Book Notes: Hannah and Sugar by Kate Berube

Hannah and Sugar by Kate BerubeKate Berube’s debut picture book Hannah and Sugar deals with fear, a topic that most young kids know very well. A young girl named Hannah longs to pet Sugar, a dog who meets the school bus every afternoon. But, every afternoon, Hannah walks by without petting Sugar because she can’t overcome her fear.

One day, Sugar goes missing, and it is Hannah who finds the dog, leash tangled in the bushes. Hannah wants to run away and find someone else to take care of untangling Sugar’s leash. But, she also wants to be brave. Gathering her courage, she reaches out her hand. When she overcomes her fear and helps Sugar, her neighbors are happy and her father is proud of her. She gains a new friend in Sugar, and is able to pet and hug him every day. Most importantly, she has an inner feeling of pride and happiness.

Berube’s text is spare. The charming illustrations do the work of telling the emotional story. When we read that Hannah says, “No, thank you,” when asked each day if she wants to pet Sugar, Berube’s images show us how Hannah’s eyes never leave Sugar. Her small body leans toward the dog. Her longing for and fear of the dog are both real. Hannah’s body language reminds me of the way my daughter used to watch kids playing on the playground. She’d watch, mesmerized, wanting to join the game, but nervous and unsure.

Sometimes I forget all the things that might make my young kids nervous. It can be the pool, or going into basement alone. My four year old told me he could relate to how Hannah feels because he really wants to go down the very tall slide at the playground, but he doesn’t because he’s scared. Hannah’s story lets him know that fear is a normal part of life, and that there are ways to overcome it.

None of us at any age are immune to fear. Hannah and Sugar provides an opportunity to talk about fear with your kids. Ask them what makes them feel nervous, and share your own experiences. Figure out where fear is getting in the way, and then challenge yourselves to get past it. Accepting fear as part of life, while not letting it rule our decisions, is a skill that requires practice. For any of us who have missed opportunities because of fear, Hannah and Sugar reminds us to take a deep breath and be brave. There are so many beautiful rewards waiting on the other side of that fear.

Alive to the world

Crows screech,

black robes beating

against a diffuse grey sky.

In a breath of quiet

a new sound,

clear and bright,

trills from my laurel bush,

and a somber blue jay

hops

from branch to delicate branch

testing his morning legs.

His voice, more poignant

because it is alone,

and sweeter

by its sole performance.

Sweeter still

by the gentle frame of my memory

as I recall

the cascade of notes

that greeted me

because I

had decided

to listen.

Adore Life, Part 2

Yesterday I posted about the album “Adore Life” by Savages. I’ve been thinking more and more about why the sentiment – to adore life, to embrace it without trying to pick off only the best moments – resonates with me so deeply.

It’s not because I’m coming up on an age at which people start thinking about their mortality. Certainly not that.

It’s not because I have regrets. Those mistakes that used to cause me pain are now slowly making their way into the “experience” column, and I try not to perseverate over them as much as I used to do.

It’s because of writing.

Writing requires me to be present, to sit in a messy, uncomfortable, difficult process, and strive to make something beautiful. It requires focus and sacrifice, by which I mainly mean forgoing evenings of television and lunches with friends. Writing a novel is the work of years, and in each second of that time there are so many other tasks that are definitely easier and possibly more critical than sitting with my pen. It’s a miracle a book ever gets written at all.

So, as I write, I have to remind myself that my time on the planet is short. It will end – as Jehnny  Beth sings, maybe tomorrow – and I my moments will be spent. Why not spend them living fiercely, loudly, and wholly? Why not adore life, even the messy and difficult parts?

Why not try and make a a miracle?

Savages, “Adore Life”

Savages “Adore Life”

It started with an image:  Savages, onstage in New York City. Immediately, I searched for online videos, then stared at the screen as if hypnotized. Every aspect of their music and style was intense and gorgeous, full of energy and strength. I don’t know much about punk. I only knew that Savages music stirred something in me, and I wanted to listen to more.

I pre-ordered Savages second album Adore Life in January. When I told a friend what it was called, his response was that the title didn’t seem very punk, which I think means that it didn’t sound angry enough. But, here’s the thing: anger is everywhere. There’s little that’s interesting or transgressive about it. Anger is what the cool kids do when they’re afraid. Anger is how we keep each other at a distance.

This music is the antithesis of the easy, the complacent, and the guarded. It questions, and yes rages against, expectations and assumptions.

I understand the urgency of life
In the distance there is truth which cuts
like a knife
Maybe I will die maybe tomorrow
So I need to say
I adore life

Savages “Adore”

There couldn’t be a more transgressive sentiment than this one. These lyrics are not about playing it cool, hedging bets. There are, in fact, no bets to be hedged. There is nothing but this life. We spend all of our moments, one way or another. If we spend them badly, they are gone from us just the same. These lyrics challenge us to live and to love with our whole hearts and bodies. Each of us has that choice.

Several months ago, inspired by Savages drummer Fay Milton (amazing beyond the power of my words to describe), I took up drum lessons. When we play music, when we listen to it, when we let ourselves be moved emotionally, spiritually, and physically, we affirm that we are here, that we are connected. We affirm our irrevocable right and innate responsibility to take up space and make plenty of noise. The drums, being some of the most space-taking and noise-making instruments around, are a helpful tool for practicing this. And I can hardly stop smiling when I’m playing, I feel so alive.

I adore music for the power it has to change me, as if the right frequencies could actually reverberate through my bone and tissue and liquid, and rearrange my molecules. I adore Savages for making the kind of music that makes me stop what I’m doing and listen.

And I need to say: I adore life.

Check out Savages videos on their website and on YouTube, especially this favorite of mine, a live performance on KEXP. Don’t watch if you like your molecules where they are.

A Poem and a Promise

I’m doing nothing
but being me.

I’m not a wife
or a mother
right now

I’m not a generous friend

Breathing in breathing out
Feeling my shoulders
they rise and fall
as my lungs fill
the soft muscles in my back
expand
then contract
whether I notice or not

And feeling the smooth skin of my calf against my shin
and my hands resting heavily on my thighs

I’m moving
a little
because there is music

I’m returning to the stillness
and quiet
and breath

I’m reminding myself that being me
is enough
I’m not lacking
any critical components or
depth
I’m not too much, either
too demanding
too sensitive
too tired

I’m learning
I’m enough

I’ll keep learning

**

Today, I pledge that I won’t worry about what I am — too heavy, out of shape, a pushover, a bore, unsuccessful – or what I am not – a published writer, in great shape, funny, popular. Those worries are counter-productive to a full, creative life. So, today, I’ll keep them at bay. I’ll protect myself and my creativity from them, the same way I’d protect my children from a gang of bullies.

DIY MFA: Text #5, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War came out in 1974, but its violent themes and multiple perspective structure feel modern and relevant. As I read it, I was torn between my reader’s zeal for the story and my writer’s mind learning from the masterful turns of suspense and symbolism on each page. I’ll lay out my thoughts about the lessons I take from this book to apply to my work.

Cormier creates suspense from the first page – indeed, from the first line – to the last. Up to the very end, I was not sure what would happen or how things would turn out for the main character Renault. In fact, the subtly ambiguous ending leaves me still not quite knowing what to think. For days afterward, questions about Renault haunted my thoughts and, if that’s not a testament to incredible writing, I don’t know what is.

The first line of the book both draws the reader in and tells the whole story in three words: “They murdered him.” The him, Jerry Renault, is a freshman at an all boy’s Catholic high school, getting beaten to a pulp at the football team tryouts. The paragraphs that follow this powerful first line brim with violent imagery; the nameless players on the field are explosions and sharp edges, tearing Renault apart. He’s “a toy boat caught in a whirlpool.”

Yet, even as Renault feels defenseless, beaten, and abandoned, he is aware that the most important thing is to survive. To go on, after being knocked down. So, he does get up, and is rewarded with a spot on the team. His inner strength results in triumph.

His actions at the try-out attract attention from more than just the coach. Archie, an older student at Trinity, and the brains behind a gang called the Vigils, notices Renault’s strength and decides to put him to the test. And this is where the chocolate comes in.

Throughout the book, chocolate is a symbol for power. The annual chocolate sale, run by the manipulative and creepy Brother Leon, raises money for the school. Cormier suggests, though not explicitly, that Leon has made a deal for his own benefit and needs the boys to raise additional funds to cover up his unlawful expenditures. Leon’s grab for power relies on his ability to conscript the students, especially the Vigils, into selling enormous amounts of chocolate for him. In return, the Vigils receive their own bit of power. All goes well, everyone buying into this game of power handed up the chain, except for Jerry Renault. He’s a thoughtful loner, missing his recently deceased mother and isolated from his grieving father. Renault’s objection to the chocolate sale throws the whole established system into jeopardy and makes him a target for Leon and the Vigils. In an echo of the football tryout in the first chapter, these characters organize ruthless physical and emotional attacks on Renault. This, then, is the chocolate war. The power war.

We readers desperately want Renault to have victory at the end. But, does he? He’s beaten, but still alive. Is survival enough? There is no coach to offer him a reward to make his efforts worthwhile. In the world, is there a reward for moral behavior? Does taking a moral stand pay off? Is it its own reward? If Renault could go back to the start, would he put his head down and sell his portion of chocolate compliantly? These are some of the questions that linger in my mind at the end.

In addition to suspense and symbolism, Cormier effectively creates a microcosm by populating it with believable and purposeful characters. Although the central conflict is between Renault and Archie, the peripheral characters fill out the edges. A few members of the student body briefly participate in the conflict, but the boys largely act as a wave, swelling in a single direction. At first, there are glimmers of admiration and respect for Renault’s bravery, then when the Vigils go on the attack, the boys are eager to see blood spilled. Their preference for violence over morality chills me.

As a writer of young adult fiction, I often wonder how to deal with the adults in kids’ lives. Many writers choose to keep adults out of the story altogether in order to empower their main characters. More difficult is to include adult characters in a way that supports the story, as Cormier does. The adults in the pages of The Chocolate War, aside from Brother Leon, are mostly silent and ineffectual, but their presence in the story serves a purpose. They largely do not see what is happening; even Renault’s father ignores his son’s situation. Though they are supposed to protect and guide their children, the parents and teachers are ignorant and useless.  One mother nags at her son about his manners, but her worries are so far from his own, and so insignificant, that he completely ignores her, “like shutting the sound of the television.” Cormier is pointing out here that the corrupt system of power relies on blindness as much as it does on the primary offenders, a message that is as relevant now as it was forty years ago.

The Chocolate War comes up often among writers, especially those whose stories feature teens, and I can see why. Cormier’s book is exciting, and does not shy away from the real challenges of teens’ lives, which, it turns out, aren’t so very different from the challenges in any one’s life. How many of us can say that we have figured out how to deal with corruption, that we always speak up when we see something wrong?

For more discussion of this book, listen to Jo Knowles speaking with Sara Zarr on the wonderful “This Creative Life” podcast, in which Knowles discusses Cormier’s impact on her work. Incidentally, Zarr’s podcast is always wonderful and worth a listen. The way she and her guests generously share their experiences and wisdom truly warms my heart and makes me happy to call myself a writer.

Also check out Junot Diaz’s related story in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which he also refers to Robert Cormier’s books.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Book Notes: The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer“The first few moments up there were terrifying.

I felt stupid, actually.

Vulnerable. Silly.

It was lucky that I was covered in white face paint – my face burned bright red beneath it for the first ten minutes, I could feel it.

The sheer absurdity of what I was doing was not lost on me.”

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

Before Amanda Palmer was part of punk-cabaret group The Dresden Dolls, before she was a Kickstarter phenomenon, she painted herself white from head to toe, dressed as a bride, and stood on a crate in Harvard Square, performing as a human statue. When someone dropped money into her hat, Palmer offered a flower and a moment of meaningful eye contact.

Palmer’s new book The Art of Asking is part memoir, part manifesto. With her life stories, collected anecdotes, ideas from other artists, and a dash of scientific data, Palmer talks about her journey to becoming a master of asking people to help her.

There are several reasons why people feel uncomfortable asking for and accepting help. For one, our society prizes self-sufficiency and disapproves of anyone who appears to be asking for a handout. Those who do ask for help are often criticized as unworthy poseurs. Palmer calls these critics the Fraud Police.

She points to the example of Henry David Thoreau. He has been criticized because, while he was writing his treatise on self-reliance, he accepted the generosity of friends and family, who gave him the land and food that sustained him throughout his work. Palmer writes that “every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought him a basket of freshly baked goods for him, including donuts.”

Thoreau’s donuts become symbolic in Palmer’s discussion of support for artists. She points out that no one would criticize Einstein or Florence Nightingale for accepting donuts. But artists “just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.” She urges all of us to “take the donuts,” to see what we do as deserving of help, whether that help comes from fans, patrons, or family.

Palmer writes that she’s frequently asked how she “gets” people to support her work. Her response: she doesn’t get them to, she lets them. These aren’t strangers; these are her fans, her tribe. These are people who have shared stories with her, opened themselves up to her, allowed themselves to be moved by her. Palmer understands that her community wants to express their love and appreciation for her. As she writes, “Accepting the gift IS the gift.”

The book is beautifully written, with humor and, at times, raw honesty. The idea of asking for help ties me up in knots of anxiety. I don’t like imposing on people. But, as I read this book, I realized my inability to ask is really stinginess wrapped in a disguise of selflessness. There’s a generosity to asking, to letting people see your vulnerability and need. When we let people do for us, there is a ripple effect. Giving to each other strengthens bonds and gives others permission to ask for help in their times of need. Palmer call this “tightening the net.”

Palmer’s way of looking at life makes a lot of sense, not just for artists, but for everyone. In her world, giving and receiving are equally necessary. Both keep the ecosystem strong, breathing out just as critical as breathing in. They’re so equal that the lines become blurred; it’s hard to tell who’s giving, and who’s receiving.

Give the flower, take the flower. Give the love, take the love. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, as Palmer says, the gift keeps moving.

Food and Memory

My phone rang, and I almost missed the call because my arms were buried to the elbows in a bowl of ground lamb.

My sister Parry was on the other end of the line, and I told her I was making lahmajun, a thin pizza-like dish made with lamb, onions, peppers, and tomato. Lahmajun was one of our favorite things to eat when we were kids, and we frequently begged our Nana to make them. Rolled up like skinny burritos, we’d easily scarf down three in one sitting.

Lately, I’ve been flipping through my Armenian recipes, looking for the most beloved foods of my youth. My Nana gave me her recipes to follow, but cooking her food is so much more than following the instructions. It’s remembering, thinking back to how the dish looked and felt and smelled to me as a child. I channel my grandmother’s practiced way of spreading the topping, hear her voice telling me to make the meat layer thin. Even thinner than that, my hokhis.

The recipes are a connection between my sister and me, too, because we’ve shared tips and advice for making these traditional foods. We’ve both attempted choereg, the sweet bread rolls that were our favorite snack. Nana would make a big batch and put it in the freezer. When I came home from school, I’d take the bag from the freezer, defrost one (or two or three) in the microwave, and eat it, plain, or with whatever I wanted slathered inside. I preferred them with jelly, Parry with cheese. I remember Nana braiding the dough. Parry says she knotted it.

When my kids and I made choereg recently, my daughter and I had a good laugh at our dough-knotting incompetence. Between the mixing and the rising and the shaping and the baking, it was a day-long adventure. And now we, too, have a big bag of choereg in our freezer. When my daughter comes home from school and defrosts her choereg (she takes hers with jelly), or when my kids have their first tastes of lahmajun, it makes me feel like I’ve done something good.

This food goes beyond sustenance. Cooking these dishes connects my kids and me to our Armenian heritage, especially to my Nana, who even now cooks up yalanchi and boereg when the family gathers. I love the feeling that I am carrying on her role, and sharing an important tradition with my children.

I’m giving them something that they will remember.

Lahmajum!

Lahmajun, almost like Nana makes. Yum.