Thursday, December 20, 2018

Christmas Spirit

Here is an actual excerpt from a recent group text among my girlfriends:

#1: I'm going to Abingdon Olive Oil company this morning, can I get anybody anything?

#2: a maid, a massage, and someone to finish my Christmas shopping.

#3: Amen!

#1: I'm talking olive oil or balsamic, bitches.

#4: DAMN

We are nailing Christmas this year.

No, I really mean it. This year has been a colossal pain in the kiester in a number of large, important ways. We've collectively dealt with death, disability, unemployment, animals dying, mental health issues (our own and others), politics, jerks, and a variety of other stressors. We have persevered. We have, in fact, persisted. I'm not going to share any details about the crap, because those mostly aren't mine to share (and honestly, where they are, they aren't for public consumption) (I guess that's the crux of it: the ugly bits are never to become gossip fodder) but I will say that this year I learned that sometimes, in both good and bad situations, the only appropriate words are I Love You. I've said them often this year. I've meant them oftener than that.

It's also been a ridiculously good year in some equally large, important ways. I reconnected with old friends. I made new friends I will treasure forever. I saw and did so many new things I can hardly believe they all happened in one year. I swam in the Dead Sea this year. I walked through the ruins of Pompeii. I heard Mass inside Gaudi's masterpiece. I stood on a stage and thanked my parents for making me into a writer, and, in a surprise move, wrote something I believe is my best work to date. I am very, very grateful.

This year, unusually for me, I have not been one little bit anxious about Christmas--about the gifts, the parties, the decorations, the expectations, about whether or not I was fully appreciating the birth of Christ Jesus or eating healthfully or remembering to exercise. None of that. I'm enjoying what there is and not worrying about what there isn't. Which is probably the whole flipping point. Glad I got to it. Hope you get there, too. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Clear the Decks and Deck the Halls

Ten minutes ago I finished reading the contract for my new middle-grades novel, the one that started  as an unplanned stream-of-consciousness rant because I was so unbelievably angry and frustrated over the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the basic inability of our nation to discuss sexual abuse, PSTD, and mental health in general with any sort of integrity or veracity--yeah, okay, even that sounds like a rant--anyway, I wrote a rant. I sent it to Dial on October 2nd. Ten minutes ago I signed the contract for the book that is in the process of arising from that rant. Two minutes ago, through the magic of the internet, I received my countersigned copy.

It's under contract. On December 17th.


I mean, really, things never happen like this. I am so so happy.

The first full draft is already in my editor's hands.

The final draft is due January 28th.

My last four books have taken an average of 3 years each to finish, so four months start to finish, whatever, bring it, I'm ready.

I did some excellent work on another manuscript last week, and on Friday thought, that's a good place to leave it until February.

Today I did paperwork, went to yoga, then unexpectedly had to take a trip to Johnson City to sign some bank stuff (I'm officially an officer in Holston Pony Club, again. I've been secretary, DC [which is like president], nothing, joint-DC [vice-president], DC again, nothing, and now I'm treasurer, which means I've covered everything, I think). Anyway the incoming DC gave me a lift in her truck, which is equally as fabulous as mine (2001 Ford diesel engine, it will never die). (When I got into her truck, she said, "I usually apologize for the mess, but I never really mean it.) The incoming DC is a computational biologist. After we signed the papers we went out for tacos and discussed her research. It's fascinating.

The rest of the week is all about happy Christmas prep and this new novel. The rest of the month: happy Christmas and the new novel. The month after that: visiting my son, and the new novel.


It's a wonderful life.

P.S. I'm just about to head to the post office to mail my own personal gifts to the teachers and people associated with our first year of the Appalachian Literacy Initiative: copies of Dpnalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's book Game Changer. It's all about how improving access to books improves students' reading ability and academic performance. It's an excellent gift for any teacher or librarian you know.

If you want to improve the lives of Appalachian school children, I'd be grateful for any and all gifts to ALI.You can mail a check to Appalachian Literacy Initiative at PO Box 3283, Bristol, TN 37625, or click here to purchase books on our wishlist from Parnassus Books, our preferred bookstore. You’ll receive 10% off with the code GIVEREADING, and Parnassus will ship the books to us free of charge. You can also purchase books from our Amazon wishlist by clicking here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Return of Santa Duck

We have acquired a poinsettia at our house, so our Christmas decorating has officially begun. I have wondered if our neighbors are puzzling over why the Bradleys' trees, usually lit up all around the house, remain dark this year. The answer is, you can't string lights on trees while using a walker. And I myself have never been part of that operation. It's possible lights will be strung on December 22nd, the day the tree goes up, when the children are home. Or not. I'm happy either way.

Some of the other houses that usually decorate on our road are dark this winter too. We're rather somber. But with great joy, and not a little relief, we all noticed when the Santa Duck reappeared.

Santa Duck is an inflatable duck. He looks exactly like a bath duck grown to dinosaur size, except that he wears an inflatable Santa hat and a jaunty, I suspect homemade, red knit scarf. He sits on the top of the flat gable of the roof of a small square house on Weaver Pike. The house is down in a hollow, so the top of its roof is barely above the level of the street. Santa Duck usually shows up right after Thanksgiving and stays until after the New Year.

This year Thanksgiving came and went. No Santa Duck. The next weekend came and went. No Santa Duck. The natives of Bristol grew restless. The Bradleys without lights on their trees? Eh. Whatever. Also Doc had surgery, didn't you hear? But the lack of Santa Duck--I truly cannot remember a Bristol Christmas without him--caused community-wide concern.

We discussed it in my yoga class. I muttered about it to friends. Someone took a photo of the empty flat roof and posted it online, and soon someone else had created a Facebook post called Bring Back the Bristol Santa Duck. It was widely shared, and, quite quickly, someone put up a photo of a bearded man sitting at a sewing machine, repairing a seam on the duck.

All was well. The Santa Duck has been restored to his rooftop. My yoga instructor texted me a photo of him, fully blown up and well tethered down, within hours of his reinstatement. The town breathed a happy sigh. Santa Duck lives.

And if you think that giant festive inflatable bath ducks have nothing whatsoever to do with the birth of Christ Jesus the Savior of humankind, I'm here to say I think you're wrong. Joy. Light. Santa Duck. It's all part of the story.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

I'm calling it Advent

Things are looking up. My brave husband survived a week of working half-days. It was very close to too much for him. The irritating thing is that he went back to work then because his surgeon specifically told him he would be ready, and then, when he did it (and he'd scheduled a full week of patients so it would have been hard for him to back out) both the surgeon and the physical therapist acted as though he'd been peremptory.  They were all, "Whoa, dude, that's a bit much, don't you think?" and he said, "That's what you TOLD ME to do!" But it turned out okay.

Today we would have attempted church despite the stairs and the standing, except that we can't make it down our driveway. We're having a snow day. It usually snows here in upper east Tennessee about 4 times a year, to any measurable amount; we usually have a day or two that I can't make it down my driveway about every other year. I could probably get out with my truck--but there wasn't any way I was letting my husband attempt the snow and ice and general slipperiness. No sir.

Normally we are very into Christmas decorations. By that I mostly mean my husband, but really, I love it too. I just leave so much of the decorating to him because I can, and because he takes such joy in it. Every year he concocts an elaborate centerpiece for our dining room table, and he never seems happier than when he's creating it, humming to himself, deciding between red decorations and gold. He decorates our banister, too, and puts up a secondary tree in the living room, and none of that's happening this year. Our family tree, which we usually decorate on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, will go up December 22nd when the children return. I do plan to get out the Nativity sets and the stockings, though I'm a little concerned that the dog will see the Nativity sets as elaborate chew toys. She's already been very enthusiastic, this morning, about her first snow.

So it's a small Christmas, to match our small Thanksgiving, and it's perfectly fine. We Catholics aren't supposed to get too excited ahead of the main date anyhow. (Despite what is telling you the Twelve Days of Christmas are actually Christmas and the eleven days following, not before.) This year it turns out we're celebrating Advent, thoroughly and well. Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Anne Frank, Again

Thank you! I now have a list of 12 books to investigate, only 2 of which I was aware of before yesterday. That's fantastic. Meanwhile I went to the library. I came home with a pretty enthusiastic stack, including a recent biography of Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin. I've only just begun it but already I can see that her husband was in life more nuanced than he appears in Wikipedia. Not surprising.

Meanwhile, oddly enough, the book I sat down and devoured during my husband's appointments yesterday was the graphic novel version of the Diary of Anne Frank. I say "oddly" only because I'd said I didn't want to read any Holocaust novels, and of course DAF is not only a Holocaust story, but it's a true one in which the teenage heroine is murdered at the end.

(I'll interrupt my blog to add a link to a post I recently read, an article in the Smithsonian pointing out some real problems with the public adoration of Anne. It begins, "People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much." It's very worth reading.)

I have a long relationship with the Diary of Anne Frank. I don't remember when I first heard about the Holocaust, but I remember the first time I read Anne's book. I remember it with awful clarity, because I thought it was fiction when I picked it up. I didn't know it was a true story. I expected it to end well. I still remember laying stomach-down across my bed, engrossed in the book, and running full-force into those awful words, "Anne's diary ends here." And then the shattering afterword. I buried my head in my pillows and sobbed.

When I was in Israel I said a few times to some of the other writers on the trip, "I've always wanted to change the ending of the diary. I've wanted to Anne to survive, and I've wanted to write what happens to her then." It's true; I've wanted to write that story for as long as I've known I was a writer. My friends, every one of them, said, "You can't do that." And they're right. I can't. What's next--a kinder, gentler Hitler?

I imagine the adapter and illustrator of the graphic novel felt a certain trepidation, but the version they've produced is stunning. Certain emotive elements of the diary lend themselves very well to full-page illustrations--the sequence of Anne comparing herself to her "perfect" sister Margot is brilliant, economical, complete. But then they fill whole pages with large passages from her diary, uncut, barely illustrated. They're using the full version of the diary, not the edited version first published. Anne shines in these pages.

And still the chilling words, "Anne's diary ends here."

If you're a teacher or librarian, get this book. Your students will love it. Your students will learn from it.

Also, you all were great with the reading recommendations yesterday. What have you got that's high-interest for fourth-graders? ALI is putting together our book lists for our two spring selections. I've got some good ideas but I'd love to have more. Thanks!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Help! I need help!

It will come as no surprise to anyone that replacing one's entire knee joint is a rather big deal. I saw an x-ray Monday of my husband's new knee. They sawed off the ends of his shinbone and his femur, and shaved the backside of his patella, and added whole new ends made of teflon or something that fit together cunningly well and will, in time, work brilliantly, I'm sure.

They are starting to function now. It's been painful, and difficult. My husband reacts oddly and un-usefully to opiods and apparently also has some strange anatomy--some nerve too close to some artery--that makes nerve blocks not work well. So everything hurt, and still does. He has been diligent in this therapy. He's slowly improving. He's back to work half-days this week.

Last week sucked for several reasons, some of which aren't wholly my story. One of the more minor examples: after a very quick business trip to Orlando on Friday (I accepted the Sunshine State Young Reader's Award, with thankfulness and joy) the plane I was on got within five miles of home before deciding it was too foggy to land. We diverted back to Atlanta where I spent the night in a cheap airport hotel. Not a crisis. Just annoying. But other bits were worse.

In the midst of all of it I've been struggling to find a single damn thing to read.

I took The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici with me to the hospital on the day of Bart's surgery, along with a French grammar I'm studying. We had to check-in by 5:15 am. Yeah. Luckily I've got some easy computer games on my phone.

At home I tried again with the first book on my to-read pile. The Librarian of Auschwitz. Yeah. No. I don't care how well-written the book is, Auschwitz is still Auschwitz. Not something to enjoy in times of trouble.

Okay, so next I went with a duo of two Mary Balogh Christmas novellas. I quite liked the first one. Fluffy, but very Christmassy. Then the second was essentially the first over again. Slightly different setup but exact same Christmas details, down to a small boy claiming he could, "skate like the wind." They were written years apart; publishing them in the same volume was a really bad idea. So I was off Mary.

Tried N. K. Jemisin next. I think she's brilliant and I'll probably love her stuff when I've got the brainpower to make sense of it. This is not that time.

My book club book is Girl, Wash Your Face. My sister loved it. I think in most circumstances I would like it, but again, not now. From what I can tell it's a light pep-talk, and while I usually love me a good advice book I'm not taking advice this week. I'll try that one again on the weekend because I would like to have read it by book club.

I have a lot of books downloaded on my iPad, most of them comfort fluff. I was just starting to go to them when I shattered my iPad's screen. I looked at it one morning and it was broken. Probably I knocked it out of my bed on the night. Anyway, it still functions--though probably not for long--but it's very hard to read the words behind the broken screen.

I had Challenger Deep from the library. Love Neal Schusterman. Don't really want to read about schizophrenia this month.

I had The Nanny Diaries from the library, too. I felt too sorry for the children in the book to find it funny.

Nine Rules to Break When You're Romancing a Rake. Sounded very promising. However--if you're going to write Regency-era novels, for Lawdssake learn enough about horses. Everyone rode them or traveled in carriages back then. No one drives a high-perch phaeton in the country in a snowstorm. No one. If you don't understand what is meant by the phrase, "well-matched bays," don't use it, and don't stick women on stallions as though it were an everyday thing. Stallions themselves--not an everyday thing. Not even then.  (Once I read ten pages of a book where, on page 10, the young Duke grabbed his shotgun and went out solo on foot to do a little fox-hunting.)

Ahhhhhh. I re-read my two favorite Joanna Bourne novels, Rogue Spy and The Black Hawk. Then I fumbled around with the opening chapters of Kate Morton's The Clockmaker's Daughter. She's like JoJo Moyes where I'm concerned--sometimes I like her, sometimes I don't. This one I don't.

Picked up--again, library book--Life Among The Savages, a memoir by stellar American novelist Shirley Jackson. I was really enjoying it--funny, accessible, light--when I noticed on the bio on the back that she'd died in 1965, aged only 48. I'm 51. So that sucked. So then I looked her up on Wikipedia to see why she died so young, and the answer was heart trouble and cigarettes and addiction and anxiety, and also her husband was an over-controlling womanizer who forced her to agree to an "open marriage" she didn't want. Now I know Wikipedia is not wholly reliable. My own entry is rigorously policed by my daughter's friend, who has to keep editing out ridiculous phrases other people keep putting it--it's become on the nature of a family joke--but still, reading about her life made me see her memoir, in which her husband keeps murmuring about money while heading off to his office, gleefully, which she tries to cope with four children and a series of unreliable household help and writing novels that are still considered classics in their genre seventy years later, as well as making most of the household income--a little differently, and much less amusing. When she died her younger children were still living at home. I was not looking to read about disasters.

Then my lovely friend Hilary McKay recommended a old book by Elizabeth Von Atrim, Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther. My new iPad had arrived, so I looked this book up, and it was FREE on Kindle, probably because it's so old and obscure. Started it with great joy. Then put it down. I'll probably love it some day. For now, not so much. I read 20 pages and absolutely nothing happened. Not one blessed thing. Lots of words, charming words, not a one of them fine active verbs. I'm not absolutely addicted to plots, but still.

That was last night. That's my reading history of the past two weeks. I typically read 4-5 books per week. The past two weeks: 3--the two Joanna Bournes, and Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp's Game Changer, a short brilliant nonfiction book about increasing access to books in schoolchildren. So, 1.5 books per week in weeks when I've had lots of reading time. It's no wonder I'm cranky.

I'm headed back to the library this afternoon while my husband's at physical therapy. Help a sister out, here. What's good? What will be not sad and not stupid and not too bleeping literary?