alexandra alger

ABC

9/11/17

IMG_0947The sky today is much like it was sixteen years ago—clear and blue. The air, too, is like it was then: mild, dry—about perfect. If only we could go back to those flawless moments before the planes hit.  Go back, hold onto them and by force of sheer longing change the course of history.

 

The Bullies of the Baltic

Going through my notes, I realized I had no photographic evidence of a vital component of Finnish life: the sauna– sow-na, as the Finns pronounce it. According to our guide,  it’s the only  Finnish word that’s made its way into the English language. (It may be the only word we could pronounce!)  The sauna is “one of life’s necessities, intrinsic to, and invisible from, elemental notions of Finnishness,” writes Michael Booth in his humorous book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.  As you might suspect, an American cruise itinerary doesn’t include a trip to the sauna.

Anyway, onward to Stockholm. Sweden, I learned,  Was an aggressor in centuries past, controlling Estonia and Lithuania for for long periods and warring with Denmark every chance it got (and vice versa).

IMG_0140IMG_0448IMG_0028

Unexpectedly worthwhile: Waldemarsudde, home and gardens of Prince Eugen (1865-1947). Flowers from the garden in every room, as if he were still living there. Portrait above of his mother, Queen Sofia; the prince designed the vases. Fun fact: the Swedes ran out of suitable rulers and brought in a Frenchman to be king in 1818.  His descendant, Carl XVI Gustaf, is the king today.

I know absolutely nothing about boats or maritime history and was baffled to hear we we’d be spending precious hours in Stockholm at a museum dedicated to some warship. Well, it was a pretty fascinating story, And the ship itself an extraordinary 400-year-old artifact, not to mention a symbol of royal hubris run amok. The Vasa, built in 1628 to show off the might of King Gustavus Adolphus, sank on its maiden voyage without  even leaving the harbor. The fatal flaw: the ship was top heavy. The king had insisted on a third gun deck, over the objections of the ship’s builders. What the king wanted, the king got. Fifty people died in the sinking–a third of the number on board. The bronze cannons were salvaged by divers later in the 1600s–that in itself an extraordinary feat. The ship itself–largely intact–was recovered in 1961.

Two more ship details!

 

I think one can ascend the tower of the Stockholm City Hall for an outstanding view, but we went to gaze at the vast rooms where the Nobel Prize winners are fêted. To the left, the hall where the Nobel banquet is held, serving something like 1,000 people (the Swedes watch it on TV,  like a kind of Oscars night).  The Nobel ball (who knew there was dancing involved?) is held in a room covered in gold mosaic (right)  dating from 1921-23.

The City Hall gift shop has a number of bizarre offering. I was tempted to buy the Nobel cookbook as a novelty (the food couldn’t be any good, could it?) but settled for a birch-wood butter knife (it may be a long wait before anyone asks where I got that oh-so-attractive butter knife).

If It’ s Tuesday, We’re in Tallinn

 

Actually, we were there on a Saturday, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. Plus you know how it is when you’re doing one of those city-a-day trips. I’m on the tail-end of a cruise through the Baltic region with stops in Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm, Visby, Riga, Latvia and ending in Copenhagen. It’s been glorious, but here I am, sorting through my pics (uniformly mediocre… oh, well), and the trick is how to remember heart is didn’t about each city. They all have charming medieval old towns, complex intertwined histories, and, I couldn’t help noticing, pretty nice linens and knitted goods.

A stab at capturing each city in a few photos each.

IMG_0001

Helsinki’s Senate Square. That’s good ole Mom, looking quite youthful for someone nearing eighty (I have no fear about giving away her age; the chances she reads this are roughly and precisely zero). I didn’t count how many steps there were, but I’m glad I huffed my way up them. Mainly I saw rooftops but the sense of being high above the city was oddly exhilarating. The cathedral is beautiful in an austere, Lutheran way– but guess what, I can’t remember any of its history.

IMG_0395

Helsinki home furnishing store. The Finns put the fork and knife together on the right. And they eat this round bread that in centuries past was strung up on a rope in the home. They get really hard after a while. They look hard–inedible, really, but not to the Finns. Our guide Claimed he missed this bread when he spent time in the U.S.

IMG_0005

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The medieval core is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can see why.

IMG_0396

Charm abounds in the old town, where shops play up the medieval theme.

IMG_0420.JPG

IMG_0397

In front of St. Nicholas, a Russian church. Our guide claimed these grannies in peasant garb were paid to dress up and beg. Well, thats what someone told me. There were similar grannies inside, praying and crossing themselves, clearly not actors. Interesting historical note: When the Soviets bombed the city In 1944, they saw fit to spare their church. Estonians have had a rough time getting rid of the Russians, to put it mildly. In 1918, they finally declared independence after three centuries, only to fall under the yoke again in 1940 for another 51 years. Nonetheless they call 1918 the year of independence.

Think I’ll break this up into two posts. Stay tuned!

Thoughts on Tennis, Post-Wimbledon

Watching Roger Federer defeat Marin Cilic to clinch a record eighth Wimbledon title at nearly 36 years old, something that nobody would’ve or could’ve predicted a year go, including the great Fed himself, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky we tennis fans are, to be able to witness this extraordinary period in men’s tennis, which is stretching on, with no end in sight. On the women’s side, though, I can’t figure out what’s going on.

Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, posting after the Wimbledon women’s singles final:

“….women’s tennis is in a weird—yet oddly intoxicating—place. The sport’s alpha female (Serena Williams) is profoundly pregnant, hasn’t played since winning the Australian Open and almost certainly won’t play again this year. The player who started the year at No. 1 (Angie Kerber) has been a non-entity. The new No. 1 (Karolina Pliskova) just lost with a whimper in the second round here. One multi-time major champ (Maria Sharapova) has been idled by a doping suspension and then injury. Another (Petra Kvitova) is coming back from a stabbing suffered in a home invasion. And who has risen highest? A bold 20-year-old, Jelena Ostapenko, who was outside the top 40 memorial and is now inside the top ten. Venus Williams, who has been to two of the three major finals. And Garbine Muguruza, now a multi-Slam winner.”

I’m not sure I agree this is an “intoxicating” time. When the top women don’t live up to expectations in a Grand Slam, it’s hard to get excited about them. Simona Halep—what happened? She should’ve won the French; it didn’t happen. Wimbledon? Nope. I’m sure Serena will be back, after giving birth, as dominant as ever, and she’ll be a wonder to behold. But who will be up there with her, challenging her to play her best? Probably not Venus, who lost to Muguruza in a dispiriting way (bageled in the second set!). Muguruza, maybe, who beat her in the French Open last year, in a mesmerizing match. And Ostapenko—she is as powerful and aggressive as they come, but green still. Lucky us, we won’t have long to wait. The U.S. Open is just around the corner.

Second-hand Books

Honestly, I have no business buying books. I’m in the middle of two recently published novels (Susan Rieger’s The Heirs and Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage) while taking a break from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. This is a new low: three unfinished books on the nightstand! But release me into a second-hand bookstore, and I’m going to come away with something.

IMG_0016

How this for a highbrow/lowbrow pairing? The Poe volume was a beautiful hardback I couldn’t resist (five bucks). Then my eyes fell on a group of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. A Reacher story is a summer treat, like chips and guacamole. I can gulp whole paragraphs at a time with minimal chewing. (Note: I see the point in chewing tortilla chips, but you get what I mean.)

Poe, now—no gulping here. I flipped to his famous 1845 short story, “The Purloined Letter” (when was the last time you heard someone use the word “purloined”?). Early on, the prefect of the Paris police is explaining his case involving the titular letter, and this is what he says to explain how he knows the letter remains in the possession of the thief: “It is clearly inferred from the nature of the document, and of the non-appearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber’s possession—that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.” More careful, deliberate nibbling called for her. For now, I’m going to resist the siren calling of Reacher and the subtler pleasures of Poe until I finished these other extremely worthy works.

What do Bagels and Beyoncé Have in Common?

Firecrackers are popping outside my window. July 4, 2017 is drawing to a close.
I’m going to crib from onetime colleague and FB pal Joe Colacioppo, who posted his list of who and what make the U.S. of A. the U.S. of A. Here’s a list of my own—partial, on the fly, heavy on writers (and in a few instances inspired by Joe):

Joey Chestnut, the Coney Island Cyclone, Alexander Hamilton, New York bagels, Muhammad Ali,  E.B. White, Serena Williams, the Kentucky Derby, Toni Morrison, Diane Arbus, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson Pollock, Gerry Trudeau, David Foster Wallace, Barack and Michelle Obama, James Taylor, Nora Ephron, Jon Stewart, Long Island beaches, Georgia peaches, Quentin Tarantino, Truman Capote, FDR, Edith Wharton, Laird Hamilton, Ella Fitzgerald, Beyoncé, Joan Didion, Justices Ruth Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy, corn on the cob, the U.S. Constitution (flawed though it might be), the First Amendment and all those who have and are and will defend it.

Fictional Naming, Take 2

Going back to my last post on names. To clarify: From the reader’s point of view—or at least this reader’s point of view—names may or may not matter. But to writers—”there’s a magic to names, after all,” Neil Gaiman wrote in “All Books Have Genders” in his collection of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats.

I’m chewing on names for a 12-year-old character’s identical twin sister. I’ve started with the parents, of course. I feel for them. Young and poor, they’re expecting two babies instead of one (in a not exactly planned pregnancy). What are those names going to be? It’s hard enough agreeing on one name, for most people, or at least some people, or at least Dan and me. We liked exactly one name for our son—Davison, a family name on my side. Dan nixed my ideas—Lucas and Russell—and I loathed his top choice, Ayrton, after the race-car driver. (Ayrton—for crying out loud!) We would’ve been in a pretty pickle if we’d had twins (completely within the realm of possibility given I’m a twin, his sisters are fraternal twins, and one of them went on to give birth to a set of identical twins).

This is what I’ve come up with for my young, poor fictional parents. The mother comes up with one, somewhat fanciful, somewhat old-fashioned name; and the father, a name that belonged to his grandmother. And miraculously (I’m a kind creator) they are delighted with each other’s choice.

Oh, and very key to the baby naming: my young mother doesn’t have to defend her choice to her own mother, who died in a car accident several years earlier. (Yes, I killed her off. But she might pop up as a ghost toward the end.) Even if she’d been alive, she would’ve have been as mean as some mothers are about their offsprings’ ideas on baby names. My mother, for instance, had this to say about my sister’s choice of name for her son: “Elijah? You mean, like Elijah Blue, Cher’s son?” It may not be clear to an outsider why this comment could have such an effect—suffice to say my sister ended up naming her child Griffin.

Gaiman wrote whimsically about trying out names for a character in his American Gods. “I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstilskin.” What did he settle on? Shadow, from an Elvis Castello song. (Jack, he’d come back to—for The Graveyard Book, possibly my favorite Gaiman work.)

Two rules on naming I take to heart.

  1. Avoid names belonging to the protagonists of famous authors—or better yet, famous protagonists of famous authors. Why court unfavorable comparisons?

2. Check the name online. If there’s anyone even remotely famous–has a Wiki bio, for     instance–move on.  I thought of this today, reading the New Yorker. I came upon the name of a corporate executive named Duke Stump. What a name. Almost as resonant as Trump.

Trump….don’t get me started.

 

 

Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

My daughter Vanessa, doing research on Edith Wharton, discovered that the writer had written most of The House of Mirth before deciding to change the name of her main character. She would not be Juliet Hurst but Lily Bart.

All right—Juliet doesn’t quite have the elegance or delicacy of Lily, and Wharton makes plain her character’s flower-like beauty and fragility. And yet I’m not sure I would’ve found fault with Juliet, had Wharton stuck with it. I might’ve liked the reminder of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

How important is a name in a novel? (Shakespeare comes to mind again–nope, go away.)  One the one hand, you could argue that a character’s name is just one attribute, like shyness or having toothpick arms. Once we love (or loathe) a character we love (or shiver at) the name, and we can’t imagine that character having any other.

Take Harry Potter. It’s simple, unremarkable. For me, it conjures up a weather-beaten Englishman tending his primroses. It’s Harry the character who’s remarkable, who’s memorable. I’d want to read about his wizarding adventures no matter what his name. J.K. Rowling could have named Harry Ron and vice versa, and I’d be just as happy. Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone–how’s that? Ron’s as easy to say as Harry; Weasley is quirkier than Potter, funnier There’s something about the word “weasel,” with the long “e” followed by the “sel” that ends up as”zel” when you say it aloud–it tickles my funny bone.

At the same time, all right–Potter might be the better name for Rowling’s hero. Harry, despite his talents, is without pretension and down to earth (I thought of a potter as someone potting plants, who literally has his hands in soil). Weasley might better suit the hero’s wisecracking sidekick. Rowling is awfully good at coming up interesting names that reinforce our understanding of her characters, without being obvious about it. (Usually. Notable exception: Malfoy, which roughly means “bad faith” in French. British readers are more likely to recognize this than we Americans are.)

The right name is important. All I’m saying is, the character is even more so.

On Agents…again

 

shutterstock_484643959

Mary Kole, freelance book editor and author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, blogged recently about an issue I’d not thought much about—should writers submit to literary agents who have previously rejected their work?

Whaaat? It never occurred to me I couldn’t submit a new manuscript to agents I’ve already queried. These are my chosen people—agents who’ve I’ve come to respect from afar because of whom they rep and how they articulate their role as advocates for their writers. So they dinged me—big deal. Wouldn’t they give you points for stick-to-itness? Isn’t that what writers are always told to do—Stick with it? Don’t give up?

Only to a point, it seems. Mary’s advice: If you’ve submitted a few times without receiving a hint of interest, don’t expect much, or anything. “The agent might, realistically, wonder why you keep submitting to them if they haven’t given you any positive signals in the past,” she writes. As for resubmitting an overhaul: Again, keep expectations low, unless an agent has shown interest in seeing a revision or sent an encouraging rejection. Best to seek out agents new to you and your work.

I’m having a flashback to one agent’s stinging comment about my first middle-grade novel: “I can’t sell this.” Why he couldn’t have simply said, “This is not for me,” I don’t know, but I won’t be sending my second MG to that particular agent. To others I’ll be able to say in all sincerity: “You rejected my last novel, and I’ve come to see why that manuscript didn’t work. I’ve learned from those mistakes.” (Something along those lines, anyway—I’ll try to work in a bit of light-hearted, self-deprecating humor.)

Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the Guide to Literary Agents 2106,  is somewhat more sanguine than Mary. He puts the odds of an agent reading the query of a rejected-and-revised manuscript at 50-50. “Some agents seem to be more than open to reviewing a query letter if it’s undergone serious editing. Other agents, meanwhile, believe that a no is a no—period.” He concludes, “In other words, you really don’t know, so you might as well just query away and hope for the best.”

That’s what I like to hear: Go for it! It’s just so very hard for a writer to accept that any given agent is never, ever, going to love any work of theirs. Still, after, say, three rejections from one agent—surely that’s a sign that even the most relentlessly persistent and optimistic writer has to recognize.

Here’s another agent question, which Mary was kind enough to address for me: What to make of agents who don’t respond when their websites say they respond to every query, and how to proceed? Mary points out that there are all kinds of reasons agents might not live up to their stated promise. They’re swamped; they’re on the fence; they’ve changed their policy without updating the website. She advised me to nudge an agent who hasn’t been in touch (some agents specifically say to do this after a certain amount of time has passed), but if there is still no word after another eight weeks, to “chalk it up to a ‘no’ and move on.”

None of us wants someone who doesn’t want us. No, we don’t. Remember that.

You can find Mary at marykole.com and kidlit.com and Chuck at chucksambuchino.com.

A Saturday Moment

I was in the fish store today picking up some smoked salmon, not at all aware that I was in any kind of mood at all–good or bad–when a man came in with a thick paperback, textbook size, under one arm. I was momentarily charmed by the idea of this guy doing his chores holding a book that big, and nothing else. Was he a teacher? Mystery solved when I went to pay and there he was, reading out loud from what  turned out to be a Spanish cookbook. He was buying the ingredients for a seafood paella. “Let’s see,” he was saying. “Two pounds of shrimp, and….”

I walked out, grinning. Suddenly I was happy. Something about that man, bringing  his cook book to the fish store, filled me with joy. I walked toward the vegetable store, wondering who’d I see there.

Post Navigation