July 28, 2014 in Book Reviews

I know I’m not the only one with memories of lurking around the AM/FM radio console/cassette player waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio. Every time a song neared its end, I would kneel before the cassette player, place my finger on the Record button, and wait, hoping that finally my song would be played next so I could record it.

I spent many hours making mix tapes of “the best songs ever!” for my friends and they did the same for me. I even made a “Labor Tape”, a tape filled with songs that relaxed and inspired me through the births of all three of my children. My oldest was born to Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion (no joke). My middle son came out in a Counting Crows Rain King/10,000 Maniacs Trouble Me combo (which is actually quite fitting for him), while my youngest was born to another 10,000 Maniacs song Like the Weather, from which you may conclude that either a) I am a huge 10,000 Maniacs fan, or b) my youngest’s mood can change on a dime.

The days of mix tapes are over, but you can re-live them again in Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so he is no music slouch. It is a trip down memory lane to be reminded of songs from quintessential music groups like The Cars, Supertramp, ELO, and Stray Cats. But Sheffield does one better: he uses his mix tapes to tell a story. Musical era by musical era, he chronicles several key moments from his own life, but the majority of his memoir covers his seven years with Renée, the woman he fell in love with, married, and lost much too early to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

I was in high school and college during the 80s and 90s, the decades Sheffield covers in his memoir, so these are my songs. They have woven their way into my DNA. Whenever I hear so much as a refrain or a signature chord, I am  transported back to a moment. Cruel Summer by Bananarama drops me into the landlocked traffic in Newport Beach, my portable cassette player beside me in the passenger seat cranked to high, the windows rolled down, the sun shimmering off the cars and asphalt, as I try to worm my way into a parking lot near the beach without running over a lackadaisical barefoot surfer crossing the road where no crosswalk exists.

They are Sheffield’s and Renée’s songs too, and Sheffield has no shortage of songs linked to the memories of his life. It is a delight to be reminded of these old songs and of the highlights of the era (they loved the The Cutting Edge too!). It is also a delight getting to know Sheffield and Renée. When she died, instantly, with no warning, she left Sheffield anchorless, swimming in grief and unable to turn to music for solace because every song reminded him of Renée, and they were simply too painful to listen to anymore. (I have a few of those too. Don’t we all?)

Sheffield’s writing is engaging. He lures you in with music, holds you close with anecdotes from his relationship with Renée, and then slams you with loss and grief (I confess I shed a few tears). But music continues to evolve, and eventually Sheffield found his way to new music, a new place to live, and with time, a new love.

We carry our memories forward, and the key to accessing them is through a song. Or in Sheffield’s case, a mix tape.



July 24, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

When I left Seattle for my first residency in Fairfield University’s Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Nine full days on an isolated island off the coast of Mystic, CT, living in a dormitory-style hall, sharing a room with a complete stranger and a bathroom with an entire floor full of women, and having to eat whatever they place in front of me? Are you kidding?

Then the magic began, for I found myself in a community of writers. We come in all shapes and sizes: my cohort is composed of a group of young men who call themselves the “brohort,” a group of us mommy-aged women, and everything in between. We write poetry and screenplays; fairy tales and myths; creative non-fiction and memoir; and fiction in all its variations.

I know some of you are serious writers and want to know the nitty gritty of what this program entails, while others are only interested in a general overview, so I am going to give you both. If you’re a writer, read the sections headlined as such, and if you are a member of the general population, then skip ahead to those sections. Thank you for all of your support in my new adventure!


WRITER: The workshop is the meat of this program. Small groups are assigned to a workshop leader, who is also a published author and teacher. Before the residency, we received each other’s writing samples and critiqued them on our own. We then meet in the workshop to discuss the craft of writing as it pertained (or did not pertain) to our own writing. While I did learn a lot when they critiqued my own writing sample, I learned even more when we examined the work of my fellow group members. We covered broad areas such as structure, voice, and imagery, as well as lessons at the microscopic level, like sentence structure, word choice, and how despised adverbs have become. It was the most valuable part of the entire program.

GENERAL POPULATION: You sit in a room with a group of people who tell you your writing sucks. It was the most anxiety-ridden part of the entire program.


WRITER: Every afternoon we attend a seminar. Some are led by the faculty and cover topics such as how to write a memoir, fairy tales, and the structure of a novel. Others are put on by small publishing houses and literary agencies, so we can learn about that side of the business as well, namely that because literary agents are so discerning and the number of publishing houses are dwindling, our chances of getting published are slim to none.

GP: Every afternoon we sit in a room that is freezing cold and try to stay awake because the anxiety of the morning workshop and too much wine the night before has caught up with us.


WRITER: Every evening we gather in the little chapel on the island for readings. Published authors read excerpts from their novels, short stories, essays, or poems. I am a visual learner, so listening to these readings is a challenge for me.

GP: Every evening we gather in the little chapel on the island to sit on the hardest pews imaginable (people bring pillows—no joke) and I try to pay attention to the reading, but my mind drifts away so easily and suddenly everyone in the chapel is laughing and I have to wrench myself away from thinking about what happened at the end of Season 1 of The Killing.


WRITER: After dinner, when we are not listening to ghost stories or attending a clam bake, we break off into our self-defined social groups. Us moms have commandeered the gazebo where we discuss serious literary topics, motherhood, and surviving difficult situations in our lives.

GP: After dinner, we sit outside, drink wine, gossip, and place dibs on which of the cute young kids in the program we’re going to adopt.





July 21, 2014 in Book Reviews

I love fairy tales! I always have. I am enchanted by unknown princes (the Beast, the frog) and princesses (Cinderella, the Little Mermaid) finding their true loves, the ones who can look deep into their soul through the covering of fur, frogskin, raggedy clothes, or silence and know who they really are. I love the initial stirrings of romance, the obstacles along the way, and the “happily ever after” endings. But if you look at the dawn of fairy tales in the form of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they are nothing like the Disneyfied fairy tales I grew up with. No, these fairy tales are creepy and disturbing, to the point where they are divided into two sections: one for children, and one for adults only. These ones should not be read aloud to children under any circumstances.

One such tale is The Juniper Tree. The evil stepmother (of course) does not like her stepson, so she kills him, feeds him to his own father, and buries the bones beneath the juniper tree. Hmm. Since when do fairy tales feature murder and cannibalism? Since the beginning, it seems.

These original fairy tales have been told and retold over time and across countries, and that is what makes reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, so much fun. In this collection, 40 different authors tackle their favorite fairy tales by adding their own twists. Some  authors are well known, like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and my new favorite author Aimee Bender. Some fairy tales originate from other countries, like Russia, Ireland, and Denmark. But they are all modern takes on age-old fairy tales.

Just as with the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of these short stories were disturbing. Kelly Link’s Catskin, based on the English fairy tale of the same name, described horrifying images of people dressing up in catskins. I Am Anjuhimeko by Hiromi Ito is based on a Japanese tale of a brother and sister separated and sold into slavery. This story focuses on the journey of the sister. Her father buries her in the sand at the age of three so he can get rid of her. She escapes, is brutalized and raped, and then falls in with a yamanba mountain witch who has intercourse with a stone pillar. She immediately births a leech-child, whom she gives to Anjuhimeko. Creepy? Absolutely. Odd? Yes. But can I say it’s any more disturbing than The Juniper Tree? (Maybe. I’m not sure about that yamanba.)

Then again, some of the stories were just as enchanting as any fairy tale I’ve ever read. I am now a huge fan of the Russian Baba Iaga, a witch/fairy godmother type who lives in a hut that rests on chicken legs. Should a visitor appear that she does not wish to see, the hut will turn around and around so the visitor can never find the door: magical! Joy Williams Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child is one of my favorites from this collection.

Halfway People by Karen Joy Fowler is a heartbreaking, beautifully written tale based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans, and Aimee Bender’s The Color Master is a stand out as well. Based on the French Donkeyskin, it is the story of a dying color master teaching her young apprentice how to take her place. The descriptions of colors and how they are mixed to meet the needs of the royalty are stunning, such as when the Duke’s son needs a pair of shoes the gray color of rock so when he walks, no one would see his feet (he doesn’t like to see his feet). Orange by Neil Gaiman is told entirely in the format of a questionnaire, where all you see are the answers:

“7. Several times a day.

8. No.

9. Through the Internet. Probably on eBay.

10. She’s been buying colors and dyes from all over the world…”

If you are a fan of fairy tales, or short stories, or the power of the imagination, this is a fun book to pick up, especially over the summer. Pull up a towel and an ice-cold glass of lemonade, select a story that looks interesting (the first line of every story is given in the Table of Contents), and while away some time in far away lands of magic and mystery.






July 17, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

From the moment we are born, we are taught. We learn how to walk by holding our parents’ hands, we learn the correct pronunciation of words by being corrected over and over again (“It’s not ‘bluebabies’, it’s ‘blue-ber-ries. Now you try.”), and we learn the appropriate way to behave after suffering from the consequences (“You just lost your iPhone, buddy.”).

If you read a transcript of what I say to my kids on any given day, about 80% of it consists of a correction, an instruction, or a simple “no.” If you listen to their teachers and coaches, it’s roughly the same. Children are constantly being told they are doing something wrong. But I have discovered something amazing about kids: they are unfazed by this fact of life. They accept the correction or instruction, try to weave it into their inner workings, and move on. They do not take it personally because it is simply a part of their everyday life. They have never known anything different.

Adults are not like this. Perhaps we’ve decided that once we’ve achieved adulthood, or a degree, or a good job, there is nothing left for us to learn. Those who try to offer us corrections or instructions are no longer considered helpful mentors. Instead, we call them show-offs, control freaks, or micromanagers to try and make ourselves feel better because unlike our kids, we have taken the remark very personally. Then when we still don’t feel better, we go home and suffer a bout of incompetency, or in the words of Cher in Clueless, we descend into a shame spiral.

But whoever said that just because we have become adults, we no longer have anything to learn? In the words of the fabulous Eartha Kitt: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

I am still learning too. I am flying across the country to my first residency in my quest to become a writer, and it will involve many corrections of my writing. In other words, I am fully prepared to be ripped a new one. There are many ways to deal with this, but I am going to try to meet it as a child: take the correction, try to weave it into my writing style, and move on. After all, I am not a writer, yet. I’m learning to be one, and the more corrections I get, the better I will be: no shame spirals allowed.

This won’t be easy. But I notice that when I correct my eight-year-old son’s writing, he doesn’t get angry (well, sometimes he does), he simply says “Oh, yeah. I forgot to capitalize that.” He knows I still love him and he knows I don’t think he’s stupid. So maybe when my instructor or fellow classmates offer their suggestions, I can be as graceful in accepting them as my son is.

If not, I hear there is wine available.


July 13, 2014 in Book Reviews

I am fortunate that 2 of my 3 kids still let me read aloud to them at night. It’s a fantastic bedtime ritual. After a busy day, this is our chance to slow down, snuggle, and escape to other places and times via the portal that good stories and illustrations provide. Every once in awhile, we come across a treasure: a children’s book so outstanding that borrowing it from the library is not enough. It has to live with us. Last week, we came across two such books.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair by Kate Bernheimer

Illustrations by Jake Parker

“There once was a girl who wouldn’t brush her hair.” So begins the fairy tale of the little girl with the magnificent head of brown, wavy hair that she refuses to tame with a brush because, as she says, “It’s just my way.” But of course there are consequences. One day she finds a mouse has taken up residence in her hair.

“Now, we all know that in books, people scream when they see a mouse, and jump on a chair. But the girl was in bed; there was no chair nearby. And besides, she’d read enough fairy tales to remember that mice always turned out to be your helpers. So she simply said, “Hello up there, mouse!” and decided to let it be.”

Of course, with such a large, comfortable tangle of hair, there was plenty of room for more than one mouse, and so more mice came. The illustrations are pure magic. There are mice playing cards, playing volleyball, and sword fighting in the girl’s hairdo. Sometimes they all gather together to eat popcorn and watch a movie projected onto her hair. She carts all her mouse friends with her to school, where her fellow classmates share a cookie or two with the mice. Before long, she has 100 mice living in her hair and they are beginning to cause a ruckus.

The illustrations are gorgeous, the story is fresh, and the lovely refrain of “It’s just my way,” pops up in exactly the right places. This is a beautiful fairy tale to add to your collection.


Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant and Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky

Illustrations by Carin Berger

Sometimes I come across books I wish I had written. This is one of those books. Prelutsky has taken ordinary household objects and creatures from the animal kingdom and mashed them together to form wildly creative, poetic odes demonstrating the power of his imagination. For example, behold the Bizarre Alarmadillos, a magical mix of armadillos and alarm clocks: “…And besides, they’re thickly armored/Yet they’re always in alarm.” The illustrations of the alarmadillos are just as spectacular. Created entirely out of neatly collaged papers, all of the creatures are whimsical and animated. I particularly love the charming skinny legs and tiny shoes on the alarmadillos and some of the other animals, such as the Hatchickens.

Hatchickens are odd,

            And the reason is that

            Instead of a head,

            They have only a hat.”

I cannot live without these delightful Hatchickens, or the Panthermometer, or the poor Zipperpotamuses who keep coming unzipped, or especially the Spatuloon, who

Calls longingly as it glides by—

            “Syrup” is its plaintive cry.

            The fowl, both curious and rare,

            Now flips a pancake in the air.”

How clever is that? I am in awe of you, Jack Prelutsky. And you too, Carin Berger: your collages are works of art.



July 10, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

 “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the Plain.”

Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady

There is an art to communicating with the spoken word, and I don’t have it. When I am excited, I rush my words, so no one understands what I am saying. I also have a tendency to keep the beginning of my conversation to myself, locked inside my head, so that when I finally open my mouth, what comes out is the middle of the story I am trying to tell, and no one understands what I am talking about. Worst of all, I will ask my co-communicator a question and pay no attention to the answer because my thoughts have zipped off in another direction. When I finally get back to my original thought and re-ask the question, I either get an irritated response or none at all.

My oldest son (a teenager) also lacks the ability to communicate well orally.

“How was your day?”


“What did you do?”


“What kind of stuff?”

“Mom! That’s too many questions,” whereupon he stops speaking completely for the next hour or so.

If I’m patient, he will come to me when he’s ready and start spewing out random observations. None of it will be about what he did that day, of course, and he has inherited my tendency to rush the words, so I only understand half of what he’s saying. “Mom, mmmff mmmmff mmmmfff World Cup!”  But I’m so delighted to hear him speak that the quality of his speech is the least of my worries.

My middle son has a completely different style of speaking.



Looooong pause.

“What, honey?”

“Umm…” Looooong pause.

And then, once he has had enough time to sufficiently organize his thoughts, he speaks in a leisurely way, as if he has all the time in the world to say what he needs to say and I have all the time in the world to listen. This is wonderful when we have the time, because my middle son speaks about all sorts of interesting and surprising things. However, when the speaking muse strikes him at 8:13am and we’re due to leave for school at 8:15am, it can be a challenge.

But my youngest son, oh my. This child has mastered the art of oral communication at the tender age of 8. When he was three, I despaired that he would never speak outside our home. He didn’t say a word in preschool for an entire year—not one word. I overheard his fellow classmates say things like “Oh, he doesn’t talk,” when referring to my son. And then, halfway through his second year of preschool, he began to speak in public.

When he was in kindergarten, my friends started hunting me down after school at pick-up. “He said hi to me!” they’d beam. “I’ve seen him every day for years and this was the first time he ever spoke to me!” When he was in first grade, his baseball coach said “I’ve been coaching that kid for three years, and today was the first time he ever said a word to me!”

But now that the novelty of him speaking has worn off, the quality of his speech has begun to shine through. My son is articulate. The precision with which he pronounces his words is almost as impressive as his vocabulary. He doesn’t say “yeah” and “Gimme that.” He says “yes” and “Give me that,” in such a way that you can hear every vowel and consonant correctly enunciated. He doesn’t say “He made a mean face.” Instead, he says “He has a mean facial expression.” When I recently read aloud from a book of children’s poetry, he said “I think that poem rhymed but the one before was free verse.” He is eight years old.

It’s not easy being the youngest in the family. He’s always a step behind in height, speed, and ability because of his age. But he is way beyond his years with his oratory skils. In this area, I am the one learning from him.







July 7, 2014 in Book Reviews

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas is an absolute delight from beginning to end. When Firoozeh was seven years old, her family moved from Iran to Southern California. While her father spoke English, having already been to America as a Fulbright scholar, neither Firoozeh nor her mother spoke the language, making Firoozeh’s first foray into elementary school a difficult one. Add to that the culture clash (Halloween, Christmas, the trip to the hardware store in search of “elbow grease”), and you can start to appreciate the challenges Firoozeh faced in trying to find a place for herself in her new country. The fact that she did so with both grace and humor makes Funny in Farsi the best of both worlds: a laugh-out-loud, poignant journey to becoming an Iranian-American.

Firoozeh has a large and colorful family, but her father Kazem steals the show. The stories of him trying to teach Firoozeh how to swim, his “free sample” lunches at Price Club, and his fascination with Las Vegas make for hilarious reading while painting the picture of a smart, proud, and courageous man with a unique outlook on life: “I’m a rich man in America, too. I just don’t have a lot of money.”

Funny in Farsi tackles difficult subjects as well, such as the hatred Iranians faced during the Iranian Hostage crisis. As Firoozeh says, “Nobody asked our opinion of whether the hostages should be taken, yet every single Iranian in America was paying the price. One kid throws a spitball and the whole class gets detention.” Except their detention was in the form of bumper stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Wanted: Iranians for Target Practice,” and the inability for Kazem to find a job because no one in America would hire an Iranian.

I learned a lot about the Iranian culture in Dumas’ memoir, but the one aspect that will stick with me most is their sense of family. The closeness of the extended family and their generosity with their homes, their cooking, and their time is beautiful to witness. It says a lot that the Iranian language has more words to describe individual relatives than English does. For example, we have cousins, but in Persian, there are eight different words dedicated to the description of exactly how each cousin is related to you. Family is important, and that comes across in every story that Dumas tells.

I loved every moment of Funny in Farsi. I didn’t want it to end and luckily it doesn’t: Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen is her follow-up and the next book on my list!


July 3, 2014 in Book Reviews

Bad News, by Edward St. Aubyn, is the second in a series of five novels chronicling several episodes in the life of Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical main character. Like St. Aubyn, Patrick Melrose is an upperclass Englishman with money to spare, and in this novel, he is on his way to New York City to pick up his father’s ashes.

This novel covers the span of three days, during which the actual act of retrieving his father’s ashes is but a blip in his drug binge of a weekend. He stumbles around New York City in a sweaty, itchy, blurred haze wearing an eye patch to cover an infected eye. He crashes into doorways, has taxi drivers take him to shady parts of town to score, and has no qualms about fishing into the wastebasket for a dirty syringe should the need arise. The amount of alcohol he drinks alone is appalling, to the point where it made me sick to my stomach, but the tales of his botched injections were even worse.

What is astonishing is how scarily well St. Aubyn conveys the thoughts and hallucinations of a man high on cocaine, heroin, alcohol, and a ever-rotating variety of uppers and downers and outlines the justifications by a drug addict seeking a rationale, however tremulous, for his next fix.

He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed.

 Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folded wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery.”

His prose is almost poetic when he writes about a relatively good trip, but he is no less poetic when he matter-of-factly describes the horrors of a bad trip, or the awful aural hallucinations he experiences, or the night he combined very strong heroin with multiple hits of cocaine and nearly killed himself. But of course St. Aubyn can relay these experiences so realistically: he, too, was a severe drug addict who landed himself in the hospital several times due to his habit.

Patrick makes no apologies for his behavior: it simply is. As a reader, it is painful to watch him self-destruct so thoroughly, but the novel is not without humor. At one point he is leaning against a wall at a bar, high as a kite, trying to will a woman to him with his mind:

“Patrick concentrated madly and imagined her sliding across the floor towards the magnetic field of his chest and stomach. Frowning ferociously, he cast a neurone net over her body and hauled her in like a heavy catch. He whipped mental lassoes around the column she stood beside, and brought her staggering across the floor like a bound slave. Finally, he closed his eyes, took flight, and projected his desire through the room, covering her neck and breasts with kisses.                                                    

When he opened his eyes she was gone. Maybe he should have tried conversation.”

Bad News is a beautifully written, raw account of a drug addict on a weekend binge. There is no redemption, at least in this novel, which makes me long to read the next in the series. But first I am going to read St. Aubyn’s first novel, Never Mind, which covers a single day in the life of Patrick Melrose (and St. Aubyn) as a child: the day his father first raped him.