Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Twilight Generation

If you live as far north as we do, you must embrace winter. After an ice storm and a blizzard, we drove to Sugarloaf Mountain. Downhill skiing is the best family holiday for tweens and teens. It’s the age of pushing off and taking risks. A mountain has trails and trails of hazards.

I’m sure many of you are questioning my logic, but I grew up taking risks and survived it. I loved the feeling of speed; it was the antidote to high school stress, both social and academic. Instead of racing after fast guys or experimenting with drugs, I galloped young horses through Central Park at dawn and on winter vacations I skied until twilight.

I loved that feeling at the mountain peak with the world stretching out below me. The hardest part was pushing off into space, falling through the air and trusting my skis to catch me on the next mogul.

I never skied alone. I had my buddy Evelyn, who is now a ski instructor. I haven’t skied enough to be that good. My younger brother and I didn’t have much in common, but we were great ski companions. My parents couldn’t keep up. Now I’m the parent with bad knees and slow turns, but I’ve given my children a good start.

At Sugarloaf the kids and I accidentally found ourselves on a double diamond expert slope with monster moguls, rocks and bushes. It wasn’t fun, but it showed that even after taking a wrong turn in life, you can still make it down.

Skiing is the best family holiday because you can break up and go down different trails and meet at the bottom. Over dinner, there is an instant conversation and lots of laughter. It sure beats: “How was school?” “Fine.”

Maybe the fact that I’m still skiing means that I haven’t abandoned my inner teenager. I loved writing the teen scenes in my novel S.A.D. Some women adore babies, but I’m truly enjoying the tween and teen years.

My 11-year-old daughter asked me to take her to see the movie Twilight and urged me to read the book myself. Twilight? For those of you not raising a girl over ten, let me explain. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is THE love story of their generation. Girl meets boy, but boy happens to be a vampire who is lusting after her blood. Boy tries not to lose control and bite her, but girl wants to become a vampire too so she can remain 17 and in love forever. Freud would have a field day with it.

Twilight is just the book for these times. It’s the ultimate story of abstinence, of acknowledging the carnal instincts but just saying ‘no.’ If you are a teenager, or remember being one, then you know that this is near impossible.

In many ways, the most unrealistic element of the story isn’t the vampire but the notion that bad boy love could be eternal. Only a teenaged girl could believe that, but this book was written for them. Its appeal to adult women must be the same as those snowy cliffs to me; some of us want to jump off and believe that we’ll be caught. It’s a rush.

My one objection to the story is that Bella is too much of a victim pining for her dark hero, Edward. There are tough female vampires and Bella is no shrinking violet, but this book still feels gender stereotyped. I want to take Bella aside and explain that Edward isn’t going to change her; she needs to change herself. Am I a middle aged mother? My daughter and her friends are totally in love with the series.

Meyer may not have mastered the subjunctive (eg if Edward was a vampire?) but she has mastered romance. The anticipation is more than the kiss. Edward is incredibly appealing, and the story is a fast paced page turner. I would have adored Twilight as a teenager. Meyer captures first love but also the tortuous insecurity of trying to fit in and not having control of the future. Bella worries as much about bad hair days and proms as about falling in love and dying. I’m happy to have survived my teen years and to have them behind me.

Donna at The Doll Sweet Journal and Jane Green both blogged about Twilight. It’s interesting the range of emotion this ultimate teen story elicits. Love it or hate it, Twilight is taking the world like Harry Potter. Teenaged girls (and women) are devouring hundreds and hundreds of pages in days. This is good.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A White Christmas and Hanukkah

When I dream of a white Christmas, I wake to one too. On the heels of the ice storm came a blizzard dumping 14 inches on coastal Maine and over two feet on the mountains. It was winter solstice and the first night of Hanukkah. More snow is falling on Christmas Eve; it hopefully won't switch to light rain. There's still too much snow to melt.

At night frost paints the windows. The low winter sun melts the images slowly. The snow stays pure white.

It takes courage to step outside to retrieve the newspaper.

Between storms the skies are blue. Winter berries are bright red against the pines. I bought a bouquet for our home.

The growing collection of holiday cards brings delight and guilt. Once again I failed on the card front. Maybe next year?

We did get the tree up before my family arrived yesterday. When the children were little, we used to alternate years of Christmas with my family in NYC and with my husband’s family in England. Now the children prefer Christmas at home where pine trees grow and snow falls.

This year my husband found Christmas crackers at the British export store in Freeport. You form a chain around the table and pull. They open with a crack. Inside is a paper crown, a prize and a joke. See it live on Just a Plane Ride Away. My husband brings an English flavor to our Christmases. He’ll be roasting a turkey, and our tree will stay up until 12th night.

Our tree also has a Maine theme. Who else has a lobster?

Or a Star of David ornament? We’ve raised our children with two religions. It creates some confusion especially when the eight days of Hanukkah overlap with Christmas. The year my son started Hebrew School, he made both of these ornaments at home with Model Magic clay. The Christmas tree has its roots in Pagan tradition. Why not hang what you will? Our tree represents all the many branches of our family.

There is nothing better than sitting by the tree and fire with a good book. I just finished Black & White by Dani Shapiro. The fictional protagonist, Clara, has a similar background to mine. Clara was raised in Manhattan by an artist mother and moves as an adult to coastal Maine. She is half Jewish and half Episcopalian.

Happily our narratives diverge at this point: my mother did not exploit me for art. Clara’s mother became famous taking nude photos of her young daughter. At eighteen Clara runs away from home but returns 14 years later when her mother falls gravely ill.

I could relate to Clara’s ambivalence because my mother once painted our family nude at the beach. The figures are abstracted, but I was relieved the painting hung in my parents’ bedroom where my school friends couldn’t see it. I was proud of my mother’s art and didn’t mind the other nudes, but that was too personal, even if I hadn’t posed for it.

I’ve avoided using my own children as models for my art, and you won’t see their faces or their names in my blog. This is for their safety since I blog under my real name. I’m also sensitive to their future desire for privacy.

With these issues in mind, I’d recommend Black & White to artists and bloggers. Shapiro makes the parent photographer look through the lens from the other side. That doesn’t mean that all child photography is exploitive, but it does raise some important questions on where to draw the line and the future implications. Shapiro writes beautifully about sensitive and disturbing issues. Her portrayal of a New York childhood was spot on.

Mt. Desert Island, a setting from Black and White

My one criticism was that Shapiro’s portrait of off-season Maine was somewhat off. A Mainer short on cash would not take taxis and fly to NYC; she would take the bus. She wouldn’t order clothes from the L.L. Bean catalog but would shop at the factory outlet or some place more affordable. In Maine, L.L. Bean is considered top quality, not a bargain or dressing down.

Shapiro captured the insular, gossipy side of small town life but at the expense of the warmth of it. The implication might be that Clara was too damaged to form friendships. She can barely appreciate her surroundings. Maine is a remote hideaway more than it is her home. This makes the haunting story all the more tragic.

What I loved about Shapiro’s writing was the bare bones honesty of it. Shapiro lets you see the world from a certain perspective, but she avoids preaching. The reader is left to ponder the issues. There are no easy answers. Between black and white is grey.

There isn’t much color, but isn’t Maine beautiful in winter? I wish we could share a corner of our snow blanket.

Happy Hanukkah and Cherry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ice Storm Inspiration

On Friday morning I woke at 4 am to the house shaking. A pine had dropped a giant limb. It had missed our roof but hit the road. We still had power, and I had a new book idea. Just like that.


I fell back to sleep and awoke to a blue dawn. My woods were enchanted. The white pines had grown straight and tall over a hundred years. They do not sway much in the breeze except when coated in ice. That morning the top-heavy tree swerved and dipped, as if land had become sea.

Aboard my mudroom deck, I watched nature wage her battle. Loud as gunshot, branches snapped from great heights followed by the breaking glass tinkling of ice. There was the Christmas tree scent of fresh-cut pines. Window lights glowed orange, flickered and then were snuffed out. How musical, how beautiful and how deadly. Smoke blurred into mist as woodstoves were lit.

We are prepared after living through the ice storm of ‘98. That was our first winter in Maine, and our small house had this woodstove set awkwardly at the base of the stairs. It seemed dangerous with a baby and a three year old, but we didn’t remove it. So many houses had these stoves; there had to be a reason. The woodstove kept our house in the 60’s and heated canned stew for a week with no power.

Now we always have a cord of kiln dried wood, fluorescent lanterns and other storm supplies to hand. It’s no good rummaging in the basement when it’s dark. We bought a gas powered range that can be lit with a match. The wood burning stove is fine for toasting bagels (am I a transplanted New Yorker?)

Resigned to the latest storm, I curled up like a cat before the fire. The children were bouncing off the walls with excitement for a “snow” day. Other neighborhood children joined my lot to keep warm. I was pleased to see the kids playing like I had before computers.

After playing the Moonlit Sonata on the piano, my daughter wanted to bake cookies. We can’t regulate the oven without power. She invented a new dessert (can you tell that she’s half English?)

Ice Storm Pudding

Ribena (red currant juice concentrate)
Fresh Snow
Cherry Yogurt

Sift clean snow and pat down lightly
Pour a little bit of Ribena slowly into the snow
Resift and Repeat until well mixed
Put 2-3 TBS of the Ribena slushy into each cup
Layer with a thick coat of yogurt
Add Clementine garnish

By the time she’d finished “cooking,” work crews had cleared the road. The eaves were dripping icicle rain.

The pines were now more green than white.

It was safe to play ice hockey in our driveway. While the children were outside, I tended the fire and thought about the novel that I’d write after NOT CRICKET.

By afternoon the sun was burning through the mist, and I’d chosen a working title. The story will have to wait its turn. When NOT CRICKET is ready for my first reader, I’ll use the down time to start my next project. The new idea is a bud encased in ice.

The children’s spirits rose to Christmas morning frenzy when they spotted Central Maine Power workers on the job.

I was reading in the fading window light when I saw the hall glowing like sunset. I was sorry to put down my book and rejoin the digital world. One day without power is fun, but more than that is a burden.

This ice storm robbed over a million people from Pennsylvania to Maine of electricity. Our neighbors across the woods were still without power days later. The hum of generators buzzed like lawn mowers on a summer day.

By the next morning, blue skies had returned. The trees shined brighter than diamonds. If you can survive the storms, there is no place better than Maine for winter. Snow is in the forecast for today!

Blog Watch: This post is the antithesis of Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. Check out the link to May Dreams Gardens if you've had enough blooming ice.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NYC Blog Lag

Only posting weekly, I’m a bit behind. Call it blog lag. Two weeks ago I traveled to NYC for Thanksgiving and to gather material for NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE). My novel is set mostly in England, but the narrative starts in Manhattan where I grew up.

On Thanksgiving I met my old school friend in Central Park. Cathy and I chatted while my daughter snapped parade photos. We found the ideal spot, sitting on a hill in Central Park. Even the weather was perfectly warm.

Everyone agreed that Kermit was still the best balloon. Back in high school and over college vacations, my school friends and I would meet on the night before the parade to watch the balloons blown up near the Museum of Natural History. It was a teenaged party scene back then. It’s hard to believe that I am now the mother of a teenaged boy.

My son and I took a long walk through Central Park. For gym in high school I jogged around the reservoir twice a week.

The reservoir is a great place to spot migrating waterfowl, like these Northern Shovelers. Can you believe it? Wildlife in the middle of Manhattan!

When the leaves are down, you get a good view of the Guggenheim Museum. Autumn can bring bright blue skies even in the big city. Frank Lloyd’s architecture is as stunning as sculpture.

On another day I took the subway downtown to meet Elizabeth from About New York. We agreed that Tea and Sympathy was a perfect replica of an English teashop down to the waxed tablecloths in flowered chintz, the same pattern Elizabeth had in her home growing up.

We ordered a cream tea. Elizabeth told me about her new children’s book that is out now. It was fun to put a face and an English accent to this blogger. I’ve always enjoyed her take on NYC.

Tea was a warm break from my fieldwork. Since one of my characters lives in the Village, I’d spent the afternoon walking the streets. West Village has changed since my teenaged ramblings; it’s become rather posh.

East Village (above) was just as I remembered with its rent control walk-ups and funky shops. I enjoyed this urban garden on 9th Street:

Earlier I had met my brother for lunch at Basta Pasta off Union Square. I’d laughed when he’d said, “that’s a Japanese restaurant.” He wasn’t joking! Only in New York, or maybe Tokyo, would you find Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine. My tomato-mozzarella-shitake mushroom pasta was quite good. I always trust city restaurants with open kitchens. The servers and clients were mostly Japanese.

Sounds like a full day? It wasn’t over. I had one more friend to meet for drinks and dinner. Marika Josephson used to work for my agent; now she’s an assistant editor at a new kids magazine, KidSpirit. They publish articles and artwork submitted by children aged 11-15.

For NOT CRICKET I needed to check out the bar scene around Union Square. Marika, in her 20’s, is my drinking consultant. I loved how she suggested 4 bars and only one restaurant for our night out.

I chose The Beauty Bar because it sounded the most outrageous. A beauty salon turned into a bar? That sounded even stranger than Japanese Italian food. They serve a good pint, and the retro furnishing was a laugh. There are still old-fashioned hood hair dryers, and the back room becomes a disco late at night.

For dinner we had tasty Tex-Mex food at the Mesa Grill. We highly recommend the margaritas mixed with cactus flower juice. Better than the food was the company. Marika and I had been e-mailing each other for more than a year but had never met. It felt more like catching up with an old friend than meeting someone new.

I had a similar feeling meeting author/blogger Jane Green (above.) Jane and I met in cyberspace last summer when I reviewed her novel, The Beach House. She found my blog and then ended up buying one of my paintings. We became writing partners to urge each other through our next novels. I’m now about halfway through the first draft, and Jane’s in the home stretch. This productive partnership and similar US/UK backgrounds brought us closer together, but we had never met in person.

My 11-year-old daughter was worried that Jane could turn out to be a 40-year-old man. Have I raised her well or what?

Jane and I had planned to have dinner in NYC, but I ended up driving out to see her in Connecticut when childcare for her 4 kids fell apart. She often blogs about cooking, and her Coulibiac was delicious. Jane is a very involved mother, and her children were sweet.

We fell easily into chatting about books and life. I joked that this was the closest either of us would get to internet dating. We agreed that it was a great first date with an excellent future. Here’s her post on our fun time together.

The only sad part was heading home. If you haven’t met people, you can’t miss them. Leaving New York this time, I left more friends behind. I’m also nostalgic for the city, for the funny little bars and restaurants that could only exist in New York. I’ve left the city, but it never leaves me.

It’s still good to be back home in Maine. Clear blue skies made for a beautiful and fast flight (a record 3 hours door to door!) We circled over the islands of Casco Bay and Portland with the mountains on the horizon. The ocean stretched as far as the eye could see. I can’t believe I live in such a beautiful location.

My children were waiting for me in the driveway, and my dog was standing up in the mudroom to see out the window. My husband came home early. It had only been a few days apart, but I’d missed them so much.

Last weekend two of my artist friends threw a party. It was anything but quiet: rooms of artists, architects, craftsmen, authors and academics. Their 1920’s home is like a gallery with new artwork from many artists changing monthly.

We talked about art, books, travel and politics. Many had volunteered hours for the Obama campaign. Everyone was in high spirits. The economic woes haven’t spread north to Maine although our host noted that art is the canary in the coalmine. Art, like books, isn’t selling.

I walked home, just across the street, as snow was falling. The light frosting reminded me of the sweetness of winter, of time spent reading by the fire and skiing in the woods. Christmas trees glittered from the windows. My family will be coming here for the next holidays.

I’m back to work on my novel with Jane writing hers an e-mail away. Blogs keep us all connected too.

Blog Watch: Thanks to everyone who participated in last week's Blogger Book Boost. Great book recommendations in the comments! I've just added hotlinks to all the Book Boost posts at the end of mine. I can update it if you want to join. Congratulations to Willow Manor (in my sidebar) for being Blog of Note.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Blogger Book Boost

In support of books as holiday gifts, I’m hosting Blogger Book Boost. Instructions are at the bottom if you want to participate. Please do! My aim is to gather lots of good book recommendations for holiday reading and presents.

I have a tradition with one set of relatives of exchanging books every Christmas. Books get away from the materialism of the holidays and get back to sharing something special. Plus they are affordable. My family celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas, and both are three weeks away.

Book sales are way down since the economic crash. If we still want to see anything but "gift" and celebrity books published, we need to put our money where our reading eyes are. Independent bookstores are suffering, and even Borders is at risk of folding. I love blogs, but they don’t replace books that you can take anywhere and give as a presents.

Here is my list of new release books (last 6 months) that would make great gifts. I’ve linked to my blog reviews from the titles.

Children’s Chapter Book:
Cynthia Lord, Rules
(ages 9-12)
A girl with an autistic brother learns about love and patience with a sense of humor. Last year’s Newbury Honor book has now been released in paperback. Maine author.

Young Adult:
(ages 11-15)
Charlotte Agell, Shift
A teenaged boy in a not so futuristic world tries to prevent global disaster. Add romance, a penguin and a psychic younger sister, and it’s a fun ride. Maine author.

Women’s Fiction:
Jane Green, The Beach House
A lovely old house on Nantucket Island brings together an odd assortment of characters. A sunny story of love and fulfillment that will chase away winter blues.


Jean Naggar, Sipping from the Nile
A personal story of Sephardic Jews in Egypt during the 1950's. A look back into a happy family history and a lost elegant lifestyle.

Fictional Memoir:

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife
An all American story from the midwest. A former librarian with a big heart is married to an unpopular Republican President. Sounds like Laura Bush?

Short Stories:

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Beautifully written tales about the ethnic American experience and modern relationships. The stories are bittersweet without a word out of place.

Literary Fiction:
Per Petterson, To Siberia

To Siberia is set in Denmark in the time around the Nazi occupation. The protagonist is a girl who dreams of leaving her small village to venture further north to Siberia. Her rakish brother dreams of Morocco and bootlegging. The two form a close bond over books and adventures.

Per Petterson is a master of writing simple prose that reflects the icy beauty of the northern landscape. The home feels as cold inside. A childhood devoid of love, except between siblings, is all the more barren due to what is missing. Poverty is both the lack of material and emotional comfort.

The story is bleak, but the heroine is strong and uncomplaining. She is a vital force, rescuing both loved ones and the enemy. There is pleasure to be found in living, no matter how hard the circumstances. It’s an uplifting tale for these difficult times: it could be much worse!

To Siberia is the second novel of Petterson’s to be published in the USA although it was published first in his country, Norway. After Out Stealing Horses won an international award, the American publishing industry took notice of this talented foreign writer. It wouldn’t be the first time that an author’s books were published out of order. Hopefully we shall see more of Petterson’s work in translation.

I loved Out Stealing Horses more of the two, but both are well worth reading. To Siberia makes a beautiful gift both inside and out. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but Steen L. Petterson’s painting is stunning. Is the artist the author’s brother? If so, then this tribute to a brother’s love is all the more personal.

There are many other books that I’ve reviewed in my sidebar. I only blog about books that I like. Many of you have asked about my novels. Nothing is published yet, but my agent is working on it. Maybe another year’s holiday….

Here are New York Times book critics 10 Favorite Books of 2008:
Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin

How to join Blogger Book Bailout:

Post a comment:
- with your book recommendations (no spoilers)
- or with a hyperlink to your own Blogger Book Boost post
and link back to this post in your blog at:

Instructions on how to hyperlink in the comments and in your blog.
Or just post a comment if this is too tricky.

Sunrise out my window in Maine.

Today I’m traveling back to Maine to rejoin my family so I’ll be off line most of the day. Next week I’ll blog about my fun time in NYC, including meeting two bloggers that you'll recognize from my sidebar.

UPDATE: links to more Blogger Book Boost posts (12/21/08)
If you want to join, add a comment, and I’ll update these links.

Charlotte Agell:
1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
the tale of a girl in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death
2. The Wild Girls, by Pat Murphy, (which I notice is a Jean Naggar book!) a wonderful YA read about writing and life
3. I'm Looking Through You Growing up Haunted: a Memoir, another funny and brave book by Maine's own Jennifer Finney Boylan

Ms. Wis (Each Little World)
Bee Drunken
Just A Plane Ride Away...
Tina (In the Garden)
Cindy (Caboose Chronicles)
Elizabeth (About New York)
Tessa (An Aerial Armadillo)