Friday, December 24, 2010

A True, Very Short Story for Christmas

Recently, a perfect, and true Christmas story came to me, in the form of a letter, written with honesty and simplicity by my dear friend Jeannine Perez, of Loreto, Baja California.
First, I've asked for, and gotten her permission to share it. The only other thing you need to know in advance is that Jeannine and her husband Beto were in a bad car accident (not their fault) recently; they were hit by a young norteamericano in Tijuana, while returning from a visit to San Diego to supply their small but thriving bookstore (El Caballo Blanco) in "downtown" Loreto. Other than that, I see no reason not to include the whole letter, just as she wrote it:

"To all of you that I love so much…..
It is unbelievable that I am this old, and still seem to need keep learning the same lessons over and over and…(so if you are tired of reading about my inability to retain what I learn, just skip to the Christmas greetings at the end)!  But perhaps (and hopefully), this time the lesson will stick.
Last week turned out to be a challenging one.  Our toaster oven, my sewing machine and blender all gave up the ghost, and of course, our car is not doing well at all. I laughed about all of this (at first), and bought a new used blender at last Sunday’s Tianguis to continue making my “surprise smoothies” to go with our “surprise soups”. 
When going anyplace, Beto has to open the door on my side of the car to let me in and out, and that still seems rather fun and chivalrous, and we don’t even mind the bumping up and down without shocks.  We still feel very, very blessed to be where we are, safe and healthy, with plenty to eat, families that love us, and great friends.
Except, I kind of forgot all those good things for a day or so. I can try to blame this current pity party on a number of pesky happenings, and unfortunately, also a little nasty green envy.  A stiff neck that won’t go away, a friend bragging about leaving for a week to celebrate holidays with family and then a month in Peru . We finally got our wills done (makes you feel your mortality), I see no apparent progress in speaking Spanish, and fear that nothing I ever do is really good or needed. Then a strong bout of homesickness, and a pair of jeans that are uncomfortably snug all worked on me. I might still have remained an OK kind of person and risen over these minor setbacks when  the crowning blow came in an email from Lewis and Lewis stating that the kid from California who rammed us and totaled our car didn’t have valid Mexican insurance after all, and because it was more than 24 hours before we called our company, there is nothing they can/will do for us. (We’re currently fighting both insurance companies).  It was all too much and I groused and moaned to anyone who’d listen, about all the money we seem to lose by trusting people, how everyone took advantage of us, etc. etc., and the whole world looked evil and black. 
And then another lesson just whomped me on the head…
Actually it was more like my umpteenth review in humbleness and gratitude.
Beto asked me if I’d make some fresh coffee, and wondered if we had any cookies left from the morning batch, and all the while he was filling a sack with oranges (given to us by Martin), and some canned food from our last visit to the $ store. Sitting in the other chair in our middle room was Eduardo, who stops in to visit every few weeks, always soft-spoken, courtly and courteous, very thin and a little stooped, with silvery hair, a moustache, and crisply pressed white shirt.  I see him often too, walking on the malecon,  particularly in the evenings.
He was wearing Beto’s old leather boots, shined until they glowed, and he got up to shake hands, when I came in with coffee and some cinnamon rolls….2 huge ones, and a piece of aluminum foil so he could take the second roll home with him.  He ate both, really quickly, and then resumed talking (he doesn’t speak any English), to Beto. We found a used Spanish English dictionary and he smiled and put it in his sack. I tried out a little conversation, he answered me, and then clapped because I’d spoken to him in Spanish.  He told me that he walks miles each day because “…es el raton quien corre las calles quien buscar la comida”…it is the rat who roams the street who finds food!  He said that God has been very good to him, and he is a happy and blessed man.
When he left, Beto gave him 100 pesos and told Merry Christmas and that it is good that we all help each other. The old man had a few tears in his eyes, and then a big smile and he said he’d be back soon with a surprise for us.
After he left, Beto told me the rest of Eduardo’s story. He has colon cancer, and is trying to walk his way to health, he has no family in Baja, and he lives alone in a plywood lean-to that is not even really a room. Eduardo told him that his relatives in mainland Mexico send him money when they can, but they are poor and struggling, and he doesn’t want to burden them for the rest of his life.
Beto told him that he’d ordered a goat to share with Martin’s family for Christmas, and asked if he wanted some, and the man said softly …thank you, but no, I don’t have a stove.
 Hearing that, I asked Beto how Eduardo could possibly wash his clothes and stay so clean and dignified looking with no hot water or bathroom, and Beto said that he told him he has an iron, and he always irons his shirts before walking because he doesn’t like to be out on the street in a wrinkled shirt (you should see the condition of some of our clothes in public). I felt so ashamed! How many times do I need to be reminded of how rich we are? I decided that angels do come in all sizes and forms.
Then I went outside to sit in my beautiful garden and cried.
Have the greatest of holidays, and know that love and many good thoughts are winging their way north from Loreto."

Many good thoughts to you and yours from Jenny Redbug and Captain Russel, aboard the good ship "Watchfire", too...
Peace, and hasta pronto!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Some more book ideas for holiday giving

No, no, I'm not suggesting War and Peace--so don't worry! Almost no one else wants to read my choice of tomes. Though I was pleased to see that Oprah has bestowed her "selection" magic on two Dickens classics...Read the recent piece on her Dickens-duo of holiday book picks here.
As for me, I prefer to recommend books by living writers--and a good case in point is the recent anthology from City Works Press, a local non-profit press that annually produces a couple of top-flight literary works--many of them anthologies. The newest collection of writing is Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting, edited By Alys Masek and Kelly Mayhew. The list of writers includes Neal Pollack, Wanda Coleman, Sam Apple, and Jim Miller (author of one of my recent faves, Flash: A Novel).
As the editors put it: "While we published valentines to the experience of being a parent, we also included pieces that explore the difficulty, contradictions, and frustrations of raising children as well as work that explores what it means to not have children or to acquire and parent them in other ways."
As someone who is "childfree" but adores her three nieces, I really responded to many of these pieces; it's definitely not a "parents only" book--far from it...It speaks to the human condition, and to the essential emotions: wonder, fear, frustration, anger, and joy. (But yes, it is perfect for a new parent as well as someone contemplating parenthood--and for grandparents, too!)
Check out the whole line-up of books from City Works Press--there's something for everyone on your list...Spread some knowledge--spread some joy--give someone a book.
Hasta pronto!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tolstoy, Tolstoy, Tolstoy!

Halfway-through with "War and Peace" and it occurs to me that even with the amazing scope of history, the drama of battles, and the cast of hundreds--among them, monarchs and Emperors--the book is just not anywhere as good as "Anna Karenina."
Mostly, I'm struck by how much better W&P would be with some editing...well, quite a lot of editing--I am an editor, after all!
Tolstoy was a gifted writer, of course, but he often fell prey to one of the writer's commonest traps: after writing some point quite clearly, he'd would write it again, in different words. Sometimes, he'd create a fine allegory or use a good metaphor for some situation his characters were in, but then, in case we didn't get the allusion, he'd state what he was sure we'd missed. I find that immensely irritating.
However, his ability to sum up a character in a few paragraphs is nearly unrivaled (Austen is a contender) and his descriptions of nature, as everyone knows, are usually compelling and always evocative.
This site has a good, short biography of Count Tolstoy, among others. He lived quite a strange and varied life.
Christopher Plummer was wonderful as Tolstoy in last year's film, "The Last Station"...Very vital performance...Helen Mirren was great as the Countess, naturally. I found the film to be slow, and flawed, but it sounds like it a good depiction of his last years.
On to the love story, now--Natasha has made her debut and the romance of the story is finally getting going....Or as Cap'n Russel likes to call them "the Rhoda parts" (one has to have seen or read "The Winds of War" to get this inside joke).
Hasta pronto!

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Subversive" books for your children and those who act like them

Once again I am sending a cool link sent to me by my far-flung and always inquisitive family--This time it is the Nine Most Subversive Children's Books Ever Written and boy is this a great list! As the site says:
"Make no mistake: These classics are sure to get little ones thinking for themselves" and we don't want that, now, do we?
So, if you have a young someone on your list for the holidays, you can't go wrong sending one of these "subversive" books. SOme of my suggestions for YA fiction are also in previous posts, as are many of my recommendations for fiction for mature folks. I didn't want to say adult fiction, because that has another connotation altogether.
This is the season for many new titles from Sunbelt Books to be in final stages of production so I'm a bit short on blogging time--also working on some cool freelance editing projects--will be back soon with more tidbits on writing and life.
Hasta pronto!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Celebratory End-of-the-Season Baseball (and Halloween) Blog

Been on the road, traveling through the Southwest U.S., enjoying amazing monsoon-season sunsets and sunrises--working on our screenplay but not blogging much this month. Also, I'm swept up in the world series--Go SF Giants, or as we prefer to call them, Los Gigantes!

In fact, I'm dedicating this blog to my cousin Kirsten Silva Gruesz of Santa Cruz, who wrote the hands-down best Facebook post this year, which I'm sharing below. Thanks, Kiki! Enjoy. (Oh, and I'm impressed that she managed to avoid mentioning "Dubya" who we all know was a part owner of the Texas Rangers, and has been seen smirking from their sidelines lately. Need I say more?)

Top 10 Reasons My Out-Of-Town Friends Should Be Rooting for the Giants

10 . Come on, is it not the loveliest ballpark ever, surrounded by water on two sides and crowned with a whimsical statue of a glove?

9. If your own team is in the NL, you have no choice but to stand united against the designated hitter rule.

8. The statute of limitations on Barry Bonds has run out.

7. Chances are good that either Brian Wilson or Tim Lincecum will make sarcastic postgame comments that are not completely canned (as in “It just felt good to get out there and help the team”).

6. The overhyped “bad-boy” qualities of each are minor, even kind of sweet (tats, a little off-season weed), compared to the usual pro-athlete vices like sex addiction, steroid use, and denial of same (see #8). Moreover, here in NorCal, we’re proud of the label “Freak.”

5. Announcer Jon Miller likes to shout, “!Adioooos, pelota!” when Uribe or Sandoval hits a home run, which goes some way toward making up for the long-ago ban on speaking Spanish in the Giants dugout.

4. Plenty of non-Latinos, like Miller, wear those cool Gigantes jerseys, so maybe the boycott on Arizona’s hosting of the All-Star Game next year will take off after all. []

3. Are you really considering rooting for a team named after a group that was responsible for scores of racially motivated lynchings in Texas well into the 20th century? Los Rinches doesn't quite have the same ring as Los Gigantes, does it?

2. The unoffical Giants postseason anthem will make you replay the final scenes of the last episode of The Sopranos by planting that awful, sticky song in your head again—but the lyrics are funnier, so it won't hurt as much. The guy’s a Banana Slug, to boot! []

1. It’s Halloween anyway, so you won’t look silly wearing their colors.

I've started re-reading "War and Peace" on Kindle...which always makes me think of Robin Williams' line "I love literature--I read War AND Peace!" More on Tolstoy soon.
hasta pronto!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Solidarity: A Couple of New Book Reviews

Just finished reading Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, the debut novel by Bogota-based author Forrest Hylton, about a young American anthropologist working in Medellin, Columbia. I must confess to being a bit shocked, at first, by the language and the somewhat graphic sex--and I am not easily shocked. However, the writing is quite good--I really saw his scenes unfold, whether in noisy Medellin bars, or on rural comunes. Hylton's characters are also richly drawn, even the ones whose actions are enigmatic, and ultimately, I was moved by the story of this guy's search for both love and meaning.
The depiction of Columbia's working people was an eye-opener to me--the fictional anthropologist character found, as I've found in Mexico, that not everyone welcomes drugs or the violence they bring. Turns out most people everywhere want to live a decent, simple, life, as long as they can live that life with dignity and human rights. Hylton knows of what he speaks; he has written extensively on Columbia (and Bolivia), check out more about him on wikipedia
Vanishing Acts is highly unusual in having two versions of its text bound together, one completely in English (with the stray word in Spanish) and the other in which the book's dialogue is all en espanol...And a wonderful polyglot of New York City-Columbian-Spanglish at times.
Another new novel to recommend--this one set in San Diego and Los Angeles--is Jim Miller's Flash. This compelling tale follows a no-longer-young hipster journalist who has held on to little but his principles in his life's journey and must now learn how to be an adult and a father.
Discovering traces of a long-dead labor activist in some historical archives, the journalist sets out to discover who Bobby Flash was, and what made him champion the working man so relentlessly. The time-frame of the labor struggles (riots, strikes, marches, and every sort of abuse) was fascinating to me--I've always been interested in the period from the 1900s up to the Great Depression in the "United Snakes", and this was even more intriguing to me, as the book's story-within-the-story is mostly set in Southern California.
Riding the trolley through San Diego's neighborhoods, reading about workers almost a century ago trying to better their lot in life, I was struck by how little life has changed for today's working people. Other than cell phones and second hand designer clothes, the people that clean American's homes, watch their children, and tend to their landscapes, are the same poor class they were in 1916. No one I speak to seems to resent this situation, or dreams of strikes, or of unions, or even of a vastly better life, though there are appeals to be treated with dignity. And many of them are immigrants who'd like at least the possibility of citizenship someday. (It seems to me to be little enough to promise them.)
Flash has an upbeat and even hopeful ending, which makes it all the more melancholy to consider its theme.
We're heading south of the border today to the Baja Book Festival in Rosarito Beach area.
Hasta pronto!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A great writers conference coming up

Less than a week until the Southern California Writers Conference in Newport Beach--I'm busy reading advance submissions, and preparing for a fun weekend for words at my favorite writers conference. Check out their lively site, and make sure you watch some of the videos on are a hoot, and some are fun animated stories, but they don't pull any punches.
I am polishing my two talks: Design or Death: Packaging The Self-published Title For Success, and also Young Adult: Why Write it and How Not To.
The thing about the SCWC is that it's not about going to meet famous writers and hear them talk (though you get to do that, too) it's about writing...Their motto is "a writer is a writer, before, as well as after publication" which I love!
There are so many amazing people on staff at SCWC, including some of my very talented friends like Judy Reeves, Marla Miller, Robert Yehling and Mike Sirota. Plenty more great writers and instructors--some of whom I haven't met yet--too many to list. And the list of Agents and Editors reads like a real "Who's Who" of Publishing.
Most important of all: When you attend this conference, you will write and read your writing to others; share your pitches, pages and queries with professionals; be challenged to improve; and you will get lots of good input and feedback on your work, be it novels, non-fiction, or short stories.
You'll also have a grand time, laugh plenty (Michael Steven Gregory, one of the organizers and sometimes MC, is a natural comedian and Wes Albers is the perfect straight man!) and, if all goes well, you will not sleep an awful lot.
So, if you don't make it this coming weekend to Newport Beach (Hyatt Regency NB), make sure you plan on San Diego on Presidents Day weekend, Feb 18-21, 2011.
If I don't see you next weekend--hasta pronto!

Monday, September 6, 2010

End of Summer Thoughts

Labor Day weekend in San Diego: Gorgeous days, cool weather, shopping for fresh summer fruits and veggies at the Farmer's market, reading a friend's fine YA manuscript (busman's holiday, I know) and an excellent dinner with friends. Then today a bike ride along the waterfront to the Festival of Sail on the embarcadero.
If you haven't read "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron yet, you might not have heard of "artist dates," but the gist of the theory is that we need to live life to be able to write about it well. Julia recommends taking ourselves on "dates" a couple hours per week. Get out and smell the air, see the views, feel the plums--take a hike, visit a museum, a gallery, a park, an art show, a bookstore or a farmer's market...whatever will stimulate your senses and get the creative juices flowing.
A few thoughts from readings this weekend:
Finished up Sherlock Holmes story collection I was reading last week, and was struck throughout by the admiring, intimate, and--would steamy be too strong a word?--voice employed by the character of Watson whenever he refers to Holmes. We may all have missed something in our youth, but the homoerotic overtones are impossible to miss now. I love Conan Doyle's use of Watson as his "excuse" for recording the "tales"; good device.
On a different subject entirely, Tortoises through the Lens, the latest book from Sunbelt has earned some nice comments from the natural history buffs in Southern California. Glad to see it hit the "big time" in the LA Times environmental blog Greenspace on Sunday.
A good article about the way different people (in this case, couples, are reading their books nowadays. This NY Times piece reminded me of Captain Russel and I, but we don't argue about it, we just read side-by-side, he with his book, me with my iPod. I say, as long as people are reading, who cares what they are reading on, or how they are getting their words delivered...Why can't we all get along?
Hasta pronto!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Was Your First Clue, Sherlock?

Been reading some Sherlock Holmes...Seems a bit silly, I know, but if you want a crash course on how to craft a short story, in the mystery or crime genre, you could do a lot worse than a bit of reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is one of the many Public Domain books available online, for free or almost free. I enjoy reading classic short stories on my iPod Touch, because I can turn it on at 2am, read for a while, then go back to sleep--all without turning on any lights. (Important if you live on a boat.)
I enjoy browsing the many varieties of Best Short Stories collections, too, because there are seemingly endless ways to package and serve up what amounts to a couple of hundred great stories, over and over again. For example: "Best American Short Stories" (pick a year), or the "Best American Short Stories of the Century." I'd take the best stories culled from one hundred years, over those picked from one lousy year, any day. Unless I had the option of "The Ultimate Collection of American Short Stories" at hand, naturally.
Then there's "Best Short Stories of the Modern Age"--when did that start? The Modern Age. Pretty cool to be reading those on your iPhone.
But the best short stories are the collections you find by accident in old-fashioned bookstores full of both new and old books (not necessarily used but old). Or wandering past the shelves in your neighborhood library. I envy anyone who has not yet read the short stories of Willa Cather, or Edith Wharton, or Henry James, or O'Henry, or Hemingway...What are you waiting for? Pick one out, pull up a chair and dive in.
Short stories are NOT a dying art--places to publish them are dying, but the short story lives on--online in places like AmericanLiterature, and in collections old and new.
Happy reading--hasta pronto!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Must-have Books for Aspiring Writers

People always ask me questions about how to become better writers, and the answer is simple: Write.
I also believe that writers should read as much as they write. I suspect any writer who can't say who their influences are--they either have not read much, or widely, or they love one writer or school of writing and are just copying their style.
Another good rule is: Good in, good out. Read good stuff...Life is too short to spend much time reading junk.
That all having been said, there are a couple of books all writers should read/use. Hopefully you can find these at your favorite bookstore but I've included Amazon links, if not.

These are some of my favorites:
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (I once wrote a whole novel (which is becoming a screenplay), using her 3 pages a day process, and I highly recommend it.

My friend (and inspiration) Judy Reeves' A Writers Book of Days which as its subtitle implies, is a friend indeed...

The Little Red Writing Book by my old friend Lonnie Berstein Hewitt will kick start you on those days when you can't face the blank screen/page.

On Writing by Steven King. I love his style and his writing.

The Elements of Style. You can't go wrong reading this and using the rules of Strunk and White.

And the book that started it all for me, in terms of reading about writing, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones

I also love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, but I think I've mentioned those before...

A newcomer to this distinguished group of books on writing is The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Harrington Elster, who is not just a genius and a good writer, but also quite witty. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to soon, and I'll report back on it.

Tonight is the much-anticipated launch party/reading/event for John O'Melveny Woods swashbuckling pirate yarn, Return to Treasure Island at the wonderful local indie store Book Works in Del Mar. I'm going to get to act out some scenes--with another actor as Long John Silver--so it should be great fun!

Happy reading...and writing...
Hasta pronto!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Is It About Dog Stories, Anyway?

My mother claims that I learned to read at age 3, so I could read a dog book--probably "Go Dog Go!" which was long a favorite of mine. I may have simply memorized, rather than read the book, but I certainly wanted to. The lure of reading was strong already, as I had two parents and two siblings who could read by then.
But dog stories--that was the real prize...I desperately wanted to be able to read those books whose pictures told me they revolved around my favorite life-forms: dogs. Not many years later, I was given a book called "Brave Tales of Real Dogs" (published in the 1940s, it was already an "old book" by the mid-1960s) and I read and re-read it so often I nearly did memorize that book.
Recently, I was sent a copy of Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught (blah-blah-blah, I hate subtitles that take up a whole sentence). Anyway, it's a cute idea, but the book itself was no more than a plumped-up feature article posing as a book, and of course, bound like one. The cover photo will get you--it's a really cute puppy, after all--and the book begins well, and has a heartfelt message, but as a dog book, it was disappointing.
Marley and Me was a good example of what one looks for in a dog story (yes, it was a terrible movie, but let's move on, shall we?). It had warmth, humor, then the inevitable tears, but you were left somehow feeling better about the world. (Huck did leave you with a good feeling but it was short-lived, like the book.)
For writers, the dog story poses a unique challenge, because we have to get inside the head of a non-human creature. Whether we narrate the story from the dog's point of view (I tried this in my short story "Dodger Dog") or try to relate the tale from the master's POV and imply what the dog is thinking and feeling, as in "Marley," we still don't have the familiar props and tricks at our disposal. Sex scenes with our main character are pretty much out--as are drugs, booze, and cigarette smoking (or attempting to quit any of these). We have to show character through action--always a good idea for writers, but one we avoid like the plague, usually choosing to fall back on dialogue and inner monologue.
A few great dog stories I remember from my youth are: Beautiful Joe, which I see is back in print and even re-released (could be a movie in the works), the classics Old Yeller and Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows (three dog stories that are really about people), The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, Lad: A Dog, and of course, Lassie Come Home.
For those who love audio stories, check out my friend CM Mayo's fine audio story "written" by the irresistable pug Picadou: The Essential Francisco Sosa or, Picadou's Mexico City, available here from
Most of the dog stories mentioned, and many many more, are available in your library or bookstore...Bring one home to share with someone younger than you, or simply for your own "guilty pleasure". Happy reading--hasta pronto!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Summer Reading Book Review: "Tinkers"

I'm not sure what it is that Pulitzer Prize judges look for in selecting winners, but it doesn't often coincide with popular taste--in fiction, at least. This year's choice, "Tinkers" a gorgeously written short novel by Paul Harding, won't change that.
As for me, I usually love one winner every other year...I thoroughly enjoyed 2008's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books), couldn't get into 2007's winner, The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf), but I adored 2006's choice March by Geraldine Brooks (Viking). The books honored since 1948 are listed here, for those who care.
There's nothing wrong with Tinkers on a technical level--though some teachers might say none of the characters changed or grew noticeably; the writing is superb, but it never moved me, nor did I feel as though I ever got to know any of the characters.
I'm only a couple of chapters into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I already know I'll like it tremendously. I am beginning to get to know a couple of characters already, and the story is intriguingly convoluted. Some would say that the two books are so different that one should not compare them, but dang it, why else have a blog, if not to state one's opinion?
Most works of "literary fiction" read like assignments from an MFA writing program, and that bothers me--it especially bothers me when those books get all the awards and honors (because those sell books) but I needn't worry about the late Stieg Larsson's trilogy, as the three books are all solid bestsellers.
I do love that "Tinkers" was published by a small independent press, and that he's a debut novelist (he also has an MFA Iowa writers workshop!). Clearly, many people have loved the book, and I am certainly glad to have read it.
A note to those who wonder why I link to Amazon to buy books--if I'm so hot for independent bookstores and libraries, why promote Amazon?
Well, it's simple: I fervently hope you will buy these books from your favorite indie bookstore, or any bookstore, for that matter, but more important is that you actually buy books--from whomever!
Support booksellers and publishers alike, if you can, but without publishers the book business as we know it is dead and gone. Amazon is widely considered the enemy is much that is written about the modern book biz, but they at least pay their bills, and often on time--which is more than I can say for the chain bookstores (due to their intricate, no labyrinthine, billing and returns "process) and many of the indie shops (due to slow-to-stagnant cash flow).
Hasta pronto!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Short Summer Reading List and Some Recommendations

It takes a while for summer to feel like summer in Southern California...And this year the "June Gloom" has lasted well into July, shocking many of the tourists shivering on our beaches. But summer reading lists are always hot, so here goes:
My Short-List of Summer Reading:
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I'm only a couple of chapters into "Tinkers", but the book is beautifully written from page one (guess that's why it won the Pulitzer Prize, huh?). The other two I'm looking forward to on the strength of "popular" acclaim.
Odd to have 3 books on my reading list and not one woman author, but this summer started for me with "The Lacuna" which I'm still touting (along with C.M. Mayo's wonderful "Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.") And of course you know I've been re-reading some Austen this summer, one of my favorite authors.
As usual I'm reading some other classics as well, and I just finished The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens, which I had never read. It was not his best story, by far, but it's full of strange, wounded, quirky characters who combine to make the whole book memorable. Some of his best "bad guys" are in his "worst" books.
There are some good new books out for young adults, too, and my friend John O'Melveny Woods' "Return to Treasure Island" is one of them. Obviously, it's a sequel to Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and a great deal of fun. The Foreword was written by LeVar Burton, who approached the book with caution, as did I, but was won over completely (well, duh, he wrote the Foreword, right?). Perfect for parents and kids to read together, this swashbuckling adventure story could lead to teenage boys actually wanting to read for fun...The author offers a free download of the original "Treasure Island" and a short prequel called the "Spanish Galleon" on his website, along with videos and puzzles, so there's family fun in the offing!
Another fine book out this summer for a mature Young Adult audience is Gary Winters' The Deer Dancer . I talked about this title before...But there are so few literary books written for this key audience, and even fewer are written about a Latino or Indian protagonist. The book recently won Best Book of the Year in a national contest and the honor is well-deserved.
I'm reading some good manuscripts this summer, too, and I'll expound on them at a later date...It's probably best for me to know when books will actually be coming out before going on and on about them.
hasta pronto!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Arts writing, and the writers life

Friday night's "community forum" at Warwick's Books in La Jolla was a surprising and revealing evening.
Surprising because:
1.) About 300 people cared enough to come spend about 3 hours (seats were mostly all gone by 7pm and we didn't break up till 9:30, with everyone standing around inside until much later) talking about the arts and about arts coverage and the future of newspaper writing...
2.) Most people seemed more concerned about Bob Pincus' job than about the future of Arts writing in general...
3.) No one threw anything or even cursed...
Revealing because:
1.) The new editor of THE daily paper here (the San Diego Union-Tribune), Jeff Light, was willing to say he'd consider working with a "coalition of partners" to try to find a new and creative way to keep Arts critic Robert Pincus writing about our local arts scene--though not in his paper.
2.) No one mentioned Books Editor Art Salm (except in passing) though his being "let go" a couple years ago was the beginning of the end for local book coverage...By which I don't mean coverage of local books--which never happened much and happens less now--but local events about, and reviews of, "national" books.
3.) No one much supported KPBS arts producer/reporter/blogger Angela Carone's suggestion that we look forward--to new concepts of, and new paradigms in arts coverage--instead of backward to the way things used to be. (Nor did anyone clap when I suggested that lack-luster, unengaged arts "consumers" share some blame for losing arts coverage.)
For those who like Facebook, Warwick's was posting some snippets of the discussion on their FB fan page.
Anyway, it was a very good event, on balance, and I'm very glad I went. If nothing else, it's nice to hear raised (but civil) voices, speaking passionately about big ideas in a bookstore, these days. Warwick's is a good venue, too, as well as one of the last of the indie stores here in SD County.
My take is that we need to make the discussion about books and writing and all the arts, as passionate as the discussion about what NBA team LeBron James was going to play for next...Or the discussion about local politics!
Let's do it...I'm trying to do my part in a small way here. Maybe you are doing yours by spreading the word about what you are digging reading/seeing/hearing; that is an important part of the new culture; check out Seth Godin on the importance of the "new sorting."
Also very cool and inspiring this week--a new podcast with my friend C.M. Mayo, on "The Writing Life"...Listen to it here.
Hasta pronto!

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Fourth of July, Patriotism, Borders and Books

Another holiday that bugs me? Not really...Though I'm not much of a flag-waver. I always think of a comic riff done by Eddie Izzard (the funniest and smartest comedian on the planet, find him on DVD) on colonization, where the British Empire takes over a country, claiming it simply because the current occupants had no flag. "Where's your flag? We have a flag."
Reading about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase this morning over coffee...We started taking out some maps of the Southwest U.S. and comparing Mexico's current and former borders with the U.S. It certainly gives support to the current claim of many Mexicans living in what is now the U.S.: "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!" I'm fascinated by the history of the dynamic few years of shifting borders, as far back as the Louisiana Purchase (1803), but especially from the 1846 war between the U.S. and Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase (1854).
Boring, you may say, but think what an impact these few years had upon this entire continent. Not to mention the long-term effect on world affairs. And perusing those old borders certainly throws an interesting light on the current "fight" (if one can call such desultory efforts a battle) for and against immigration reform.
So, yes, the 4th of July: our founding fathers voted to become independent of Britain back in 1776 (not really on the 4th, but that's neither here nor there, for those who care here's the wiki page) but since that "freedom" didn't extend to slaves or women, there wasn't much freedom to go around. Now, of course, we go around the globe, importing our special brand of "freedom and democracy" to all and sundry--whether they like it or not. All while waving the "Grand old Flag" of these United States. And on July 4th, we all say hooray...Mostly.
For those who are intrigued by the current efforts of San Diego's Arts and literature community to Reinstate Robert Pincus at the San Diego Union, visit the Campaign to Reintstate Bob Pincus blog, with links to the Facebook page, articles, The Warwick's bookstore event, and more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Union-Tribune Arts and Books Demise, and Some Reasons for Hope

It's been a week since we heard that the San Diego Union-Tribune was firing its Arts and Books editor, Robert Pincus. Maybe "letting go" is what they call it. The new editor, Jeff Light, had a lot to say about the whole story, and here is his letter about the layoffs.
See how the Huffington Post weighed in on the story here.
I'm actually as concerned about the layoffs of Border beats as I am about the Arts cuts, though I will certainly miss Bob Pincus in all his many capacities. How is zero border coverage here in San Diego a good plan for the future?
Meanwhile, some of us here are still trying to help San Diego become a world-class literary and writing center--even a partial list is long: San Diego Writers, Ink; San Diego City Works Press; Read Local San Diego; the Southern California Writers Conference and the La Jolla Writers Conference; the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild; the Publishers and Writers of San Diego; the San Diego Book Awards Association; City College and Grossmont College (and SDSU, UCSD, & USD); dozens of hard-working, passionate independent bookstore owners and managers, and, of course, Sunbelt Publications and some other small presses.
The latest entry onto the local literary stage is Thorn Sully's A Word With You Press, which has a website worth visiting--there's lots of cool stuff to read and some fun contests for writers, too.
I guess I just wanted to say that there is a tremendous amount of wonderful work being done here by San Diego's literary community, not to mention great potential and promise...In spite of appearances to the contrary.
Hasta pronto!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Book Awards and Desert Travels

The month of June began with a fun evening at the San Diego Book Awards. Six of my "book babies" won top prizes, and many others took honors--our small press had fourteen finalists, between our published and distributed books.
Chasing a Dream in the Galapagos: A Personal Evolution
I'm very pleased that Chasing a Dream in the Galapagos won first prize in the Travel category, because it isn't the usual thing for that genre. The author weaves together the story of her journey with a larger tale of the natural history of, and current conservation work in, the islands, plus a great deal of Darwin history and evolution lore, and enough of her personal family story to make you care.
Cuyamacas Story of San Diego's High Country
Another winner was our popular history of the Cuyamacas written by Leland Fetzer, San Diego's busiest archivist, and author of four books on the region's history, place names, and even local gold mines.
Santa Claus and the Molokai Mules
And last but not least, the adorable Santa Claus and the Molokai Mules won for best children's picture book. I'll remind the world about this book come November--it's the perfect gift for any kid, surfer or wanna-be...Two cookbooks and an anthology we distribute also won awards: Flying Pans, Cicciotti's Kitchen, and Lavanderia an electic anthology of poetry, prose and art. For more on the San Diego book awards click here to go to their site and see the full list of books that took honors.
After basking in the limelight of the awards, and the validation of my peers, I took off some time and went on vacation!
Vacationing is odd when you live in one of America's vacation spots. We don't go looking for palm trees, gorgeous beaches, or sunsets over the waterfront, since we pretty much get that on a daily basis living on a boat in So Cal. We're drawn more to deserts, and there are some great desert locales near enough to drive over for lunch (or dinner). Luckily, this time we took a week, and drove to Palm Springs, where I had some "work" to do...Visiting a few resorts and bookstores in the area, touting Sunbelt's popular desert titles, like Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann. Russel and I visited Greg to pick up his manuscript for the upcoming Las Vegas Legends.
Anyway, there were umbrella drinks, and lazy pool-side days spent reading magazines and chatting with friends, and a big party with the usual fabulous fare. Our P.S. buddies really know how to live, and we love to visit--but not TOO often...Then we drove north to the Mojave Desert and through some starkly beautiful scenery, playing rock and roll and marveling at the amazing stands of Joshua Trees, enroute to visiting old friends with a new home in the Antelope Valley.
We are working on a new screenplay, set in the high desert, so this was the perfect setting for brain-storming about new plot lines. One day we took a hike by the California Aquaduct and talked about Chinatown (the link is to a book which contains Towne's original screenplay--arguably one of the best screenplays ever written) and the Owens Valley water debacle of years gone by.
Back home to work and more writing--we threw out much of the screenplay and are reworking it much leaner, and cleaner. Ahh, editing...
hasta pronto!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day and Poetry

What's the connection here, you'll say? Well, of course there are many poems that memorialize fallen comrades from many wars. Many know the poem "In Flanders Field", but not many are familiar with Herman Melville's brief but anguished piece honoring the dead from one battle in our own tragic and bloody Civil War. Read Melville's "Shiloh: A Requiem" here.
Don't get me wrong, I like Memorial Day, but why don't we also have a day in which we remember and honor those others who have "given the ultimate sacrifice for our country" like police officers, for example? According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), which released its preliminary 2009 statistics last week, 125 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in 2009, which might not be even half the number who died in Afghanistan in 2009 (315), but is quite a surprising number all the same. And that 125 does not include those others who also work on the "front lines" of public defense, like fire fighters and paramedics. Visit the NLEOMF site.
Wreaths, fireworks, and parades are nice but...wouldn't it be nice to have all the annual "patriotic" hoopla translated into money for scholarships for the children of all fallen soldiers and peace officers? I'd like to see more done for the soldiers who do return, as well, but perhaps that is asking too much.
Love in Leisure, Repent in Haste
But back to poetry--this is the cover of a new book of poems by my mother, Diane Shea--and edited by Yours Truly. Published on (it's available as a download or a book there) you can see excerpts from it, read the covers, and even buy a copy on Amazon; it's called Love in Leisure, Repent in Haste.
Enjoy your Memorial Day, in whatever pursuits you endeavor to pursue, and whatever and whomever you choose to remember and honor.
hasta pronto!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Solar powered again!

It was a big moment--hooking up the solar panels (see the "Boat talk" page for more on those) and seeing the regulator blink on and start charging our boat's batteries. We are off the grid almost completely now, and only need to hook up the watermaker to complete our project of making the boat fully "self-sustaining". Boat projects like this take so long (much like house renovations) that one begins to lose faith in their ever being completed...Then, suddenly, task after task will get crossed off the "to do" list one after the other.
Cap'n Russel has been doing "home improvements" while teaching (two online screenwriting classes) this semester, and now that school is over, he'll be at it full-time for a few months. New additions greet me almost daily on my return from work. Friday was Bike-to-Work day and I bicycled home to find he'd installed the solar panel wiring, and was just awaiting another body to help with the final connection. Yesterday was a cabinet fashioned out of wood to hold our new clock, barometer, and depth sounder. Now installed in the main salon, it provides a wealth of information, seen out of the corner of my eye. Needless to say, I'll be more interested in the depth of the water under our keel once we are again at anchor. And hopefully I'll have more time to read, purely for pleasure.
Just finished a re-read of Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" (free download) and was amazed to find myself anxious to find out how it resolved itself, though I knew perfectly well (I've also seen the wonderful Ang Lee film of the book more than once) Why is it that I so enjoy re-reading the classics? Of course, that term ("classics") is subject to each reader's definition--I include any book that will improve with time and re-reading...and a few select books are added to my "to reread" list each year.
Sunday brings the Hillcrest Farmer's Market and I'm off to select fruits and vegetables for the week, and some fish for tonight's table. Yes, fresh fish at a Farmer's Market--this is San Diego after all. And luckily the sun is shining again--re-charging my batteries in more ways than one.
hasta pronto!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

So many great little time...

Yeah, I know, every day you hear about some new thing you need to read, do, participate in--and you're already overcommitted and tired of input. Everyone tells me this, and I hear myself say it too--"too much input--enough, already!" But I've been thinking about this whole matter, and I think we're tired of the wrong input.
Bad news is a lot of what we hear from the media, because "if it bleeds, it leads" as we all know. So you'll have to make a conscious choice to open your ears and eyes to the world of positive news, and the ever-growing list of books and blogs and other media that are trying to make a positive difference.
Okay, I hear you--that's just one more thing I'd have to do, you're saying, and I'm tired...I'm overwhelmed, I've heard enough, I've had it. But you know as well as I do that good news is always a turn-on, new mail is always a possibility, the ringing phone is always the call that might be the one call that changes everything. Think of the media in all its myriad forms as a friend who can recommend a great book or film, or who can give you the right advice at the right time.
I highly recommend "Ode" magazine--I always put it down thinking that the world is a better place than when I picked it up. They have a great online community and this page of their site has only good news--you can even sign up to get "good news emails daily". What could be better?
I also love ArtsJournal, which you can check out at their site, or sign up to get daily in your inbox as I do--a great way to start the day. Cool arts videos, stories, and links to propel you into the day, thinking that if that many artists are doing that many cool pieces, performances, and projects, then there's hope for us all.
If you just need a lift, check out this site, THXTHXTHX, an ongoing projects about thank you's for all of life's little unnoticed wonders...or go to YouTube and type in "puppies", and see if you don't smile.
Or, if you insist on intelligent world-changing though-provoking stuff, read Seth Godin's blog here (I loved the latest column I read, on "elites") or read Jon Carrol's always enjoyable column on SFGate.
Lastly, rather than picking up the latest mass-market paperback by some Rich Author who was once cutting-edge and is now cranking out Formulaic Follow-ups, set yourself the goal of finding a book you haven't heard of--that isn't stacked in piles right inside your nearest booksellers windows. Try GoodReads to hear from "real people" about what they are reading, or visit RedRoom (where you can read and write!).
I've been reading books as a judge for the San Diego Book Awards, and I've been impressed, as always, by how much good stuff is written each year that never gets written about or reviewed in the big media outlets--some of it barely gets published...
So take the time (sometime soon) to simply browse in your local library, or in your favorite bookstore, and find a book by someone who is new to you--if, in doubt, try asking the bookseller or librarian what they'd recommend. Or try one of the books in my "recently read and recommended" list on this blog.
You'll be glad you did.
hasta pronto!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Day After Mother's Day (What does it really mean?)

Okay, I wouldn't have posted this yesterday, because who knows who out there is gonna get ticked off at me, but I really don't like Mother's Day. I love my mom, and I like celebrating her and the other mothers that I love, and the nearly-moms who have helped me along the way. But it's a day when I often feel odd, purely for being a woman of a certain age (I'm turning 49 this month) who is NOT a mother.
Anne Lamott to the rescue. This "Why I hate Mother's Day" essay by Lamott on was sent to me by my dad, and I missed seeing it yesterday, because I was at my mom's house, celebrating Mother's Day. This was following the morning of people asking me "Are you a mother?" as if it was a test. Of course it is...If you're a mom, they'll wish you a Happy Day, if not, the person will quickly smile and say something to cover up how sorry they now feel for you.
I'm currently reading Charles Dickens' Little Dorritt (since it'll be hard to find in a bookstore, I don't mind linking to Amazon) which has some of perhaps the worst mothers in all of Dickens' books in it, or at least a couple of contenders, and somehow it was perfect to start the day with them...Especially with horrible Mrs. Clenham, who lies, denies, and always, always, is right and righteous (I won't do any "spoiler" stuff here, so yes, there is more to it--it is Dickens after all).
I say, let's not just celebrate every person who birthed a child--which, after all, is a pretty basic step in "mothering" said child. I'd love to celebrate something called Good Mother's Day, or a Good Aunt's Day, even a Good Mentor's Day. Considering the Octo-mom, it occurs to me that quality is better than quantity in terms of shaping the future, which is what we humans are up to, by raising children.
Isn't the most important thing not whether I have had children (or if anyone has) but whether I care about your children (if you have them)? In fact, the big question is how much we all care about all children, not just "ours." And that applies to all of "our" children, such as politicians who talk about "America's children" as if they were more valuable than other children around the globe.
A good way to celebrate Mother's Day, or any other day, might be to consider how we can better use our time, talents, and resources to help "mother" everyone's children...If we all tried this, even once in a while, we would surely all be better off.
Hasta pronto!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sondheim and a Brilliant "Sweeney Todd"

Stephen Sondheim really pegged some universal truths--greed, vengeance, deceit--in his play "Sweeney Todd"...And an excellent production of the play couldn't have come at a better time. (Perhaps you've heard about some of these problems in society recently?) Anyway, I always think of it as a play about our "modern" capitalist society and its myriad failings, and I was glad to read on the play's wikipedia page, that "Hal Prince believed it to be an allegory of capitalism and its selfish qualities."
Last night's performance of "Sweeney Todd" at the Cygnet Theater in Old Town was as close to a perfect evening of theater as I've had the pleasure to see in many years. And, as the old NYC TV commercial used to go--"that's coming from a kid who's seen a lot of Broadway shows!"
Okay, we did start out with great Mexican food at La Pinata restaurant on Juan Street (try the veggie fajitas for a great filling meal you can still feel "good" about). And we did have Margaritas with dinner...But it is almost Cinco de Mayo, so there!
Of course, that is a lovely spot to walk off a big dinner, so we did...the Cygnet Theater's Old Town venue was just a short stroll away, and it was a nearly balmy, clear and starry spring night...
And speaking of stars, Deborah Gilmour Smyth was astounding as Mrs Lovett! The play is a delicate balance between dark comedy and just plain darkness (cannibalism, murder, and rape), and the linchpin character is Mrs L. If she works, the show works, honestly (Sweeney be damned) and boy does Smyth work. She's like a wacky little engine that always drives the show forward along its quirky track.
Sean Murray is artistic director of the Cygnet(and often co-directs and stars as he did on "Sweeney") and he was excellent as "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street", But as I said, its not his character that really propels the show...In spite of being a frustrated murdering crank, he's not the best "bad guy" in this piece.
That honor goes to the character of Judge Turpin, wonderfully played and sung by Steve Gunderson. Only those who have seen Gunderson's uniquely winning charm, and obscene amount of talent, onstage over the years (in shows like "Suds", "Forever Plaid" and the Globe's "Grinch") will realize what a transformation he has made in becoming this truly horrible and hypocritical sleaze-machine of a human being.
The entire show lived up to these performers, and I could go on about the great supporting cast, and brilliant set, costumes, and music, but don't take my word for it--read one of the many amazing reviews that this show has gotten here. Or if you don't trust reviewers, read the 4-star reviews by actual people on Yelp here. The only bad part is the show closes on May 9th, so if you're in Southern California, or can get there, you'd better buy your tickets now!
And for those who love C.M. Mayo and her writing as much as I do--here's a recent interview with her, by the fine fiction writer Michael Mercer in the Todos Santos (Baja California) publication, "El Candelario." Check it out...
hasta pronto!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ray Bradbury had it right--again!

Just saw the movie version of Ray Bradbury's genius work of dystopian fantasy, Fahrenheit 451 (directed by Francois Truffaut, no less) and boy, did it hit home. For those who haven't read the book (well do so) and don't know the plot (it's about the ultimate book-burning society), check out the wikipedia page about the book here. In spite of the movie's dated look, and obvious 60s echoes, it was hard to escape the feeling that many of the events were eerily familiar. I was nodding my head at every turn of the plot, saying "yep, there we go..."
Think I'm being uncharacteristically pessimistic? Overreacting to the usual barrage of censorship in our lives and work?
Not this HuffPo article about the Texas Textbook Massacre and tell me if I'm not reacting fairly reasonably. I am reminded of a gutsy and prescient book from 1992 called What Johnny Shouldn't Read, which you can buy here from Powell's bookstore, online. or click the cover below to buy elsewhere online.
What Johnny Shouldn`t Read: Textbook Censorship in America
How in the world can we hope for a future in which the citizen's of this planet can make informed and enlightened choices, if we limit today's students' exposure to only literature (and other arts) that support an agenda? Some would say that any slant, any agenda in education is intolerable, but that the slant is becoming conservative (and perhaps even fundamentalist christian) is particularly bothersome to me.
After all, this whole new spate of textbook and history book censorship and revisionism is a reaction to the fact that these books are supposedly too liberal, right? Well, if there's going to be a slant, I'd prefer it to be "liberal", since the very word tips you off that there's plenty. Plenty of opinions, plenty of inclusiveness, plenty of ideas. A conservative ideology is well, conservative--sorry, but we're trying to conserve, here, so not so many ideas, please! And let's eliminate some of these opinions and quotes, since some of those folks (like Jefferson, fer goodness sake!) said some things that were a bit "open-minded" didn't they?
To Kill a Mockingbird
Consider this list of ten top banned books (which includes To KIll a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and Huckleberry Finn, and reasons why, and think about how much poorer your life (and mind and ability to make good life choices) would be if you hadn't read them.
Hasta pronto!