alexandra alger

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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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Afro American woman with sign at protest

Credit: iStock/Shakzu
I’ve managed to avoid thinking about Inauguration Day and what it will unleash by consuming myself with preparations for the Women’s March in D.C. the following day.

I’ve paid $71 for a seat on a bus going from Brooklyn to Washington early on the 21st and coming back that night. I’ve never done anything like this before—joined forces with tens, likely hundreds, of thousands of American women, who are going to stand together and be seen. That’s because I’ve never before felt this scared about what lies ahead for this country and all of us. (I’ve been reading about how I’m supposed to feel ashamed and even guilty about being a white woman at this event. Really? Since I’m at the age at which I forget things, I’ll make sure to forget that.)

The reality of being outside in the cold all day—however buffeted by countless other bodies—has me fussing like a granny used to Boca Raton.

Things I’ve done to prepare:

—Bought prepaid Metro card

—Ordered cell phone battery pack.

Left to do:

—Figure out what to wear. Good news: according to weather.com, it may be warm-ish—40-plus degrees. Bad news: 60% chance or rain. The size of the bag we’re allowed to bring is so small, I won’t have room for an umbrella. I’ll just have to hold it, I guess. Or wear my yellow rain jacket with hood over my winter coat. if it fits. Going to a march without a backpack is kind of a pain, I’m starting to realize.

—Make sign

I’ve been trying to find info on whether there are restrictions on size of signs and whether wood supports are allowed (apparently forbidden in New York City, because they can be used as weapons) and only today found a list of restrictions on the Women’s March website. No wooden sticks. Fine with me. I’d already figured I’m simply hold my sign…or possibly add a loop at the top so I can string it around my neck when my arms get tired. Which they will, all too quickly.

I’ve been noodling around wording. I want something strong and pithy. Too bad pithy has never been my forte. My friend Laurel pointed me to a website selling posters with some pretty good slogans, my favorite being “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.” I don’t want to focus on just one issue, though; even one as important as reproductive rights. This what I’m thinking:

RIGHTS AND JUSTICE FOR ALL—NOT JUST PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE THIS—with a photo of Trump. Neither pithy nor clever, but it’s sincere–and if I can blow up a pic of the Donald wearing his usual smirk, his skin pasty, his sausagey lips bunched up, the kind of image that reminds us why we’re going to all this trouble–I’ll be happy.

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.”)

The Risk of Over-Polishing

In researching agents online, I came across a comment by Aussie writer AJ Blythe that I saved because it was so smart. Responding to a post on BookEnds Literary’s blog about best times of the year to query, she wrote: “I think the best answer is to submit when your ms is ready. It will get read, whether that week or in 3 months, but it’s better to send when you are ready to send because otherwise you risk over-polishing, or not letting it go (and therefore not working on something new), or losing your nerve.”

She crystalizes my struggles with querying. I’s funny what happens once you set out to present yourself and your work to an agent. The hard work is supposed to be done—the writing, rewriting, polishing, and at last finishing a manuscript. It’s ready! But is it? The minute I start the process of querying, I begin to have doubts. All of a sudden the beginning is ALL WRONG. How could I have been satisfied with it, all this time? I change it. Is it any better? I can’t tell. I change it back. Over-polishing. AJ distinguishes between over-polishing and not letting go, but for me over-polishing is the essence of not letting go—and also losing my nerve, losing confidence in myself, in the work. After a few emails go out, I settle down. I begin to love my manuscript again. I’ll have to see whether AJ has anything wise to say about handling agent rejections.

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