of the nineteenth century. With her mother gone and her father drinking too much, she leaves her beloved Italian village and sails across the ocean, hoping to find a new life in America and her older brother in Cleveland. But the voyage is rough; she is beaten and robbed, learning quickly to trust no one. Arriving in New York, she scrapes together enough money to eat and hop a train west. 

In Cleveland she finds not her brother, but unexpected friendship. Yet tragedy finds her again. Encouraged by a caring woman offering medical treatment to immigrants, Irma transforms her pain into a determination to help others. No longer a shy, guarded girl, she develops into a strong, courageous figure whose heart and resolve would make her mother proud.

The characters were richly drawn and Schoenewaldt weaves conflict and tension masterfully, with gritty details of what life was really like for immigrants during this tenuous time in America's history.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel

To prepare for our 2013 summer spontaneity tour, I packed hardbacks and paperbacks, downloaded e-books to my iPad and audio books through Audible. Between books, journals and even an author talk, I had a literary and adventurous five weeks.

A few days ago I finished Anthony Marra's brilliant A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I'd started listening to it on audio before we left and while we traveled, stole minutes on a beach walk and in the car.

Marra's debut is an intense novel with stunning language that deserves a careful read. From the first sentence, "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones," I was immediately catapulted to war-torn Chechnya. By the end of the first page I gasped out loud at both the images laid out before me and the language that painted the scene.

Marra's characters are damaged beyond belief, flawed and real and searching for truth. There's Havaa, the child who carries a suitcase full of souvenirs she might one day need, Sonja, the doctor who runs a bombed-out hospital and is obsessed with finding her disappeared sister, and Akhmed, a man who wants to save Havaa from the men who took her father. There are others, too, a writer whose son has betrayed his village, a nurse with a sharp wit and evil tongue, and a wife on the brink of madness.

This multi-layered tale of survival and betrayal has received stellar reviews, bookseller recommendations and interviews, made several bestseller lists and the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel short list.

This is one of my favorite reads this year.