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Archive for the category “Books”

When a Child Loses a Parent

A few days ago I opened a recent middle-grade release by Laura Geringer Bass, The Girl With More Than One Heart.  


I bought the book a month or so ago and had forgotten what it was about. (Mortifying to forget such things, as I now routinely do.) But I was ready to go: It had a catchy title and a lovely cover that reminded me of cutting hearts out of construction paper for Valentine’s Day, and all that aside, I was going to be in Ms. Geringer Bass upcoming middle grade workshop at Stonybrook Southampton’s annual writer’s conference. That book was my destiny.

I opened it up and read this: “The day my father’s heart stopped…” No! I thought. One morning Briana, the main character, finds her dad slumped over his exercise bike. She’s not sure at first why he looks funny and his eyes are closed. No! I thought. During the funeral, in Chapter 3, I had to put the book down.

I was just at such a funeral. That is, at the funeral of a man who died too soon, before his children were grown. The man was a close friend of my husband’s. He died suddenly—not of a heart attack, felled by lung cancer—leaving three sons. Jeff’s cancer was inoperable; his prognosis, grim. Still we all hoped for the impossible. And no one expected him to die when he did. One moment he was at home with his family; the next he was in the hospital with pneumonia. He needed a ventilator. Still we held onto hope, a fragment of it, until the very end.

I returned to Chapter 3 and learned that Briana intended to speak at the funeral. I marveled at her strength and courage, at twelve, thirteen (I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she’d just begun eighth grade). She changes her mind at the last minute. I couldn’t fault her for that. At Jeff’s funeral, his sons weren’t on the program but at the end it was announced that his eldest son would say a few words. The three of them got up and went to the podium together. Jeff Jr., age twenty, spoke movingly about his dad, tears courses down his face.  

One day you have a father; the next, you don’t. How to make sense of it, how to live past it? I’ve tried to imagine being a widow with children at home and I haven’t managed it. The anticipated pain is too great. Ms. Geringer Bass is braver, and thank goodness she is, because we need her. I don’t think I’ve seen a fiction that addresses the sudden death of a parent, at least not for middle-grade readers. Not to say parents aren’t frequently absent in MG fiction; orphans are common, or common enough, and main characters are as likely to be raised by a single parent or a grandmother as a traditional mom and dad. But a parent doesn’t often die right in front of the main character (and the reader).

MG fiction reflect social trends. Americans are having children later in life. Thirty years ago, Briana’s parents most likely would’ve married and had kids ten years younger. Had her father had that heart attack at the same age, Briana might’ve been in her twenties, living on her own. Briana would still be heartbroken, she’d be devastated, but she’d be able to manage the grief far better than a girl starting eighth grade. 

In the next year, we’ll begin to see stories of middle-schoolers coping with a parent’s suicide. It’s horrifying that we need such stories, but such are the times we live in.


Method and Manhattan Beach


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


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 

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: 



Writing, pigs, and the new year



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!

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.


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.

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 Ada Byron Lovelace


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.



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.

Getting Merry with Book Buying

img_3866I’m nowhere close to Scrooge territory, but I don’t have my usual holiday verve. I’ve been dutifully shopping and wrapping presents and planning the Christmas-day lunch, all the while fighting a current of despair. That’s what a future Trump presidency can do to a person, not to mention the all-too-present suffering in Syria, Iraq, and many other parts of the world. In the last few days, I’ve amped up my efforts to get into the spirit of the season. Wrote a few more checks to nonprofits doing good work. Bought myself my very own quart of eggnog. Turned on the carols (a bit late, indeed).

My mood shifted yesterday when I my son sauntered into the kitchen at dinnertime and announced he’d gotten me and my husband Dan a gift that he thought we were really going to like. It was something that was so popular it was out of stock, and he’d had to go back to the store a second time to get it. Well. I couldn’t for the life of me think what this perfect gift could be, and I can’t wait to find out. He was so pleased with himself, this 21-year-old who, like many young men, doesn’t like to shop—I was all of a sudden ready. Ready to shower love on my family and make merry!

I have a few gifts to be buy last minute—the books. I buy them last minute, because I know I can, and because it’s like choosing the candles for a cake; the hard part is done, and all that’s left is the finishing touch. This year, I have another reason to leave book buying until the end. My neighborhood bookstore, BookCourt, is closing on Dec. 31 after 35 years and it’s going to be painful to say goodbye.

This is what’s on my list:

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for my son, because everyone should read it. (I’m saving my copy for my husband, Dan.)

The late P.D. James’ The Mistletoe Murder, a collection of previously unpublished stories, for a friend who loves James.

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind, for my husband, because it sounds so damn cool.

And we’ll see what will be impulse buys.

Happy holidays, all!

Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

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