alexandra alger

ABC

Feeling the power on Mother’s Day

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May is finally here, and right along with it, Mother’s Day. I don’t want to care about it. It seems silly to care when my children are grown. Some people–many people–feel that Mother’s Day celebrates mothers of every age, but I can’t help feeling Mother’s Day properly belongs to those with young children, who need that one day to sleep in and receive, queen-like, extra hugs and hand-made cards from the grateful offspring, and with any luck, a short break from parental responsibilities. Of course this is only possible for those with partners who will uphold the unspoken rules of Mother’s Day, which fall under one general theme: One shall please Her.

My own mother, who is nearly 80, has become stunning indifferent to the rituals of the holiday. This year, when I asked if she wanted to go out for a MD lunch, she said, “When is it?” (MD, that is.) At her age, after something like 55 Mother’s Days, it might get old.

I’ve lived through half as many, and it’s not old for me yet. Nope. Not when on Mother’s Day, I get to call the shots and no one complains, argues or disagrees. It’s fantastic. Every other day of the year, I have to negotiate, wheedle and compromise. On MD, everything I say goes. Everything! Yes, we’re going to that museum. Yes, we’re going to the Italian place that only I love. The dishes? I’m not cleaning them. And I don’t feel guilty about it.

How can I surrender all this?

A better question might be, why don’t I have it more than one day a year? Why couldn’t there be days like MD—on a regular basis? Now that the kids are grown and my husband, Dan, and I have much more time to ourselves, we could take turns allowing each other free rein to make decisions on how we spend free time.

Would he go for that? It’s funny, I have no idea if he feels about Father’s Day the way I do about Mother’s Day. I like to think he finds FD pretty special, given that yours truly makes sure the day stays on track (reminding the offspring to buy FD cards, remembering to ask, “What do you want to do on Father’ Day?” well in advance of the need to plan meals, etc.). But how could he not be pumped if I said, “How about one Saturday we do everything you want to do, and on another Saturday we do everything I want to do?”

This could lead to some far more interesting Saturdays than cleaning out the attic or catching up on paperwork. Though it may mean I have to accompany him to the racetrack. He’s developed an interest in racing cars.  I’d be bored within minutes, probably. But I  should watch him, one of these days. I should share with him this new passion. That’s fair and right. What would I make him do that he might not do on his own?  He’s not good at sitting still, so possibly, spending an afternoon reading. Ha! I smile comes to my face, thinking of Dan resignedly picking up his book and settling down for a quiet afternoon. Not to suggest he doesn’t like to read–he does. But he doesn’t often give himself time to sink into a book. Of course, we wouldn’t have to spend every minute together during these “yours” and “my” Saturdays. I could give him a dispensation to do something else–go biking. Great! Since I’m still in control on “my” Saturday, I would take pleasure in giving him leave to do what he wants to do–while I’m doing what I want to do. I can’t wait to broach this idea with him!

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a MD dinner, prepared by Dan and the two kids. I’m doing the planning and probably the shopping, though come to think of it, couldn’t they do that, too? I may not be able to resist helping make dinner—it’s so hard to let go!—but I will not clean up. I will luxuriate in standing by and watching…or no, no—going upstairs and not watching.

Method and Manhattan Beach

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Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of a listening to the magnificent Jennifer Egan talk about her writing process, and the depth of research she did for her new (published in late 2017) novel, Manhattan Beach.

I wasn’t alone! No, no…I was one of about fifteen rapt women, members of the longstanding Cobble Hill Book Club (as we call it), in the warm and lovely sitting room on Baltic Street in Brooklyn. Egan—whom I’m just going to start referring to her as Jenny—had come at the behest of one of our group, Dr. Edna Pytlak, who happens to be the pediatrician to Jenny’s children—and to many in the ‘hood, including mine. (Not to get sidetracked, but Edna is a throwback to an era when doctors were more personable. She’s renowned for inviting panic-stricken parents to visit her home office on weekends. And she sometimes does drop-bys, if you live close enough. I happen to live a few blocks away from her, and I’ll never forget how grateful I was when she came by one Christmas morning—in a cheery red track suit, about to go on a run, since her own kids were teenagers and sleeping in—to take a look at my feverish then-toddler.)

Back to Jenny Egan. I’m not going to into immense detail, because it’s her story to tell, but what I am going to relate is something she’s already talked about in interviews (of course, I’m hoping it’s new to those who might read this!). She begins every novel by writing a first draft, by hand, in one fell swoop. Writing, writing, writing—about six pages a day—until the first draft is done. And only then does she begin to consider what’s she’s got and what she’s going to do with it. With a roll of the eyes, she pronounced her first draft of Manhattan Beach “terrible.” (No big surprise there, I guess—most writers would say the same—but in Jenny’s case, I wonder. I bet her first drafts are better than most.) I’m envious of writers who have the discipline to do this. I don’ have it—at least, not yet. I tend to reread, then tell myself, “No, no!” and go back and start rewriting. Too early!

What Jenny then does is go through the draft and make a highly detailed outline—sixty pages, single-spaced, that kind of detail. And from that comes the final manuscript, after much writing and editing—which oddly, we didn’t question her about as much…though we did hear that she keeps every draft of a chapter, and each one goes through many dozens of changes.

Another thing that struck me—her best ideas, she said, come when she’s not trying to think of them; they come in the writing. If she’s trying to plot—what comes is too predictable.

Joan Didion said something similar once—or maybe more than once, but I know of it  from the documentary her nephew made about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which I watched on Netflix a month or so ago. In an interview after the publication of Didion’s novel The Book of Common Prayer, Tom Brokaw asked Didion about her method. Didion paused. Then she said: “It unfolds as you write it. That’s something I never believed before I wrote a book, but it does.”

When Didion gets stuck, she puts the manuscript in a bag and puts it in the freezer.

Now there’s something I could try!

Back to Jenny—Manhattan Beach, which takes place in 1940s Brooklyn, is enthralling. Read it, if you haven’t!

Fairy Tales, Part II

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In search of the more obscure fairy tales—in other words, the stranger, more disturbing ones—I checked out of the library The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, with black-and-white drawings by Maurice Sendak (1973). Segal and Sendak chose twenty-seven tales, and most of them were new to me.  

And fantastically strange many of them are. In “Hans My Hedgehog,” a boy is born with the head and torso of the prickly woodlands creature. Sendak makes him menacing rather than adorable in the way of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Wiggle, but he’s also kind of…dashing. Rejected by his parents, Hans goes off to the forest, where he raises pigs, plays the bagpipes and rides a cockerel that’s been shod like a horse. Hans bullies a king into handing over his daughter as a bride, and when she shrinks from him he scratches her with his spines until she’s bloody.  Then she’s sent back to her father,”disgraced her life long.” Hans gets a second chance at a princess, and when she accept him for who he is, she’s rewarded big time: Hans zips out of his hedgehog skin, as if it were a costume. I was quite enjoying this story until the ending jolted me: Now a full-bodied man, Hans is “coal-black” and has to be scrubbed until he is “white,” at which point he’s deemed a “beautiful young man.”  I wondered why Segal didn’t edit this; she made changes to other tales, according to the New York Public Library notes. She could’ve simply excised the reference to coal-black. No one can be surprised that a nineteenth-century German storyteller believes white is beautiful; it’s the comparison to coal-black that rankles.

Then there’s “Many Fur,” an incest story with elements of Repunzel and Cinderella. A dying queen makes her husband promise to marry a woman as beautiful as she and with the same golden hair. (The Germans and their obsession with golden hair!) The king looks around, and there isn’t anyone who is equal to the queen—except, why, his own daughter! The king’s counsellors try to dissuade him (I was relieved to read), and the princess herself is horrified, but the king is firm. The princess has no choice but to run away to the forest. There are no dwarves to rescue her, alas. The king’s men find her, disguised in a fur coat made from the hide of every animal in the kingdom (hence the title). She ends up working in the royal kitchen, carrying wood and sweeping ashes. And this is where the story changes course. The princess is never again identified as the king’s daughter, nor he as the king who wants to do this wicked deed of marrying his own daughter. One day, there’s a ball, and the princess cleans herself up, dons one of her old dresses, and heads to the ball. Mysteriously, no one recognizes her, including the king, though he does note a strong resemblance to his “dear bride.” And mysteriously, she doesn’t identify herself. She hustles back to the kitchen and her role as an abused servant. Eventually, the king discovers who she is—his dear bride!—and they live happily ever after.

As you can tell from my retelling, the story drives me crazy. It’s completely unsatisfying, how the incest is sneakily circumvented. It turns out Sendak found the story utterly delightful, with “such lovely incest disguised & such sweet nonsense,” (See the notes that are in the collection of the New York Public Library, easily found at nypl.org.) 

I wonder what he made of “The Jupiter Tree.” I’ve never liked stew, and now suspect that my aversion is tied to some long-repressed reading of this tale. A stepmother chops a boy’s head off, then chops up his body and makes a stew with it, and serves it to the boy’s unsuspecting father (who compliments her on how good it is). Oh, and the boy’s sister is made to believe she’s responsible for his death. It’s all so awful, you keep reading, wondering, what next? How will there be a happily ever after? Incredibly, there is—the stepmother dies, and the boy is even brought back to life. Is this really a children’s story? Or am I simply too old and too soft to handle it? The writer Amanda Katz, in a piece for NPR a few years ago, recalls loving “The Juniper Tree” as a child. As an adult she finds it “horrific.”

There was a tale I particularly liked—”The Master Thief.” It celebrates cleverness  without a drop of blood. And for a change, our man doesn’t end up with a princess. This thief (who is never given a name) could be Jack the giant-killer, grown up. Even though stealing is wrong, you can’t help liking his derring-do and imagination. Also, he specializes in the kind of theft that almost sounds heroic: He only steals from the rich, and he only steals that which is challenging to procure. The local authority figure, the count, gives the MT a challenge: If he pulls off three seemingly impossible thefts, he’s free to leave with his life; if not, he’ll hang—in the count’s colorful terms, “tie the marriage knot with the rope maker’s daughter.” If I’ve piqued your interest, look for it online—or click here: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter193.html. 

 

 

My Life: A Fairy Tale?

 

The psychologist Eric Berne, a best-selling author in the 1960s and 1970s, once hypothesized that a child’s favorite fairy tale influences that child’s life choices. I read this in Alison Lurie’s 1989 book of essays, Don’t Tell the Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature.  Consider his examples, as quoted by Lurie: 

“The boy who once admired Jack the Giant Killer has grown up to work for Ralph Nader; the girl who loved the tale The Frog Prince is married now to an ugly but very successful man, while the one who preferred Little Red Riding Hood still keeps getting deceived and seduced, often with rather nasty consequences for her seducer.”

The child who likes Little Red—in for a lifetime of disappointing and abusive relationships? A boy (or a girl) who admires Jack’s nervy escapades—inevitably a do-gooder? As for the Frog Prince, Berne has the story wrong: The princess doesn’t fall in love with a frog. The frog is a prince under a spell, and when the spell is broken (mysteriously), the princess marries the prince. (Come on Berne, you’ve got to up your game.)

An extreme and fantastically reductive theory, I decided. One story couldn’t dictate the path of a complex human being. 

Then with a sense of unease I remembered Cinderella. Tales about a poor girl who winds up marrying a prince exist in centuries-old folklore of many countries around the world. In the U.S., there can’t be many young girls who haven’t heard of Cinderella, her glass slipper and her romance with Prince Charming. The notion that a romance, and a wedding, can be fairy-tale perfect, has become a cliché.  Prince Charming is a noun (in dictionaries!) that refers to an ideal mate or lover.

A woman has to fight against it—at the very least confront it: Does she or doesn’t she want the fairy-tale wedding? Does she or doesn’t she want the bell-shaped poof that we all think of as the “princess” dress? I remember rejecting the princess dress, though I can’t claim to have been much of a rebel; I ended up with a to-the-toes look, despite having hopes for short and snappy. 

Disney has everything to do with why Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are the classic trio of tales that girls learn about by time they’re three or four (today Disney’s own Frozen may have dislodged them—or joined them). I myself spent countless hours listening to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty record while tracing images of Disney’s Aurora from the album cover. (Yes, this was a very long time ago.)

Could my countless hours with the fair Aurora have had an effect on how I’ve lived my life? I never went blond, even though I coveted her cartoon-lush waves of yellow hair. I didn’t stand by, a victim to events beyond my control, nor did I need rescuing from events beyond my control. I didn’t have a godmother (though I envied my friends who had godparents—all those extra presents for birthdays and Christmas).

 No, Dr. Berne, your theory doesn’t work for me. But I’m grateful to you, Alison Lurie and the Stonybrook Children’s Lit Fellows program (which assigned the reading) for turning my thoughts to fairy tales for the first time in years. 

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A sleeping beauty whose parents would be very glad if she slept the whole night through.

Writing, pigs, and the new year

 

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Here we are, on the cusp of a new year. 2018. Most years, by late December, I’m wondering where the year went.This time, I’m happy enough to leave behind the gut-churning I awoke to nearly every day of our president’s first year in office. Year Two probably won’t be any different, but I’m not ready to recognize that just yet. I have champagne to drink and new year’s resolutions to joke about. I’ll begin the real work of worrying about 2018 tomorrow. (Procrastination was always one of my fortes.)

The year had bright points, it wasn’t all doom and gloom! Among my writing circle, 2017 was a banner year. Jodi Kendall’s first middle-grade novel,The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City (HarperCollins), was published this fall, with a sequel to follow in October. It’s a wonderful read, even if you don’t love the idea of a pet pig, but especially if you do—and really, who doesn’t? Ghenet Myrthil signed with an agent after at least four fought to rep a MG manuscript that I know is going to sell at record speed. Gina Carey is deep into revisions on a fantasy novel that is going to land her an agent and a book deal this year. You heard it hear first! As for me, I’m pursuing a certificate in children’s book writing at Stony Brook Southampton. Over the course of a year, I’ll work with two mentors on a WIP—the MG novel that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to wrap up.

Chin, chin, all!

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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