Thursday, April 18, 2019

My Real Life Alter Ego (Blog Hop)

Thanks so much to Caroline for starting our latest blog hop off yesterday. I loved the idea of doing something like this because it's a way for me to re-christen my blog as Deb In The City. Many moons ago (back in July of 2006, to be exact), I started another blog called Deb In The City where I talked about being a mom of many in an urban environment and trying to do it all on a budget. That was a different time, I am a different person, but I've missed writing about life and not just writing and pop-culture. (Sometimes I just don't want to watch Netflix. There, I said it.) I'm hoping this won't be mundane. but it's definitely going to be more personal.

So here's what you need to know about me when I'm not building new worlds and characters out of whole cloth:

  • I'm a homeschooler. I like to think I'm kind of hip and cool, but "homeschooling mom" sounds about as exciting as snaking out my tub. But, as I see it, it's my most important job, and especially now that my youngest are older (14? When/how did that happen?!), it's a lot more fun. Do they love reading The Iliad? Of course not. Are they digging the survey text on World History we're using? Nope. And do they constantly question the utility of algebra and trigonometry? Like it's their job. But it still brings me a huge amount of joy to sit on the couch with them, read out loud, and even listen to their snarky commentary. I'm trying to get them to a place where they won't need me to learn, but I'm dreading it as well.
We all have our zany comfort reading...

  • I'm a good cook.
    Like, a really good cook. When you're low on funds and have dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, wheat-intolerance, and allergic reactions to soy and sesame) and you live with people with different food restrictions (nut- and shellfish-allergies), being able to cook is a necessity. (But baking's mostly for fun.) Like Caroline, I've also worked in a cafe and even had my own, under-the-table catering business for a little while (that's as edgy as I've gotten). 
This raw, vegan chocolate cake is one of the easier things I've made (Photo Credit: The Happy Raw Kitchen)

  • I'm a yogi.
    Back in the day, I taught mind-body fitness. There's a lot about the fitness industry, in all corners, that can be pretty toxic, and it took me a long time to be able to practice yoga without a lot of that bubbling up, but recently I rediscovered why I loved Raviana's Yoga so much. Their workouts make me feel like I'm reclaiming my body - not as far as how it appears, but what it can do. And boy, there's nothing like not meditating regularly for about a decade to make clear just how much you need it.
I promise, this is more fun than it looks

  • I'm a super volunteer.
    Some people sign up for things, show up, and think that's all they have to do. I'm one of the people that puts in work behind the scenes. (This is not, by the way, because I'm such a community-minded person, but more because community-minded leaders usually see me standing somewhere un-warily and make their move on me before I can run away.) I've been the chair of a School Site Council, the editor of a newsletter, a member of the planning team for a conference (actually, make that two), and an organizer for social justice at my synagogue. I make the trains run, but in my opinion, that's just Adulting 101. (Admittedly, my opinion may be tempered by the fact that nothing anyone else has asked me to do has been as difficult as creating a world from scratch, so there's that.)
  • I have given up my smart phone. That's a different kettle of fish than the other items, but worth mentioning because it's so out of the norm. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, but finally worked up the courage to do. My smart phone had very quickly encouraged a sense of ennui in me that a lot of people can probably relate to. We carry computers Albert Einstein couldn't have conceived of, and most of use it to follow reality stars on Instagram and play Facebook games (yes, I too had a crippling Candy Crush addiction once; you can't get better if you don't face what you are). And don't get me started on the advertisers that stalk you all over the internet...The week I've been without my email constantly demanding my attention has been fantastic, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to be more present.
The smartest phone for me

That's me in a nutshell (er...sort of). Thanks so much for reading, and please check The O Life tomorrow to find out The Truth About Kerrie.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Remembrance, Discovery, and digging myself out

Did I mention that my resolution this year is to keep next November through March completely open? I know, that's a strange resolution, but it finally occurred to me after my family and I were so sick from late November through mid-February and still had all of these commitments to keep up with that we might have recovered more quickly without them. It's a developing project, stay tuned for more.

One of the things that took a LONG time to recover was my reading time. Thus, even though I raved about the first book in Cixin Liu's trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past back in November, it was only yesterday that I finally finished the final book, Death's End. I wish I could have finished it sooner, because it was incredible.

Maybe some things shouldn't end

I was honestly not a sci-fi fan before this, but now I am. I've read most of what Liu has out, and now I don't know what to do with myself. I'm not the only one who thinks this is one of the most incredible series ever written, as evidenced by the awards the books have won. Absolutely thorough; every train of thought and scientific possibility was followed to its logical conclusion, all grounded by the fundamental concept of the Dark Forest theory.

As impressive as the unrelenting logic was, I think it's important to remember that the series is ultimately about modern people. The contact with what turns out to be a hostile alien race is brought about by a young woman devastated by her father's public murder during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and a wealthy man who is disgusted by the damage his father's company has wrought on the environment. For both of them, something has to change, and if they can't change it themselves, they'll invite another party that can. When, a few centuries later, people debate what it will mean to have human beings travel untethered to Earth and human values, one wonders what Liu's original main characters will think. Survival is the ultimate question, but the survival of what?

Clearly, I haven't quite left the strange but perfect world Liu created yet.

The only downside to this series is that I can't watch the new Star Trek: Discovery series. I suspected that it wasn't going to be my cup of tea (it doesn't bother anybody that the tech used on the shows that are supposed to be set before The Original Series is so much more sophisticated?) but I find myself shaking my head at the majority of these episodes thinking, no, I think they need to develop that a little bit more. Like the last series, Enterprise, I think there are a bunch of really good actors (Sonequa Martin-Green is amazing, and of course Michelle Yeoh is excellent) trying to do their best with less than perfect material. (And is this supposed to be the wacky re-do universe JJ Abrams created for the movies, or are we back on the original timeline?) Whatever; I'm just trying to avoid it now so I don't ruin it for my more nostalgic husband.

And maybe some other things don't need to be constantly revived
If I'm being entirely honest, I also haven't been happy with the last few Kdramas I've watched, and I didn't love the last Korean movie I saw either. Both Black and Beating Again started out well, but they fell apart at the end. Black, a show about a Grim Reaper trying to track down his errant partner, was really, really good up until the final episode, but then it seems as if the writers realized they were out of time and had to fix EVERYTHING, whether or not it was going to make sense that people figured it out when they did. Beating Again's premise (that a heart recipient was going to take on an improved personality because of the good nature of his donor) was maybe equally weird, but the ending was too pat, literally fifteen minutes after teasing us that it was going to end less than happily. I wanted more, but I can't exactly put my finger on what.

Isn't it amazing how good looking Grim Reapers and their groupies are in Korea?
Surprisingly, cold-blooded corporate cut-throats and heart transplant recipients are also really good-looking too

Drug King was better, but the pacing was off. Anyone who's ever heard of meth knew that the dealer was going to end up in a Howard Hughes-esque hole of his own making by the end, but I still hoped for a more complete ending. It also seemed like they were trying to draw an analogy between Park Chung Hee's quasi-mercantilist dictatorship and selling crank (under the brand name "Made in Korea"), but they didn't make it tight enough for me to, well, care. Bae Doona, so great in Stranger, was totally wasted here.

A poor man from a poor country takes advantage of an opportunity to sell drugs to a richer country. And now you can write the rest of this script.
Thank goodness I have the latest Commissario Brunetti mystery waiting for me at the library. There is a light at the end of the tunnel :-)

Friday, February 15, 2019

An Interview with Lisette Brodey, Author of Hotel Obscure

One of the best parts of my job is meeting other indie authors who write stories I "believe in". And when they are professional and kind to boot, I feel like I've hit the jackpot. Lisette Brodey is one such author, and I thought her most recent book, Hotel Obscure, was one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read. I'm so grateful that she was able to take some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her book and her writing.

Why did you need to tell these stories?

I wrote the first story (not the first story in the book) because I was working on a YA paranormal series and I was tired of having to adhere to some of the restrictions (especially language) for a YA audience. So, while I was waiting for edits on the first book, I felt the need to write something very different.

Now that you’re asking, the first story I wrote, “To Be Perfectly Frank,” was from a decades-old idea that I had never developed. And it took place in a run-down urban hotel. I can’t even tell you if that’s why I decided to set the entire book there, but it’s very likely. (See the things you learn about your own work when doing an interview?)

Also, because I think that most of us have misconceptions/stereotypes about groups of people, no matter what the common denominator, I wanted to focus on this small population of people, bring them out of obscurity, and let their individuality shine. Too many people are hidden away in real life and categorized as someone or something very different from who they genuinely are.

You have very colorful characters in Hotel Obscure. Who, if anyone, were they inspired by?

The stories were inspired by people I know, people I see, and those voices in my head that screamed, “Write about me! Write about me!”

Sometimes, when I’m out and about, I see interesting people and I sneak photos of them. Two such photos turned into supporting characters, right down to their clothing and hair.

Some of the stories and situations are based on homeless people who I know. But in most of my work, characters, if based on anyone in particular, are always hybrids.

Many of Hotel Obscure's residents lived in bleak circumstances, but there was a tinge of humor in many of the stories. Was that a conscious choice?

Absolutely. I can’t write without humor. If I wrote the darkest, bleakest story in the world, humor would probably find a way in there at some point. But I never force it. Just last night, I was watching a trailer for a film (I see a lot of movies), and I saw the character crack a joke that seemed contrived and forced. I’m noticing this more and more in films. I don’t ever want to force humor. Yes, it helps to balance out the darkness, but I’d rather stay in the dark than try to be funny for the sake of it.

On a different note, because this is a collection of seventeen themed short stories taking place in and around a run-down hotel, I purposely wanted some stories to be more lighthearted than others. I wanted to mirror real life as I see it.

I really thought you nailed the noirish underside of urban life, the one that’s the twilight zone of sparkly dreams that not only don’t come true, but sometimes even turn on the dreamer. To what extent was that mood inspired by things you might have seen working in the urban underbelly?

As I said earlier, I have seen a lot, been told a lot, and imagined a lot from what I’ve seen.

Having spent many years of my life in both New York City and Los Angeles, there’s a lot that has seeped into my brain. Before I go any further, I should say that while I am from the Philadelphia area, I never lived in the city.

In Queens, New York, I worked as a bartender at several places, so I believe that my experiences doing that brought me in contact with many kinds of people. But that’s a very tiny piece of the pie. I cannot isolate the experiences that found their way into my stories. I can only say that most everything I’ve seen has had some impact on me, whether consciously or subconsciously. I know that my years of being a people watcher (both in cities where I have lived and traveled to) has had a profound impact. I would imagine this is true for most people, whether writers or not.

Which characters stayed with you the longest?

That’s such a tough question because every single character in the book had to impact me in order to even hang around. One of my favorite characters is the one in the first-person story called “Via Dolorosa.” She (who has no name) came from a life of privilege and unapologetically tells the story of her sad journey. She’s strong and she’s content, though not necessarily happy. She’s a survivor.

The star of the last story in the book, “Ellmore J. Badget’s Most Unusual Day” is maybe my favorite character. Ellmore is a man who has survived by routine, living every day as a near carbon copy of the one before it. I loved getting to know him and seeing where his story went.

I just loved some of the names you used in HO. Are you pulling from any other works when you come up with them?

I pulled one character name from my novel Crooked Moon. It is the name of a jazz pianist who has no dialogue and is only background. In my story “First Date,” Marv Jackson is a bartender, and I make reference to the fact that he is a jazz pianist and I mention the location that was a big part of Crooked Moon.

Short stories are deceptively difficult, both to write and read, and even harder when they intertwine. What made you want to take this challenge on?

“Deceptively difficult” nails it.

While this is the first book I’ve written that is not a novel, I think the novelist in me wanted to give it the feel of a novel. I wanted to tell individual stories, but as the characters are all in the same setting, it makes sense that some of their lives would intertwine. Sometimes, I knew that a character’s story would unexpectedly (for the reader) continue, but other times, I didn’t. In fact, I’d say that some of the biggest surprises in the book were surprises to me. And those are always my favorite kind.

So, while this is not a novel, I do let readers know that the stories should be read in the order that they appear, just as chapters in a novel are. That said, I didn’t write them all this way, which meant I had to go back with a careful eye and make sure that information given in one story didn’t contradict another. That definitely added a degree of difficulty, but not a major one. And for the record, unlike some authors, I always write novels in a linear fashion.

Another reason I wanted to take on this challenge was that doing a book of short stories allowed me to work with characters and situations that piqued my interest without building an entire novel around them. But writing short stories also means that you have far less time to present your story and your character … and to get things right. Maybe it’s a slight rewiring of the writer’s brain.

Can we expect to see more short stories from you and/or more of the HO universe?

Well, my brother was a big fan of the last story, “Ellmore P. Badget’s Most Unusual Day,” and told me that the story would make a great prequel to a novel. Taking a closer look, I realized that he is right. (There’s a first time for everything.) As of right now, I have no plans to write that novel, but I can never say never.

I would, however, love to write another collection of themed short stories set in a different location. That’s in my head all the time, but I haven’t found my starting point yet. But yes, that’s something I’d very much like to do.

Lisette was born and raised in the Philadelphia area. She spent ten years in New York City, and now resides in Los Angeles.
She’s a multi-genre author of seven novels and one short story collection: Crooked Moon (General/Literary Fiction); Squalor, New Mexico (Coming-of-Age/Literary Fiction); Molly Hacker Is Too Picky! (Women's Fiction/Chick-lit), The Desert Series: Mystical High; Desert Star; and Drawn Apart (YA paranormal), Barrie Hill Reunion (Literary Fiction); and Hotel Obscure (short stories, Literary Fiction.)

In addition to her seven novels and one short story collection, two more of Lisette’s short stories are published in an anthology: Triptychs (Book 3, The Mind’s Eye Series.)

In January 2013, Lisette edited and published a book of her mother's poetry (written 50 years earlier): My Way To Anywhere by Jean Lisette Brodey.

She is currently working on a new romantic comedy. 

You can connect with Lisette on her website, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and Instagram.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

When you don't want trouble but it finds you anyway

In 2015 and 2016 I felt stuck. This is not a unique thing; I was at an age and a period in my life that would do that to most people. Reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo was one of the things that helped unstick me, and one of the things it helped me do was walk away from social media. As I wrote in that post, I did feel the lack of stimulation, and one of the things I used to fill it were Google Alerts about subjects I was interested in, including Kondo.

I've groaned in the last month and a half as the world has discovered Kondo through her Netflix show. There were the publicity pieces from the middle of December to early January, but then the think pieces arrived. I rolled my eyes at a lot of it, as I'd already been through the "no, she doesn't want you to throw away everything" dance a few years before, albeit on a much smaller scale. But what happened on Monday made me gasp.

Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich, who has written on such topics as poverty, healthcare, feminism, and a bunch of other things I heartily approve of, decided on Monday to take a shot at Marie Kondo, not for getting rid of books or telling you to become a minimalist (things Kondo hasn't done but is frequently accused of), but for not speaking English. You can read the story here at USA Today.

The original tweet was deleted, of course, but then followed up by what should have been an apology but instead...

Everyone can look up Ehrenreich, Pollitt, and Showalter, but let's say this isn't what you expect from people with their resumes. And after just finishing Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X Kendi, I'm even less inclined to excuse this. This is racism, and a bunch of these writers' fans proclaiming that this is a "joke" that many of us aren't getting because we're not tuned into irony or culturally literate enough just isn't doing it for me. Also, as the daughter of someone who speaks two languages fluently, I'm going to say what I always say in these situations: Her English is better than Ehrenreich's Japanese. We can discuss later if this is one of the reasons empires fall.

Guys, be better.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

December is the sneakiest month of all

(With apologies to TS Eliot...nah, that's okay. He was a jerk.)

I meant to put up a post earlier, but December got off to a rough start. Still, I managed to get in a lot of reading, including:

  • Warrior and King by Ellen Oh. Really liked Warrior, but I chafed a little at the romantic emphasis in King. But this is how it goes, even for modern YA, I suppose.
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. I wasn't sure I would read the rest of this series after The Fifth Season. Jemisin deserves every accolade she's received, but the first book was so dark. I know, she's keeping it real, but I can take only so much murder (of children) and cannibalism before I've got to walk away. But I'm glad I gave it another shot. While still plenty dark, The Obelisk Gate provided a ray of hope and, perhaps more importantly, an explanation. Looking forward to The Stone Sky, which I should have in my hands any day now.
  • The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. If my list doesn't look impressively long, please know that the heft and complexity of The Grace of Kings made me feel like I was reading at least three books I was done. It felt like Game of Thrones in Southeast Asia, but in the good way. Liu was the translator behind Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem, and he's just as brilliant in his own work. The sequel The Wall of Storms is currently looking at me on my reading table, but I need a break before I go back in.
  • Speaking of Cixin Liu, I've started reading The Dark Forest, the sequel to Three Body, and Ball Lightning, a standalone that exists in the same universe. Really digging Ball Lightning--spooky, but in the good way.
  • Finally, also started reading Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. It's a recommendation from my library, and this might be the first time they've steered me wrong (actually, wait: they also thought I'd like Magonia). I'll post about it if I actually finish it.

As for writing, I met my modest goal of ten thousand words in November, but I don't want to do it again. I love the people I know through NaNoWriMo, but the contest aspect of it turned writing into drudgery for me. I needed to step away for a few days, and then I found the words pouring out of me. I'm finally over the sophomoric admonishment that you have to write every day if you want to consider yourself a writer. You have to write on more days than you don't, but never go to the notebook or keyboard just to put random words down.

Randomly, I finally deleted my accounts on Instagram, Twitter (I only rejoined to find information on one of my local races, but that was silly because no one had anything), and Tumblr. I left Twitter because they're a cesspool, Tumblr because the people complaining about losing the porn made me roll my eyes (but, pro tip to Tumblr and all of these other sites: try hiring actual human beings to look through sensitive material if you want to make sure you avoid serious things like child porn), and Instagram because Facebook, their corporate overlord, is just disgusting.

I'm on the hunt again for good if not great blogs, so in addition to book recs, please hit me up with your favorite blogs if you've got any.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Post Day of Plenty Reading

My week blew up because one of my kids wasn't feeling well and we ended up in the ER. We're all okay--very, very okay--but the lack of sleep on Tuesday night meant Wednesday's productive activities were canceled. But that's okay, because I got a lot done on Tuesday.

The one upside of so much time in the hospital was that I got a lot of reading in. I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and oh my, it is one of the best things I have ever read. Right after that I tucked into Prophecy by Ellen Oh and finished that in two days (sorry, but Thanksgiving festivities got in the way). I now need to read everything Liu and Oh have written. Serpentine by Cindy Pon was pretty good, too, but I'm not jonesing to read the sequel like I am the other two. Also need to read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (who just happens to be the translator of the Three Body Problem).

A young woman scarred by the Cultural Revolution is assigned to work on a project to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. What could possibly go wrong?
Semi-legendary version of medieval Korea with a female warrior heroine who has mystical powers. Where have you been all my life?

Weirdly, I struggled mightily and then finally gave up on Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep. I think most would agree it's not as difficult as the other three, and probably falls into Middle Grade...but when one considers how much Middle Grade books grated on my nerves at that age, it suddenly starts to make sense.

I also might just be burnt out from all of the reading over the last two days, along with the writing I've been dragging out of myself for NaNoWriMo. A walk would make me feel better, but the universe's punishment for ordering a bed frame from Amazon is that their delivery is late and I can't leave the house until it arrives. If only I'd gone to Ikea, where I could have gotten in a good walk while looking for something that would break in a year. In fairness, Amazon did apologize for FedEx's mistake, but if I don't get this thing by tomorrow there are more than a few thrift shops in Boston I'll be happy to spend my money in.

What did you read this week?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Don't be an Intellectual Snob: Artistic Lineages, 80s Fashion Magazines, Information Entropy

I'm taken with Austin Kleon's idea of tracing our influences and the people who influenced them as a way of deepening, I think, our understanding of our own artistic impulses. I encourage people, even those who don't think of themselves as creators, to explore what it is that moves you.

Not feeling too well in the latter part of the week (it take about two weeks of non-stop activity and socializing for me to me remember why I've sworn off such things), I decided to start tracing my creative ancestry in order to keep myself in the game. What I have so far is woefully incomplete, but I'm pleased to see it still reflects my eclectic tastes. And while Google has done much to ruin the internet, there is something kind of neat about being able to see the influences of Tolstoy on a pre-delivered page.

Words, of course, are my thing, but it would be a sorry world if we all stayed in our lane (that applies to people in general as much as artists). I get a thrill from finding musical artists to fall in love with, and while I'm much more discriminating about the visual art I enjoy (I think I'm not unique in that; most of us have a "tighter" band of what we consider attractive visually than in the other arts), when I find a piece that speaks to me, I could stare at it for hours. So it's worth coming up with a list of composers and painters and tracing their pedigree.

The artist that first came to mind was Marc Chagall. For me, his art is perfect: whimsical, magical, visual fairy tales, and like the best of all fairy tales, profound in both its simplicity and surrealism (see Thought below). I remember the feeling I first had when I saw his art, as if the world was opening up to me beyond the clean, perfectly geometric lines I'd been told I needed to live in. This, of course, prompted me to place the memory in a specific time (aren't we all such linear creatures?), and where I saw him for the first time.

Antonio rocchi su dis. di marc chagall, le coq bleu, 1958-59
Le Coq Bleu, Marc Chagall

The answer was that the first time I saw his work was when I was twelve in 1985, shortly after his death, and the place I saw him was in Harper's Bazaar (and I'm pretty sure it was the May issue). Could it have been Vogue? Maybe, but it was one of the two, and I remember staring at those pages, completely entranced. It was definitely in a Harper's Bazaar that year that I read about the passing of Tennessee Williams, and with such lyrical quotes that I decided I had to read him, and soon.

As I thought about this, I remembered that this was just the first contribution, and I use that word without irony, that I got from the glossies. Trust me, I learned more about makeup application than was useful, but I also learned about literature and art; that's got to be part of the reason that I was enthusiastic about reading and watching things my classmates turned their noses up at, including Oscar Wilde. (That was definitely a Vogue contribution; the editors there were constantly mimicking his arch affect.) Just as importantly, I learned a lot about personal finance from Glamour, whether it was getting a binding estimate on moving cost's, or the merits of using the stock market index to find the best place to apply for a job (FYI, it worked). Finally, let's give it up to American Elle, who in its first year included a profile of Mies van der Rohe, making him sound like kind of curmudgeonly badass. Less is more, suckers.

Is saying I read the articles in women's fashion magazines the equivalent of saying you read the articles in Playboy? Probably. Is someone going to remark that I'm making women's magazines sound like the picture book equivalent of what one might get in a more "serious" magazine? Almost definitely--smart people can be pretty snotty.

A quote:
I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good.
--Mies van der Rohe

A thought:
He remembered taking a class in information theory as a third-year student in college. The professor had put up two pictures: One was the famous Song Dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, full of fine, rich details; the other was a photograph of the sky on a sunny day, the deep blue expanse broken only by a wisp of cloud that one couldn't even be sure was there. The professor asked the class which picture contained more information. The answer was that the photograph's information content--its entropy--exceeded the painting's by one or two orders of magnitude.
--The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu