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What Amazon Can’t Do

There were a lot more bookstores around 20 years ago than there are now.

What changed?  Give that man a vape cigarette!  Amazon.

“The” Amazon is rainforest in South America; the “AmazonS” are a tribe of warrior women.  So the name connotes both something large and frankly belligerent.

In a process reminiscent of the early days of Standard Oil, Amazon was able to operate at a loss for some time before turning a profit.  Now it is turning a profit, and it sells not only books but pretty much everything else.  I believe they specialize in kitchen sinks.

They can deliver groceries to your door.  They can stream original programming to your computer.  And when I called them recently about an issue related to my author page, a recorded voice announced that while I was on hold I’d be listening to Freedom Fry or Dream Something and it was part of Amazon’s new “acoustic playlist,” so I guess they’ve branched out into music-making as well.

Let’s face it.  It’s easy to use, and I use it.  I have Prime account.

But there’s one thing that Amazon can’t do: host a book launch party.

That’s what Books Inc., San Francisco’s premier brick-and-mortar store (“brick and mortar” is urban slang for a place where are human beings to talk to) did for me yesterday.  They put up a beautiful display of the books, so that I walked in and saw stacks and stacks of my book.  Seeing copies stacked up like that gives me the feeling that I’ve written not one but fifty different books, as if each book were unique and not just a copy.

Books Inc and other bookstores—the independents and the chains—not only host book signings but they sponsor book clubs.  They hold writing workshops.  They have story times for kids—kids who are thus more likely to grow into readers.

In short, they are community resources centered around the goal of nurturing literacy.

I’m not one of those people who are hysterical about how fewer people are buying books.  Of course fewer people are buying fewer books, just as fewer people are going to the ballet and the symphony.  And ironically, the technology that makes novels more accessible (the e-reader) makes alternate forms of entertainment more accessible as well:  Not long ago, if you went to a café alone you would spend your time either working on your screenplay or reading.  Now with a pair of headphones and a Netflix account, who needs novels?

The answer is that many of us still do, and while Amazon rocks, it cannot take the place of the bookstore, so let’s support them even if we order our kitchen sinks from Amazon.

The “a” Word: It Doesn’t Just Stand for “Autism”

The a Word, the series broadcast on Sundance Television this past summer, features some of the most accomplished acting and cleverest dialogue I’ve ever seen on television. It also boasts the noisiest kissing I’ve heard since my cousin’s 13th birthday party.

untitled
BBC

The a Word is based on an Israeli television drama, Yellow Peppers, and began its English-language life in Britain in March of this year before debuting in the U.S. in July.

It begins on the birthday of five year old Joe. His parents, Paul and Alison, have planned (if you’ll excuse the pun) the mother of all parties, with an entertainer, games, and a cake that could double as a Disneyland ride. But Joe is less interested in the entertainer or even the cake than in dancing to his own private concert: He’s obsessed with rock music and rarely takes his headphones off.

Sounds like a lot of kids you know? Of course. And that’s what helps his parents, especially mom Alison, to rationalize his behavior. Lots of kids have tantrums when they get overwhelmed. Lots of kids ignore grown-ups’ requests.

But do lots of kids repeat back what’s said to them instead of answering questions?

Paul and Alison see a specialist, hoping that she’ll say that nothing’s wrong. Alison praises Joe’s abilities: “He’s a musical genius. He knows four songs by heart.” And she makes excuses for him: When Joe stares at a puzzle, unresponsive to the therapist’s encouragement to put it together, she says, “He doesn’t like puzzles. They’re too easy for him.” She explains his lack of friends: “He doesn’t like kids his age because he’s smarter than they are.”

Oh, honey, we’ve been there.

But this is the point where viewers may start to distance themselves from Alison. I certainly did. In her desperation to make this “problem” go away, she puts her brother and sister-in-law in a situation that threatens their marriage. Later she trades on her father’s friendship with a police inspector to insist he “turn a blind eye” to the illegal status of her nanny.

We might forgive her these actions by placing them under the rubric “Grizzly Mom,” if she didn’t go about it in such a bullying way, while ignoring all of her daughter’s needs (Joe’s older sister, 16 year old Rebecca).

My own dislike of Alison reached its peak when she hounded Joe into expressing grief over the departure of aforementioned nanny. “Are you sad? Are you sad?” she prods him until he confirms her opinion and acts out.

Alison can no longer differentiate between her own needs and Joe’s.

Alison, we learn over the course of the six episodes, is used to getting her way, and when she can’t bully or wish Joe’s differences away… well, “you’re ashamed,” is husband Paul’s diagnosis.

So ashamed that when Joe goes missing she’s reluctant to tell the search party that he’s on the spectrum even though that might help them find the small boy in the isolated Lake District of England where they live. (Shots of the surrounding countryside are one of the ancillary pleasures of the show.)

This is exceptionally good television, but it’s still television, which means that Alison learns her lesson. “If we can just get him back I won’t try to change him.”

Which is good to hear, because the one who has to change is his mother. The “a” word of the title is “autism,” but ironically, it could also stand for “Alison.”

(This post first appeared in DifferentBrains.com.)

How I Survived Junior High

They called it junior high back then: grades seven, eight and nine.
It’s middle school now (six, seven, eight), but in either model, they’re tough years for a lot of young people, or so I’m reliably informed.
They certainly were for me.
My grandfather died when I was eleven, and his death pulled the fatal jenga block out of the tower that had been my family: The entire structure collapsed. I had been the fussed-over girl-child in a sprawling extended family of great-aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, who gathered for holiday dinners. Suddenly I was the daughter of a single mother who, without her father, had a small nervous breakdown: She took to her bed and rarely left.
The following year my own father (my parents had divorced when I was seven) remarried. My dad’s new wife not only didn’t want me in their house, she would have liked me off the planet. But she only succeeded in part: my dad was still part of my life, and with the best intentions, when it was time for me to start junior high, he moved my mother and me from Oakland to Piedmont, so that I could go to a good public school.
In 2008, Piedmont High was ranked as one of the top 100 schools in the U.S. I don’t know where it placed back then, but if there was an award for keeping an insecure girl (as Woody Allen says to Mary, the Diane Keaton character in Manhattan, “Your self-esteem is a notch below Kafka’s”) on the outside, then Piedmont would have walked away with the gold.
Novels saved me. I’d always been a reader, at least since Mrs. Skinner read Little House in the Big Woods aloud in third grade. Now, though, novels weren’t entertainment: they were escape. I spent most of my weekends reading, often staying up all Saturday night, and then arguing with my poor mother about going to religious school Sunday morning. (She was easy to find, being in bed fulltime.)
In eighth grade I read 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, and One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest, among many others. Lest I sound like a total poseur, I’ll add that I also read a pile of YA novels that featured white teenagers, mostly from the Midwest and occasionally from New York, who exclaimed, “Gosh!” when they were upset and faced such challenges as having their best friends move to another town.
Junior high ended. My dad put me in a private school in San Francisco, where big changes were brewing. We called teachers by their first names and, with my new friends—did you catch that? New friends!—I hitchhiked around the city. Back in Piedmont—well, I didn’t know, didn’t care.
I need novels as much as ever, but for better reasons: to imagine other lives, to understand what people long dead felt when they lived, and yes, sometimes to escape. Novels aren’t my only friends, but I love knowing that they’ll always be there for me.

Curious About the Curious Incident

I didn’t think I would like Simon Stephens’ Broadway adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

True, the play swept the 2015 Tony awards (tying the musical Fun Home for a total of five wins apiece).  True, it was based on a novel that I had read (three times) and admired: Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestseller of the same name, one of the first novels to be narrated by a teenager on the spectrum.  (Haddon, to his credit, has written, “Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s….if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”)

But the very structure of the novel defies staging.  It’s narrated in first person by the protagonist, Christopher Boone, and purports to be a book-within-a-book, as it’s his record of his (ultimately successful) attempt to solve the mystery of who killed a neighbor’s dog.

But novels rarely become plays.  (A phenomenal exception is Wicked, the musical that’s won too many awards for me to list here.)  Novels become movies, and often very successfully:   When a story goes from one medium to another, the storyteller(s) must make use of the tools of the new medium, and filmmakers have a giant toolbox.  They can take the viewer where the camera goes; they have special effects that in modern times rival anything that Lewis Carol might have invented, and if all else fails they can use a voiceover that mimics the novelist’s use of a narrator.

Playwrights face a greater challenge, and so, when they succeed, deserve greater admiration.  The theater has benefited from advances in technology as well.  (Think helicopter in Miss Saigon) but the audience is there and the action is live.

Simon Stephens (who won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best New Play) envisioned how Christopher’s book-within-a-book could become a play within-a-play: Christopher alternates acting out his story with his counselor Siobhan reading it aloud.

The action unfolds within a set that’s an integral part of the action: Walls and floor are a black grid.  Through the use of projections, the black walls can light up to depict everything from the Canis Major constellation to the trees passing along a railway line, to the multitude of signs in an Underground station.

But most of all, the black box is Christopher’s brain, which, for most of the play, we live inside of, sharing the barrage of stimuli that comes his way, as he first looks for the dog’s killer and then travels to London.

So it’s not surprising that two of the Tony awards that Curious Incident won were for lighting (Paule Constable) and set design (Bunny Christie and Finn Ross).

The last moment of the play is also theatrical in that the actress answers a question with a gesture only.  But herein lies a spoiler, and spoilers are a Class A felony, so I will stop there.

The last sentence of the novel has stayed with me for over a decade.  It won’t spoil anything but cover your ears and hum if you don’t want to read it.  “I wrote a book, and that means I can do anything.”  I think so, too.

Write Your Novel in Mad Libs!

George Orwell, in 1984 (one of my favorite books, and I’ll leave you to wonder what that says about moi), predicted many horrors that have come to pass: government spying, “enhanced interrogation,” and strangling political correctness.  The prediction that hasn’t come true – yet – is factory-produced fiction (Winston Smith’s lover, Julia, repairs “the novel-writing machines”).  But when I saw how the auto-correct capability on my iPhone changed “cyxt” to “Hi there,” I realized that this final abomination cannot be far away.

My anxiety seemed even more justified last week when I read about the HemingwayApp: a program that will scan your prose for adverbs and the use of passive voice.  Not that we shouldn’t be able to do this for ourselves, but we used to grow our own wheat, too.

Throughout the ages, many jobs have disappeared.  There are no more elevator operators.  There are still blacksmiths, but according to WikiAnswers, “they are few and far between.”   And your average town crier has been out of work a long time.

I don’t know anything about computer programming, but I know what computers can already do, and any kid in junior college familiar with javascript could install a MadLibs-type program for a Regency romance outline:

HEROINE has __ eyes __ hair __ is ___ tall  and is: spoiled and willful/beautiful but unappreciated by her family/was rich but just lost her fortune and now must become a governess….

HERO has __eyes__hair  and will be six feet or taller with broad shoulders.  He: is mysterious and aloof/is ardent and affectionate/has a bad reputation …

He also has a secret: he’s already married/has murdered someone, but justifiably/is closely related to a famous criminal/has insanity in his family…

HEROINE and HERO meet: on the moors/at a ball/in a creepy castle/at her father’s house when he appears looking for a place to stay in the middle of a violent storm…

They fall in love.  Total, pure, eternal loooove.   But:

They face an obstacle: parents objects/financial difficulties/hero goes away (to war, to care for elderly relative, charged with a crime (he didn’t commit)…

Then:

Good fortune intervenes to bring them together: the parents see the light/the person in the way dies from illness or in a fire (or is murdered, but by villain)/a previously unheard-of relative dies and leaves a large inheritance…

Sentence structure in English has only so many possibilities, and with all due respect I’ll bet computers can compete with Georgette Heyer or Barbara Courtland in that arena.

It’s a long, long leap from writing formula fiction to the genre we think of as literary.  (A genre that can be just as awful as it can be inspiring.  Ever try to read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead?)  But it was already a few years ago that on The Daily Show a scientist predicted that our entire brains could be uploaded onto CDs.  That particular idea doesn’t appeal, but as Walt Whitman wrote, “every inch of common air throbs a tremendous prophecy, of greater marvels yet to be.”  And Whitman didn’t even have a laptop.

But novelists have always lived on the edge of unemployment.  The computer-produced novel will be like automotive repair has been to the blacksmith.  As with blacksmiths, there will always be room for a craftsperson or two.

How to Not Fit In but Not Care

A few years ago my then-high-school-aged daughter asked me to buy her a laptop skin:  It was an intricate drawing of bookshelves, featuring titles such as War and Peas and The Seven Pills of Wisdom. 

When I saw it, I asked her if she’d mind if I bought one for my own laptop.

She minded.

But all things come to those who wait.  I have my own copy now, because the same design is printed inside the covers of Colin Thompson’s new memoir, Fitting In.  He didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to use it, either, because he’s the artist.

Which means that I was a fan of Colin Thompson before I knew who he was.

Who he is: the fascinating and talented author-illustrator of over 50 books, including Ethel the Chicken, and Finding Atlantis.

Fitting In is heavily illustrated by the author, and these drawings, like the laptop skin that first attracted my eye, are mesmerizingly intricate, demanding repeated and lengthy study.  Add that Thompson is red-green color blind and they become even more mind-blowing.

Reading about Thompson’s life, however, might be more fun than living it was.  He was born Colin Willment, but his mother changed his name when she remarried. “She proved to be a rubbish judge of character” is how he sums up his feelings toward his stepfather.

By the time Colin was 25, he had married and divorced, fathered a daughter, and spent a lot of time in mental institutions diagnosed with manic-depression (then the name for bi-polar disorder).

Somewhere along the line he was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Thompson writes, “200 years ago it was called being possessed by evil spirits.  When I was a little boy it was called being naughty.”

In subsequent years he worked as a weaver, a potter, and a ceramicist.  He had a stint as a stage manager at a third-rate theater where he didn’t perform but still caught the show biz bug: “There was something so addictive about the whole thing … going out to entertain people who expected so little they would love you no matter what you did.”  The stint ended when he tipped into another depressive episode.

Since falling in love at first sight is yet another of his many talents, these years were hardly all bad.  But it was when he was fifty that his prospects really looked up:  He published Ethel the Chicken, the children’s picture book that was the first of his long career, and indirectly that led to his meeting his third, ‘til-death-do-them-part wife.

Thompson himself might say that since he’s 73, the ‘til-death-do-them-part-part is more or less a given.  Such an observation would mesh with the wry and clever tone of his writing.  Here’s how he traces the history of hair in his lifetime: “My generation became wet and weak.  They grew their hair even longer, but they wove flowers into it, and turned into feeble watery middle-class protesters called Donovan.”

Childhood summer vacations at Frinton-on-Sea: “My cat Tigger came with us one year and showed his devotion in a way that only cats can.  He scratched my legs and ran away.  We found him a week later, fat and content in a genteel tea shop full of cream cake. He celebrated his return to the bosom of our family by scratching my legs.”  (“Frinton-on-Sea” is real; a good memoirist knows what to include.)

On contraception: “The rhythm method works, but it relies on self-control and mathematics and I’m not much good at either of them.”

Thompson may indeed not be good at self-control or mathematics but he’s brilliant at writing about the trials and triumphs of his own life.  Fitting In could be even more accurately titled, I’ll Never Fit in and I Don’t Care but that would have required uncomfortably-small typeface in order to squeeze it onto the cover.

Are We There Yet?

There is a profusion—nay, a glut, an excess, a veritable avalanche of books and instructors out there who will help you get started writing a novel.

I myself contributed to this surfeit with my book, imaginatively titled Get that Novel Started.  I was so grateful for having overcome my own writer’s block with the help of a compassionate teacher that I wanted to spread the joy.  I also wanted to pass on what that first teacher had drummed into my head: just get that first draft written.

This is the best advice one can give a beginning novelist, the sine qua non, if you will, without which no novel is written, any more than a car can drive without an engine or a wooden shack can be built without wood.

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Fly the Hostile Skies

I don’t travel very often, so when I do I usually have the luxury of saying to myself, “Self,” (sez I) “you don’t need to write for these few days.”

But not always.  And just occasionally, believe it or not, I want to do some writing when I’m out of town.

So I take my laptop and set it up in the hotel room or the nearest Starbucks, which is usually no more than five feet away.

There was also a time when I could work on a plane.

Last week I flew to Houston for a wedding.  Surprisingly, a flight to Houston is almost four hours from SFO.  That doesn’t make sense:  If it’s five hours to New York, then shouldn’t it be two-and-a-half hours to Texas?  It must have something to do with what my third grade teacher, Mrs. Ritter, taught us about how maps are misleading, because maps are flat but the earth is round.

The shape of the earth was not on my mind as I “emplaned.”  I was too busy feeling like toothpaste that the great hand of the corporate first world was trying to stuff back into the tube.

But hey, I paid for “Economy Plus” and a reliable source had told me that it was much better than regular coach, oh much better, more legroom, more headroom, maybe even a winking flight attendant to hand you the whole can when you asked for a Diet Coke.

My reliable source was no Deep Throat.

I prefer aisle seats but I was lucky to get a window, rather than the dreaded middle seat.  I was lucky to get a seat at all, since as I’m sure you’ve noticed, no plane takes off unless every single seat is filled, and the airlines make sure that the planes are filled well in advance, so getting an aisle seat can be like scoring tickets to Wicked.

I finally slipped into my row.  I had my laptop in my carryon, and I was going to slip it under the seat in front of me.  As soon as the seatbelt sign went off I was going to whip it out and get some work accomplished.

Have you ever had the nightmarish experience of trying on a skirt that you haven’t worn for a year, only to discover that it magically shrunk in the closet?  Well, someone did that to an entire fleet of 737s!!

Now only would my carryon not fit under the seat in front of me, I wasn’t sure my feet would.  So I waited for a gap in the line of passengers in the aisle to open up, and then squeezed past my two grim seatmates.  There I managed to force my bag into the overhead bin, on top of all the carryons that should not be carryons, but should be checked.   (The carryon bag phenom has become my favorite recent example of my favorite economic principle—the only economic principle I know, hence my favorite by default—the Tragedy of the Commons:  Since there’s no advantage to one person to obey the rule, no one obeys it.)

I still planned to retrieve the laptop and hit those keys, but sometime during our taxi to the runway it hit me that not only did I not have room for a laptop on the tray table (and what happened to that circular indentation they used to have, for putting your cup on so it wouldn’t spill, at least not in mild turbulence?  Removing it was a passive-aggressive way of saying we don’t even want you to take the free beverage, the last free thing we’ll ever give you), but that I wasn’t even going to make it to the aisle.  Or if I did make it to the aisle, and if by some chance the aisle wasn’t blocked by the beverage cart, then opening the overhead bin would surely spill 120 pounds of Samsonite luggage on the passengers on the other side.  (See The Tragedy of the Commons, supra.)

When you can’t write, you are immediately awash with ideas.  I fumed for a while, thinking of how productive the remaining three and a half hours could have been.

Then I was possessed by the spirit of noble make-the-best-of-it for which I am not famous.  Hemispheres claimed that the flight was equipped with Direct TV, but on closer inspection (the fine print) I saw that United was in the process of equipping all their 737s with Direct TV, and I hadn’t boarded one of the lucky ones.  I could buy wi-fi.  At that point—and we’re talking an hour into not being able to move my left arm—I would have cashed in my 401K for wi-fi.  The fact that I don’t have a 401K is beside the point, and although I did have an iPad the iPad wouldn’t connect to the United wi-fi.  Miraculously a flight attendant passed by and when I asked her she said, “oh, it moves around.”  (“It” being the signal, I inferred.)

For the rest of the flight I contemplated kicking out the window so that I could sucked into the sky.

As for being able to write on a plane, I learned this lesson: If Tolstoy could write some of peoplekind’s greatest literature without a computer, without even electricity, then maybe I should look into sticking a pen and notepad into my purse.

A Blind Date Every Day

I keep blogging about how miserably, masochistically and unjustly hard writing is, blah blah, poor me, poor me.  Well, as Leslie Gore sang, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”

But I had one of those miraculous moments today, one of those – dare I say? – epiphanies, one of those times when it’s all worthwhile, and darn it, I’m going to record it.

Yes, I have been in a slump of late.  I play Hearts for twenty minutes before I even try to write, and it isn’t more than a sentence before I’m back to Hearts, if only to get revenge on Nicole, which would be North (the default setting on the computer) but I changed the come-with-the-computer settings (North, South, East, and West, South being moi) to make the game more interesting.  More interesting, yes, but not always in a good way, because I get very angry at Nicole as well as her friends Wynona and Emma who are all mean girls and who say things that aren’t true about me behind my back.

All that drama in a game of Hearts, while nothing is happening in my novel.

And then today – I was talking about today, wasn’t I? – even though Nicole and her gal pals were getting the better of me and my winning average dipped to 29%, I saw what the problems were (are) in the scene I began four days ago, and I had ideas about fixing them.

Woody Allen is famous for having said, “80% of life is showing up.”  A few years ago I saw an interview with him and it turns out he didn’t say exactly that.  It wasn’t just that the wording was different; the spirit of the message was slightly different.  Unfortunately, I watched this interview at 1 a.m. and I can’t remember how he modified it.

But he might as well have said it, because I’ve scoured the Internet and I find that quote everywhere.

Maybe the maxim has become engraved in popular culture because it’s true.  This better day, this good day – there, I’ve said it, let the evil spirits descend – wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t shown up at Starbuck’s with my venti mocha (200 degrees, whole milk, no whip).  Nothing to do but write.

Or play Hearts.  And I did play Hearts, more than I would in a perfect world, but I also got some writing done, writing that for now I feel good about.

Writing is like going on a blind date every day.  You get stood up half the time and half of the other time the guy is a dud, or he thinks you’re a dud.  But once in a while you live happily until tomorrow.

Adair Lara Is Naked and Drunk

I’m not good at faking (more’s the pity) so I’m going to come right out and say that Adair Lara is a “close, personal friend of mine,” as a certain entertainer was famous for saying — and as I am quite proud to say in this case.   She was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for fifteen years which made her a local celeb.  I have gone about the city with her and watched strange women (not “odd” women, just women I don’t know) clasp her arm up to the elbow and effuse, “M-my God, you’re writing about my life!”

Four years before leaving the Chronicle in 2005, Adair had published Hold Me Close, Let Me Go, a memoir of her daughter’s adolescence, with Broadways Books.  (She gives me credit for the title, but all I did was suggest a way to condense a longer version.)  In toto, her books now number eleven.  That’s right — eleven.  More than most people read in two years.  Sigh.
In August Ten Speed Press is releasing a new edition of her latest: Naked, Drunk and Writing.  You won’t be disappointed when you find out that it’s more about writing than being naked or drunk, though she knows plenty about all three.   It’s a distillation of everything she’s learned and taught over a long (she started very young) writing and teaching career.
You can also take a first-person writing class with the 3D Adair, but as of now she is sold out until September.  The key words here are, “move quickly,” and the first move is to go to her website at www.AdairLara.com.

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