Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A First Thanksgiving

Salt marsh at Reid State Park in early October

This year my son's high school girlfriend and her family are joining us for Thanksgiving, their first! They immigrated to the USA from South Sudan fifteen years ago, fleeing civil war. Hanukkah overlaps with Thanksgiving this year so we'll be celebrating both. There will be a menorah on the table and potato latkes along with local turkey. This is my son's first time back from Middlebury College. Other years we've joined my family in New York City for Thanksgiving, but this year the kids wanted to come home.

Chewonki campus last weekend

My daughter has also been away at Chewonki Semester School, a one term farm/environmental school for high school juniors. The campus is on a remote peninsula in coastal Maine with cabins heated by wood stoves. She's been having a blast milking cows, doing field biology, clamming at Reid State Park and making life long friends. She'll be back to her regular high school in January.

Moonrise at sunset from Popham Beach in mid November

This was our first, albeit temporary, experience as empty nesters. As much as Henry and I have missed the kids, we've enjoyed our free time. We hiked up mountains, walked on the beach and ate out on a whim. I caught up on years of lost sleep, and work time was extra productive. Mild weather in September and October was perfect for painting en plein air.

My Seawall Beach watercolor, sold to a client in Boston for her sister in Korea

When the weather got too chilly to work outside, I turned my attention to a new young adult novel, set in coastal Maine. After a slow start, I've written over 25K words. I'm using Scrivener novel writing software for the first time and loving it, although there was a learning curve. Also, I find first drafts harder work than revision, but I'm really enjoying these characters and the local setting. I'm especially grateful for the guidance from my new literary agent, Laura Geringer at Shannon Associates.

Scout enjoying our first snowfall last Sunday.  Copyright © 2013 Sarah Laurence

November is the season to read by the fire. I'm at work on a best books of 2013 post. I've enjoyed reading your blogs too. Happy Thanksgiving and Hanukkah!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cold War YA: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner & Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

Moonrise at Popham Beach, Maine

The Cold War overhung my teen years. We sighed with relief when 1984 did not bring Big Brother. I was in college when the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of an era. It's odd now to think of that formative period of my life as history, unknown to my teenaged kids. I was pleased to discover two new young adult novels about the Cold War, which would crossover well to adult readers too.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner is set in an alternate dystopian world in the 1950s. Imagine a teenaged George Orwell visiting a Hunger Games district or The Giver. The Nazi style Homeland strives for genetic excellence and global domination in a race to be the first to the moon. Maggot Moon is an empowering story about the power of the one against the tyranny of a mindless mob.

Fifteen-year-old Treadwell is a misfit with eyes of two colors and dyslexia, but what makes him outstanding as a protagonist is his imagination and his courage. Bullied and blacklisted by the authorities, he nonetheless dares to confront the regime when his only friend vanishes. Treadwell reminded me a bit of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Timewith his unique way of seeing and describing the world.

Maggot Moon would crossover well to adult readers. The main characters were school boys, but there were brave adult female characters and a resourceful grandfather. The simple prose delivered in one to two page chapters made the voice true to the narrator and accessible to readers with mild dyslexia. However, the book was violent, gruesome and scary enough to give me nightmares so I would not recommend it to young children. Its literary complexity would intrigue adult readers as well as teens. The sparse language was beautiful at times, full of haunting imagery:
   "Gramps put his finger to his mouth. He pointed to a piece of paper on the table. It had writing on it. His handwriting. I knew what it said. I didn't need the written words to tell me. I knew they had been taken.
    "I felt the scream rise. Gramps caught hold of me and we toppled to the floor. We were both crying. Gramps held his hand firmly over my mouth.
    "I still have that scream in me."
A similar dystopian book to Maggot Moon, which would be more suitable for tween readers, is Shift by Charlotte Agell.

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem nods at John le Carré but adds a teenaged girl protagonist. Marina, the privileged daughter of a scientist and a prima ballerina, hopes to inherit her mother's place in the USSR's cultural spotlight. When her mother vanishes in 1982, Marina and her father must run for their lives. There is a lot of Cold War exposition in the opening chapters, to situate young readers in Soviet Russia, but the story takes off once the father-daughter pair immigrates to New York City.

The lyrical, foreboding first sentence hooked me:
"November dusk slips into Moscow like a spy; you don't know it's there until it has stolen the day and vanished into the dark."
Kiem's debut novel had well developed characters, interesting period details and a page-turner plot. Marina was a strong, intelligent and graceful protagonist, but her story was a bit over-stacked. The spy thriller element overwhelmed the more subtle immigrant ballerina story. Also the paranormal ability of two characters to see the past and the future seemed unnecessary in a spy novel. I prefer realistic fiction so this might not be an issue for others.

DDTS was a gripping read and a good introduction to the Cold War for teens. The author studied Russian at Columbia University and lived in Russia for four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'd recommend this book to dancers, wannabe spies and nostalgic Gen-Xers. I'm curious to see what this promising new author writes next.

I'm also looking forward to Going Over by blog buddy Beth Kephart. It's a YA novel set in 1983 Berlin, on both sides of the Berlin Wall (due out on April 1, 2014.)

Salt marsh at Popham State Park

Reviewer's Disclosure: Maggot Moon was first published in the UK in 2012, in the USA in 2013 and re-released as an adult book in the UK. It won a Carnegie Medal and a Costa Award. The paperback was a gift from my mother-in-law from the Wallingford Bookshop (thank you!) In August I read a mixed review of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy in the NYT, which nonetheless led me to take a second look at the hardcover novel in Longfellow Books and buy it. It got a starred review in Booklist. For Christmas I'm giving DDTS to my 12-year-old niece, who is a ballerina and avid reader. I was not compensated for my reviews. I took the moonrise and marsh photos at Popham Beach last weekend.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Sailboat Painting of Maine: how to capture a dream

My paintings usually start on location, but my latest commission began with a google search. The client, who lives in the Washington DC area and vacations in Maine, had found me through a keyword search for painters of sailboats. She described her dream:
"For twenty two years, I've closed my eyes each night and pictured my little house on the coast, the front porch, the late afternoon sails on my little boat. Thinking of those things brought me the most peaceful feeling."

I usually paint from life, but sailboats move too fast to sketch accurately. While visiting my family on Nantucket Island, I headed to the Rainbow Parade with my DSLR Nikon camera. From Brant Point I was close enough to capture the old wooden boats sailing past the lighthouse. I couldn't simply copy the photo because the client asked for a Maine background and Nantucket Island is in Massachusetts.

Maine is farther north and has a different feel: the islands are rocky and coniferous. The day I set out to paint at Lookout Point, the sky turned an ominous grey as the tide was falling.

I worked quickly but the sea became mudflats as raindrops fell, blurring the paint. In the rush to finish, I'd also gone too dark. Watercolor is the most challenging of all paint media because there is no way to fix a mistake. You can go darker, but you can't go lighter. My painting was a disaster.

I cut my losses by picking up a couple of lobsters. Allen's Seafood at Lookout Point sells them live off the docks at $5 a pound. My client is a professional chef so I felt she'd understand.

My husband boiled the soft shell lobsters on the barbecue and picked them out of their shells. He'd bought a bouquet of calla lilies to cheer me up.

A fresh farmers' market salad, baked potatoes and locally brewed Shipyard Ale rounded out the meal. It was a happy ending to a disappointing day.

Another day, another attempt, this time at home. It was getting too chilly to work outside. I set up my laptop with the Nantucket sailboat photo and propped up a more successful watercolor of mine of Lookout Point. Blending memory and imagination, I merged the images in my head.

Before painting a watercolor, I do several gesture drawings in a sketch book. These 30 second ink sketches of the main elements allow me to test several compositions before committing to paint.

Once I've chosen the layout, I transpose the sketch in pencil with more detail to heavy weight paper taped to board. Then I mix my colors and slip into a meditative trance. Two days later the painting was complete.

The penultimate stop was the framers in Topsham. I usually frame watercolors in natural wood, but this client had decorating restrictions. My watercolor might hang with family heirlooms in gold gilt frames or beside other pictures framed in black-painted wood. I emailed photos of the options. Since it was hard to visualize how well this would integrate in her new home, she decided to use her local framer.

UPS fragile packed the painting, but my work wasn't over. Once I've finished the first draft of my novel, I'll begin work on a companion watercolor for this client. (Thanks, Dad, for mailing a photo of a moored gaff rigged yacht). It's a wonderful feeling to capture a dream.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

Helen Wan photo by Sigrid Estrada
I have no interest in corporate law, but Helen Wan's guest post @Books in the City about writing beyond traditional ethnic literature caught my attention. Wan noted that most Asian American novels follow a formula: Old World relatives, an arranged marriage, a wedding banquet and a soul-searching visit to the Motherland. Although she enjoys those books, Wan wanted to ask a new question:
"What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?"
Wan's debut novel, The Partner Track, is set at a top New York law firm, following its characters from boardroom to bedroom. An in house attorney at Time Inc, the author translates the complexities of legal issues clearly for a general audience. Romantic shenanigans and corporate intrigue make for a fun read with unexpected plot twists.

Ingrid Yung is determined to be the first woman of color to make partner, but she wants no special accommodation for her ethnicity or her gender. She works harder than her male cohorts but doesn't get invited out to drinks with the senior partners. When the opportunity to prove herself arises, Ingrid gives 100%, but her boss wants more. He pressures her into joining a new diversity committee at the firm. The experience increases her awareness of the tacit prejudice in her workplace, but she "isn't about to rock the boat. Not this close to shore." A clandestine relationship with a coworker helps keep her afloat but is not without risks for both of them. Will Ingrid sink or swim?

The Partner Track is more commercial than literary in style, but it has substance. The most touching segments were flashbacks to Ingrid's childhood and the discrimination her immigrant parents faced. Visiting a friend at a luxurious New York apartment, her academic father is mistaken for a Chinese food delivery man and asked to use the back door. An appliance store refuses to fix her mom's defective machine until young Ingrid pens a letter in legal ease. Ingrid realizes that law is power and dreams of earning a spot in the glitzy New York skyline.

Many readers would relate to Ingrid's ambitions, but I found her world too materialistic and shallow. Like her law school professor, I wish Ingrid had used her talent for the greater good, but challenging corporate America to be more inclusive is admirable too. Ingrid is a morally grounded character who sees the flaws in her world. I hope Wan's next novel will step out of the boardroom and into the broader realm of social justice. I'd be more eager to read a book like that, but The Partner Track succeeds on its own terms. It would be a good match for readers interested in law, feminism, immigration and ethnic literature. It's a must read for anyone (male or female) contemplating a career in corporate law.

Another shot of Central Park last week. I went back home to see an all male performance of Shakespeare's 
Twelfth Night
 on Broadway: marvelous! Arrive early to watch the cross-dressing actors made up on stage.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the ebook myself without compensation. On her website, the lawyer-author reminds the readers that her book is fiction. Published by St. Martin's Press in September, 2013. Thanks, Colleen, for the recommendation. Check out Books in the City for more novels about immigrants and working women in contemporary America. The Central Park photos are under my copyright.

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@Barrie Summy