How Often Do You Fall in Love?

falling-in-love-quotes-4Unless you are the exception, the answer is seldom. We seldom fall in love. When we do, it is rapturous. It changes our lives.

Today I was reading Sarah Jane Freymann‘s post on being a literary agent. She happens to represent nonfiction, plenty of spiritual/inspirational titles (the kind of reading I have judged in contests). I can vouch for the fact that among 150 submissions I read this summer, I didn’t fall in love from the first page with a single one. Perhaps if I had not been hired to keep reading, I wouldn’t have fallen in love at all.

Ms. Freyman writes, “Your eyes meet someone else’s on the street as you’re waiting for a bus, on the subway, in an art gallery, across the proverbial crowded room, on a ledge hanging off a mountain cliff, and something clicks. In other words, one either falls in love…or doesn’t. This, in my opinion, holds as true for people as it does for books on parenting, religion, travel adventure, science, business strategies, sports, cooking, and fiction. And when that “click” happens and a spark is ignited, one tends to rationalize: it was that charming query letter, his blue eyes, the subject is so timely, the author has such a fabulous voice, I really loved the paper and the font she uses, it’s such a great title, and so on and so forth. But for me the truth, alas and thank goodness, is both more simple and more mysterious.”

She is describing love at first sight. I do believe this is what literary agents rely upon to find a book, and what many of us, in fact, rely upon when deciding which book to buy online or in a bookstore. Sometimes if we hadn’t received a glowing review or a title as a gift, we would not persevere.

Love at first sight is not always why any one of us gets married. Marriage may be the result of a slower, more emphatic and convincing seduction and persuasion. While many people hook up with each other as a result of this slow burning persuasion, books do not always get the same benefit. They are, after all, static. They are not alive. They cannot engage with a sedentary being as another human can.

Good writers should remind themselves that editors and agents rely on this magical device–falling in love. it is not always about tweaking one’s novel endlessly. And here’s another reminder: the young & innocent fall in love with greater facility. That is how both The Hobbit and Harry Potter sold: by being read first by children.

Best Amish novel I have ever read!

Cora PoolerHands down, Cora Pooler by Dottie Rexford is the best Amish novel I have ever read. It’s got everything: mystery, beautiful writing, great characters, and an enticing plot line.

Cora, the title character, left her Amish community twenty years ago due to the birth of an out-of-wedlock baby. (Yes, it happens in those communities too.) Cora gave away the baby, refused to name the father, and was shunned by the community.

She went to live as an “Englisher,” the name the Amish have for people living in modern society. When Cora feels the need to reconnect with and reexamine her Amish past in a way that will resonate with any reader older than twenty, there is a subtle yet palpable shift from the vibrant fast-pace of city life to the mysterious romance of nature. Rexford’s descriptive abilities are powerful and bring the reader fully into the sensory elements of a scene. I relished such evocative phrasings as “I heard birdsong, running fox feet crackle the dead ground leaves beneath them [. . .], the drop of a weak branch heavy with ice.” There is a cozy mystery feeling to this story, reminiscent of a Daphne Du Maurier or even an Agatha Christie novel, save with a reflective, religious twist.

Amish girls

Amish girls

Surprisingly, Cora has never left faith even though she has left the Amish. When she decides to return, it is to unravel mysteries of her family’s past as well as of the heart and soul. The reader will appreciate the skillful implications of every decision and thought Cora has.

Rexford presents us with a microcosm of the timeless battle of faith versus faith. She does it with the patient, delicate strokes of a maestro. The picture left in the mind’s eye is unforgettable. This is a book readers will wish to retain on their bookshelves, for it is filled with gorgeous writing. If one reads only one “Amish” novel in a lifetime, this should be it.

Reviewing books for the Saudi Press: Looking Back on the 80s and 90s

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I used to review books for the English language newspapers. (I did that under various names, for the papers were competitive.) The first books reviewed were purchased from the local bookstores. Usually a publication will under no circumstances use a review of a book that has been out in the world for a year, but in the 1980s, the local English-writing competition was so sparse in Saudi Arabia, copy editors were delighted to receive coherently written reviews. Sooner or later, everything I ever submitted was printed.tailypo!

Some of my favorite books were discovered through that hunt for books to review. The Story of my Wife by Milan Fust was a bookstore purchase–and I still consider it a classic, about a jealous sea captain who imagines all kinds of things about his wife.  Later, when I sent clips (by mail) to book publishers, I obtained a fair number of books for my sons, like Never Shave a Camel by Dr. Peter Rowan, Tailypo! by Jan Wahl and Weird Wolf by Margery Cuyler. The first one seemed region-specific, a good choice for an expatriate audience living in Saudi Arabia. Such titles, found in catalogs, were always put at the top of my request list. Tailypo! turned out to be too scary to be read more than once. After the first read, my children begged me to close the book. Hmmm.

the knightHugely talented authors came to my attention. I loved Ella Leffland’s writing in The Knight, Death and the Devil, a fictionalized account (that attempts to stick close to the truth) of Hermann Goring, Hitler’s right hand man. You may think whatever you like of me when I tell you that I wept through the sad ending of Goring’s love story with his wife. Leffland wrote so movingly I had to purchase another copy of the book for my father, a World War II buff. He read every page.


Paul Auster

Paul Auster’s Moon Palace gripped me completely. I thought it one of the finest books have ever read. In fact, I would like to read it again (Some of my books, alas, did not make it back with me to the USA–insignificant readers can only ship so much.) I have the review in one of my notebooks and am not surprised to see that it  came to me via London (Faber and Faber)–Auster has long been appreciated in Europe far more than he ever has in the USA, American though he may be. (I wonder why he did not follow Henry James’ path and become a British national.)

Naturally it takes a while to review books; it is not as easy as, say interviewing someone. Since I wrote every type of article a housewife can for the local press (including travel), I will admit that book reviews are among the hardest. But the richness! The tapestry and enchantment! How many hours have I wrestled with Virago Press’s list of upcoming titles, knowing I could not confuse the representative by requesting too many. I had to keep the number down to as many as I could read, for I might receive all of them. The reps were asked to send airmail, which they would have done anyway–anything by boat was subject to inspection by Saudi censors. I cannot explain why boat was more suspect than airplanes. I guess there are more vermin on boats. (At the ports, perhaps a subject for another day, my valuable antique books were destroyed.)

British publishers were not only closer, but I discovered my tastes are more European/British than they are American. That is probably a damning comment.

Yet I adore Stephen King!

Let the above comment rest as a glowing stamp of my American identity–I am the roving American whose tastes often jump to the other side of the pond.

At times I have felt inclined to look up those writers whose books I reviewed while in Jeddah. Auster is in New York and not too concerned with writing a new book; Bernice Rubens, beautiful writer that she was, has passed on; Geraldine Brooks was kind enough to respond to fan mail in a letter I will cherish forever. Ella Leffland, born in 1931, lives near me, in San Francisco. (Oh my goodness, would she let me visit her??)   Michael Foreman, author of The Game of all Wars, turns out to be British (I should have known), and of course Upamanyu Chatterjee is Indian although I do not know where he resides. It appears the book I reviewed, English,August: An Indian Story (and a really good one!) is his most

Upmanyu Chatterjee

Upmanyu Chatterjee

famous work.

How lucky I was to have reviewed it!

The Hold of Jehovah’s Witnesses


PP Cover.4483770.inddIn my exploration of self-published titles, I have come upon a gem: Inside/Outside. This memoir, by Jenny Hayworth, tells the tale of a woman who comes from a long line of sexually abused children in a family/religious community that refuses to acknowledge sins among men (heads of household). No doubt there are exceptions, but her life story demonstrates the pressure that is brought to bear upon victims in the Jehovah’s Witness society in which she was raised. She left the cult and was dis-fellowshipped, which means everyone who meant anything in her life, her friends and family, mother and father, was forced to ignore her existence as if she was dead. This castigation brought on seriously health-destabilizing stress issues for herself and her children. I highly recommend this book. It is gripping, informative and helpful in drawing parallels. Hayworth is a good writer and she knows how to deliver her story.

If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock at your door, this book may bring a little light. They are a society like any other, and among the more rigid.

Yet contrary to what the reader might expect, Inside/Outside is by no means a condemnation of religion, but rather of human ego and intolerance. It is an insightful reflection into one woman’s experience of the chaotic pain wreaked by unreasoning control that is enforced in the name of any kind of dogmatic system. Hayworth’s subsequent acknowledgment of kindness from followers of all types of spiritual systems demonstrates her keen powers of rationality. She has been through much and her story, though dark and powerful, has light at the end. It is a commentary on the human situation and the struggle for the guise of superiority, no matter what banner society flouts. I cannot say enough good things about it.It is available on Amazon.



Four Potent Sources of Encouragement for the Writer/Artist

ImageHave you subscribed to dozens of writer-support emails/newsletters and engaged in multiple artist/writer forums over the years? How much have they helped your life as a writer/artist? What I am looking for is probably the same thing you are looking for– encouragement. Encouragement comes from ideas that help me morph back into the creative spirit I most love being.

Such encouragement gives me courage and energy.

Does it feel as if it is in short supply?

Here are four hotspot articles of true encouragement recently found, and I am not talking about the clever, rambling email letters that attempt to sell you a book at the end of a long page.

1. Jon Morrow has written a thoughtful piece entitled “How to be Smart in a World of Dumb Bloggers” (Sept 17, 2013) Normally I would comment on his blog, but this is superior material and needs to be shared. It will make the reader think about his or her approach to life. Morrow’s suggestions are not that hard, and if followed, will make writers/artists feel better about life.

(Simply mentioning Morrow’s piece here will ensure  I go back to re-read it and be re-inspired!)

2. Morrow’s article came to my attention from an article entitled “49 Creative Geniuses Who Use Blogging to Promote Their Art” written by Leanne Regalla (Jan 23, 2014), and Morrow wasn’t even listed as one of the 49-ers, but his was the link that plucked me up the most.

3. My window onto the world above was opened by subscription to The Writer’s Weekly written by Kimberley Grabas. the most recent one being The Definition of Marketing (Issue #28) This was a fantastic post leading to multiple colored, glowing doors, almost all of which feel useful and helpful to writers and artists. Tell me if I am wrong.

4. Not all the best encouragement is found on the web, especially when you think of all the internet dross to be avoided. Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, edited by Laurie Lamson (2014) and published by Penguin is a valuable recent book I have added to my shelves. There is advice in it from speculative writers of every kind, from Dr. Seuss to screenwriters whose names you might not recognize but whose movies you will.

For instance, Jeremy Wagner (who wrote The Armegedon Chord) has a short piece encouraging writers (and artists) to be prolific. So many writers stop writing due to lack of encouragement–they become the opposite of prolific. Wagner uses a clear and simple argument: writing  more makes you a better writer.

Being better at anything opens doors.

Wagner’s idea took three minutes to read and has stayed with me for weeks.

May today be a day you find encouragement.

Witches don’t like Muggle Books

ImageThe day before yesterday, I received Roald Dahl’s manual on how to spot a witch (titled The Witches). It arrived about five hours too late, but at least I was able to understand, in hindsight, that my writer friend Connie Kirchberg and I had spent our entire morning and afternoon in a witches’ coven. We thought we were at a simple Christmas bazaar where we took either half of a six foot table to display our books, hers and mine (and for me, a few of my handcrafted dolls).

Home again much disappointed, I found Dahl’s words took a few moments to penetrate my skull: “REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.”

Most of the women at the bazaar did wear ordinary clothes, not a dead giveaway in itself, but bright hypnotic, sparkling jewelry dangled off many of their necks and earlobes, the kind of baubles you don’t see on real shoppers. The jewelry left Connie and me stunned and mute.

Dahl writes, “A real witch spends all her time plotting to get rid of the children in her particular territory.” Indeed, there were no children present. There was another writer, of children’s books, who like us had innocently ambled into the so-called Christmas bazaar. The fact that she was not a witch was demonstrated by her being able to pick up our (Muggle) books in her hands. She bought a single book from each of us.Image

She had to be human. You see, witches will not open a Muggle book, just as vampires do not like to pass before mirrors. A witch cannot see herself with her nose in a book (if not about magic) any more than a vampire can cast a reflection in a mirror.  Why didn’t I think of that? Sometimes you forget things. (I need to bone up on my Rowling.)

More than one table at the bazaar had women offering to stick needles into my face. One woman crept up behind me with the offer, crouched in a squat, whispering her indecent proposal with a polite simper: “We sell botox by the unit.”

Connie adds her comments:

The witch thing does explain a lot.

I would estimate approximately 150 women attended the bazaar; of those, perhaps half a dozen actually touched a book. The others either smiled and averted their eyes as they passed our table, or frowned at the strange combination of subjects our books presented. Who, after all, would want to read a biography about two of the most famous men of the 20th Century, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon? A book that continues to find shelf space in some of our most prestigious universities in the country some 14 years after its commercial publication? What in the world are schools such as Stanford, Harvard, and USC thinking? And who would dare delve into a beautifully written, honest memoir of an American woman’s experience in Saudi Arabia? A book that doesn’t exaggerate the facts to make it more worthy in the eyes of today’s publishers, even though a high brow literary agent requested she do so?

 All sarcasm aside, Tuesday presented Julia and me with yet one more reason to believe the old ways of doing business for writers are over. No one wants to buy books from local authors unless said authors are famous. Like it or not—and most of us do not—the future for the majority of writers is Kindle. And on further thought, maybe that’s not so bad. We have a place to sell our books, we just have to figure out how to build an audience there. That’s no small task of course, but no one ever said being a writer was easy. Well, no one who actually tried it, anyway.


The Incongruity of Books in a Writing Class


Spring Break signals the end of the school year for most students and no teachers. The smarter writing teachers have already graded their research papers. I am of those who grant the mercy  of an extra week of time to stressed-out, indecisive students. However, I have come to realize the term “research” is anathema to them. They would rather fall out of a ride at an amusement park or undergo dental surgery. My mercy helps no one. The writing of  papers is simply postponed. You would think I might have learned that by now.

Stubbornness is one of the doors to the house of Stupidity, where I dwell, on the street of Hope, in the city of Delusion. I have stubbornly insisted on mercy just as I have stubbornly insisted on a book list. The book list includes an anthology of philosophical and political writings that I think is amazing. It is titled A World of Ideas, edited by Jacobus and put out by Bedford St Martin.  I tell myself that students will have the chance to become acquainted with Aristotle, Frederick Douglass, Plato, Margaret Mead, Henry David Thoreau and other great writers. Aside from those who enjoy the moving account given by Douglass of his escape from slavery (thanks in great part to learning to read), I would estimate that 70 percent of the students actively enrolled in the class from the outset not only looked upon this anthology with exceeding wariness and distaste, but perhaps a full 50% actively loathed it.

I believe the books I have assigned, the glorious A World of Ideas being front and foremost, are what caused the drops this semester (and every semester). By “drop,” I am referring to students who drop out of the class. Some years ago, a few students indicated to me that they were appalled at the amount of reading required, strangely, in a “writing” class. They argued that the emphasis should be on writing, not reading. I do not hear that complaint anymore because I try to explain from the beginning of the semester what reading does to the thought process of the writer. It unleashes and frees; it inspires; it creates new avenues of wording. Because it does those things, I can tell how many students are reading, and how much they are doing that.

Not so many, and of those who do the reading, not all complete it.

How do I know these things? Because I have read in student essays that Martin Luther King Jr. freed the slaves, that Philus (a literary creation of Cicero) was a famous Roman orator and that Thoreau went to prison for a very long time.

When it comes to the research book I assign, and there are a great many good ones that explain exactly how to cite a reference both in text and on the Works Cited page, you would think I had required my students to walk over hot coals. Bedford St. Martins made the book I chose this semester so easy that the MLA segment is color coded a cheerful orange. Impossible to miss. That is, if one has not dropped the book into the toilet tank.

Adding insult to injury, I have required my students buy my own collection of stories, Under a Crescent Moon: Stories of Arabia.   I spent a week coming up with intelligent questions to this book.  I know that a good many students never read the wonderful selections in A World of Ideas, depending instead on class discussions to get a foggy idea of the topic.  By fulfilling this new assignment, they will have to spend some time in critical thought stemming from reading.

That is if they buy the book.  Judging by the expression of some, I have brought in one book too many, and it does not matter that they are all reasonably priced if not downright cheap. Some may be nursing their grudges against me over their  $5 Starbucks frappuccinos.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the Crimes of a Great Humanitarian

In The Dream of the Celt, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa deals with the issues that Imageclouded Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s life, making of him first hero, then traitor. The author received a Nobel Prize in Literature for this imagined life and it is not hard to see why:  these are the same issues that drive the human dilemma onwards.  When a person is executed, history tends to recall that individual by final crime, not by preceding acts of goodness.  Roger Casement’s life magnifies the discrepancies of this practice. Casement sacrificed his career and health for human rights, bringing to light the heinous oppression of natives of the Congo and the Amazonian rain forest in the Western pursuit of easy profiteering of rubber. For his dedication, he was knighted by the country he served, Great Britain.  Intimate exposure to the torture of colonialized people caused inner upheaval, so that he dedicated the remainder of his life to freeing his own people, the Irish, from the rule of their colonizers.  The timing was critical. There was only one strong power not allied to Britain, and to that power—Germany—Casement turned during WWI, justifying the means by the end. We can best understand his execution in the light of wartime and the difficulty of forgiveness.

Born in Dublin in 1864, Roger Casement was the youngest of four children. His father was an army captain in whose exotic tales of service in India and Afghanistan little Roger delighted. As a Puritanical military man, Captain Roger Casement did not allow his wife to coddle their offspring.  Anne Jephson (who converted to Puritanism to marry), baptized her children Catholics in secret, Roger at the age of four, and lavished affection, likewise, in secret.  Secrets, early on, were pivotal to Roger’s reality.

He was the kind of boy to make any parent proud:  smart and capable, an athlete who was a great swimmer and could beat children even older than he in races.  When Roger was nine years old, his mother died.  The trauma of losing his secret love caused temporary loss of speech for the child.  Equally consequential was the abandonment by the seemingly strong military father.

The unwritten belief of those who obey rules is that they will be rewarded for so doing, or at the least, not abandoned.  The father who had shown no marked uxorious nature fell apart. A child as young as nine might not have drawn the link to love enjoyed and lavished in secret, but an older person, reflecting, would surely.  The betrayal and collapse in meaning of Captain Roger Casement Sr, authority figure who had used the whip to punish misdeeds in his children, was on more than one level. He sent his children to their paternal great-uncle, John Casement, and his wife, Charlotte, who henceforth stood in as family and raised the children. The strength behind the whip was sheer façade: Captain Casement Roger went half mad with grief and used mediums and crystal balls to attempt to communicate with his dead wife. John Casement occasionally let these details slip.

Roger Casement lost himself in studies of languages and history, devouring books on foreign lands.  He naturally reveled in tales of explorers and adventurers like Henry Morton Stanley, the man who allegedly located the missing altruist, Dr. Livingstone, in Africa. Meanwhile, Casement got a job as a teen in the shipping company in which his Uncle Edward worked.  He made a few trips to West Africa and finally relocated there, to labor idealistically for years, believing he was bringing faith, civilization and order to a primitive land.

Roger Casement bought into the myth of Stanley as a Western altruist akin to Livingstone until he actually met Stanley, journeying deep into Africa with him, and witnessing what the latter was doing with his own eyes. In the name of the “humanitarian” King Leopold II of Belgium, to whom western powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885 granted two and a half million square kilometers of Africa after the fact,  Stanley  “came and went through Africa, on one hand sowing desolation and death—burning and looting villages, shooting natives, flaying the backs of his porters with the chicotes made of strips of hippopotamus hide that left thousands of scars on ebony bodies [ . . . ] and on the other opening routes to commerce.”  The kind of commerce was of no benefit to the indigenous people, forced to sign contracts they did not understand and tyrannized for the sake of enriching their far off “benefactors” who were, apparently, unaware of that thugs and gangsters deprived the tribal people of life, limb, food and dignity in order to squeeze every drop of rubber out of the trees.

The whip, symbol of authority, must have eaten at Roger’s psyche once he saw it and what it had wrought.  The same instrument used to keep him and his siblings in line by the father who had abandoned and deprived them of much love was being used to subjugate an entire nation. Roger’s report horrified people of conscience in Great Britain and led to his being sent once more to verify the truth of rumors stretching, this time, from the rubber trade in the Amazon. The cruelty he encountered there was, if anything, more horrific.

Novelist Llosa makes absolutely no judgment about the disconnect between Roger Casement’s selfless human rights efforts, frequently putting his own life into grave jeopardy, and the revelation of his alliance with Germany, which Casement sought in an attempt to help the Irish nationalist movement.  Casement was arrested at the failed Easter Uprising, which he may, in fact, have been on his way to attempt to quell.  At the same time, the “black” diaries, in which Casement wrote of his homosexual and pedophile activities, damned him in the eyes of the public and helped seal his fate.


The Dream of the Celt could not have been written at a better time.  Readers, much as those famous individuals who did or did not sign the petition for clemency surrounding Casement’s death sentence—must decide where they stand. If wrongdoing is unacceptable in so great a humanitarian as Roger Casement, what does that say about the rest of us?Image

Sandy Hates Books!

We wonder why agents or editors are not responding with at least minimal interest to our queries, and along comes Hurricane Sandy to mess things up further.   I was just as oblivious as most writers, thinking in terms of energy and mud-soaked homes and offices, of friends back East without heat or electricity until I came upon this plea for help from a book store.

As if the hard copy book sales world did not have enough to deal with in terms of an ever- decreasing number of publishing corporations (turn that around to read “mergers”), Hurricane Sandy rolls in to decimate bookstore’s inventory. If I ignore this plea for help on the premise that I do not live in Brooklyn, then that will possibly mean one less bookstore in the USA, a circumstance which may or may not affect me.  

I look at it this way: Thanksgiving is coming up. I could redirect one dollar for toys or a meal to this bookstore. All I have to ask myself is if I am glad to be an American writer.

powerHouse Arena is the name of the Brooklyn bookstore whose inventory went afloat. See the pictures at

Johnny out of his Depp?

I thought I had got past the news of Johnny Depp being a publisher. I mean why not, so what, and all that rot.

Last night I had a class in which, in halting, impassioned language, I told my students that they would not, absolutely not, become better writers until they developed a strong and meaningful relationship with books, not to be confused with the strong and meaningful relationship they had with their significant others. I must have phrased that better than just now because no one moved, their eyes were open, and I got some contrite expressions and promises to visit the Writing and Reading Center daily.

I can remember teachers in my past making similar impassioned speeches. One handsome male teacher at Ecole Lemania in Lausanne, Switzerland seemed to go into a trance when speaking about his all-time favorite writer, Stendhal, author of Le Rouge et Le Noir, or for those of you with rusty French, The Red and the Black. At the end of the hour, we couldn’t wait to discover Stendhal.

Perhaps the cumulative effect of all the world’s  reading and writing teachers’ impassioned speeches produces interlocking ripples on the ocean that is literature. The ripples attract attention: hey, books exist, everybody. However, the power produced by the great works of dedicated writers wells up from the depths of that ocean. It is like the siren’s call–magnetic and dangerous–and how many a reader has been willing to turn away from the world, or change it, in order to follow that call!

This brings me back to Hillel Italie’s version of the Depp news, which was published in the online magazine, Salon. Her first sentence was “Johnny Depp is bringing a dash of cool to the book world.”

Excuse me while I try not to lose my lunch.

Jane Austen

Dear Hillel Italie, you must have had an untouched life. It is sad to find a journalist who has  never  delved into Henry James, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, George Eliot or Tolstoy, to name a few.   But it is not too late. If you google your name and happen upon this blog post, try a book by any one of these authors–and of course there are many, many others. You may come to re-define “cool” as it pertains to the book world.

Gustave Flaubert