alexandra alger

ABC

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.

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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

 

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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.

On Ada Byron Lovelace

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I’ve been reading children’s picture-book biographies lately, and I’ve come across three on Ada Byron Lovelace, all published in the last two years.

Ada of the poetic name is considered the first computer programmer. A first in the tech field, who isn’t Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who’s in fact a woman? Who lived in the 1800s, more than 150 years before the first modern computer came into being? Of course there’s a book on her, or two or three! She has an interesting heritage, too. She was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and a wealthy English woman who was determined to instill in her daughter a love of math and science—not poetry. Once you know all this, you wonder why there aren’t half-a-dozen picture books about Ada Byron Lovelace. I wouldn’t be surprised if other books for kids were in the works, like a middle-grade biography. Why not one for the YA crowd?

Ada’s life was colorful, but it ended all too soon. The work for which she is recognized today was published in 1843, when she was 27, and she died of cancer at 36. You’d think there would be one clear path for a biographer—but no two people tell the same story the same way, as these picture books show.

Creston Books was the first out of the door with Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark in November 2015. Wallmark, a computer-science teacher (according to her book bio), focuses on Ada’s interest in and devotion to numbers from an early age. This Ada is lonely and often left alone to draw and dream up inventions. The first time we see Ada as a child she’s sitting outside in the grass with her cat and her books, imagining the flight of a wooden bird she’s designed.

Next thing we know, Ada is at her desk—she looks to be in her early teens—surrounded by sketches and diagrams for a set of wings she’s invented. April Chu’s illustrations are highly detailed, jewel-toned panoramas; I admire the wooden floors, the leather books, the lushness of Ada’s upper-class home. We see Ada outside in a storm, watching the effects of the wind on her sailboat: “A storm of numbers and calculations whirred in her mind and spilled onto her pages.” (It can’t be much of a storm—her notes are untouched by the wind and rain—but never mind.)

Ada ends up coming down with measles, a case so serious that she’s temporarily blinded and paralyzed. She doesn’t walk without the aid of crutches for three long years. During this period, Ada’s mother keeps her mind busy with math problems. Three years of doing little else but math: That in itself seems an astonishing feat. Her mother is not the only one nurturing her talent, though. She has tutors like mathematician and scientist Mary Fairfax Somerville, who was, Wallmark writes, “living proof that girls could do math and do it well.” This is the first and last mention of the limited prospects for girls with intellectual interests. Wallmark remains focused on Ada as a singular young woman, which she was.

At seventeen and old enough to go to parties, Ada meets Charles Babbage, a famous inventor and mathematician. “Babbage didn’t’t see her as simply a young girl. He treated her like a fellow mathematician and inventor she already was.” He is, it appears, her first friend ever. Sad, but not unexpected, is it?

Baggage shows her his latest invention, “a revolutionary mechanical calculator” he calls his Difference Engine. In Chu’s rendering, it’s a rectangular mass of brass cylinders and cogs and columns, just compact enough to sit on a tabletop. Ada gives the machine a multiplication problem to figure out—12 x 15, one she can do in her head—and it comes up with the correct answer, 180. There’s no way to really understand how the thing works, though possibly someone with more of a math brain than I have might grasp the gist (I’m thinking a parent, here). I wouldn’t look to Wiki for help, not unless this means something to you: “A difference engine is an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.”

As it turns out, Babbage is famous for another invention, the Analytical Engine. This, we learn, “would solve harder problems by working through them, step by step. It could even make decisions all by itself, a true thinking machine.” This machine, unlike the calculator, was still in the theoretical stage.

Here’s where Ada steps up to the plate. Ada takes home thirty of Babbage’s lab books and studies his diagrams and technical descriptions. She realizes the machine needs numbers to make it work—it’s not, we gather, a thinking machine, after all. She decides to come up with an algorithm, “a set of mathematical instructions.” for the A.E. And guess what—this became the world’s first computer program.

Ada grasps that the machine is more than a calculator; she foresees the computer age. “She imagined computers would someday design powerful flying machines and majestic sailing ships. They would draw pictures and compose music. And they would play games and help with schoolwork.”

Alas, Babbage never built the A.E., so Ada never got to see her program run. But, as we learn on the last page, the influence of her work lives on. We learn that a computer language would be named after her, and one of its uses would be to guide modern flying machines. “The girl who needed crutches ended up flying after all!”

Wallmark includes end notes that give more details on Ada’s algorithm and other writing she did on scientific subjects. A quibble: Readers have no idea until they reach the timeline behind the end notes that Ada died young, or indeed that she married—hence the name “Lovelace”—and had three children during the time she worked with Babbage.

The two other books—no doubt deliberately—take step back from numbers and diagrams to show Ada as both a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time; they also emphasize Ada’s imaginative talents as much as her mathematic skill.
Ada’s ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer, by author-illustrator Fiona Robinson (Abrams Books for Young Readers), published in August 2016, draws our eye with her exquisite illustrations, composed of delicate watercolor drawings that have been cut out, assembled and then photographed.

This Ada, who has creamy skin and two spots of pink on her cheeks, is a girl with spunk, a girl who studies dutifully (she’s locked in a closet if she doesn’t!) but finds her chief inspiration in the scientific and mechanical wonders of the Industrial Revolution. Ada’s mother takes Ada on factory tours, where she sees steam-powered machinery at work. This leads to her idea for a steam-powered flying horse. To her mother’s dismay—and the reader’s glee—Ada’s “…imagination could not be confined by math, because Ada was starting to find her own sort of poetic expression…through math!” I love that line, and the idea of there being poetry in math—for an elite few.

Robinson gives us fascinating details about Babbage’s Analytical Engine, placing it in the context of the Industrial Revolution. The A.E.’s design was based an existing machine, a mechanical loom named for its inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard. A chain of hole-punched paper cards told the machine how to weave silk into a complex pattern. Babbage believed a similar system could be used to calculate complex math problems. (Not until this part of the book does the reader understand that the book’s endpaper graphics are hole-punched cards laid end to end.) “Ada,” Robinson writes, “excitedly offered to figure out the algorithm, or instructions, that would be punched into the cards.”

If you’ve read Wallmark’s book, you’re wondering—what about the lab books, what about Ada figuring that Babbage had the wrong idea about his thinking machine? Wallmark gives full credit to Ada for figuring out that the A.E. needed programming, that it was never going to compute on its own. In Robinson’s telling, Ada volunteers to come up with an algorithm as if it were already clear one would be needed, as if Babbage just hadn’t gotten around to it. In either case, Ada takes the initiative to come up with a working algorithm, and later it’s clear that she alone saw the potential of Babbage’s machine. Still, the choice of language in each case creates a subtly different view of Ada’s role.Was Ada the go-getter who out-thought Babbage at every turn? Or was she a protégé who wound up outshining her mentor? Hallmark and Robinson consult many of the same sources; it’s not as if one had more info than the other. It’s possible the historical record is murky on this point, open to interpretation. I’d guess she was both—a go-getter who didn’t have the freedom and opportunity to go out and get; and a steadfast collaborator to a fellow inventor who was simply not as brilliant as she.

I give Robinson credit for attempting to illustrate the flow of the algorithm with a series of paper swirls in different colors, each representing a calculation. I love the illustrations, but did I understand the algorithm any better? Thank goodness I don’t have a girl at home. I’d end up providing her with an anecdote she’ll be throwing back at me for decades. “Mom, remember that picture book you couldn’t explain to me?” I also like that Robinson  tells us on the final pages that Ada dies at a young age. It seems important that we know this—because chances are, she would’ve gone on to even greater accomplishments if she hadn’t gotten cancer. Spookily, she died at the same age as her famous father. Too bad she didn’t have Babbage’s genes—he ended up living another 28 years.

 

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In her Ada Lovelace, Poet of science: The First Computer Programmer, which came out last November (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster), author Diane Stanley gives us a twenty-first-century girl can relate to. She’s less of a lonely brainiac than a girl who had really cool ideas and figures out how to act on them. Almost first thing, we hear how about the pair of wings that Ada makes herself because she “imagined it would be fun to fly.”

Jessie Hartland’s cheery illustrations show Ada with a smile like a capital C on its back and two spots of pink on her cheeks (oddly similar to Robinson’s pink cheeks). This Ada is an exuberant spirit. She gets a “first-class scientific education,” but there’s no talk of closets. We don’t hear about any of Ada’s struggles—the measles, the painful three-year recovery. We see the precocious girl in a factory, watching a Jacquard Loom at work and wondering if the punched-hole cards could be used for other purposes. Wowza. Did a teenage Ada really foresee the A.E., and ultimately, the computer? Since I have to assume that Stanley knows what she’s talking about, Ada must really have had have this revolutionary thought, in which case Wallmark and Robinson missed out on something quite amazing.

Stanley adds notes of humor when appropriate—as when Ada began going to parties in London, at age seventeen, and finds herself tongue-tied. “Everyone wanted to meet Ada because she was Lord Byron’s daughter. But she didn’t know what to say to them. She didn’t care about fashion, fox hunting, or court gossip.” Aha! I was wondering where these sorts of aristocrats were—the kind that everyone from Jane Austen to Nancy Mitford has satirized. And Ada’s mother, we learn, insists on Ada get married. “Ada didn’t need a profession. What she needed was a husband.” She may have been a genius, but in the nineteenth century, being brilliant didn’t exempt a girl from her traditional responsibilities.

Babbage comes across as both a man of his time and a visionary. While Robinson credits Babbage with inventing the first “computer design,” Stanley calls the A.E. “the first fully programmable all-purpose digital computer”. She also calls Babbage’s and Ada’s was “one of the most remarkable friendships in the history of science.”

Babbage, in this telling, isn’t a dreamer; he’s intent on getting his machine built. Babbage sees he can’t hope to build his machine without a lot of money—and to raise the money, he needs publicity. There’s an article about the A.E. in French—what if it were published in Britain? This is where Ada comes in. She goes about translating the article (on top of everything else, she was fluent in French!). Babbage asks her to add her own notes about what an “all-purpose computing machine” like the A.E. could do, and Babbage and Ada decide together what kind of algorithm could serve as a test of the machine’s capabilities. This is what Stanley focuses on—the algorithm as part of an effort to bring attention to the A.E. The article establishedAda’s work for the ages, though few people at the time knew about her contribution to history—she signed her “Notes by the Translator” with her initials. She believed her work wouldn’t get the attention it deserved if readers knew the writer was a woman.

If I had to choose just one of these Ada books to read to a child, I might start with Stanley’s and Hartland’s. Their Ada is just so engaging. But kids drawn to Ada Lovelace may want to read all three books. They’ll see how many ways there are to tell one story.

Dump Trump/Trump Dump

By now we’ve all seen countless photos of the women’s marches that happened in nearly 700 locations all over the U.S. and on every continent (including Antarctica!). It’s thrilling and inspiring that women and men of all ages and races and backgrounds came together to reject Trump and everything he stands for.

Did the combined voices of 2-5 million people (the numbers are all over the place) have any affect on Trump’s thinking about any of the issues the marchers articulated (the biggies being, from what I could tell, reproductive rights for women; civil rights for immigrants and the LGBT community; Black Lives Matter; and plain old, LOVE TRUMPS HATE)?

Not that anyone could tell, right? Today he went ahead and banned federal aid to foreign health providers that offer abortions or even simply abortion counseling.

Here are my favorite pics from the Washington, D.C., march.

img_3945Megan, from my Brooklyn-D.C. bus.

 

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A Dump Trump and…img_3975

A dump by the name of Trump! (This was between Independence Ave. and the Washington Monument.)

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A number of fantastic men carrying this sign: “Men of quality do not fear equality.” Also saw a couple of white boys with this message: “Next-gen white men don’t fear equality.”

 

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Among the signs discarded at the Federal Triangle Metro (across from the new Trump hotel!), one of my favorites of the day: “MIKE PENCE HAS NEVER SATISFIED A WOMAN IN HIS LIFE.’

 

img_3952I’m rethinking my aversion to pink! My pussy-hatted friends Gwenn, Susan, Roseanne and I.

Ready for the March

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I’m ready! Now to bed, with hopes I won’t sleep through my 4 am alarm. Bus leaving 5 am for Washington, D.C. and the Women’s March. It will probably be total bedlam, but it’ll be women as far as the eye can see–and a few men, maybe lots of men! It’ll be something extraordinary.

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