What I’m Reading Now

We spent this past weekend at the small farm we share with my brother (Peter) and sister-in-law (Sieglinde).  It’s 40 acres of olive orchards, meadows, fruit trees, redwoods, pines, bays, and madrones on a rural subdivision called Gualala Ranch.  The Gualala Ranch is comprised of 3,000 acres that was divided into 40-acre parcels along with swaths of common land back in the early 1970’s.  We lived there full-time from 2005 to 2010 but with Luisa’s increasingly-impaired mobility — thank you, spinal stenosis — we decided to live in Sebastopol and spend weekends and vacations on the farm.  Peter and Sieglinde raise olive trees and make wonderful, extra-virgin organic olive oil under the Olive Branch Farm label. They also sell fresh, free-range, organic eggs.  We’ve shared the farm with them since the four of us bought it in 1992.

On Saturday morning we met up with our twelve-year-old granddaughter, Marley, and then headed to Olive Branch Farm.  It’s a 90-minute drive from Sebastopol.  We like to take Highway 116 from Sebastopol to Guerneville, then along the Russian River and all the way to Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean.  We make these trips in daylight relishing the miles of forest and of gorgeous views of rocky coast before we turn inland and start to climb at Myer’s Grade Road.

How a helping dog helps!

How a helping dog helps!

This was the first time for us to take our new dog, Misha.  Misha is a 10-month-old female, Newfoundland mix.  Our plan is to train her to help Luisa.  “Misha, bring me the phone.  Misha, pull the wheel chair . . . Misha, bring me a beer . . . peel me a grape . . . ”  You get the idea.

At the moment, what Misha does best is redesign the landscaping in my Sebastopol back yard and initiate rough and tumble games with our two, 10-year old Dachshund brothers and our 6-year old Corgi.  The Corgi will, on occasion, reluctantly agree.  The Dachshunds?  Never!  With them it’s curled lips, teeth and snarl.

Frankly, I was worried about the trip.  When our kids were little, fights between siblings could be controlled by, “I’m pulling over at the next turnout.  Then watch out!”  or “if I hear one more person yell about being hit, we’re going home.”  Unfortunately, such threats don’t work with roughhousing dogs.  But, the trip was fine.  All critters were on good behavior.

The weather at the farm was perfect for sitting in the sun and reading, which is what I did most of Saturday and what brings me, finally, to what I’m reading now. (To be continued in my next post.)

Author Reading at the Druids Hall

Redwood Radio Reading at Druid's

Redwood Radio Reading at Druid’s

Saturday afternoon, I read from my new memoir Sometimes I See You at the Druids Hall at the Plantation Farm Camp.  It’s a wonderful setting and thanks to the generosity of the owners of Plantation, David and Suzanne Brown, it occasionally serves as a showcase for local writers.  Built originally as a meeting place for members of the Ancient Order of Druids, it first morphed into a dance hall, then a library and craft center for the Camp, a storage building, and now a wonderfully restored museum of local memorabilia from the 19th and 20th centuries.  When I was thinking about what to read on Saturday, I figured that most of the audience would be local and that many of them had lived in the area since the 1970’s.  With that in mind, I chose to read a section from the book that dealt with that time and this place.  It worked!  There was real enthusiasm for the book and lots of questions.  Amazingly, we sold out all the books I’d brought.  A friend and fine reader, J Anderson, read a story from my first short story book, Gone to Ground.  It required him to take on the persona of a middle aged woman from west Texas who sells paint in a Home Depot near L.A.  He did a great job and the audience appreciated him and the story!

I wanted to find a photo of the interior of Druids since we didn’t have a good one from Saturday’s event.  I checked the web and low-and-behold, came across this photo, posted by Jacob Bayless.  It was taken last year when we performed a readers’ theatre version of my short story, Redwood Radio from my second collection, Fetching Molly.  The cast was great and so was the response.

If the next reading (April 19th at the Occidental Center for the Arts) is even half this much fun, I’ll be a happy camper!


Book Launch Reflections

Friday night I fixed an early dinner for Luisa, Marley and me and then headed to the village of Occidental to attend the launch of Cigar City Stories: Tales of Old Ybor City by Emilio Gonzalez-Llanes at the Occidental Center for the Arts (OCA).

cigar-cover-smallI didn’t have a clue what to expect.  I’d never heard of anything called Cigar City or Ybor City but I do enjoy hearing, and supporting, other local authors.  I’ve attended several book launches at OCA.  Our long-time friend, Gretchen Butler, launched her wonderful book, Wild Plum Cafe  at OCA and, more recently, a terrific book, The Body’s Perfect: A novel in Stories by Christopher Reibli, was released there.  Gretchen had a local folk/roots group play before her reading.  Christopher has his own band and they played before the reading.  Christopher also sings.

When, to a packed audience, the program started on Friday, Cuban music played on a CD and Emilio, a fit guy in his mid 70’s, came dancing out on stage.  He danced on stage for 2 or 3 minutes.  Are you getting the picture here?  I don’t have a band.  I don’t dance solo (at least in public) but I’m scheduled to be the next book launch (April 19th in case you can make it!).  With every shake of his maracas, my heart sank.

I’m reading from my memoir:  Sometimes I See You.  I don’t think it’s depressing, but it is about our family during the 24-years that my daughter, Shoshana, was alive.  Maracas won’t cut it.

Forget that.  I really enjoyed Emilio’s reading.  The stories vibrate with detail and emotion and expose a world I’d never known.  And, when I got home, I realized that I had more in common with Emilio than I’d first thought.  My maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Minsk to New York at the end of the 19th century, made cigars in the Bronx, much as immigrants from Cuba made cigars in Ybor City.

And, even better, Judith Moorman who is organizing my “launch” assured me that I wouldn’t need to dance!

But, if I did . . . ?


What I’m reading

I’m a fan of mystery writer, Elizabeth George and recently finished her 2003 book, A Place of Hiding. I loved it.  George weaves intricate, suspenseful plots that are populated with compelling and complex characters.  She brings the settings of her novels to life with a wealth of detail.  I’m consistently impressed with the diversity of her characters and her ability to give each a voice that is both distinctive and pitch perfect. settings-deliverance-churchinkedaleWith seemingly equal ease, she writes about Jamaican immigrants in London; British nobility down on their luck; police inspectors and California surf bums. When I first started to read her, I assumed that George was British since her novels were largely based there and she was on such intimate terms with its landscape, culture and customs. As it turns out, George was born in Ohio, but for most of her life has lived and worked (as a high school English teacher) in California. england_0685As impressive as her writing so is her productivity.  For the most part, these are substantial volumes and yet she has managed to publish one or two almost every year since the late 80’s. If you haven’t read Elizabeth George, you’re missing out.

If you decide to read one of her books, let me know what you think!

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How We Read (part 2)

We got our first set in the early 1950’s when I was eleven years old. Until then we played outside, read books and comics, played board games or cards, went to the movies and listened to the radio. When my dad brought home our first black and white TV, he deposited it with great ceremony in the living room of our home in Mar Vista (West Los Angeles) and our lives changed forever.

A writer's first tv.My cousin, Jack, had a TV in his apartment for a year or so before we got ours. I’d visit Jack and we’d stay up late watching professional wrestling. We especially liked “Gorgeous George”, one of the eccentric characters who wrestled on the tiny screen.

The image on Jack’s TV was so small that my uncle installed a magnifying glass over it. It did make the picture seem larger, but it was also distorted. We didn’t care.

The other place I’d watch TV was at the home of a neighbor. On Saturday nights, Mary Jane, a girl in my class at Mar Vista Elementary, would invite my brother, Peter, and me over to watch with her family. Folding chairs were placed in rows in the living room and Mary Jane’s large, extended clan solemnly filed in to take their seats. We kids would sit on the rug in front of the seated adults. Mostly we’d watch The Spade Cooley Show and Frosty Frolics.

The Adventures of Superman TV SeriesBefore long, my folks moved the television from the living room to the “family room.” My mom bought a TV cart and now, instead of going to Mary Jane’s on Saturdays, Mother would wheel our dinner into the family room and we would watch more “sophisticated” fare such as Your Show of Shows or the Texaco Star Theater. Some shows my brother and I were not allowed to watch . . . shows like The Adventures of Superman (glorification of the ubermensch) or Our Gang (might lead us down unsavory paths).

Fortunately, I still loved to read. Sometimes, after a little TV and “lights out,” I’d take my flashlight and my book and dive under the covers of my bed in the room I shared with my brother. The flashlight under the blankets worked fine. Mother and Dad would stay up watching TV, the sound filtering through the two doors that separated our bedroom from the family room. It was a cozy, warm and secret way to read. I’d fall asleep quickly and would often wake in the middle of the night to find my flashlight pressing painfully into my hip or back.

Fast forward 60 years. I still enjoy TV and I still love to read. And now, equipped with my Kindle Paperwhite with its own backlit screen, I can turn off the lights and read until my hands grow numb and a delicious, warm drowsiness takes over.

By the way, sleeping on a Kindle beats sleeping on a flashlight hands down!

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How We Read (part 1)

Reading New BooksFor the holidays, Luisa and I gave each other Kindle Paperwhites from Amazon. We’d been reading on original Kindles for the past three years. It started when it became difficult for Luisa to comfortably manage heavy books and I bought her one. At the time, we lived full-time on our remote farm in the Coastal Hills of Western Sonoma County and the attraction of hearing a book reviewed on Fresh Air that you couldn’t wait to read and then being able to download that same book in minutes was too much to resist. The inability to delay gratification is not the sole province of the young!

I was glad she enjoyed it so much, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to relinquish the tactile pleasures that have been part of my reading experience since childhood. I don’t suppose it’s still done, but when I was very young, before I could read, my mother put a drop of honey on a page of one of my earliest books and I was allowed to lick it off. The association between books and sweetness lasted ever since. Come to think of it, Mother did a good job of offering up sweet rewards. Sometimes she put M & M’s at the bottom of our milk cups.

My grandfather, “Grandpa Jack”, collected old books on a small scale. Some were first editions of classics and I remember his admonishments about the care I should employ when touching them; turning pages. To hold one of Grandpa Jack’s gilt-edged treasures was like holding a humming bird. I wasn’t allowed to read the books he showed me, but I could inspect them and appreciate their physical beauty.

Electronic Book EnjoymentSeeing how much Luisa enjoyed her Kindle, I gave in and accepted her gift of one. Immediately, I fell in love. I could change the size of the fonts so I could read with or without glasses. I could look up unfamiliar words without finding a dictionary. Sure, these are trivial concerns but since I was giving up one set of pleasures, I was happy to replace them with ones I’d never considered such as changing the style or size of a book’s type or having the book read to me aloud at night or having a dictionary built into the book. I traveled frequently by air the year I started to read on Kindle and imagined that it afforded me much the same kind of enjoyment that train passengers in the late 1800’s must have felt when paperback books first came on the market.

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One Cure for Stage Fright

Last Saturday night I gave the first in a series of public readings from my non-fiction memoir, Sometimes I See You. I was nervous, but thinking about the questions I had to answer to get the million dollar insurance policy that protected the Sebastopol Center for the Arts facility from damage had an amazing calming effect.

Did I plan to offer “mechanical rides?”
How about “a moon bounce? A rock climbing wall? Trampolines or similar rebounding devices?”
Was I considering a “petting zoo or animal rides?”
Would there be “firearms?” “Fireworks?”
What about “overnight camping?”
“Dunk tanks?”
“Water hazards?”
“Jet Skiing?”

Memoir Author Reading

I wrote on the form that my plan was to stand quite still, read aloud from my book and answer questions from an audience seated on folding chairs. There would be no more than 40 persons, few of whom would be under 60 years old. We would serve one platter of cracker-sized pre-sliced cheeses from Costco, along with 3 bottles of Balletto Zinfandel and a basket of Costco ancient grains crackers. We would use paper plates, paper napkins and plastic cups. I decided not to mention the wooden toothpicks I’d brought so folks could stab the cheese slices. No point in arousing the suspicions of an underwriter.
The evening was great! I enjoyed a very receptive, engaged audience and even got my damage deposit back.

And now, as I start to plan the next reading, I find myself wondering just what it would be like to have a dunk tank . . .

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Writing the Literary Memoir

For a couple of years, Luisa attended summer writing workshops at Cannon Beach, Oregon. One of the workshop presenters was poet and author, Judith Barrington. The first book of Judith’s that I read was Lifesaving: A Memoir. This powerful story of a young woman coming to terms with the accidental death of her parents was published in 2000.

memoir writing tipsWhen, several years later, I was ready to write my own memoir with a focus on how my daughter’s life and early death affected me and my family, I returned to Barrington. I reread Lifesaving and also read her wonderful volume: Writing The Memoir: From Truth to Art, which highlights the memoir writing process. This is an essential volume for anyone serious about becoming a memoirist. The chapter titles give you an idea of what’s inside:

  • Getting started
  • Finding form
  • Telling the truth
  • Using fictional techniques
  • Expanding your language skills
  • Developing sensory detail
  • Writing about living people
  • Placing your story in a larger context
  • Getting feedback on your work
  • Steering clear of common pitfalls
  • Legal issues pertaining to memoir
  • Guidelines for critique in writers’ groups

I returned many times to both volumes during the four years it took to write my memoir.

Thank you, Judith!

Are you thinking of writing a memoir? Have you read Judith Barrington?

Non-Fiction Memoir Book Reading and Radio Distraction

Maybe I put radio on too high a pedestal.

These days, I listen a lot to National Public Radio and Pacifica.  Both of these networks feature shows that interview writers and I’m always impressed with how sophisticated and confident these folks sound.  Later this month, I’ll kick off a series of public readings from my new non-fiction memoir, Sometimes I See You.  Of course I’m proud to have the opportunity to share my work, but at the same time I worry.  I worry that nobody will show up. I worry that if people do show up they won’t like what I’ve chosen to read or that I won’t be able to answer their questions.  I compare myself with the writers I hear on the radio and come up short.

It’s neurotic, but it nags at me.

Non-Fiction Memoir AuthorAs a kid, I couldn’t get enough radio.  There were all the cowboy, detective and science fiction shows like Suspense, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, Have Gun Will Travel, The Shadow, Bulldog Drummond, and Boston Blackie.  Most of these were on evenings or weekends.  When I’d stay home sick from school and was tired of reading, I’d listen to the day-time soap operas such as Just Plane Bill; Ma Perkins; One Man’s Family; Our Gal Sunday; or The Romance of Helen Trent.  Then there were comedies:  Jack Benny; Red Skelton; You Bet Your Life with Grouch Marx; Fred Allen; George Burns and Gracie Allen; and Archie.  And, there were kids’ shows (Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, the Sunday Comics) and the quiz shows and . . . it goes on and on.

In my teens, radio was all about music.  KFWB, Los Angeles . . . Channel 98! was my station as I carried my new transistor radio around West LA or lay with it on the beach at Santa Monica.

Radio still has power over me.  Shows like This American Life; Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me; Fresh Air; and Snap Judgment are favorites.

Now that I’ve taken my mind off the first reading of my new memoir, I wonder what’s on?

Is radio an important part of your life?  Do you have fond memories of radio shows from your childhood?

Why Writers Don’t Write (Part 2)

Of course I can’t blame Comcast that I find it a challenge to buckle down and write. If it wasn’t Comcast, it would be the leak under my kitchen sink, or the incessant barking of my dogs, or any number of things that rudely insert themselves into my life and shatter what begins as a smooth, unbroken sheet of time into a myriad of shards, never to be reassembled.

When I was 21, my Dad’s brother’s wife, my aunt, hired me to paint her kitchen.
Aunt C. was an established, visual artist. Her media were oil and printmaking. She and my uncle were the most unconventional people I knew. They lived close to the beach in LA and their home was overgrown with semi-tropical plants. They listened to jazz and their furniture was handmade in Mexico. They had one child, a daughter, M, three-years my senior. I liked hanging out with M. She recommended books I almost always enjoyed and she offered previews of my future; first in high school, then in college.

Dad and L and C had been housemates during their student years at UC Berkeley. C wasn’t Jewish; in fact her father wrote and published Christian Bible stories. She also refused to wear brassieres or girdles. Mother felt responsible to occasionally remind me of Aunt C’s peculiar religious and wardrobe choices; neither of which held much significance for me but undoubtedly contributed to the smog-like atmospherics when our families got together.

I was happy when Aunt C asked me to paint her kitchen. I liked her and needed the money. I’d just finished my junior year at Berkeley and, partly due to C’s influence, had changed my major from psychology to anthropology; one of the several academic fields in which C had considerable knowledge. The colors she chose for her kitchen were straight from the villages of central Mexico! Clear, strong, and vibrant. I’d never imagined colors like this inside a house. My family’s domestic palate consisted of “off-white” and “sunshine yellow.”
Aunt C. wrote the names of the colors I was to use on the walls and cabinets. Given the number of colors, we estimated that it would take me about a week to complete the project. She would be in her studio (behind the house) and if I had questions or needed anything I should, and this is the point, wait until she came out for lunch. We would have 30 minutes before she returned to her studio. When I was ready to leave for the day, I should. Leave! No “goodbyes.” Just leave. If I came early enough to catch her at breakfast, fine. Otherwise, I was to be about my work without disturbing her. No questions. No phone calls. No visitors.

At our lunches, we talked about my studies. My latest girlfriend. My family. When I finished the job, she told me she was happy with the work I’d done. I was, too. Amazed, in fact, when I saw how it all came to life. On that last day, I did a few touch-ups, we ate lunch, she paid me and I left.

Mom told me she thought Aunt C was selfish to lock herself away and forbid interruptions. Even my cousin, M, had to wait until C came out before she could announce that she was home from school. I suppose Aunt C was selfish. But she’d learned that the only way she could be a productive artist was to guard her time. Treasure it.

Fifty years later, I’m still struggling with what Aunt C taught me; still seeking the balance between my need for solitude and my need for connection and engagement.
When I get it sorted out, I’ll let you know!