Monday, June 27, 2005

96 Hours

I have had a really lovely last 96 hours, from Friday, when I went to the free Cassandra Wilson concert at SummerStage in Central Park, to now, when I'm home from Chicago and typing up this report in my apartment. Odd as it sounds, I love waiting in line in Central Park, at least in summer: I always take my grass mat, pillows, manuscripts, and a small picnic, so I'm never without comfort and entertainment, and I treasure the beauty of the park, and the shimmering anticipation of the event, and the wonderful ephemeral communities formed in line with my fellow fascinating New Yorkers, so the waiting never seems as long as it actually is. The concert started at 7; I arrived at 3:30 and was third in line; and when they let us in at 6, I secured seats in the center of the fourth row for me and Ben (who kindly brought falafel for dinner). It was 75 degrees, a light wind sparkling the leaves of the sycamores around the playfield, an orange-tinged moon rising overhead -- a perfect night.

If you too saw the end of "Before Sunset" and mourned that you would never have the chance to hear Nina Simone live, go see Cassandra Wilson. She sang "Lay Lady Lay," and "Time after Time," and "Brown Sugar," and every bit of her performance was funny and sexy and full of life -- she absolutely undulated across the stage as she sang, and delivered the songs with that extraordinary mahogany-timbred voice and exquisite sense of timing. Her backing band was equally fantastic, and as Ben observed later, she worked so intimately with each one in turn that it was as if they were making musical love onstage. It was the best two musical hours of my year so far, and I repeat, if she comes to your town -- go.

The next morning I flew to Chicago, where we were staying at the W. If the Holiday Inn is meant for Midwesterners seeking the wood paneling of home, and the Ritz for Park Avenue matrons with a taste for gilt and mirrors, then the W is meant for people who love west elm and really, really nice bedsheets. It was far too cool for me, but I liked pretending. I got to spend time with Lisa and present her with the first bound copy of her novel Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, and she gave a terrific reading at our literary brunch and had the longest signing lines afterward. I talked to a few librarians about my beloved Legend of the Wandering King (which got a starred review in Kirkus last week, hurrah!) and Absolutely Positively Not (by fellow former Northfield, Minn., resident David LaRochelle -- though he went to the other school). We had a Harry Potter prepublication party that included cake and (butter)beer. I met John Green, author of Looking for Alaska, on whom I have a total literary crush, and who is just as cute in real life as in his book-jacket photo -- but I immediately did the oh-my-lord-it's-a-hot-guy-I'm-going-to-blush-and-stammer thing, and anyway he also is far too cool for me (and engaged as well). The Newbery/Caldecott dinner was enjoyable, if long, and we got to ride in Ford Excursion limousines going there and back. And in general it was a just a fun weekend of hanging out with lots of great children's book people. Yay Lisa! Yay Scholastic!

(P.S. And to complete my felicity, two great movies from my youth were on cable: "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Annie." So here is the wisdom for the day: Party on, dudes. The sun will come out tomorrow. )

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Cause for Celebration

Posting quickly here to brag that I ran the 3.5 miles of the Chase Corporate Challenge tonight in a Cheryl-record 34 minutes and 48 seconds. The Scholastic team had great It's Happy Bunny t-shirts that said on back, "I may be slow, but I'm in front of you," which inspired us all to run fast and mock the people behind us. Yay me! Yay Scholastic!

Also a fun link from Katy: I don't know about you, but I, personally, would rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

And lastly I saw a preview for the new "Pride and Prejudice" movie starring Keira Knightley before "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" last night. It looks dark, brooding, and romantic rather than crisply sunny, funny, and sensible -- Jane Austen in Bronte clothing, basically -- but it comes out the weekend of my birthday, so do I care? No. I am going to go out for a fabulous dinner with my friends, drink lots of wine, and go see this movie.

Happy Summer!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"all that," by Charles Bukowski

the only things I remember about
New York City
in the summer
are the fire escapes
and how the people go
out on the fire escapes
in the evening
when the sun is setting
on the other side
of the buildings
and some stretch out
and sleep there
while others sit quietly
where it's cool.

and on many
of the window sills
sit pots of geraniums or
planters filled with red
and the half-dressed people
rest there
on the fire escapes
and there are
red geraniums

this is really
something to see rather
than to talk about.

it's like a great colorful
and surprising painting
not hanging anywhere

Monday, June 20, 2005

Yes I said Yes I will Yes

Happy belated Bloomsday!

A request for help: In October I am giving a workshop for the Rocky Mountain Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators called "The Rules of Engagement." My focus is on writing great beginnings -- the qualities of voice, character, plotting, and pacing that get readers hooked on a story -- and I'm trying to collect a wide range of good, published examples so I can point to them and say "See? Do this!" It's more than just having a great first line. . . . My working thesis is that there are voice beginnings, where the voice is so enrapturing you're hooked (cf. If on a Winter's Night A Traveler; Pride and Prejudice); mystery beginnings, where the promise of a story to be told draws you on (cf. The Golden Compass, The Hero and the Crown); and character beginnings, where the character is someone you want to follow for purposes of either entertainment or edification (Emma; Middlemarch; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, where it's great fun being snobby toward the Dursleys). But these all cross over each other, I know, and the thesis will doubtless evolve as time goes on. In any case, if you have a suggestion of a great beginning or three to share, I would love to hear it.

Why spend $11.00 and two hours of your life on a movie when you can watch a 30-second synopsis re-enacted by bunnies?

Vocabulary lessons of the day: for love; for everyday (or at least Scrabble).

If you have Quicktime, you can see a fun video of Arthur (my boss) and Barbara (the president of Scholastic Books) talking about the new Harry Potter here. I appear at the end looking very smug. ("What? Cheryl smug about Harry Potter?" I hear you all say. "Impossible!") You can also watch Charlie Brown dancing to "Hey Ya."

I saw Batman Begins and Howl's Moving Castle this weekend -- both visions of great beauty, though one of them wore a Batsuit. Yeah. No, I found Batman not entirely satisfying, partly because we were following beautiful Mr. Bale out of that prison and through the wasteland before we had a reason to give a damn about him, and though the movie gets into its groove somewhat in the middle, it misses out on that opportunity to slip us inside Bruce Wayne's head so we could share his mania for justice (and therefore, apparently, running around Gotham in black body armor and a cape). But it was all right. Howl is deadpan, rich and strange, and also not entirely satisfying in its convoluted narrative logic, but very much worth seeing for the imagination and visuals alone.

I also finished the aforementioned The Big Love by Sarah Dunn, which was the best piece of "romantic fiction" I've read in a very long time -- partly because it was honest rather than romantic about romance, and partly because it dealt with the emotional and especially religious aspects of sex (having it if you were raised religious, I mean), which is not common in romantic fiction. This would be the first novel I can think of that's done it at all, as a matter of fact. Also highly recommended.

All right. Here's wishing you all a week filled with euphrasia and typhlobasia!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Cranberry Chicken Delight

I've made this cranberry chicken dish for two friends in the last two weeks and it's been greeted with ecstatic delight each time -- as well it should be, not because of my cooking prowess, but because it's easy, fast (especially if you have someone to help you with the chopping), low-fat (only 5g per serving), and delicious. The leftovers also reheat well for lunches later.

2 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup shallots or onions, minced
2 pounds boned and skinned chicken breasts (eight 4-ounce halves)
2 Tbsp vinegar, balsamic or raspberry
16 ounces (1 can) whole-berry cranberry sauce
2 cups green apples, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries
4 Tbsp walnuts, chopped
2 tsp curry powder

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray large shallow baking dish with vegetable oil spray. Add oil and shallots/onions to baking dish and bake uncovered for 5 minutes.

Pour vinegar into the baking dish and stir. Add chicken breasts, basting tops with vinegar/shallot mixture. Bake uncovered for 10 minutes.

Mix together cranberry sauce, apples, dried cranberries, walnuts and curry. Cover chicken with sauce and bake an additional 15–20 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the sauce bubbles. Serve with white rice and white wine. Serves four.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Links 'n' Navigator

I get to work at home all day tomorrow like a real grown-up editor, so I'm taking this evening to remove any possible distractions from my all-day editing session -- that is, I'm washing my dishes, scrubbing the bathroom, sweeping the floor, and now, updating my blog.

Meet Feral Cheryl! "This 34 cm vinyl doll runs barefoot, dreadlocks her hair with coloured braids and beads, wears simple rainbow clothes, has piercings and a range of tattoos, and even a bit of natural body hair. . . . Her motto is "Live Simply, Run Wild". Her only accessories: a bag of home grown herbs, a sense of humour and a social conscience."

(No comment on those herbs. Or the tattoos, for that matter.)

Here's a cool baby name wizard that charts the popularity of your name in an interactive Java line graph.

The conservative newsletter Human Events asked a panel to choose the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." #1: The Communist Manifesto. #2: Mein Kampf. #4: The Kinsey Report. #7: The Feminine Mystique. #10: Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Communists, sex, feminists, tax-and-spend liberals -- all common conservative bugaboos, as far as they go (though the fact that they condemn the government running up deficits and our $8 trillion debt while they support George W. Bush is a hypocrisy of the first order, albeit entirely typical). But the longlist includes Silent Spring. Silent Spring, for heaven's sake! These people are actually for poisoned air and water! I wish we could open up a hole 100 years in the future to an alternate dimension where there's never been any environmental movement at all, shove these panelists through, and see how they like it. Take that, Phyllis Schlafly.

On a similar note, I considered adding the following quote to my quotation file recently:

"A democracy requires...embracing the vast diversity of humanity, and doing it with humility, listening as best you can, not just to those with high positions, but to the cacophonous voices of ordinary people, and trusting those millions of people, keeping out of their way...The word we have for this is 'freedom.'" -- Ronald Reagan

I loved the "vast diversity of humanity," the "humility" and "listening," the "cacophonous voices," all of that, but the "keeping out of their way" gave me pause because Reagan meant it as let's-negate-environmental-controls-and-call-it-populism, not genuinely keeping out of Americans' private business. And the doubletalk of that made me uncomfortable, which made me dislike the quotation (Quote #213: "A fact is not a truth until you love it" -- John Keats), which kept it out of the Quote File. Which is okay, because I didn't particularly want Ronald Reagan in there anyway.

I interviewed two editors from American Cheerleader magazine today as part of a feature for our book Blister. They were quite adamant that cheerleading is a sport worthy of everyone's respect, and when you see how hard those women work and how athletic they are, I certainly agree; but I have to say they aren't helping themselves be taken seriously when they have a section called "Beauty and Style File" in their magazine.

(And having made that comment, I immediately think "So okay, Cheryl, do you mean strong women aren't allowed to be pretty, to worry about their hair or nails or how they look? Or that women who do shouldn't be taken seriously -- in which case you shouldn't be taken seriously?" And that's not what I mean. But I don't think a women's basketball or volleyball magazine would be concerned about "cute colors for fingers and toes" at those sports' camps. . . . Lord, Phyllis Schlafly doesn't need to worry about us feminists taking over -- we're too busy self-analyzing little things like this.)

I've recently started to read a smart literary-life blog put out by one Maud Newton.

Lisa sent me to this cool aura test: I think I was Sensitive Tan or Sensitive Blue -- whichever one scores almost exactly the same in both thinking and feeling.

My mother's last full-time day of work in the Missouri school system was yesterday -- in other words, she retired! But no one believes my mother can actually stay retired and not be running something, so we're just saying she's never going to work full-time for the Missouri schools again. Next week she participates in a three-day, 60-mile breast-cancer walk in celebration of her retirement and memory of my grandmother.

All right, to bed for me so I can work well tomorrow. Hope all's well with all of you!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Book Tag!

Gacked from Lisa: a book tag meme!

1. Total number of books owned? Fewer than you'd think, thanks to limited shelf space in my small apartment and the resultant constant culling. Maybe 200? Numbers, bah.

2. Last book bought? The Obituary Writer by Porter Shreve, though I'm thinking of trading it in for The Big Love by Sarah Dunn.

3. Last book I read? As in "read every word, not skimmed" and "more than picture-book length": Into Love and Out Again by Elinor Lipman.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me:

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As soon as I read this book, I started to try to model myself after Sara Crewe: imaginative, thoughtful, kind, polite, charismatic, long-suffering, uncomplaining, proud. I am not sure how well I succeeded. Eighteen years later, it's a comfort book for me; when I am tired or lonely or sad, I crawl into this book and pull its covers up over my head (to steal a line from another book I'm very fond of, The Beekeeper's Apprentice).

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My very first Austen, read in a week (for the first half) and a night (for the second). My subsequent passion for Austen's novels went on to influence the college I chose (I took Carleton much more seriously after I saw that it offered an Austen course), the major I pursued, my friendship with Katy, my love life, my editorial taste, and my entire philosophy of everything, frankly. Pay attention always; laugh at what you can, but never ridicule what is wise and good; say things well, because language matters; all of it has roots in Austen. P&P is also the basis for my only extended creative-writing projects ever, the romantic-nonsense fanfiction I wrote when I was in college. (Actually I am fairly proud of those stories -- my big two were an alternate-reality story set a year after the Darcys' marriage and a modern reinterpretation with lots of Ella Fitzgerald lyrics -- but not so proud that I will link to them here.)

Possession by A. S. Byatt. I went on a date with a guy in February -- this was the 38-Year-Old, for those of you playing along at home -- and we started talking about books, and I mentioned this as one of my favorites, and he said "Possession? That's a terrible book, I hated that book." And I looked at him and thought, "You are dead to me." All right, not quite (I gave him another half-hour), but I do deeply love this book for its bookishness, its cleverness, its thoughtfulness about literature, criticism, romance, and sex; I love it because I always discover new things in it, which makes me feel clever in turn. And the writing is simply gorgeous. . . . Whenever I go outside after a thunderstorm, I think of the last line: "It was the smell of death and destruction and it smelled fresh and lively and hopeful."

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. I started to read this in the back of the Beebe family's white Dodge Dynasty as Katy and I drove up to Minnesota for our senior year at Carleton. Katy was reading it too at the time, and we promptly began stealing the book from each other whenever one of us was foolish enough to put it down (an experience we'd also had with Possession during sophomore year). I bought Sorcerer's Stone with my college textbooks, read Chamber of Secrets over Christmas break, was in line at midnight for Goblet of Fire seven months later, and started my job with Arthur two months after that.

Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee. (And I'm not saying this just because Lisa reads my blog.) This was the first book I felt like a proper editor for, the first one where I truly played a major role in shaping the book and making its publication happen, and I am very proud of the result. It can also be connected to all the other books I've listed here: It's a children's book (like A Little Princess) with an Austen narrative structure (heroine realizes she's made a terrible moral mistake and corrects her error); it includes a Possession-ish profusion of literary documents, and it's published by Arthur A. Levine Books, just like Harry Potter.

Good stuff, all.