Novelist. Poet. Professor.

Novelist.  Poet.  Professor.
Novelist, poet, professor, and mother of dogs.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Two Treats

Two real treats came in the mail today.  The first is yet another memoir by Marlena De Blasi, this one set in Sicily.  Isn't that the most beautiful book cover you've ever seen?

The second is the most recent issue of American Arts Quarterly, a journal I always look forward to for its fresh take on representational art, both contemporary and historical.  This time around, though, I've been awaiting AAQ even more breathlessly, because a poem of mine is in it, along with poems by Joseph Bathanti, and Kim Bridgford.

Nico-approved reading
I'll post a link to my poem once it's up.  I wrote it shortly after my father's death, and it may be the truest thing I've ever put on paper.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dreaming of Tuscany

Chianti  rooftop
This summer I'm sticking close to home.  It's not entirely by choice: my study tour to Santiago, Chile fell through; I couldn't round up enough students.  But maybe it's for the best.  There's writing to be done, dogs to be cuddled, an old house to be, if not renovated, at least whatever's the opposite of completely neglected.

So instead of travelling, I'm torturing myself by reading Marlena De Blasi's A Thousand Days in Tuscany, the follow-up to her memoir A Thousand Days in Venice.  I generally have a love-hate relationship with travel memoirs; they almost always make we want to toss the book aside, tie on my traveling shoes and hit the road myself.  Why read about travel when you could be doing it?

San Gimignano in the distance
But De Blasi is a vibrant and likeable guide through Italy, so in love with food and her quirky Venetian husband Fernando that she makes me forget my own restlessness and envy.  Everything drops away, and for the moment I'm in Tuscany too.  

An agriturismo in the Chianti region
Here, for instance, is a passage that won me all the way over:

"I have never before gathered eggs from under a hen.  Fernando has never before seen a hen.  We bend low into the shed where perch a dozen or so fat lady birds.  There's no shrieking or fluttering at all.  I approach one and ask her if she has an egg or two.  Nothing.  I ask in Italian.  Still nothing.  I ask Fernando to pick her up but he's already outside the shed smoking and pacing, telling me he really doesn't like eggs at all and he especially doesn't like frittata.  Both bold-faced lies.  I start to move the hen and she plumps down from her perch quite voluntarily, uncovering the place where two lovely brown eggs sit.  I take them, one at a time, bend down and nestle them in my sack.  I want two more.  I peruse the room.  I choose the hen who sits next to the docile one.  I pick her up and she pecks me so hard on my wrist that I drop her.  I see there is nothing in her nest and apologize for my insensitivity, thinking her nastiness must have been cause by embarrassment.  I move on to another hen and this time find a single, paler brown-shelled beauty, still warm and stuck all over with bits of straw. I take it and leave with an unfamiliar thrill.  This is my first full day in Tuscany and I've robbed a henhouse before lunch."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Pittsburgh Oddysey

In case you're wondering why you haven't heard from me for a while, it's because I've been road tripping again, this time to Pittsburgh to meet up with friends and converge on Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Museum for two nights of Bruce Springsteen with Joe Grushecky and the Iron City House Rockers.

A review will follow.  For today, I thought I'd just celebrate Pittsburgh, a city that fascinates me more with each visit, for its hometown pride, and for the way it's risen out of its rust-belt roots:

Glimpsed downtown

US Steel Tower

Jerry's music, a mecca for vinyl mavens
And for Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall:

....a small and lovely venue that for two recent nights served as the capitol of Springsteen nation.

Kelly, Chris, and Dan (photo by Patty Colman)

Rhonda, Patty, Diane and me

Magnus and Zeke

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Late May Update

Mule on Syros, Greece
Last night I stayed up late to finish the second draft of my Greek novel. Of course reaching the finish line felt good, and I allowed myself at least five seconds of satisfaction before I began worrying about what comes next.  

One thing is fairly certain: there will most likely be a third draft, and a fourth, and probably a fifth, but those can only happen after I get some feedback on what I've already got on the page.  So for a little while, I'm adrift and unsure, floating between imaginary worlds.

Which means I've got time for something (almost) completely different: writing poetry.

In other news, it's not too late to sign up for a Young Adult fiction workshop with me at the Nightsun Writers Conference this July in Frostburg, Maryland.  

Something else it's not too late to do: enter to win a $15 gift certificate from Amazon, in celebration of my new novel, Love, Lucy, now available for pre-order.

Central Market, Florence, where LOVE, LUCY takes place

Also I've been setting up a whole bunch of readings and book signings lately, with more to come. Please be sure to visit my Upcoming Events page, and if you're in the neighborhood, maybe even drop by an event and say hi.

I say hi to some cows on Syros

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Literary Bohemian Takes Flight

Approaching Naxos Town
The latest issue of The Literary Bohemian is on line now.  It's one of my favorite journals, so I'm tickled that this issue includes a poem of mine, about the Greek island of Naxos.

If you're intrigued by travel-inspired writing, grab your carry-on bag, kick off your shoes, go through security, and get on board.

Harbor with the Temple of Apollo in the background

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Old and New Friends: Indies First Story Time Day 2014

The youngest of my two sons is just about to graduate from high school, so it's been a long time since my picture-book reading days.  Thanks to Indies First Story Time Day, I spent yesterday at Bethany Beach Books in Delawre revisiting two old friends: Frances the badger and Harry the dirty dog.

When I'd finished reading these two beloved books to some kids who'd never met them before, I took a little pilgrimage to see another old friend: the ocean.

Along the way, I made a new friend or two:

It looks like I'll be visiting Bethany Beach Books again on August 1 at 6 p.m. to sign copies of Catherine and Jane.  I hope to see some of you there!  And thanks to Amanda at Bethany Beach Books for being such a gracious host.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Something in the Night: Springsteen Nation Converges on Albany

Last Tuesday night, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played an amazing show in Albany, New York.  My friend Diane and I made the long drive to meet up with a group of our fellow hard-core Springsteen enthusiasts.

Springsteen Nation
As I mentioned here, a big part of the concertgoing experience is the cameraderie of it all.  You get to know a person really well when you road trip with them, or crash on their couch...or when you undergo the pit lottery with them.  The lottery determines which holders of General Admission tickets get to spend the concert in the small area right in front of the stage.  

The pit lottery is a grueling experience. You get your wristband early in the day.  Then you kill a few hours and come back, packing into a sardine-like line, and wait for a number to be pulled out of a hat. 

Your fate rests on that number.  And after it's pulled, you stay in line, because if you leave, you lose your place.

Why go through all that?  Because there's nothing quite like standing in the pit, where you can interact with Bruce and the band, and see every nuance of what's happening onstage.  

And even if you don't get into the pit (my friends and I didn't this time around), you get to bond with some pretty great people along the way.

Jay, Lisa, me, John (in back), and Jim
For better or worse, the concert going experience is more intense from the floor, where you jostle for space, and share Bruce lore with friends and strangers while you wait for the house lights to come down.

And when the show starts, things get even more intense. Tuesday night's show was, by sheer luck, the perfect bookend to the Charlotte show Diane and I saw back in April.  Both shows were far from standard, with all sorts of rarities and requests mixed in among the more expected songs.  

Bruce typically writes up a setlist and then calls audibles, departing from the plan. Though you don't see it on the above pre-written list, he made a snap decision to play 
"Something in the Night," one of the songs I've heard him perform live a number of times, but one that never fails to break my a good way:

And then there was this song request--from a daughter who wanted to give her mom the ultimate mother's day gift: a dance with Bruce.  I can't watch this video or even talk about it without getting weepy, maybe because the interactions between Bruce and the mom are so sweet, or maybe because, as a mother, I'm deeply impressed by the daughter who put this much thought and effort into her request.

Anyway, my dear friend and traveling companion Diane Wilkes has written a much more in-depth rumination on the Albany show than anything I can manage here.  She graciously gave me permission to link to it, so you can read all about her recent conversion to Bruddhism...a more zen approach to fanatical Bruce fandom.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lucy Speaks: Book Blast and Giveaway

photo by Melody Lindner

I'm thrilled to report that the Love, Lucy book blast is underway, courtesy of my friends at Rock Star Book Tours.

The book blast commemorates the fact that Love, Lucy is available for pre-order at Amazon.  It's an MC post, which in the Young Adult book blog world means that it's written by the main character--Lucy herself, describing the ten things she loves most about backpacking in Italy.  

Check it out at one of the wonderful book blogs that are taking part.  Here are just a handful for starters:

And this is just the beginning!

When you're done reading Lucy's post, please enter to win a $15 Amazon bookcard.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"I Was Her Moon": A Poem for Mother's Day by Rhina Espaillat

On this gloriously beautiful Mother's Day, I present to you one of the poems I love best.  Though this mournful poem by Rhina Espaillat is about her mother's Alzheimer's disease, at its heart it's also about so much more: the ways in which our mothers teach us language and, in doing so, shape the way we see the world--the ways in which even an adult child is still his or her mother's moon. 

Visiting Day

She still remembers me, she strokes my face.
She made me in her body's deepest place

and fed me from herself.  I was her moon.
I comb her hair and feed her with a spoon

and dress her in clean clothes.  She understands;
she pats her empty purse with eager hands

and walks about the grounds with me.  She knows
but cannot always say this is a rose.

The words she taught me are the shapes I see:
because she spoke the sun, it came to be;

she called me out of nothing and I came.
Will I still be when she forgets my name?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Driving at Night, In Fog: A Little News about LOVE, LUCY

Santa Maria Novella Train Station, Florence, Italy

Yesterday I learned that Love, Lucy, my third and newest novel, is now up for pre-order at Amazon.  

This is a thrilling milestone for me, especially since the process of writing Love, Lucy was long and fraught with doubt.  Thinking back on it now, I'm reminded of that famous quote from E. L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Except if you're like me, you spend huge portions of the trip pretty sure you've taken the wrong exit and are maybe even headed off a cliff.

I kept going because I fell in love with my main characters, Lucy and Jesse, and I couldn't imagine abandoning them. And because I loved writing about Italy, and about backpacking across Europe.    

Rome Termini Station
And because I knew there was a destination worth getting to, even if I had to take some bumpy backroads to get there. 

Stay tuned: the wonderful people at Rockstar Book Tours will be hosting a book blast early next week: Lucy herself will be guest blogging on the top ten things she loves about Italy.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Every Hard Bulb Stirs": A Poem by Eliza Griswold

Today I share a poem by Eliza Griswold, one that knocked my socks off not long ago when I stumbled across it in Poetry.  And I don't love it just because it's set in Rome.

Inside the Colosseum

Griswold is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary poets.  This poem's killer last line is beautifully set up by all that comes before it, the juxtaposition of the hopeful, the prosaic, the unthinkable:


A spring day oozes through Trastevere.
A nun in turquoise sneakers contemplates the stairs.
Ragazzi everywhere, the pus in their pimples
pushing up like paperwhites in the midday sun.

Every hard bulb stirs.

The fossilized egg in my chest
cracks open against my will.

I was so proud not to feel my heart.
Waking means being angry

The dead man on the Congo road
was missing an ear,
which had either been eaten
or someone was wearing it
around his neck.

The dead man looked like this.  No, that.

Here's a flock of tourists
in matching canvas hats.
This year will take from me
the hardened person
who I longed to be.
I am healing by mistake.
Rome is also built on ruins.

A closer look

In addition to being a poet, Griswold is a Guggenheim-fellowship-winning journalist.  Her reportage and poetry come together in her new book, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan.  It features her translations of folk couplets composed and passed on by mostly-illiterate Pashtun women.  Griswold was moved to collect and translate these poems by the story of a teenage girl who was forbidden to write poetry, and who set herself on fire in protest.  

*The gorgeous photo of Trastevere at the top of this page was lifted from this website.  I don't know who took it, but I'd give the photographer credit if I could.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

On Maps and Detours: Outlining the YA Novel

Final exams have begun on Hawk Hill.  As I type this, my Young Adult Fiction Writing students are bent over their blue books, outlining the rest of the YA novels they've begun writing this semester.  I hope to send them off into the world with the seeds of something they can keep working on in the future--something that will become a whole novel someday or, at the very least, that novel-in-a-drawer so many writers hang onto--the one they cut their teeth on, the apprentice work that enables them to go on to write another, better novel.

In this class we wrote up a storm but we also read four knockout examples of what YA can be and do--John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, David Levithan's Every Day, and Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life.  The students also chose, read and presented on YA novels that spoke to the work they were doing, either thematically or stylistically.  That way, in the limited time we had, we could at least gesture toward the wide range of books being written for a young adult audience--and for the not-quite-so-young-adults who read YA.

Over these last fifteen weeks I've gotten invested in the stories my students are telling.  This final exam plot-outlining exercise is satisfying for me too, because it gives me a glimpse into the places their novels-in-progress might go, or at least what might have been if our class could keep going.  Of course for most the very act of writing will cause the plot outline to mutate.  Characters will insist on doing and saying unexpected things, overriding some of what the writer intends.  But it's still good to have a map, even if you wind up taking unexpected detours along the way.

On a related note: if you're working on a YA novel of your own, or if you want to get started on one, please follow this link to the homepage of the Nightsun Writers Conference where I'll be leading a workshop on the Young Adult novel in July.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Both: Aimee Mann and Ted Leo at Team Up Union Transfer

Aimee Mann and Ted Leo clearly enjoy each other's company.  Onstage, she ribs him about his nerdy proclivities for  memorizing Hobbit trivia and Paul Stanley stage banter, and he teases her right back.

It's not hard to see why these two musicians recently joined forces to write and record as The Both. At Saturday Night's show at Union Transfer, it was also clear how two fairly different sensibilities can add up to something electrifying.

I've long admired Mann's solo work, and, before that, her work with uber-Eighties band 'Til Tuesday, but I wasn't prepared for how well her acerbic folkie sensibility would meld with Leo's punk/indie rocker style.

Ted Leo on guitar
His voice is resounding and earthy where hers is ethereal and poetic.  And his guitar solos lent welcome heat to each song.  

Aimee Mann on bass

Saturday night's show included every song on The Both.  It also featured solo material from both and a Thin Lizzie cover tossed in for good measure. 

To this exile from the Eighties, the night's highlight was its penultimate number, a killer version of the 'Til Tuesday hit, "Voices Carry."

Matt Mayhall on drums

A bonus: Union Transfer is one of our favorite Philly venues, and an after-hours food truck called Mobile Awesome glowed enticingly at the curb as concertgoers wandered off into the night.  I'm not much of a hot dog fan (that would be an understatement), but Mobile Awesome's oak-smoked kimchi dog was a revelation--as tasty and searing as a Ted Leo guitar solo.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dreaming of Greece: Hermopoulis

Greek worry beads
Hermopoulis is the main port city on Syros, a sleepy island in the Cyclades.  Today, when I should have been grading, I confess I took a detour and tinkered a bit with my Greek novel, sprucing it up.  And I spent some time dreaming over these photographs of Syros, taken by my friend, colleague and travelling companion, Shawn Madison Krahmer Heal.

A street in Hermapoulis

In gorgeous technicolor

Approaching Syros

Free the Mice!

  Thanks to Bearings Online , for publishing my poem about trying--and sometimes failing--to be kind to the mammals who only want to sha...