Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Back to Granny

Yesterday I got back to Granny's Jig, and it felt like a "homecoming". It's weird, but when I haven't seen my fictional characters for awhile and then return to the manuscript, I have new insights about them and see them in more depth, actually the way it works with real life people.

I knew I wouldn't get any writing done last week. There was cleaning, decorating, baking for neighbors, gift wrapping, cooking for the big day, and then, of course, getting together and feasting. And then relaxing afterwards. But I was happy to see my motley crew of characters again, and yesterday I finished Chapter 12 (this draft). I believe I'm halfway through the re-write -- that is, if my characters don't spring new surprises on me.

I've been reading about the era some more. I had a neighbor, Kitty Flynn, who told me she lost her cousin to the 1918 influenza epidemic. (Kitty passed away about 3 years ago, but she was born the very year of one of the girls in my story, and so I have named that character Kitty.) Anyway, Kitty told me that there was a saying that if a person was dizzy today, you could read about them in the obituary column tomorrow. And in the book I just finished reading, A Time for Courage, by Kathryn Lasky, in the epilogue, a character gets sick one night and is in a coma by the next morning, dying a few days later. Even with the present swine flu deaths, it's hard to imagine how many people died of the 1918 epidemic -- more than twenty million people throughout the world -- and how swiftly it acted. For those of us alive today, it can all seem so distant and settled.

One of the things I appreciate about historical fiction is that it gives you the lives of history, not merely the facts. And it certainly makes you see the present from a different perspective.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wizardy Tales

I've been reading a new series -- well, new to me: The Lost Years of Merlin, by T. A. Barron. I don't know how many books there are in the series, but I've read Book One (of the same title as the series) and Book Two, The Seven Songs of Merlin. Both are wonderful reads, but I especially like book two because of the seven deep insights that unfold as Merlin unravels the meaning of the seven songs. The book is multilayered, and I can imagine tweens discovering it, then rereading it through young adulthood and full adulthood (if any of us ever really achieve the latter).

Each book is a quest, and each book ends with Merlin on the verge of a new quest. While danger-laden adventures and obstacles pile up from chapter to chapter, Merlin grows in wisdom as he meets each new challenge. Merlin's journey is a journey that takes him both inward and outward and adds to his growing stature as he deals with problems his own flaws have caused. Thus, he's a character young people can identify with. And his example of redeeming his mistakes and wrestling with his own flaws offers hope to anyone who has ever suffered the angst of adolescence.

It's a lovely series. While it's a little late to suggest it as a Christmas gift for this year, it will be just as relevant to young readers next year, so look for it and shop early!

Meanwhile, in the Varadan household, the tree is finally up, the cards sent, the loaves baked, the presents wrapped. Merry Christmas to all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

To Blog or to Novel, That Was the Question

It's been awhile since I blogged for several reasons: A new bout of seasonal viruses, a mini-family reunion, art class and art club. Around all that I had to decide: Post a new blog? Or work on my novel? The novel won out, and I am happy to say I am moving along on Chapter 12 of the re-write.

I did a lot of reading the past ten days as well, because the more I write, the more I realise how important it is to read. One especially good read was the Quantock Quartet, Sisters of the Quantock Hills, a historical series of YA or juvenile novels (depending on which sister's story you are reading) set in England. The time frame is 1910 to 1920 for the first two books (Sarah's Story and Francis's Story). The third book, Julia's Story, takes a reader up to 1930. And the last, Gwen's Story, takes one up to pre-WWII.

At one point my husband asked, "Is there any point to reading the same story four times?" But that was the beauty of it: As in real life, even though the four sisters all had common experiences, the experiences meant different things to each sister, and each sister also had her own separate encounters and issues. I was surprised at how engrossed I became in each new book (although Gwen's Storywas perhaps the least interesting until about the last third of the book).

I checked these books out from the library primarily because my own book takes place in the last of the 1910's decade, when war and influenza were issues in Sacramento as well as in England. Partly I wanted to see how the author handled clothing of the era. But I liked seeing how she handled the family relationships. I found the leisurely pace engrossing; I suppose family stories to ring true, call for that. (As opposed, say, to mysteries or action novels.) The writing took its time.

I also liked how each character got her own book. What wasn't dealt with in one book was picked up in another. It was probably overly ambitious to devote four books to the same family cluster, but it worked quiet well for the first three.

In re-writes, a writer has to do a lot of cutting. That old saw, "Kill your darlings" (attributed to about every famous American author you can think of) is quite true. I've had to kill a lot of darlings in my current re-write. Already the book is better for it. But my pruning meant inviting a lot of characters to leave -- relatives of the main characters -- since they were beginning to hijack my story. I was really sorry to send them packing. But, after reading the Quantock Quartet, I'm reminded that they can always get a book of their own after I finish this one. (I never throw anything away. The cousins are alive and well in files of the earlier drafts, hopefully sorting things out among themselves to get a second chance.)

Meanwhile, I really missed blogging. It's good to be back.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Holiday Mixer

Another busy week, but one of the highlights was the SCBW&I Holiday Mixer at MAIYA Art Gallery on J Street. What a perfect place for writers and illustrators to meet: When my husband and I moved to Sacramento over 20 years ago, there were only a few art galleries. Now there is a burgeoning of galleries all through Midtown, and MAIYA, relatively new, is a great enhancement to the expanding art community.

It was a lovely gathering Wednesday evening. Members' art was on display, as well as work by Midtown artists. Tables were set up with snacks and wine. I met writers and illustrators like Linda Joy Singleton, author of the Strange Encounter series and the Seer series, who also presented at the May regional conference this year; author/illustrator Rachel Dillon, who wrote and illustrated the remarkable poetry/picture book, Through Endangered Lives; author Connie Epstein, who has published a series of health books for secondary schools and libraries (and is working on three novels! ) and regularly writes articles and market updates for the SCBW&I Bulletin; Erin Dealey and Patricia Newman, co-regional advisors for the California North/Central region; and Genny Heikka, assistant regional advisor, who also reviews children's books for Sacramento Book Review.

I go periodically to the regional conferences and I always get so much out of them. This gathering was smaller and more intimate, and consequently I was able to get to know people a little better than when I get lost in the hubbub of the larger conferences. I'll certainly keep attending the larger conferences, because they are so rich in their own way, and I'm even planning to go to the even bigger L.A. summer conference in 2010. But I hope more "mixers" like Wednesday's are planned for the future.

If so, I'll be there!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Blogger, K. Michael Crawford

K. Michael Crawford is the writer and illustrator of the unique The Mystery of Journeys Crowne, a book full of riddles and clues, part picture storybook, part game and treasure hunt, calling on a young reader’s own drawings to solve the mystery. The adventure is fun, the riddles intriguing, and the illustrations are a visual treat.

Here is K. Michael Crawford to tell you all about his book and about his writing and artistic process.

"Around three years ago, I decided I wanted to create a first-of-its-kind book. I had no idea at the time what the book should be, but I knew it had to get kids to use their imaginations and teach them how to figure things out on their own. After I let the idea brew in my head for a few months, it hit me: I would create a book with everything that I liked; mysteries, magic, creativity, drawing, adventures and silliness. I am just a big kid at heart. After that, the book took shape and everything fell into place. It was very magical.

"It took me six months to layout all the drawings and another six months to create and write the clues. The clues were a huge undertaking, because I had to write them so they would work together and get the reader to the end of the book. Some clues had to help you solve other clues and make sense to the story. I knew I need a character for the background story, so I created Bazel Lark to help me with writing the clues and to complete the story, explaining why the reader was getting the adventure to solve in the first place.

"Once I had the spreads laid out and the clues written, then I started the paintings. I use a number of mediums in one painting so that I can achieve the effects I want for the finished painting. These paintings have Dr. Martin's Radiant Watercolor, Colored Pencils, Acrylics and Pastels. I still haven't figured out how to throw in the Kitchen Sink.

"From start to finish it took me two years to complete CThe Mystery of Journeys Crowne. It was a wonderful and challenging journey that I am repeating with the next book in Bazel Lark series called The Island of Zadu. Even though I kept a record of how I did The Mystery of Journeys Crowne, in order to keep the books consistent with each other, I soon realized each book in the series (there will be 5) has to have a life of it's own. Now I'm facing the challenge of getting everything to work in this new book as well as in The Mystery of Journeys Crowne."

You can visit Michael at his website, http://www.happilyeverart.com/ and see some of his other titles. The Mystery of Journeys Crowne can be purchased at www.happilyeverart.com/BazelLark.html .

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Lightning Thief, By Rick Riordan

Last week I read Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief, a fast-paced fantasy that combines ancient Greek history with contemporary situations in a mix of suspense and humor that made the book hard to put down. So, here is my review:

Gods and goddesses of ancient Greece have long been discounted as myth, right? In The Lightning Thief, these “immortals” still live, and their half-mortal offspring walk among us, pursued by monsters.

Percy Jackson is in trouble again at his new boarding school. He’s dyslexic and he suffers from ADHD, and he assumes that’s why he has the kinds of mess-ups that get him regularly expelled from schools. What Percy doesn’t realize is that he is one of the demi-gods. Monsters find him; after a narrow escape, still unaware of his identity, Percy heads home to his mother. New developments cause her to take him to Camp Half-Blood, a safe haven for demi-gods.

At Camp Half-Blood, Percy discovers his heritage, but soon finds he is the main suspect in the theft of Zeus’s lightning bolt. He has less than two weeks to track down the real thief and to prevent a war between the gods that will rival the Trojan War. Percy is also desperate to free his mother, who is being held hostage by Hades.

Percy’s friends, a demi-goddess named Annabeth, and a satyr named Grover, accompany him on his mission. One mystery leads to another: More than Zeus’s lightning bolt has been stolen. More is at stake than a war between rival gods. Riddles and prophecies abound. Percy and his friends encounter an array of legendary creatures and Olympian gods, and Percy learns there is more to being a hero than he ever imagined.

Rick Riordan’s sly humor keeps the tension high in laugh-out-loud scenes. The Lightning Thief is a must-read for middle grade readers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Strange Weather and Splashes of Color

The past two days there have been strange winds off and on. Dry winds, no big storm. The winds have hastened the process of falling leaves, but Midtown still looks beautiful. California is considered not to have seasons: Southern California is full of palm trees, and the most northern California is full of redwoods and pines, so they are green all year. But Sacramento has been dubbed the City of Trees, and we have a wide array.

Early on, throughout Sacramento proper, streets were lined with elms and sycamores and maples. Oh, we have some crazy-looking palm trees, looking like upended feather dusters, and a few redwoods as well. But for the most part, the plantings since the early days have been mostly deciduous: One long strip of J Street between 12th or 13th and 19th is lined with ginko trees, and they're also scattered around McKinley Park. There are sprinkles of magnolias, tulip trees, and dogwoods, redbuds, crape myrtles, and even a eucalyptus or two, not to mention the lemon, orange, and pomegranate trees planted in individual yards. Because of the citrus trees and a few pines, there are layers of green as well as the russets and golds and yellows and reds framed against the sky.

My favorite trees are the sycamores (plane trees, really) and the ginkos. It's the bark of the plane trees that captivates me. The beige and sandy yellow patches overlap patches of palest mauve, and the faintest green. The patches peel away, bit by bit, explosing new, bone white bark that will deepen in varied hues as the year progresses. It's a tree with about three pollen seasons, and a source of my allergies, but I love its beauty and forgive its effect on me. During spring and summer, the ginko trees are studded with small green fans that turn a rich buttery yellow every autumn. When the leaves finally fall, they lie in bright heaps, like so many gold coins. Combined with the red maple leaves, they make sidewalks and gutters a dazzle of color.

Our autumn is drawing to a close now. By Christmas it will be all evergreens and bare branches (beautiful in their own way, too). But for now, when I walk the dog, I'm enjoying the colors.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Rush and Jumble

It was a drudgery sort of week last week -- I was doing all those undone housecleaning chores to get ready for Thanksgiving, since it's at our house this year. These are chores I long put off in favor of Granny's Jig . After all, we writers are supposed to put off the mundane for the sake of our craft, right?

Then on the week-end, I had a writers group meeting and my husband and I went to the opera -- Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore, which was wonderfully sung and very funny. The Sacramento Opera casts just get better and better!

So I was all settled into the idea that since I had virtuously tended to business last week, I had three days straight writing time before Turkey Day. Hah! Life never is that cooperative. I did get in one morning's work on Chapter 7, and then our dog had problems, which required two trips to the vet. My car stalled in the vet's parking lot and it had to be towed to the dealer. Sigh. I think I can squeeze in a couple of hours today, and if I do, I'll be a much nicer person for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, there is so much I want to blog about: Books I've been reading that are oh, so good. My art class, my art club, Sacramento's turning leaves (we are known as "The City of Trees", so you can imagine the color right now), but there's no time for any of that. Hopefully by the week-end, my car, our dog, all will be well.

Meanwhile, I'm so glad I got things ready for company last week, because with all the hubbub there wouldn't have been much time this week. Now, at least, I can more or less relax. That's definitely something to be thankful for at Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Discovery for Writers

I recently discovered the Stories for Children Magazine at http://storiesforchildrenmagazine.org/ . A monthly e-zine for children ages 3 to 12. This e-zine offers a rich opportunity for children's writers of fiction, poetry, puzzles, crafts, recipes, art work, you name it, including an educator's page for the month's published works.

In addition to accepting submissions from adult writers for children, Stories for Children accepts submissions from young writers under 17 years of age. At present, it isn't a paying magazine, but it's a great opportunity for any writer to begin or to continue building a portfolio of published work, while bringing pleasure to young readers.

If you've already published a book, you can also send them a review copy. If accepted, they will review it, pass on the review to Amazon or Barnes & Noble (if the book is available from either of those sites), post the review in the magazine, give you permission to use parts of the review in your own marketing, and donate the book to a library of the reviewer's choice.

Check this wonderful ezine out at: http://storiesforchildrenmagazine.org/ . You won't be sorry!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday the 13th -- My Good Luck Day

So much has been happening, I haven't had time to blog! Last week I was preparing for my school visit Friday. (Yes, on Friday the 13th, the perfect date to talk about a book involving magic and wishes gone awry.) To top it off, I was invited to be a guest blogger for Sandra Muncaster's blog at http://sandie-lee.blogspot.com/. (She posted my blog today.) Sandie is assistant editor at Stories for Children, a montly e-zine for children from 3 to 12 that also takes submissions from children as well as adults. We met via Jacketflap, which has to be one of the more amazing webgroups I belong to!

So, Friday.... I spoke to about a hundred 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in an assembly at Elder Creek Elementary School. Afterward, there was a book signing in the library, followed by an "author's lunch" for students who had bought the book.

The visit was special for many reasons. This was my first school visit, and the kids were a wonderful audience. I also used to teach 6th grade at Elder Creek. As the students filed into the multipurpose room, I had a real pang of nostalgia for my own 6th graders who each year filed in, accompanied by the music of Pomp and Circumstance, to receive their diplomas. But the day was special for even a third reason: I read early drafts of the book to three different classes (a 3rd grade, a split 4th-5th, and a 6th) and applied students' suggestions in each new rewrite. Those students made The Fourth Wish a good read!

The super librarian, Eva Chu had tipped me off regarding points students would want to know about: Why did I want to be a writer and write for kids? How did I get the idea for THIS book? Why the title? It was nice to revisit all those questions for myself.

I’ve written most of my life, but it was while teaching that I got hooked on writing for young people. The issues students talked about or wrote in their journals often lingered on in my mind: family break-ups, single working moms worried about making ends meet, pre-teen crushes, pesky neighbors, and, in the case of my Chinese students, extra homework from Chinese school after regular homework. All of these are going on in The Fourth Wish.
As for the title: I’ve always been fascinated by stories about magic (the real kind) and I’ve always been intrigued by magic tricks (the illusory kind). So, when an image came to me of a magician onstage performing one of his tricks and having it get messed up by real magic, well, that was the beginning of The Fourth Wish.

In The Fourth Wish, four children on their way to see The Great Mondo’s magic show meet a strange old woman who says she can grant wishes. They don’t believe her, but to humor her, they agree on a wish that, as it turns out, messes up The Great Mondo’s act. This leads to a 2nd and 3rd wish, each time making things worse. In fairy tales, there are only three wishes. Lucky for Mondo, this time there’s a fourth “fix-it” wish, but not until lives are turned upside down.

Meanwhile, I’ve started a blog for young readers at http://fourthwishreader.blogspot.com/ , where, among other things, I’ll run contests, post websites of magazines that take submissions from young writers, and also post new magic tricks from a wonderful magic store called Grand Illusions.

By the way, I’m always looking for good new reads. Visit me here and recommend some for me. I like anything for young people (from picture books to young adults), and mysteries for any age are my weakness.

The Fourth Wish can be ordered at http://www.createspace.com/3353849 and at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=%22The+Fourth+Wish%22+&x=14&y=13

Monday, November 9, 2009

This and That

I just got back yesterday from a week-end at Pajaro Dunes with seven good friends who go way back. The sound of the ocean, good food and wine, and plenty of laughter -- just the thing after a miserable flu-ridden week and its aftermath. I didn't read or write while there (well, except for the crossword puzzle and scribbling notes to myself regarding my book); but I gambled (and lost) a few nickles and dimes at dominoes, drew crazy pictures at Pictionary, and enjoyed catching up on seven lives.

As after any vacation, it feels great to be home again, refreshed, re-energized, and back into routines. (And, in this case -- since I seldom take trips without him -- back to my husband.) So, today I return to working on Granny's Jig. I'm still enjoying the "I can't wait to get started" feeling that comes and goes during any long work. (With me, it often goes.)

A writing friend sent me a newspaper interview with several writers about their writing processes. Margaret Atwood advises, "Put your left hand on the table, your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, the plot will come." At present, in my enthusiastic stage, I may not have to try that. But, since my characters changed behind my back -- some of them even disappeared -- who knows? The old plot line may have vanished, too. That's a mystery that can only be solved by moving into the new version.

Meanwhile, I am still savoring the echo of the ocean's roar and the laughter of good friends.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Joy of Reading

Back from a bout with the flu, and grateful for the joy of reading: After the chills, the aches, the fever, passed, I was too worn out to write. So I yielded to the pleasure of a reading feast. From my earlier, happy wanderings through book stores, I had a stack of unread books just waiting to be read.

Even though I write books for children, I read anything and everything that I deem well-written. One of my weaknesses is mysteries, and there were a few on hand: Bodies in a Bookshop, a story that takes place in London. The Lost Keats, set in Indiana. (Anything to do with books or dead poets hooks me right away.) A new Cara Black mystery. On another day I'll blog a bit about her mysteries, because reading one of her books is like a free trip to Paris. I also discovered a luminous book, The Speed of Light, by Elizabeth Rozner, which defies genres, but goes into the pile of "must read again".

Next week I will probably start back to work on Granny's Jig, but I'm still enjoying my reading spree. I'm immersed in The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan, a novel about an Irish rebellion, aided by the French, that took place in the summer of 1798, fifty years before the Great Famine. It's an earlier period than the one I'm writing about, but it certainly gives the background to the sorrows immigrants would have carried to the New World with them, having listened to the many stories passed on at home.

Meanwhile, despite ten days' confinement to "resting", my little world has been greatly enlarged: Indiana, England, France, Ireland.... Only through reading can one travel so far, go back in time, and have such rich journeys in the space of ten days, without setting a foot outside the door.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Back to Granny's Jig

I finally got back to rewriting Granny's Jig last week, and it was like returning to an old friend. I had missed the characters in my long vacation from it as I wrote on other books. For a little over a week, I've been working away on it, despite other distractions.

This week I've been too busy to blog here because I was setting up a second blog (Fourth Wish Readers -- shown now under "My Blogs") in preparation for my school visit next week. The new site is mainly for the kids (or anyone who wishes they were 8-to-twelve again and has read of The Fourth Wish.) I've arranged a contest with prizes; and the newsletter from Grand Illusions, a magic shop, sends me their latest cool magic trick (which I post on the new site.)

Now, I'm settled into the long haul with Granny, and living once again in the world of 1919 Irish Catholics in Sacramento, dealing with their problems and issues and sorrows and joys. It's an odd slant on things. As I walk my dog around midtown (which is where the book occurs), it's like having double vision: I pass a present apartment house and know that in that very spot there was once a dancing school in a long-since-demolished house; I know the names of former owners of time-tested buildings, and see iron horse posts from a bygone era in front of modern homes. It's like having X-ray vision into a the past instead of through concrete.

Which reminds me why I like books so much. They are doorways into worlds, whether you read them or write them, or both. As such, they enrich life beyond measure.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I Decided to Delete Twitter

I've decided to delete Twitter from my blog. Also from my Facebook. It's a nice idea to have everything connected, and my nephew's enthusiasm was quite contagious. But then I saw how the tweets were mounting up in the margin of my blog, taking too much attention away from what I want to talk about in more depth. And the tweets started showing up as postings on my Facebook -- way too many postings. (I don't post very often.)

If anyone wants to read my tweets in addition to my blog or Facebook, they can always go to my Twitter site: 4thWishVaradan. Otherwise, I'll assume those tweets are being heard as cheery chirping in cyberspace, and I'm returning my blog and Facebook sites to normal.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grand Illusions -- A Fabulous Magic Shop

Friday I went to Grand Illusions, a magic shop, to find prizes for the coming Fourth Wish Readers contest. It's in Carmichael, and while I think of it, here's the address and website:

7704 Fair Oaks Blvd
Carmichael, CA. 95608-1706
916-944-4708 916-944-2970fax

What a shop! It offers everything you could ask for if you are interested in magic tricks and illusions -- books and DVD's, cards, juggling balls, mentalism tricks; lectures and workshops. And costumes galore! In addition, for those who live in Sacramento or Carmichael areas and can go in, Steve Johnson will give you a tour around the place. It's the perfect place to look right now for your Halloween costume. For those farther away, you can visit the website and shop for next year's costume.

Meanwhile, did I find good prizes? You bet I did. Stay tuned for the coming contest.

A Twittery World

One of my nephews from India is here with us this week-end. He's quite the techie (a description that fits a few of my nephews, actually). Anyway, he's convinced me to sign up, showing me the wonderful world of instant haikus, very short stories, and all the other writing possibilities within the parameters of 140 characters. (And here I thought Twitter was just about politicians informing friends they were eating a hamburger at the moment.)

So, I've gone and done it! I've signed up for Twitter. Of course, immediately I got the message that Twitter was having technical difficulty that would soon be fixed. Sigh. I'll have to wait to do my first tweet.

Meanwhile, Chapter Three on Granny's Jig progresses.

Friday, October 16, 2009

School Visit Coming Up

My school visit to talk about The Fourth Wish is coming up soon: two weeks from today. I'll be speaking at the elementary school where I taught a few years ago, which is fun to consider. After speaking to an assembly, then I'll sign books in the library.

Meanwhile, I've started the rewrite of my historical middle grade novel, Granny's Jig. I'm two chapters into the new version, and it's going well. But I have a deadline, since I promised a teacher at another school that I'd have it ready to read to her class for feedback by Spring. So, it's back to work: No more blogging until after Chapter Three.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Loving Books

I just finished reading a juvenile by Lewis Buzbee called Steinbeck's Ghost, in which he reminded me all over again how much I love libraries, books, and John Steinbeck (not necessarily in that order). Buzbee captures that feel of how an author can send you to another world, and Steinbeck was especially good at this. I'm a Steinbeck fan from way back, although I have only read about half of his books. One that I missed is The Pastures of Heaven, which plays an important role in Buzbee's book, and now I simply must go find a copy of it and read it. In fact Buzbee made me want to go back and read several favorite books, including L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. (L'Engle is another of my favorite children's authors.)

Buzbee also captures that special atmosphere that only a library can offer. Libraries have figured largely in my own life, and I would hate to consider the shrunken world of a city without at least one branch. An afternoon spent in a library is different from a couple of hours spent browsing in a book store, although the latter is one of my addictions as well (a reason I'm eager to read another Buzbee book: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.)

Books. Libraries. Reading is one of the great pleasures in life. And, when you are anywhere near a libary, it costs nothing at all to kick back with a good book and be transported. And any book by Steinbeck takes you on a wonderful journey.

Thank you, Lewis Buzbee, for reminding me of all of the above, as well as providing a wonderful journey of your own.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Wonderful News Flash and Four-Pronged Happiness

I've had a busy couple of days, and this afternoon am basking over four reasons to be happy:

I started the day elated by the news that President Obama is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

I spent most of the day reorganizing my writing files, both in the file cabinet and on my computer. I also submitted a picture book and a poem to publishers, which always makes me feel GREAT.

My after school art club started off small yesterday -- 5 students -- but they are very focused and said they want their friends to come. They all asked for a longer art period. (What teacher isn't happy over a request like that?) So, class time is expanded now from an hour to an hour and a half each Thursday.

My friend from Galicia who speaks German and Spanish, but no English, has been e-mailing me wonderful letters to translate. She and her husband have lived in Germany for several years, but they return to Galicia twice a year during the same period of time that we go. We've struck up a good friendship with them, fed by their patience with our lurching Spanish, and our determination to become better at it. Today I was able to translate a very long page.

Three satisfying accomplishments and one great news flash.

Of course, there's always something to bring one back to earth: The weeds still call from the back garden, despite my best efforts not to hear them. They refuse to be ignored and are getting louder, louder, LOUDER....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Back Home Again

We're back. We got back Friday evening. Our dog was delirious to see us again, and we returned the sentiment. There's lots of e-mail to catch up on, since I had to be frugal with online time abroad. Once again the garden is a mass of hearty weeds, although the basil and parsley have fought back valiantly and managed to be prolific: I foresee pasta nights for some time.

Galicia still resonates in my ears. I miss the sound of Spanish flowing around us. I have to resist the impulse to answer "si" when I agree with something. Not many people speak English in Galicia (except for our British friends), so going there is truly an immersion experience. Our Galician neighbors are supportive of our efforts and seem to get what we think we are saying. But I'm dutifully continuing to study Spanish, in hopes of being more fluent by the next trip.

As much as we enjoyed the trip, it's great to be back. Immediately I had to go to my two favorite used book stores, The Book Collector and Time Tested Books, in search of more books in Mary Stewart's Arthurian series. We took the first two books with us and read them in Spain. Rajan read them twice, to clarify the many names and locations mentioned in Stewart's beautiful writing. Luckily I got the next two books over the week-end, so we are set with good reading for awhile. I blame our Arthurian addiction on the TV Pilot, Merlin that we watched over the summer. It has a different story line for Arthur and Merlin, in fact for the whole cast of characters, but it was a refreshing pilot, and it piqued our interest. Now we are both hooked on the legend and anyone's version of it. And I've always admired Mary Stewart's writing.

I painted a little on our trip, though I wrote constantly. But today I go back to the pastel landscape class I like so much, and Thursday I start teaching the after school art club for kids again. Art may sound like a distraction for a writer, but I think it enhances writing. It certainly makes you visualize what you are trying to describe in words, and to think in "scenes", and I think it removes some of the clutter that can make for writer's block.

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to more research for my next book that takes place in Sacramento. I've already written one draft of it, and a partial re-write, then put it on the back burner for another book. But it involves a ghost, and this is a wonderful season to explore the old cemetery, among other things, as I pick up the threads and continue the re-write.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Even though we are in Galicia, I keep thinking about the reunion coming up in February for my husband's graduating class from engineering college in India. The reunion is going to be in India, and I am so looking forward to it. Out of about 140 former classmates, about 110 are coming with their spouses. Before we left for our trip, I had the good fortune to meet two couples.

Here is how it happened: Jaggadeesan is one of the key organizers of the reunion. For the past few months, he and his wife, Lakshmi Devi, have been visiting their son and their son's wife and daughter in San Jose. Through a word-of-mouth network, he tracked my husband down and we visited them in May. Then another classmate, Sampath Voora, and his wife, Madeleine, who live in Toronto, were visiting friends in El Dorado Hills, about an hour away from Sacramento.

About a week before our trip here, they all gathered at our house for a mini-mini reunion. I'm excited about seeing them all again at the big reunion. Madeleine is French Canadian and naturally she speaks fluent French. I don't even speak nonfluent French, but we have good friends in Toronto who are fluent, and we gave the Sampaths their number. Meanwhile, Devi is a writer, and has written and published travel books in Tamil, as well as a volume of poetry. We are thinking of collaborating on a story for children.

On another note, on return to Sacramento, I have a school visit coming up to discuss my book, The Fourth Wish. I've visited schools before, reading works in progress, soaking up the students' comments and applying them in rewrites. This is my first visit to discuss a published book and to do a book signing, and I'm thrilled.

Meanwhile, we have ten more days in Galicia, reading, enjoying reunions with friends here, taking long walks on winding roads, and sitting on the bench with our neighbors. Cool weather has arrived, with misty mornings. Afternoons are still sunny, with blue, cloud-filled skies. Birds twitter incessantly. Crickets chirp. Dogs bark from every farm. Roosters crow at any time of day. The rolling hills are dense with forests, and rock walls cut through pale fields, while red tile roofs dot the greenery. These details etch themselves in memory and will be recalled long after we return home.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another World

It's hard to blog here everyday. At the house, we do have a computer connection, but very low speed. We have to wait and go to the Parador in Monforte where the high speed connection is free while we have coffee or snacks.

Monforte is the nearest big town (or small city, depending on how you look at it) about 8 miles from our little hamlet. Up a high hill in the center is the Parador, an imposing castle/monastery/tower that was one of the many properties given to Count de Lemos centuries ago by the king to reward his loyalty. Our Spanish isn't good enough to track the whole history, but at one time it was a monastery and presently the main (huge) structure is a tourist hotel. (There is a whole system of paradors throughout Spain, where castles have been converted into tourist hotels.)

On the ground floor of this one is the hotel lobby, a restaurant and a cafe, all situated around an open patio with a stone dome in the center. Rooms for the hotel clients are on the first and second floors. Outside,a lovely cathedral abuts the hotel and is still regularly in use. And one can go up the many flights of the tower at appointed hours to see historical relics and peer out at spectacular views of Monforte spread below.

I journal most days about the area, but every time we come, there is so much more to learn. At this time of year, the late summer is still richly green, although fields have turned golden, and this week some of the trees started turning a faint russet. The air has become cooler. Orchards are lush with peaches, apples, figs, walnuts, and chestnuts that are just starting to fall, still in their prickly green cases. Blackberries are ripening. Wooded areas are thick with red pines, oaks, eucalyptus trees, and birches or aspens (I haven't decided which). As you go through villages, geraniums crowd wrought iron balconies, and hydrangeas bush up from the ground, next to fuschias and some wonderfully fragrant magenta-blooming plant. Ferns line the roads in abundance, whether in sunlight or shade. Pastures are thick with wild fennel, wild sage, wild mint, and Queen Anne's lace. And stinging nettle is everywhere. (I have found out the hard way that this is not a weed to pull.)

Every small farm has its grapevines, with ruffled leaves and lush fruit hanging in purple and green bunches. Yesterday Eva told us that this year the vendimia, or wine harvest, will be on the 26th of this month. And then it will be time for everyone to make up their batches of new wine for the coming year. And the cyle goes on.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Timeless Galicia

We have been here for a week. We had a good flight (in stages), and by the time we reached the house we had been up and awake for over 24 hours, since we don't sleep well in the air. After showering, we joined our neighbors at "el banco", a bench in the heart of the hamlet where our neighbors gather in the early evening to talk. It was wonderful to see everyone again.

We've already slipped into the cyle of Spanish rural life. It's still dark at 7:00 a.m., although some of our neighbors already go by our window in their tractor, on their way to harvest the potatoes. September weather is hot, hot, hot. Lunch is around 1:30 -- 2:00 p.m. or even later, since shops close down at 1:30 and don't open again until 4:30 or even 5:00 in the evening. In our village, we usually gather at the bench around 7:30 p.m., and then everyone disperses around 8:45 for dinner. It's usually 11:00 or midnight by the time we get to sleep. It only took about two days to slip into this routine!

Already our wonderful neighbors have inundated us with food: Eva brought us eggs and tomatoes; Antonio and Maria Elena potatoes and more tomatoes; Milagros gave us a bag of peaches; and Miguel keeps us regularly supplied with his wonderful home-made wine.

Despite the heat of mid-day, mornings are misty once the soft indigo lightens and night fades. The air is filled with bird twitter, the baaing of lambs, and the barking of dogs. This is also cricket season--not the sport, but the insect. (If a cricket on the hearth is good luck then our luck is fabulous.) In the evening there is usually a soft breeze around dusk. And then the night goes suddenly black.

We faithfully walk a mile or more a day, but it's a different mile here: uphill and downhill on winding country roads that go through successive villages, where people wish us "buen dia" or "buenas tardes", and cows or sheep give us long, curious glances.

At the end of September the wine harvest is coming. Starting in spring, nearly every week-end one village or another is having a fiesta to celebrate it's patron saint. Time slips away. Local life catches us up in its repeating cycles of custom and season. And always there is the sense of nature's tranquility.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Our Way

Early tomorrow morning we will be on our way to Spain. Well, Philadelphia first, where we change flights, and then on to Madrid. Next, a short flight to Santiago de Compestela, and then a drive to the tiny hamlet of Trasulfe, one of the more beautiful spots on this planet. Trasulfe is in the region of Galicia, the northwest corner of Spain, a region with two coastlines, endless hills and dales, crosswinds and ghostly mist, and brilliant sunshine. It's been called "Green Spain" by some, and "Ireland with sunshine" by others. this is not the Spain of bullfights and Flamenco dancers. It has a Celtic history, as well as a Roman history. It's an area with a rich tradition of bagpipe music and pilgrimages to the cathedral in Santiago.

We had planned to be on our way to India tomorrow, to visit Rajan's family, and then go on to Spain. But Swine Flu has struck India. Since it's believed to be brought in mainly from people returning from the U.S., passengers from the U.S. are being scrutinized for symptoms, which could result in quarrantining. I'm really sorry for the postponement. I love India and our family there. Whenever we do visit, I can't get enough of India. Still, we hope to make our India trip at end of January and combine it with a reunion of Rajan's classmates from engineering college. (More about the reunion in a later blog, as time is short, and characteristically, I haven't finished packing yet.) For now, it's on to Spain, which I also love. We don't have family there, but we do have wonderful friends and neighbors.

A prime reason I haven't finished packing is due to my pledge to wind up some writing projects. I am happy to say that yesterday I sent out my chapter book to an agent, a picture book to a publishing company, and two poems, each to a different magazine. Apart from being on pins and needles to see what the responses will be, now I feel I can relax on vacation. I have to confess, though, I'm taking two stories to work on, as well as some notes on my historical novel that need organizing. But, even on vacation, writing a couple of hours a day is fun. And I'm eager to get to work on that book when return.

I'll also be making an author visit to my old school, Elder Creek Elementary when we get back. The librarian, Eva Chu, is setting things up so that I can discuss The Fourth Wish at an assembly and then sign books afterward. This is my first school visit as an author. It definitely should be interesting. I'm already getting excited.

Still, I'd better finish packing if we plan to be on our way tomorrow. "Adios" for now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Demented Azaleas

I'm back home now, in Sacramento, and the first thing I noticed in our yard (after admiring the full billowing bloom of our crape myrtles) is that two of our azalea bushes have gone demented and are flowering. We have several azalea bushes in front of the house and in back. Some were planted by the previous owners, and some by us. None of them bloom in late August. All of them bloom successively about two weeks apart (an accidental orchestration, as far as I know) in February and early March.

Before I left for my trip on the 12th, I had a hurried glimpse out of the corner of my eye in the way that you see something and immediately forget what you saw when you are preoccupied with packing, cleaning, and printing off boarding passes. (Is that a... flower on the end of that branch?) But by the time I returned, the neighboring bush had caught on and both are now in full flower.

What is going on? These bushes are too young to be having their midlife crisis. Besides, the older bushes are prudently holding themselves back like they always do, waiting to bloom in season. Maybe these two are simply rebel bushes, making their own statement.

I suppose I shouldn't complain. Who can really mind a splash or two of unexpected beauty?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Main Street in Northport

I've been busy writing and exploring. My niece's home and the Alabama Blues Project are actually in Northport, a tiny little town on the edge of Tuscaloosa. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. The historic "downtown" is about 4 blocks long, on Main Street, and is full of antique shops and art galleries. The Alabama Blues Project is a few streets away in an old restored farmhouse (top picture).

Most days we go into the office, and while Debbie and Rick take care of ABP business, I park at a table with my computer and do my own work. (I'm pleased to say I finished a rewrite of a picture book.)

We break for lunch and go to Mary's Cakes and Pastries (middle picture), a bakery that serves up great sandwiches, Fair Trade coffee, and cookies that melt in your mouth. (Cookies are my weakness.) Mary's Cakes and Pastries also puts out a fine cookbook that unravels the mystery of baking. And if you go to the site (http://www.maryscakesandpastries.com/) you can download the Mary's Cakes song and help the APB.

A couple of days I browsed the art galleries on Main Street. My favorite was The Renaissance Gallery (http://www.renaissanceartgallery.com/). I especially liked work by Craig Reynolds, Anne Stickney, and N. Rhodes Harper.

My other favorite place was the Kentuck Art Center (bottom picture shows the courtyard), offering metal work by Steve Davis (http://www.sunheartmetalworks.com/), and pottery by Kerry Kennedy (http://www.firehorsepottery.com/). A little couryard was filled with Steve's sculptures, and when I get home and download my pictures I'll put a few up in this blog. The Kentuck Art Center's main url is: http://www.kentuck.org/. There is also a lovely art gallery and an art museum.

This afternoon I'll be heading home, my camera loaded with pictures for Rajan, and my head full of fond memories.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Festival in the Middle of Somewhere

Yesterday I had my second opportunity to hear Debbie's band at a festival way out in the country. Debbie sang and Rick was on the keyboard, but this time they backed Ace Jones, the lead singer and guitarist. Dwane Pruitt played the drums. (Dwayne also played the drums Thursday at the farmer's market gig.)

The drive from Tuscaloosa was gorgeous. The scenery we passed was lush and green -- meadows and pastures with curious cows, stands of forest and woods. The sky was a deep, Prussian blue with piles of cumulus clouds billowing upwards from the horizon. The day was hot, though. The humidity here makes air so thick you could spread it on toast.

The festival took place 20 miles south of Greensboro in a vast grassy meadow with a canopied stage. An outdoor kitchen served some of the best catfish you'll ever eat, as well as fried chicken. Various beverages were available, but, in the heat, we were just grateful for bottles of cold water.

Four bands were scheduled to play. Starting at 4:30,Debbie's was first. They played for about an hour, going from song to song, each having their own moments with riffs and variations. The people who come to hear blues get right into it, making for one of the most attentive and appreciative audiences a musician can ask for.

We stayed for awhile to listen to the 2nd band, who sounded really great. But it was a long drive back to Tuscaloosa, so we finally had to leave. We didn't get home until a little after 8:00 p.m. After a late night supper, we went to bed, accompanied by a different kind of music from the cicada orchestra outside the door.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Serendipitous Discovery

Funny how things happen: Here I am in Alabama, enjoying all I'm learning about the Alabama Blues Project. Then I find that Kim Davis, the Programs & Office Assistant, just happens to teach Irish Dance. The juvenile I'm currently working on has a character who, in the 1870s, does an Irish jig and inspires a painting crucial to the story.

I have never seen an Irish Jig. Nor did I realize that a jig is a special style whose beat differentiates it from, say, a reel or hornpipe, rather than being a dance genre per se. Kim was able to point me to a video that shows step by step what an 8 hand jig would have looked and sounded like in the time of my story. She is also going to put me in contact with someone who can answer further research questions.

My story character eventually ends up in California, but for my research, I seem to be in "mother lode country" right here in Alabama.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Alabama Blues Project

I'm in Alabama now, in the office of the Alabama Blues Project, a wonderful non-profit organization co-founded by my niece, Debbie Bond, and expanded under her and Rick Asherson's co-directorship. The Alabama Blues Project (ABP) is dedicated to preserving and promoting the blues through educational programs, live performances, exhibits, etc. with a special emphasis on Alabama's contributions to the blues. Sponsors of the ABP include National Endowment for the Arts, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Alligator Records, and Bonnie Raitt, among others.

As a former teacher, concerned that young people get exposure to the arts, I'm especially impressed by the ABP's three-pronged educational outreach:

1.school residencies (including out of state residencies) that expose students to blues history as well as hands on musical instrucion with traditional blues instruments.

2.An after school blues camp one day a week for 10-12 weeks that includes musical instruction, life skills instruction, blues history, and culminates in an onstage performance with known blues artists such as Sam Lay, Homemade Jamz, and others.

3.A week-long intensive summer blues camp where students learn to play an instrument, receive vocal instruction by blues artists such as Carrolyn Shines (daughter of legendary Johnny Shines) and visual art instruction by world renowned folk artists Lonnie Holley and Miz Thang. This camp culminates in a "blues cafe" performance.

There is also an advanced band that has grown out of repeated attendance of these camps, and the advanced band plays gigs of its own at community events and festivals.

In addition to directing the ABP, Debbie has a popular blues band that plays around the state and out of state. She's a vocalist and guitarist. Rick Asherson, her husband, plays keyboard and harmonica. A sax player and various guitarists and drummers fill out the rest of the band. In the past Debbie has played back-up guitar and has sung with Willie King here and in Europe. In earlier days she played and sang with her mentor, Johnnie Shines,and went on a European tour with Little Whitt and Big Bo.

I had the pleasure of attending a gig yesterday at a farmer's market where her band plays regularly. It was an afternoon that I didn't want to end. (It was the first time I had seen one of their performances, and I was one proud auntie.) At one point, Rachel Edwards, a 20-year-old graduate of the APB program came up to sing with the band. She, too, was fabulous. This is a name to watch for in the future.

Meanwhile, to learn more about the ABP, go to: http://www.alabamablues.org/educationprograms.htm#residencies

You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Finished! This Draft, Anyway.

I finished it. It did grow one more chapter. But only one. It's done. Until a rewrite is suggested.... That's how it goes.

But, having finished this draft, I can go off tomorrow and enjoy a visit with my blues-singer niece and her husband in Alabama. My next blog will be from Alabama, where I will have a chance to see her perform. I also want to mention her wonderful Alabama Blues Project, but right now I have a million last minute things to do for the trip.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Little Story that Grew and Grew

I have not been blogging because I've been working on a story I started a few months ago before our trip interrupted it. It's been a surprising experience, this story, in that it has turned into a book instead.

Originally I got the idea as a story for a children, but right away it turned into a picture book. After feedback from my writing group, I addressed things that needed fixing, which made the story grow longer instead of shorter. I decided it must be a picture story book. Then more things needed fixing, which is so often the case in writing and re-writing. It's like jello: You push something in here, something bulges out over there. Again and again, it happens.

Of course, this made the story grow even longer. I think of it as the "little story that grew and grew". It is now a chapter book, 14 chapters long. Who knew?

I'm almost finished with this draft and have every confidence that it won't grow any longer, as the material doesn't really justify a juvenile novel. This is strictly for little kids who read short chapters and like fantasy. But it's been a lot of fun and a pleasant surprise. I'll be looking for chapter book markets next.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Last Look at Paris -- Palaces

We've been home for almost a week, but Paris still lingers in the mind; especially two palaces we visited: the Louvre and Fontainebleau Chateau. (Fontainebleau is on the left.)

I'd always thought of the Louvre as an art museum -- which it is, and has been, since 1793. But first, it was a palace. And if you look at the enormity of the complex of buildings from across the river, you can see it was a big one. The Louvre is so big, that you can't possibly explore it in one day. Even a week wouldn't be long enough. We went for as much art as we could absorb in one visit. The rooms of paintings and statues were endless. We contented ourselves with seeing lots of Corot's paintings (we've always admired him), some El Grecos and Goyas, Leonardo Da Vinci, of course. Which brings me to the Mona Lisa. It's truly a beautiful and mysterious painting. But some of his other portraits were beautiful and mysterious too. It's interesting how attention will focus on one example of a painter's remarkable art and overshadow all others.

When we got to the statues of antiquity, the marble figures were truly arresting. To think of something sculpted so long ago: figures from every walk of life in olden times, looking so lifelike despite their stone pallor. The Winged Victory, and the Venus de Milo each had their own pride of place, and well they should. Their very postures abound with "story". Who were the models? (Which brings up a bonus from this trip with practical value for me: I can use some of those statue pictures to practice figure drawing.)

The next day we went to Fontainebleau, taking the metro to Gare de Lyon, then the train to the village, about 35 miles from the heart of Paris. My goal for this trip was to see the Fontainebleau Forest, which figures in four of my stories. I wanted to see if I got the ambience and setting right. (I did.) We spent the whole day in Fontainebleau, and decided to take a tour of the castle at its center. First we ate lunch at a good Indian restaurant. Then we walked around the grounds, which went on and on: Gardens , courtyards, parks, small man-made lakes, and a canal, fringed by the forest (which originally was the royal hunting preserve).

Finally we entered the palace -- a palace that makes the Louvre seem small by comparison. Room after room, incredibly decorated, painted, gilded, added to and further embellished, as various kings had their day, including Napoleon when he was emperor. It's a giddy feeling, standing in the living quarters of those who have made history, trying to imagine their lives. Even for those who lived there, ruling or simply taking care of the rulers, I could imagine getting lost on a regular basis. Given the fact that Palace of Versailles is supposed to be bigger and more opulent, and that numerous other palaces abound throughout France, you can understand the French Revolution.

It was a beautiful tour, though, crammed with facts and anecdotes (we had those little wands). We were both glad we went. However, at closing time we almost got locked in because I was still in the chapel, listening to a chamber orchestra practice for some concert. Great accoustics, so you can imagine the size of the chapel.

The next time I read a historical novel based in France, I'll surely have a new appreciation for its setting.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music in the Metro and the Mystery of Rush Hours

I am used to seeing down and out people in Sacramento trying to panhandle a living on street corners, and Paris had its share of them. But there were also the street musicians who had found they could pick up coins by placing themselves in key locations in the Metro system. (Well, everywhere, really, as in the case of this couple near Montmarte).

One morning we were treated to the haunting violin theme of Albinoni's Adagio, played by a young woman on one of the platforms. Another day, while climbing stairs, we heard the beautiful strains of Bach's Fugue in D Minor echoing through the tunnels and stairwells, sounding like a marvellous pipe organ. To our surprise, when we came upon the young musician, he was playing it on his accordion.

One evening when we were too tired to walk home, we took the metro and two men got on, one with a clarinet, the other with a saxaphone. Suddenly they began playing a jazzy version of Blue Moon, followed by When the Saints Came Marching In, and finally the Hora. Then they walked the aisles, hats out, collected their coins, and got off at the next stop.

Not every musician was so accomplished, I have to say. One afternoon a man got on with his guitar and proceeded to sing-shout-yell in my ear as I hugged my pole, wishing he'd go away. (It was a very crowded train.)

Which brings me to the mystery of rush hours on the Metro: Depending on what time of morning we rode to a museum, the train was always nearly empty: 9:00 a.m., not crowded. 9:30 a.m., not crowded. 10:00, 11:00; not crowded. But, whenever we took an afteroon train home from our ventures, we found ourselves jammed in like sardines. 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., we had to struggle to get on and struggle to get off.

Where did everyone come from on these return trips? WERE they return trips? I'm still pondering this mystery.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Random Thoughts and Some Cautions

We're home again, but I'm still somewhat in Paris. After such immersion for a week, the city still echoes and echoes: Memories of paintings, sculptures, historic buildings, monuments to literary and political figures; outside tables at crowded cafes, book stalls bordering the quay, barges tied up along the banks of the Seine.... It's all there, swirling in my thoughts.

I forgot to mention that Thursday, our last gadabout day, we had a glass of wine at the Deux Magots. The cafe was one of Hemingway's haunts, at the edge of a triangle called Place Sartre-Beauvoir, and across from Le Flore, another literary/artistic hang-out. We stopped by to break the long and hot walk back from Musee d'Orsay through a street lined with art galleries. (Paris has entered its sizzling stage of summer, although the same night there was a loud, intense thunderstorm that rattled our windows before calming down.)

Despite my love of Paris, I think I should mention a few cautionary points for visitors to Paris.

1. You really DO have to beware of pickpockets. Everyone told us this, and we were very careful, but even then, someone managed to pickpocket Rajan near where we stopped for lunch. They probably thought they were getting his wallet, but it was his blackberry, and, thanks to the marvel of cyberspace, Rajan was able to email ATT an hour later and have the account suspended.

2. The museum pass, which sounds so good, is a little tricky. If you like to see a lot of places briefly, a two-day pass, or even a four-day pass is a good buy. If you're like us, and linger over paintings, statues, explanatory plaques, and like to take your time savoring the experience, you're better off buying separate tickets at each museum. Many things worth seeing are free, anyway. And two locations covered by our pass that we had planned to see (the Trocadero Aquarium and the Picasso Museum) were closed for renovation.

3. It's good to get batches of Metro tickets, which come in sets of ten. But for some reason, 6 of the first set we bought didn't work in the machines and had to be re-issued each time at the counter. This was perhaps the only place that I saw Parisians get frosty and unfriendly. Several other tourists were having the same problems with their tickets, and it did not bring out the best in the people behind the counter.

That said, however, generally we found most Parisians gracious and warm. And this was one of the best vacations of my life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Last Day in Paris, but Not the Last Word

Thursday Evening:

We return to Sacramento tomorrow, which means we will leave Paris on Friday, and after hours and hours of travel, will arrive home the same day, thanks to the wonder of time zones.

Today we returned to the Musee d'Orsay and hung out there for a good five and a half hours. We found a whole wing of pictures we had missed last Saturday. Today we took pictures of our favorites. We have a print at home of the one displayed here. It was exciting to see the original, needless to say, and revisiting the Musee was great way to finish a wonderful week.

I have yet to blog about our trip to the Louevre on Sunday or our trip to Fontainebleau on Monday. That will just have to wait until we get back, along with numerous observations about aspects of life in Paris.

Suffice it to say that we have had a wonderful time, and I would recommend renting an apartment over a hotel room any time. Our apartment was well-stocked, and the manager, Victoria, was always helpful. I'll post links, etc. on return home.

One other observation is that the book, French Women Don't Get Fat, is quite accurate. For real: French women are consistently thin! It's amazing. I suspect it has something to do with climbing stairs everywhere, but more thoughts on that on another day.

Till then, Au revoir, Paris and Hello, Cezar (our loveable mutt). Sacramento, here we come.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

From the Jardin des Plantes to Rodin's Sculpture Gardens

Yesterday morning we returned to the Jardin des Plantes so I could gather more details for a story that takes place in its zoo. It's been awhile since we've been to a zoo. We enjoyed wandering around looking at wallabees, black swans, orangatangs, eagle owls, yaks, and some giant African tortoises that looked at first like huge sculptures. The Rotunda especially interested me, since that is where the elephants in my story lived, back in 1870, before the Siege. The Rotunda is closed right now for rennovation, and there don't seem to be any elephants at the zoo at the moment. But Rajan took lots of pictures for me (I left my camera in the apartment). I have a pretty good idea what the zoo would have looked like to my characters.

Then we walked back to Rue Mouffetard to the little triangle where the musicians played the night before and had a light lunch, and stopped by the apartment to pick up my camera before heading out for the Rodin Museum.

The Rodin Museum is a wonder! It's housed in what used to be an old hotel where Rodin rented four rooms and lived for the last nine years of his life. (The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke,rented one room, which suggests something about the poet's relative livelihood.) Now the whole two-story building is a museum containing Rodin's innumerable and wonderful sculptures, as well as his art collections which, I was happy to see, included some of the Impressionists' works.

We must have spent about three and half hours walking through every room in the building and making the rounds of the garden areas. These are truly sculpture gardens: bronze figures everywhere, most of them portraying characters from Dante's Inferno. One piece was the famous "The Thinker", which is supposed to be Dante himself. We took picture after picture. Such amazing works of art: so lifelike in their postures; so emotional in their expressions. This is probably one of the best art experiences of my life.

After that, we walked home. A long walk, but enjoyable.We broke it at one point to have a glass of wine and talk about what we had seen. But, the day's art treats weren't over.

In the evening, one of my favorite operas, La Traviata was shown on TV. It was a filmed live performance, with Patrice Ciofi as Violetta and Vitorio Grigolo as Alfredo. I may have their names misspelled, because the credits were flashed on and off so quickly. Both had luscious voices and were good actors who made you enter the story and believe it. When it was time for curtain calls, the audience went wild with their applause. Once again, a French ending to a fabulous day: The opera was sung in Italian, but the subtitles were in French!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day

Time is flying, we've been on the go, and I haven't been able to post everyday. I'll start with yesterday, which was Bastille Day, and see how far I can work backwards.

We were curious to see how Bastille Day would be celebrated, but Paris is so full of tourists it was like other days, except for certain touches: Flags flying in greater number on every building (calling to mind a wonderful painting by Monet); men dressed like soldiers of yesteryear; planes flying in formation; a cavalcade of police cars with their sirens going. We go to bed at 10:30 p.m., when it is still quite light at this time of year, so if there were fireworks, we didn't see them. And we missed any parades, as we were busy sightseeing.

In the morning, we walked over to Rue Mouffetard to the open air market, which was a little smaller due to the holiday, but still lots of fruit and vegetable stalls were set up, as well as fish markets and coffee stalls.

Next,we went to Montmartre, a trip involving a couple of transfers on the Metro. We walked up the steps to ground level -- about six flights in a stairwell that has been beautifully painted with murals of the City. After wandering the streets around the base, we went on up to the top to see Sacre Coeur. This remarkable cathedral was built a few years after the Siege of Paris to memorialize the dead and to give thanks for Paris' survival of the war. Inside is a huge, wonderful mosaic of Christ, and many smaller mosaics in the side chapels. We didn't go up to the dome or down to the crypt, but were still able to catch a panoramic view of Paris.

After lunch, we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. Previously we had gone to the top -- another site for views of the city. This time, we enjoyed taking pictures of the remarkable sculptures on the arches and watching the crowds. Then we walked along the Champs Elysee until we came to the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. (There seem to be palaces everywhere in Paris!) These were built for Exhibition in 1900 and are really beautiful buildings, loaded with sculptures and domes and pillars. Then we crossed the Pont Alexandre III, (The Alexander III Bridge)to get to the Left Bank and come home. This bridge is another dazzler. Sculptures all over it, and flanking it, and the sculptures are gilded. (I'll try to post a picture of it when we get back to Sacramento.)

We were going to try to walk home, but after a few tired minutes, we decided to take the Metro and got on at the stop near the Assemblee Nationale (which was flying with flags). (A side note here: French flags fluttering in the breeze in clusters, each with three simple three stripes, red-white-and blue, are truly picturesque.)

When we got out at our stop, Jussieu, we topped off the day with an evening walk to Rue Mouffetard, to have a glass of wine at one of the many outdoor cafes. We were pleasantly surprised by a group of musicians on a small stage, playing and singing old time French songs, Maurice Chevalier-style. The crowd sang along, and some even got up and danced. One song was "La Vie en Rose", accompanied by accordion. Truly a French ending to a very French day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Magic of Art

Yesterday we went to the Musee d'Orsay. It was our first art museum visit so far. (The previous day we went to several cathedrals.) The Musee d'Orsay is full of every kind of art: sculptures, paintings, decorative arts, architecture, etc., but we were there for the paintings. (And, since the restaurant has these beautiful paintings for their decor, you can imagine what the actual art was like.)

At home, whenever I get calendars, I usually look for one with paintings, and usually by one of the Impressionists. We also have a couple of framed posters of paintings by Van Gough and Monet. But nothing beats the original. D'Orsay has quite a collection of Impressionists, and the first thing that struck me was the size of the works. How did they paint on such a scale? These are scenes so vibrant and real, you feel like you could just walk into them, whether interiors or landscapes.

There's also a subtle aura emanating from an original that gets lost in the print. Don't get me wrong: I love the posters and prints that we have. But seeing the actual texture of the painting, the brushstrokes on the canvas, and realizing how the painter worked on a piece for weeks and months to get it right, lends a dimension to one's appreciation. Something almost mystical is communicated.

Today we are going to the Louvre. We passed by it on the walk home from d'Orsay last evening, and the enormity of the building is staggering to behold. I know we'll never make it through everything today, but I'm looking forward to whatever we can manage to see.

Meanwhile, one day I'm hoping to have time to talk about the bookshops and bakeries and markets that abound on every street, crowded in among the cafes and restaurants. Until then, Art calls....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Paris, Paris

We're here!

We arrived yesterday and took a train from the airport, then connected to metro, and then it was only a short walk to the apartment we've rented on the Left Bank. It's a charming, small apartment, with arches and beams and throw rugs and alcoves -- and three flights up on a small, spiral staircase that will trim off any weight we gain on croissants and our favorite baguettes. We are in the center of a district that has wall-to-wall restaurants of every kind of food you can think of, as well as bakeries and produce markets.

Yesterday we shopped for the apartment. Tonight we'll cook. But last night we found a really good (and reasonably priced) vegetarian restaurant near Notre Dame. Le Grenier, ironically on the Rue de la Bucherie (Street of the Butcher).

Earlier in the day we went to the Jardin des Plantes, a place I want to return to. It's a place where the locals like to hang out with their families. So much to see: the zoo, the natural history museum, the hall of evolution. And so many garden areas, with some trees more than 150 years old. But my interest is in the history: Before the siege of Paris, two famous elephants, Castor and Pollux, were the big draw. And once upon a time, the famous Jumbo (of American legend)was housed here.

So far, the weather is perfect: a cool morning and evening; warm afternoon, but not hot.

Yesterday we mostly walked around. It's a walker's city: Streets at odd angles; beautiful old buildings with the wrought iron balconies and tile roofs; cafes, statues, fountains, and chapels everywhere; book stores and antique shops. And the lovely sound of French the way it should be spoken!

The pace of life is different here. On the streets, people walk quickly and in the shops their movements are quick and efficient, but everything also feels quite relaxed. It's a subtle thing, really, hard to explain, but you can feel it. Everyone we've met has also been helpful and friendly--and very patient with our poor French. Before we set off for dinner, we had a glass of wine at a small table in an open doorway and just watched life flowing and swirling by.

And then, jet lag struck, and after dinner, and the walk home, and three flights of stairs to mount, we slept like the dead.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Rajan and I are leaving for Paris Wednesday, and, needless to say, I'm quite excited. We had air credit with US Air (a story too long to go into here) and suddenly realized we needed to use it fast! Seventeen years ago we went to Paris for five days and never got over it -- the French window where one could step onto a balcony over a street that bustled all night long; the crusty baguettes with coffee and hot milk at breakfast; and all the art museums! It's a thrill to be going back -- this time for eight days.

There are additional bonuses this time: My nephew who lives in France, just outside of Geneva, is coming to join us for a day. Four of the stories in my children's collection take place in or near Paris, (most of the details coming from research), and now I can get first hand information at the Fontainebleau Forest, the Jardin des Plantes, the Trocadero Aquarium, etc. We also found that renting an apartment is more economical than a hotel room, so we can cook our own dinners. Being vegetarian (although we do eat seafood), that will make meals easier, but friends are also giving us names of vegetarian restaurants that seem to have sprung up in recent years.

We are also trying to brush up our French -- although on our earlier trip we found the French people so helpful and friendly, despite the fact that we mangled their beautiful language.

We both love art, and especially we love the Impressionists. It felt like a spiritual feast before to go through Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre; to see Montmarte; and all the sidewalk artists and little galleries along the Seine. I will never forget, too, how uplifting it felt just to stand inside Notre Dame Cathedral. I can't wait to see it all again.

We are taking a computer, but I don't know if I'll have time to blog. If not, I'll certainly take copious notes and then blog on return. And who knows? I may even get a new story there.

Stay tuned.... (I won't even attempt that line in French!)

Friday, June 19, 2009

It Worked!

It worked! Benign neglect, that is. This week, while gardening, I've been mulling over characters in the historical juvenile novel that has been on hold for about 2 and 1/2 years.

I wrote the first draft about 4 years ago. Then I realized that I needed to do a lot of research for the details before I could do the re-write. For about a year I was involved in what a writing teacher (Sands Hall) has called "research rapture". I couldn't get enough information! I spent hours at the public library scanning micro films, in love with old news. I couldn't get enough of historical novels of the time, and maps and nonfictional history. When I returned to the re-write, armed with buckets of trivia, the characters started shifting around.

And then, I got stuck. I got stuck mostly on how the characters were related to each other, and therefore, how they were relating to each other. But, stuck, is stuck, (and some of those writing exercises don't really unstick you). So, instead, I worked on collection of stories (that I recently finished), hoping vaguely the juvenile novel thing would work itself out. Since this is the summer I promised to return to it, it's been at the back of my mind, while I've been catching up on house and garden projects.

Yesterday I realized that everything had fallen into place, thanks to "benign neglect" and to one pivotal character. She's not the main character, but she matters greatly to a lot of the other relationships and events of the story and how they can unfold. Let's call her "Ellie". I was so surprised to learn that Ellie is Nora's older sister and not her cousin, and how much difference that will make.

After my elated "aha" moment, I had a guilty follow-up "aha": I'm glad I didn't work on this for 2 and 1/2 years, only to find out that Ellie was the older sister, which changes so much.

Think of all the rewrites! Good "writing practice", I suppose, but I'm not sure that I would have figured it out, just revising and revising. Even when you revise, it's tempting to "make things work". This was something that had to evolve in its own way at its own pace, away from my tampering. Like friends and family, fictional characters often need their own room to unfold, and it's best to leave them alone and let them work out their lives, while keeping them in your mind and heart.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Benign Neglect

I like to garden when I'm between writing projects. While I'm writing, my gardening mode can best be described as "benign neglect". This week-end, though, I finished weeding the long rectangle in back of the house that I call the flower garden. In the middle of that rectangle are the lime tree and the tangelo tree, and I surrounded them with bark to hold back future weeds. The garden itself is filled with geraniums, cone flowers, mums, gerbera daisies, and creeping thyme in the sunny spots, and ferns, sweet woodruff, Corsican mint, and a hydrangea in the shadier spots. Yesterday I added a larkspur to a sunny corner.

Then I made my way to the front lawn. One strip of it, near the brick planter, has never been more than a mudpatch with a few grass blades. I put a hydrangea at one end, near our front steps. Today I'll fill in the rest with stepping stones.

But the curb garden is the real tribute to "benign neglect". Last year the city cut down a diseased elm tree between our house and the apartment house next door. When it was time for a replacement, my husband and I requested the new tree be planted directly in front of our house. I filled in the old plot with hardy perennials: mallow, lantana, coreopsis, cone flowers, gazanias, Spanish lavender, geraniums (again), a purple flowering bush whose name eludes me, and seeds that produced blue mystery flowers. Then I more or less forgot about them, and they are flourishing.

If only writing benefitted so well from benign neglect. Or maybe it does. More than once, I've returned to a rewrite, or simply revisited a story idea I had filed away to consider later, only to find surprising things had happened behind my back. Muddy ideas now were focused; dull characters now had life; resolutions were in sight.

Hopefully, after this gardening spree, I'll find a few such surprises when I return to my next project. Until then, the stepping stones call.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Writing Groups

It's been awhile since I've blogged, because I've been doing what I was supposed to be doing: writing.

I was re-writing a story that the picture book group I belong to critiqued just before Christmas. Members of the group write for readers under nine: picture books, stories for children's magazines, and poems for children. (Some of us write for other ages as well, but that's another matter.)

Originally I had envisioned the story as a picture book. During the December critique, it became clear that there was no story arc and the character wasn't clearly developed. For awhile, I just left it on the back burner of my mind to simmer, and I went on with the collection I recently sent out. When I returned to re-write the story for a coming meeting, it had transformed: The main character was different. The story problem was different. The context of the original story remained, but with a new slant, due to the new character and plot.

This is the way writing happens, even when you work alone: You leave a story for awhile in order to resolve a problem; all kinds of things happen behind your back. A good writing group enhances this process, though, simply because of the old adage that "two heads are better than one". (Make that six heads.) They see what you fail to see. They catch what you fail to catch. Their questions clarify places where what was in your head never made it to the page.

I can't say enough for writing groups, particularly when the members write for the same age group as your target audience. There are probably still glitches in the story that will surface at our next meeting. But each re-write brings it closer and closer to the finish line.

And, oh, what a great feeling it is, when you finally finish a story!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Midtown Wildlife

We live in Midtown, which is like a small village that has been plunked down in the heart of the city. It's about a five-minute drive to the main library, the State Capitol building, the K Street Mall, the Community Center, and all the new restaurants and lofts going up in quite modern-looking buildings. But our neighborhood is a clutch of tree-lined streets, old bungalows and Victorians homes with long yards and curbside gardens. It's about a five-minute walk to small boutiques, galleries, and sidewalk cafes. And almost any back door in Midtown opens onto a world of urbanized nature.

Let's start with the birds. I've observed jays, robins, sparrows, and finches, along with the ubiquitous crows that fly in clouds away from their roosts along 21st street in the mornings and return, cawing raucously each evening, around five p.m. Our garden seems to be home to a family of doves that coo all day long. Then there are the hummingbirds who hover over the herbs and flowers I've planted. From someone's yard nearby, I often hear a woodpecker drumming. One day, while walking Cezar, I spied a gray falcon calmly sitting on a garden fountain about a block from home. Occasionally my husband and I hear its strange shriek high above our neighborhood and hope that all the other birds have found safe cover.

The wildlife in our neighborhood doesn't stop with birds. I've awakened to Cezar's growls at night and peered out our back window to see possoms poking and scratching through our lawn. One evening I saw two raccoons on the roof of our alley garage, investigating our grape vines. (Those vines have a way of reaching out long tendrils everywhere.) Another evening I saw a family of five racoons in front of the apartment building down the street. Two large ones, presumably the parents, were on the ground. Three smaller ones clung to the trunk of an immense palm tree. The parents immediately glided away into the darkness between building and side fence. One of the young ones peered back at me from its foothold, and for a transfixed moment we locked glances. Then Cezar growled. As calmly as you please, the young racoons manouvered down the tree and disappeared into the same darkness as their parents. I assume they all went in search of more cordial adventures along the back alley.

Birds, raccoons, possums... What else? Once, while driving in Fair Oaks a few years ago, I saw a coyote padding down a sidewalk like someone's friendly dog. So far I love the wildlife in my backyard. But, I'm glad the coyotes haven't made it to Midtown.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Art and a Place to Put It

I love to go to the Crocker Art Museum and have long wished we had a bigger museum in Sacramento. Some of my happiest memories have involved walking around for hours in museums like the De Young in San Francisco and the Metropolitan in New York, but I'll settle for an art museum of any size.

Happily, the Crocker has expansion plans that are moving along. My neighbor and I went to see the Maxfield Parrish exhibit last Friday, and we got a flyer showing what the finished museum will look like. It will nearly double the size of the present one. The woman at the front desk explained that currently the museum can only desplay about 1/3 of its collection at any one time. I am certainly looking forward to the day when they can display at least 2/3.

Still, "The Economy" has raised its ugly head: If funds run out, the endeavor will have to go on hold. This is a time for members to contribute and for nonmembers to join, enabling the musuem to continue its great work. In addition to displaying art through the ages and bringing wonderful exhibits to Sacramento from other museums, Crocker offers all kinds of family programs, including art classes for children and for adults. (I plan to sign up for a pastel workshop in July.)

The following is a site to visit for anyone desiring to know more: http://crockerartmuseum.org/%22%3Ehttp://crockerartmuseum.org

Meanwhile, the Parrish exhibit was delightful, as were the remarkable animal portraits by Mari Kloeppel and the remaining selections from the the Buddha exhibit featured earlier this year. And, of course, the museum store is like a candy store for art lovers. Needless to say, neither my neighbor nor I left empty-handed.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Time for a Plug or Two

If you like magic, and are looking for a good read for an 8-to-12-year-old reader, let me recommend my book, The Fourth Wish. It was vetted by three different classes in the target age group, and most recently I heard a friend's grandson is reading it to his own class at school! The Fourth Wish can be ordered at: https://222.createspace.com/3353849 or through Amazon at:

If you like poetry, let me recommend the lovely poems from Swimming the Mirror, written by Brad Buchanan, a young man who recently joined the picture book group I belong to. These are poems to his three-year-old daughter and are utterly charming. They've been highly praised by Sacramento Poet Laureate, Julia Connor, and by poet Susan Kelly-DeWitt, among others. Swimming the Mirror is available through Roan Press. Poets with a book of their own to submit would be well-advised to visit the submission guidelines at http://www.roanpress.com/ .

And if you like cooking, as I do, try George Erdosh's fabulous new book, part food advice, part cookbook, Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer's Kitchen, available at these websites: Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1606931989
Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/9781606931981 and
Eloquent Books: http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TriedAndTrueRecipes.html . At Georges blog site, http://www.howfoodswork.blogspot.com/ , you can also get a delicious new recipe, along with food tips, nearly every day.