Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Laughter Beats the Blues

I haven't been online much lately, but don't blame lilac season . . .

. . . or the beautiful wildflowers in our woods.

Our fridge died at the start of a heat wave. The new fridge won’t be delivered for 2 weeks. Yes, Maine is really that remote and does occasionally hit 90. We have been living out of two coolers, reloading them with ice daily.

In our short spring in May you can’t leave out any food. Our house gets over run by carpenter ants, foraging from the woods. The woods also produce the lovely wildflowers you see in this post so it’s not all bad. Or so I thought.

Then my itchy dog was diagnosed with scabies, which I’d thought was a medieval affliction. Wild animals pass it to dogs. It can pass to humans too. I had to vacuum and spray every room Stella inhabited and wash all the bedding (hers and ours) in hot, soapy water. I wore a medical mask, rubber gloves and Wellington boots. At least the insecticide finished off the ants too.

I’m still trying to use the few remaining school days to keep writing. My household misadventures might be amusing if they were happening to someone else. So I’m sharing.

It’s better to laugh than to cry. I watched a video clip of one of my husband’s former students who visited us recently. Hari Kondabolu (above) lives in New York City but does not work on Wall Street. He’s a comedian, with a masters in human rights from the LSE. No kidding. The degree works well for him when accused of being politically incorrect or insensitive. If you need a laugh too, watch him here on Jimmy Kimmel:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Blog Ethics and Mentoring

Aspiring author Adrian with me
(photo by Charlotte Agell)

Last week Kristi@Story Siren, asked “Are author/reviewer relationships a good thing or a bad thing?” Many Young Adult book blogger are teenagers, although there are adults like Kristi (and me.) Kristi noted some interactions like: “Oh! You want me to review your novel! Let’s be BFF’s!!” Connections happen on Twitter and on Facebook or through e-mail privately.

An interesting discussion between YA bloggers and authors ensued in the comments, which Kristi summarized. One YA author felt like she was back in high school with the “cool kids” being the bloggers and the authors the “wannabes.” There were also many good friendships stemming from a shared love of books.

Most bloggers thought author/reviewer relationships were good and would not affect their own reviews. Nonetheless, there was also concern about favoritism on other blogs.  Many admitted to being "star struck" by authors, but the reviewers were striving for professionalism. Having read through the string, I found a code of book blogger ethics emerging, although there was a range of opinion on these issues:

1. Bloggers owe it to their readers to be honest and unbiased.
2. Criticism should be constructive and grounded in explanations.
3. Negative reviews should ideally include some positive feedback.
4. Transparency about personal relationships with authors is key 
(my comment.)
5. Reveal your review policy: what are your selection criteria?

It’s encouraging to see young adults thinking about ethical issues and striving for professionalism. With power to shape the market, comes responsibility. The maturity of the discussion impressed me since many participants were teens. Isn’t it fascinating that this initial discussion on review ethics is happening on YA book blogs instead of on adult book blogs?

These posts made me think about my book review policy as I'm reading an ARC of Dune Road (Girl Friday, UK) by my author friend, Jane Green. I'd characterize our relationship as more professional than personal. We teamed up last fall to be writing partners to offer emotional support on our next novels. I'm still working on mine. I have always been upfront about personal connections although I do try to retain objectivity in my reviews.

I straddle the author/reviewer divide because I’m both a writer and a book blogger. I read mostly adult and some young adult fiction. My reading time is limited so I only review books I like. I’d also find it hard to post a negative review of another novelist. I do value blogs that review all books and rate them, but that isn’t what my blog is about. My aim is to share the novels I’ve enjoyed and to learn by analyzing them critically. I’ve always held that the best writing teacher is a well-written book.

Adrian being mentored by YA author Charlotte Agell

Last week I was asked to share my experience of book blogging and writing with a high school sophomore. Adrian aspires to being an author or an artist. Through the mentoring program at her school, Adrian connected with YA author and teacher, Charlotte Agell. Charlotte is both a good friend and a writing colleague of mine. We give each other feedback on our manuscripts. The three of us went for a dog walk and shared our experiences at getting started.

The first step to becoming an author these days is finding a literary agent. When Charlotte first started writing and illustrating children’s books years ago, she submitted directly to publishers. It was a lot of extra work. Most publishers these days won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. A good agent works on commission after the book sells to a publisher. Charlotte found her agent by getting on a bus to Maine. Just by chance, agent Edite Kroll sat beside her. I was lucky to connect with my agent, Jean Naggar, in New York City. It’s all about meeting the right person at the right time.

Adrian was very lucky to have Charlotte as a mentor for three days. It is so helpful for teenagers to connect with professionals, whether they make these connections through a mentoring program or through blogging. They are learning about how to follow their dreams and the hard work of making the dream a reality.

Blog Watch: for a really fine example of quality book blogging, visit dovegreyreader scribbles. The two best literary agent blogs are Miss Snark and Nathan Bransford. They’ll teach you everything you need to know about finding a reputable agent and getting started as a professional author.

Portland Harbor

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May Bloom Day

Spring has FINALLY come to Maine! Mud season ended in April. I love wildflowers, and violets are everywhere in my garden.

The first to bloom were the forsythias, a cheerful contrast to our white pines.

These run wild in our woods. Anyone know what they are?

I can’t remember the name of this blooming bush. I’m a sad excuse for a garden blogger.

True to name are forget me nots.

Azaleas grace our walkway.

Buzzing bumble bees are the sound of spring.

My mother (above) and father came for a long weekend visit from NYC. Happy Mother’s Day! Photo by Anthony Lamport.

Blog Watch: This post is part of Garden Bloggers Bloom Day hosted at May Dreams Garden on Friday May 15 (I'm 2 days early since I post weekly.) Elizabeth@About New York and PinkPurl hosted a Haiku Festival on May 11th. Hey Teenager linked to an amusing article on Young Adult Fiction Clichés by author Joelle Anthony. Vicki Archer@French Essence had a thought provoking post on vending machine books and other threats to independent bookstores.  The Story Siren blogged about the ethical quandary of reviewing books by authors who are friends with the reviewer.  Be sure to read the comments by other book bloggers too.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spoiled by Caitlin Macy

Central Park boating pond in spring

Having grown up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I took special pleasure in Caitlin Macy’s Spoiled set there. None of my close friends resemble her self-centered heroines, but I recognize the type. Macy’s observation are as sharp as broken glass and reflect an affluent world of the not quite privileged enough. Her women live in million dollar apartments overlooking the shaftway instead of Central Park. They married money.

Caitlin Macy reminds me of John Cheever, Curtis Sittenfeld and Tom Wolfe. These authors regard their privileged but miserable characters with unflinching honesty. There is a keen eye for subtle class differences bordering on satire. The reader gets to know the selfish protagonist, but the protagonist is incapable of full self-realization. Moral ambiguity chimes on champagne glasses.

Here’s an excerpt from “Christie,” the opening story in Spoiled:

I realized that what separated us, and perhaps had always separated us, was the understanding that I had only just reached and that she – she would never have to: In life you can only get so far.

A shorter version of “Christie,” was published in The New Yorker four years ago and was my introduction to this talented author. One woman mocks another without realizing how superficial she is herself. Her condescension comes back to haunt her. “The Red Coat” takes this one step further: a housewife tries to cut down her self-confident housecleaner by stealing her coat. The insecure employer actually believes she is granting a favor.

The best stories twist upon themselves with double meaning. The title piece “Spoiled” refers to a young horse, but it is really the teenaged owner who is spoiled and at fault for ruining her mount. The pushy mothers in Macy’s stories come from middle class backgrounds and want their daughters to have everything that they believed they were denied themselves.

In “Annabel’s Mother” we are given the key to the private garden, but amid the lush blooms are socialite thorns. The mothers gossip about the other residents and their nannies. Social standing is precarious. It’s not enough to rent a summer house on Nantucket Island; you must own one. Members of the Lower Upper Class are defined as much by what they don’t have as by what they do have.

Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket Island

In “The Secret Vote” a New Yorker learns that her fetus has Down Syndrome. She spends her weekends with her pro-life cousin and a houseful of children. The protagonist believes her choice is obvious, like voting democrat in the upcoming election, but somehow the decision is much harder than she anticipated. Macy lays out the moral quandary without passing judgment: for this I love her.


The stories are not equally successful. The ones about New Yorkers abroad resort to stereotypes. Although they had their moments, “Bait and Switch”in Italy and “Taroudant”in Morocco were poorly crafted compared to the stories set in America. The author is much better when writing about what she knows.


Caitlin Macy lives on the Upper East Side (in a prewar off 5th Ave.) and is from the family that originally started Macy’s Department Store, although she didn’t inherit that money. She went to boarding school and to Yale on scholarship. This I learned in the Style Section of The New York Times where her book was first reviewed on its March 1st release.

I’d recommend getting Spoiled for Mother’s Day. You’ll read it and realize you’re not such a bad mom after all. I gave the collection to my mother with a warning: these are compelling stories about creepy women. I still thoroughly enjoyed most of them. As a writer of women’s fiction, I learned from them too. Spoiled cleverly straddles the literary/commercial fiction divide, and it does so with class.


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@Barrie Summy