Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sipping from the Nile by Jean Naggar

Jean V. Naggar has written a beautiful memoir, Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt. If that name rings a blog bell, it’s because she’s my agent. Jean founded her well known literary agency, JVNLA, 30 years ago in NYC. Now she has published a book!

Jean’s very personal story is of a lost world of Sephardic Jews in Egypt. Biblical history repeated itself when the Jews once more had to flee Egypt. Jean was eighteen when shots rang out in Cairo.

Before expulsion, Jean and her extended family lived in a palatial home overlooking the silvery Nile River. The sky was almost always clear blue. Her childhood tasted of ripe mangoes, smelled of jasmine and sounded like the U.N. Her family spoke English, French, Italian, Hebrew and household Arabic. Jean was educated in England at Roedean and at the University of London, but Egypt was her home.

Jean walks you through the grand marbled halls leading to rooms with Arabic walls, oil paintings, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, well-thumbed leather-bound books and Venetian glass chandeliers. The balconies overhung a secret garden of tropical paradise. Jean’s Eden even had serpents! Her family enclosure in Cairo had its own synagogue that hosted local weddings and services.

Jean’s family was full of unforgettable characters like her outspoken Auntie Helen who collaborated with the fledgling Zionist movement to help create the State of Israel. Breaking convention, Helen never married. When she discovered Jean’s love of writing, Helen passed on her Olympus typewriter and shared her fabulous book collection. She was clearly a great influence on the future literary agent/author.

Then there is Jean’s mother, Joyce, who was so beautiful that she had to flee from a king’s unwelcome attention. Joyce’s milk white complexion, burnt sugar eyes, auburn hair and charm allowed her to rise to the cream of Cairo society. There’s a photo of Joyce in a Nina Ricci gown looking like a fairytale princess. The narrative is interspersed with photos of family, ornate chambers and old images of Cairo.

On these wintry days that aren’t breaking freezing in Maine, what a treat it is to lounge on the banks of the Nile! Jean spins a soothing tale of a happy childhood in a loving family. I won’t say any more because I’d only cheat you of the rich detail. Her words flower and bloom like the lush gardens. My garden in Maine is bare but for the red berries on the burning bush.

I was sad to reach the final page of Sipping from the Nile. A memoir is like a blog except that it has an end. I wanted to hear how this happy child of Egypt became one of the most respected and toughest agents in NYC. How did Jean find the strength and the courage to start over fresh in a foreign country?

Jean has lived the American dream. She was a young immigrant who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to marry a boy from her past. Sixteen years later Jean created a successful literary agency while raising three children. She is now also a very hands-on granny of seven. Jean longs to work on the garden behind her brownstone office in Manhattan. Her energy amazes me.

Jean Naggar’s Sipping from the Nile is available only on line. Shipping can be slow so order ahead. It’s a good read for Hanukkah. My mother really enjoyed this memoir too.

Congratulations, félicitations, brava, mazal tov and mabrouk, Jean!

Photo of Jean Naggar by Serge Naggar.

Blog Watch: next week I’m hosting a Blogger Book Boost in support of books as holiday gifts. The inspiration came from a discussion on holiday shopping at Bee Drunken. I’ll have instructions in my next post on Wednesday December 3rd.

Happy Thanksgiving and Good Reading!

2013 update:  this memoir is now published by Amazon. Also I've switched agents to one who represents YA.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nostalgic Mist

What path do you follow to your imagination? My first step is memory. These damp November days are bringing me back to England. Last week the view out of my window in Maine reflected the images inside my head.

Of course the landscape is different. Maine is wild; England (above) is pastoral. The weight of water still hangs heavy on the air. The colors were muted to grays. I looked for brightness and found it in the woods.

Is my son wearing a yellow raincoat or a mac with rain boots or wellies? Are those gold leaves of autumn or fall? Is the dog off leash or off lead?

Bloody dog! Stella ate the boy’s i-pod. Really.

I know when I’m speaking French (poorly!) or English, but somehow the line between American and British blurs. I’ve lived half my life with an Englishman and three years of that in his country. Our children use a mixed vocabulary especially since coming back from our Oxford sabbatical. Quite a few of my friends are similarly split between countries. In my sidebar you’ll find ex-pat bloggers, even though I’m not one anymore.

When writing dialogue or using first person narration, I must be true to character and that includes nationality. NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) is a book that will need readers to flag my transgressions. Even if the aim is to show confusion, I must not confuse the reader.

By the final draft, I’ll have cleared the fog. The first draft introduces me to the characters and follows the branches of the plot. It’s messy, but this is how the structure emerges. The weather seemed to follow my writing. The sun came back on the day I talked to my agent, Jean Naggar. She liked the sound of NOT CRICKET from my description. I won't be showing the manuscript to her until it's polished. I find revision easier than writing the first draft.

Sometimes I don’t sleep as well in this creative stage. I shut my eyes and hear the characters chatting; I dream different scenarios. I leave scribbled note-cards all over the house. There isn’t such a clear line between sleeping and waking or working and resting. Swimming laps or walking the dog is my time to plan that day’s chapter. When I sit down before my computer, I’m ready to write.

Another part of my work is creating a setting. In the first chapter I discovered that my character lives in Portland by the water. With my daughter for company, I set out last month to find inspiration. Now I’m processing it.

Eastern Prom is a park overlooking Casco Bay and backing onto a quiet, residential neighborhood. You might expect grand houses with these views, but many of the buildings are subdivided into apartments. Paint is peeling; vinyl siding is cracking.

What excuse is there for adding a brick entranceway to this old classic? My character lives in a divided house. She’s an artist who craves beauty beyond the confines of home.

My daughter suggested this house. The color is awful, but don’t you love that quirky triangular window in the attic? The haphazard modern additions attach to what must have once been a stable. My search is part real-estate and part archeology. My home will be fictional, but the neighborhood will be real. I need to set the mood, and look what street we’re on:

Portland is a small city but still the biggest in Maine with a population of 64,000. Compare that to Oxford’s 151,000. The Eastern Prom is often hidden in thick fog. I like this parallel to foggy Oxford (below), a low-lying city between two rivers.

My research expedition translated into maybe one page of my novel, but it was worth it. Now that I know where my character lives, I can imagine how it would shape her. I can see how looking across the Atlantic and north towards England, she’d long to sail free.

Blog Watch: My neighbor, author Cynthia Lord had a short but beautiful post on November. Her blog also features her husband's stunning photography. She's under author blogs in my sidebar.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New York Surprise

Last weekend I did something crazy: I flew to NYC for one night. It was my brother’s surprise 40th birthday party. He had no time to plan anything because he was on charrette. That’s when an architect works around the clock to make a deadline. Was he ever surprised to see us all!

I had to come because I remembered how hard it can be turning forty. It’s the first birthday that you stop and take stock of your life to see where you’ve been and where you’re going. It’s midlife after all.

Forty is a good excuse to celebrate. I got together with my school friends on Nantucket Island, and we had the best time ever. I also had dinner with my family and snuck off for a romantic weekend with my husband in Kennebunkport.

If I thought I was turning forty quietly, I was mistaken. I blogged about it, and that post has become very popular in Google searches. I’m the poster child of “turning forty” in images. It’s not so bad. I’m now forty forever, never aging.

I have to say a year past forty, I’m having fun. It’s been time to explore my creativity in writing and in art, to enjoy my friends and family and to make new friends through blogging. I think my brother will love his 40’s too.

My brother and I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Manhattan with more brownstones than apartment buildings. We used to hang out with the other kids on the block without supervision. Things are different now. I don’t think NYC has gotten less safe, only that parents worry more.

I loved the freedom I had to explore the city, especially as a teenager. Plus there was no danger of drunk driving since we walked or took public transportation. We went out dancing in clubs but couldn’t afford to get drunk. We knew enough not to let any guy buy us a drink. We also went to experimental theater, sampled ethnic restaurants and explored the Village shops.

There’s so much culture and good food on your doorstep in NYC. I managed a quick visit to MoMA to see Van Gogh (crowded!) and Miro (just opened). Both shows I’d recommend although keep in mind that viewing art in NYC is a contact sport, especially on a rainy Saturday. We were luckier with the weather on Sunday.

Everyone has heard of Central Park in NYC, but Carl Schurz Park is another gem. It was my neighborhood playground. There’s a sunny boardwalk by the East River, looking out on Hell’s Gate. I love to watch the boats go by.

Space is a premium in Manhattan. The boardwalk was constructed over the FDR drive.

You wouldn’t guess this leaning on the railing.

The flowers were still blooming, looking gorgeous against the ornamental grasses. The sky can turn pure blue in autumn. The park is close to empty Sunday mornings.

Dog walkers are out early.

What I love about this park is there’s a big dog run . . .

. . . and a little dog run! Dogs otherwise must be kept leashed.

You won’t see exotic birds, but there are plenty of fat pigeons and sparrows. Yes, I’m really standing that close. I’ve seen cormorants fishing in the river.

Another park denizen is the mayor of NYC. Gracie Mansion is like a southern plantation home dropped into the city. There aren’t many wood-frame buildings left in Manhattan. I remember how sad we were to see one of the last ones torn down on our block and replaced by an ugly apartment building.

Isn’t the mayor lucky to have this as his backyard?

That footbridge spans a hidden garden.

Our leaves have fallen to the ground in Maine, but they are still golden in New York.

There are rows of benches to sit and read a book.

I needed a good travel book as a big chunk of the weekend was spent waiting in airports. My writing partner, Jane Green, had written a novel that I was longing to read. I’m writing a novel, NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE), about Americans in England, and Jane’s Swapping Lives is about a desperate housewife in Connecticut who trades places with a hip London magazine editor. I wasn’t even tempted to pick up my usual travel staple of People Magazine; I was having that much fun. I’m 3/4 through and totally enjoying it.

Jane moved from North London to a Connecticut suburb eight years ago so she knows her turf. She parodies the language and cultural differences, but she does it in good spirit. It’s like having a chatty girlfriend entertain you. My favorite anecdote, based on a real experience, was of a suburban mom buying a nice birthday gift and discovering the same gift being passed out as a party favor to all the children!

Jane’s novel reminds me David Lodge’s Changing Places where an American and an English academic do a sabbatical year swap. Both are laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve been that fish out of water in England myself and love these stories. Do you know of any other good US/UK novels?

After doing a major restructuring of my novel last week, I’m back to writing new chapters. I’m a writer that needs to get it on paper to see it. After about 100 pages I take an appraisal. By that point, I have a good sense of where the novel is going. I don’t plan it all out ahead of time or that would spoil the suspense. I need to surprise myself as well as the reader. Writing is an exploration into possibilities.

Jane and I are into the fourth week of our writing partnership, and it’s working really well for both of us. Working in solitude, it helps to have a buddy there for encouragement. Real life can too easily take precedence over fiction. Writing a novel with Jane is like going through a pregnancy with a friend. We share the stress and the joy. It helps to know I’m not alone.

Blogging helps in that way too. Thanks to all!

This post will be part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

How about a quiet walk in the woods after all that election frenzy?

Last night I was at an election party but left to join my 14-year-old son by our TV. For school he’s writing a term paper on Obama’s economic policy. I go to him with my Electoral College questions. Next presidential election he’ll be voting.

At 11:00 pm we cheered the results with an echo from Bowdoin students on campus. It was like when the Red Sox won the World Series. Congratulations to Obama! Condolences to McCain. It’s time to move on together.

I can’t be the only one who indulged in too much candy.
 Halloween’s grin is fading into a rotten leer.

If you don’t have woods to walk in, come and join me in mine.
 It’s barely 40 degrees, but the sun is shining off the water.

The oaks and beeches are glowing before fading to brown.

The sky is a deeper blue in reflection.
 The clouds are sleeping in this morning.

The marsh grass is tawny.
 Brilliant flame reds have extinguished,
but the late autumn palette is soothing.

The wind ripples across the water, but the woods are still.
 Migrating geese and ducks cut the silence.
 We are not alone, not yet.

The birches are already wearing their winter whites.

Was it only two weeks ago that I was
biking in a T-shirt and shorts past Crystal Spring Farm?
 My last ride might have been to vote yesterday.

I remembered that Pamela From The House of Edward
had wanted to see the farm maples in autumn.
This image of gold against blue I will hold through the long winter.

I’m not sad because I love the seasons.
 The autumn leaves are all the more glorious because they do not last.
 New England is a kaleidoscope of shifting color,
so different from the greens and grays of England.

I return to Oxford in my novel,
ignoring the blue sky out my window.
 Writing fiction, I look inside.