Thursday, July 28, 2016


Alicia Robynn 2 days old

Alicia was born 28 years ago, our only girl. She came after three boys, Mario had David and Joe and I had Vince when we married.  Blending our family together was sealed with Alicia’s birth in July of 1988.   

She was born in living color, vibrant from a young age.  Her love of the natural world that either burst with joy and sunshine or raged with discontent.  She jumped into life and devoured it, always drawing a friends to herself.  She was a tomboy who loved to read.  As a result, school and the sports that went with it came naturally. It all went by so fast that I  still wonder where the time with my little daughter went.

I have oodles of pictures of us, in various stages of play and through various ages.  Her smile illuminates the film that captures her.
 She is surrounded by friends, family, love, teams, her array of collections.  They show our girl who rarely settled down for anything!  

Alicia is now a small-business owner and mother of two girls, Harmony and Alannah, that are the joy and fabric of her life.   To see her with them is incredible, the way that she mothers in a no-nonsense style, showing incredible instincts and love for her girls.  I am grateful that I get to help her every Friday.

Malawi 2004
My Fridays are spent driving to Chico, seeing her off, playing with the girls, and celebrating with them, whatever kind of day we decide to make it.  Harmony and Alannah are joy-filled and ready for any adventure that their small town can open up for them.  They remind me so much of their mother at that age that it is frightening.
Chico Downtown Plaza - Last Week

I was raised by a mother who had four daughters, and each of us have the symbiotic relationship with Mom that she had with my Grandma.  Alicia is my only daughter, and we haven’t exactly had the traditional mother-daughter relationship.  There have been misunderstandings, seasons of them.  We always manage to plow through and continue on, probably because both of us have a great deal of determination.

Today, on her birthday, I pray for breakthrough.  I want us to arrive at a place where she understands how much I love her and I understand how much she loves me.  I want the easy connection that she seems to have with her daughters, and that I have with my Mom.  On this day, I want us both to understand that I am me and she is herself and God created us both this way and everything is alright.  This would be the greatest gift I could ever give her.   So today, my prayer is for true communication.

There is a movie called Brainstorm, starring Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood that I thought about today when I thought about Alicia.  In it, a man and wife are going through a painful divorce.  The husband is a scientist who is part of inventing a brain tape-recorder, communication technology that would allow people to feel the same feelings another person  does.  This inventor records his own brainwaves, thinking of his wife, and goes to her.  After giving her the headset, she is able to “feel his heart” for her.  After years of misunderstandings, walls being built, and terrible communication, she sees that her husband genuinely loves her and they reunite.

If only life were that easy.  If only I could make a tape of my brain and hand it to my daughter.  Here I am, here is what I really feel.  Now you can see the depths of my heart -- how much I love you and how genuine my love is. 

Happy Birthday, Alicia.  My words are the closest things to a futuristic brain wave recorder.  I hope that in them you can hear my heart of love for you.  Today I celebrate who you are and all of the many things that are coming alive in your heart.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


He said that he would love me like a revolution, like a religion.  Abuelita burned the pushcart and sent me here, miles from home, in this town of dust, with one wrinkled witch woman who rubs my belly with jade, and sixteen nosy cousins.
~from “One Holy Night” by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros
photo by Jessica Fuentes

Sandra Cisneros was born on a Monday – December 20, 1954 in Chicago.  Her father, Alfredo Cisneros de Moral was born in Mexico and met his wife, Elvira Cordero Anguiano in America, where they married . Sandra was the third of seven children, the only daughter in the family. She moved frequently during her childhood and visited Mexico often.  Cisneros found a creative outlet in writing, later earning a BA in English from Loyola University of Chicago and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop in the late 1970's.  Her unique voice, a working-class, Mexican-American woman with artistic sexuality, was different from everyone else’s at Iowa and writer's workshops were often painful.

The experience of celebrating how she was different, not only from other students at Iowa but with any author in print, eventually led to her book, The House on Mango Street, which was published in 1984.  It won the Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in in 1985, and instantly became an American favorite.  Also an accomplished poet, Cisneros published two full-length books of poetry: My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman.   Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (my personal favorite) was released in 1991 and Caramelo in 2002.  Her latest work, A House of my Own:Stories From My Life, is a memoir of collected, interlocking essays of  personal stories about family, travels, moving, and the challenges (and delights) of a single woman journeying solo. "So often you have to run away from home and visit other homes first before you can clearly see your own," she told the Los Angeles Times in October of 2015.  

When We Met:  Believe it or not, I just started reading Sandra last winter.  I was at the Sacramento Poetry Center, doing a public reading of one of my short stories, “The Puzzle” when a girl came up to me afterward and remarked how much my story reminded her of The House on Mango Street.  I was nonplussed, and told her I’d never heard of the book. She nearly fell over.  She told me that I had to RUN to buy it and read it.  After that meeting, I vowed to start reading Cisneros and did.  I was moved, on more than one occasion, to tears as I read her well-constructed stories of lives leaning against one another, struggling to find a true identity that s somewhere between Mexico and America.  She has a deep and true voice of a Latina – and she makes me think she is related to me as she tells tells a story.  "You know the one," she says.   "I'm not like the Allport Street girls who stand in doorways and go with men into alleys..." she tells me, and I agree, nodding my head.  "I know, mi amiga, we are not like those girls.  But we have made some bad decisions about love, verdad?" 

Why She’s Good:  Being Latina-American, I can say that there is a piece of myself that lies just below the surface of who I am – and never comes out.  It is too polite.  It has been taught to be subservient.  Sandra gives that piece of myself permission to surface and dance with her as I read.  For a Latina reader, Sandra Cisneros es no apenas escritor, pero ella es mi hermana!  In other words, she expresses my heart in its fullness and makes me feel like I am right there with her.  The moment I started reading Sandra Cisneros I wanted to go hug my Mom.  I wanted to reunite with my Grandma.  I wanted to celebrate being Latina, Latina, Latina - with no apologies!

Plot Variations:  A sister and her loud, noisy brothers take a yearly journey with their parents from Chicago to the "Little Grandfather’s and Awful Grandmother's" house in Mexico City for the summer.  A girl who wants to find significance falls in love with a man who turns out to be a serial killer.  Emiliano Zapata’s girlfriend tells a story of loneliness, understanding, and being constantly abandoned by her lover, who is off “revolutionizing the country.”  A girl living in a poor Chicago suburb seeks out a meaningful life and freedom as she learns to appreciate her neighbors.

Buy One:  While others will try to persuade you to buy The House on Mango Street, I believe that there is greater depth in Woman Hollering Creek, the book that made me howl at the moon and declare Cisneros a sister.  I’m going to recommend Audible for the first time here.  Woman Hollering Creek is actually paired with Loose Woman, a book of amazing poetry, both read by Sandra herself.  You will get to hear the familiar stories in her own voice, and for the way she writes, it is best this way.   If you haven’t used audible yet, now is the time!  It’s awesome! Available here.

Favorite Quote:  "Perhaps all memory is a chance at storytelling and every story brings us closer to revealing ourselves to ourselves."

Trivia:  Cisneros' books have been translated into over a dozen languages, including Spanish, Galician, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese, Chinese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian, Thai, and Serbo-Croatian.

Pain in Motion: Great writers find their voice in deep-seated insecurity or rejection.  Cisneros remembers many childhood moves, which involved changing residences, not only in the USA, but also back to Mexico to be near her paternal grandmother.  She admits that her family’s impermanence affected the way she viewed her life.  “We moved like the tides," Cisneros told Publishers Weekly in 1991.  “From Mexico back to another barrio of Chicago that looked like France after World War II—empty lots and burned-out buildings."  The moving continued for many years. Cisneros noted that her grandmother's Mexican home was the only constant in a series of traumatic upheavals.

Monday, July 25, 2016


That afternoon, as was her habit, Boori Ma reknotted her hair, untied the loose end of her sari, and counted out her life savings.”
~from “A Real Durwan” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri was born Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri on Tuesday, July 11, 1967 in London.  She is the daughter of Amar and Tapati Lahiri, a Bengali couple who immigrated to the United Kingdom from Calcutta, India.  Jhumpa’s name was shortened for ease – a family nickname that westerners preferred over her Bengali name.  She started writing as a child, but did not take it seriously until her early twenties. After graduating from Barnard College in 1989, she began experiencing what she called “a slow, hesitant artistic awakening… a secret, scary thing." She then joined the student body of Boston University, where she took her first serious creative writing courses, eventually earning three literary master's degrees before receiving her doctorate in Renaissance studies. For her publishing debut, she gave us Interpreter of Maladies in 1999, which won the Pulitzer Prize and a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. She followed up in 2003 with her first novel, The Namesake, which was made into a movie. She later published Unaccustomed Earth, The Lowland, and most recently her Italian memoir, In Altre Parol – or  In Other Words.

A frame from "The Namesake"
when the American-Indian family visits the Taj Mahal

When We Met:  I had just returned to America after living on the African continent for seven years.  Our things (including all of my books) were in transit and my super-cool housemate lent me her copy of “Interpreter of Maladies.”  The title intrigued me and I sank into a good chair and began.  The collection of stories is about Indian-Americans (most from the Bengali tradition) wrestling with “border identities” –all authors I admire present these paradoxes in their characters.  Lahiri's  words were delicate and casual, and I became entranced as if someone placed me in a room where the air was infused with opium,.  Her stories sang to me, and I was meeting characters with whom I could identify.  They ask the same questions we do: Who am I and where am I going?  I am in awe of the way she tells a story.

Why She’s Good:  She has an unusual, scary command of language.  No one has wowed me with story endings the way that Jhumpa has.  She saves an important detail for last few paragraphs and the reader is stunned, surprised, and even a little freaked-out.  She is casual and easy to read, but you realize that you are in a five-star restaurant after the first bite. 

Plot Variations:  A married couple live as polite friends in their upscale residence until an electrical outage brings them together, sharing the first real conversation they have had in years.  An Indian-American family hires a tour guide to take them to ancient ruins, where they learn about his other intriguing occupation.  Two college roommates share chemistry and keep secrets about intimate relationships.   

Buy One:   I prefer Lahiri's short stories over her novels.  I recommend Interpreter of Maladies, but only by a nose in front of Unaccustomed Earth.  These stories are vibrant with color, tension, yearning and the search for significance.  Available here.

Favorite Quote:  “I've inherited a sense of that loss from my parents because it was so palpable all the time while I was growing up, the sense of what my parents had sacrificed in moving to the United States, and yet at the same time, building a life here and all that that entailed.” 

Trivia: Lahiri’s recent triumph of writing her memoir in Italian is not an accident.  Her parents came from India, so she spoke Bengali until she was four years old. She learned to read and write English, but she says neither of these linguistic identities ever felt fully her own. "I had studied Italian for many years — simply for the love of it," she told NPR.  Italian offered the linguist a different path, with respect to her identity in writing.  "I'm bound to fail when I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn't torment or grieve me."  Thank you to NPR - read more here.

Finding Her Voice: Authors take years to  "find their voice" - the distinctive tone and style that is woven into their words, permeating their writing as your mother's fragrance permeates her house.  Lahiri once addressed the development of her own literary voice,in her understated, beautiful way: “I just want it to be true, and I want it to be strong, and I want it to be pure. But these are lofty ideals, and language is a very messy thing; it's a very complicated thing. And that's why I say that that voice is an illusion, it's an ideal that I'm moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn't that the point of creativity, to keep searching?”

Lahiri receives The National Humanities Medal in 2015

Saturday, July 23, 2016


“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.”
~ from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Amy Tan was born on Tuesday, February 19, 1952 in Oakland, California to John and Daisy Tan, Chinese immigrants who settled in Northern California. Her father was both an electrical engineer and a Baptist minister.  When Amy was fifteen, her father and older brother died of brain tumors six months apart. Their deaths affected the whole family differently.  Daisy, convinced that the family was under a curse, moved Amy and her younger brother John Jr. to Switzerland.  Amy rebelled, but finished high school.  She won an American Baptist Scholarship to attend Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon and met her husband there, on a blind date. The two have been together ever since.  

Tan also attended San Jose City College and San Jose State University (Mario’s Alma Mater), where she was a President’s Scholar, and graduated with a BA in both English and Linguistics.  In 1985 she started to write fiction in her spare time.  She attended a fiction workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. There she met writer Molly Giles, who gave her advice on a flawed short story with too many inconsistent voices and too many beginnings of stories. “Pick one and start over.”  Giles' suggestions guided Amy to write the multiple stories that would become The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. After that came The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bone Setter’s Daughter, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Valley of Amazement – all of which are stunning. Her essays and stories are found in hundreds of anthologies and textbooks; many are assigned in high schools and universities as required reading.  Thank God. 
(A special thanks to Amy Tan’s bio page.  Read more here.)

When We Met:  I was making my way through the classics, somewhere between Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when a friend asked me if I read Amy Tan.  I gave her my standard, proud answer: “I only read the dead guys.” My puffed up answer makes me shake my head in embarrassment now, but for some reason I told her I would read a living person's book.  She lent me her copy of Joy Luck Club and told me that it was the best book she ever read.  I jumped in and drowned in the beautiful, graceful language that stretched its neck toward heavenly perfection.  I have never, ever, ever looked back.  Tan is one of the best writers on the planet, and encouraged me to read other living authors. 

Why She’s Good:  Tan reminds me of the person that can do an algebraic equation with their left hand while oil painting with their right.  She tells a beautiful story while constructing a structural foundation that will never collapse.  I admire the structure of her stories as much as I admire the language that builds them as much as I admire the ornamentation and colors that grace their ceilings.  She’s oh-so-intimate in conversations, and I have literally felt guilty for eavesdropping as I read.  She is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. 

Plot Variations:  Four mothers and their daughters take turns telling interlocking stories, all about being Chinese-American.  Intertwining narratives of a mother and daughter paint a picture of misunderstanding, loneliness and a desire to be known by the other.  A Chinese born young woman connects with her half-sister by telling her about secret tales and superstitions, things she understands because she can see ghosts.

Buy One:  Each is a gem, but none have affected me like The Joy Luck Club, the novel that made me want to be a full-time writer.  In its pages are the differing voices of mothers and daughters, a bittersweet symphony that casts eternal light on mother/daughter relationships.   Available here.

Favorite Quote:  Tan is funny.  She thinks on her feet and is as silly as she is serious. I am going to cheat here and steer you to a recent TedTalk she did.  Watch it to laugh and think deeply… 

Trivia: Many of you know how much I love Amy Tan already.  My own novel, Treasures In Diepsloot is what I pitch as Joy Luck Club in a South African township.  Tan’s trusted reader, Molly Giles (who won a Flannery O'Connor award for Short Fiction) accepted the privilege of reading my book and loved it!!  On a supernova high, I sent it to Sandy Dijkstra, Tan’s literary agent.  She wrote to me, saying “Alas, Janet, I wish I could sign on but I’m just not in love with the project, which is so essential when it comes to fiction. Please know that we’ll be cheering you from the sidelines and hope that another agent has the vision for this project!”  Tears. Disappointment. Suck it up and move on.

No One Ever Asks About the Language: Tan plays in a band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, with other writers, including Stephen King.  He tells a story of eating with her right before a gig in Miami Beach in his book, On Writing (available here).  He asked Amy if there was ever a question she was not asked by star-struck fans during the Q and A sessions at writer’s conferences.  She thought awhile and said “No one ever asks about the language.”  King expounds on the importance of this, citing that fans do not seek advice about language from commercially successful authors.  He writes in the preface that his book will be about “the language,” as Tan calls it.  Then. He dedicates the book to her. 


“Parker looked, turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him — still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence.”
~ from “Parker’s Back” by Flannery O’Connor


Flannery O’Connor was born on a Wednesday, March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor. The family, inside of an extended family, were devout Catholics in the heart of the Bible Belt, ripe with Protestantism. Growing up in the deep South and being part of a spiritual minority wasn't easy for O'Connor, and writing was one of the ways she coped with her surroundings. Her pensive, careful personality allowed her to digest the brutal landscape of the South, and in turn, write what she saw. 

After graduating from high school in 1942, O’Connor enrolled in Georgia State College for Women and then to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and then to Yaddo, a writing community. Every piece of her education nurtured the fire she had inside. O’Connor's teachers and mentors marveled at her work, and encouraged her development of the Southern Gothic style. She used regional settings and “grotesque” characters, (referred to as freaks or misfits) to portray the humanity and need for salvation. 

O’Connor died of lupus when she was just thirty-nine years old. During her brief career, O’Connor wrote two novels, thirty-two short stories, an incredible collection of letters, and many literary reviews and commentaries. Her collection of Short stories, Complete Stories, won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.  In one 2009 poll, Complete Stories was named the best book ever to have won a National Book Award. O'Connor's writing has influenced a myriad of writers, artists, and even filmmakers. 

When We Met:  I was eighteen when I read “Parker’s Back”, the haunting story of O.E. Parker, a man who wants nothing to do with religion. His body is covered in ink, tattoos that he wears proudly, the ultimate anti-establishment chip on his shoulder. He meets a devout but austere woman, who he later marries, and slowly becomes unable to fight the terrible truth that God is real.  The title “Parker’s Back” refers to O.E.’s back that he will not tattoo, simply because he can't see it.  Once he finds a Byzantine picture of Jesus, with all-consuming eyes, he chooses to break the oath he's made to himself. The complexity and desperation of the story is amazing – a web spun with pure gold. 

Why She’s Good:  O’Connor is seen as a writer who was “kissed by God” – in other words, she was meant to write.  Each story involves an unapologetic wrestling with God, the central reason she started writing in the first place.  Flannery’s stories have deep, spiritual themes, but many are filled with racist language, horrid villains, classicism, sexism, and violence. She wanted to move her readers to a place of discomfort, to consider their own need for God. Using grotesques, she shocked and moved her readers to a place of decision. In addition to her round, Southern characters, O’Connor writes God into her stories. He is always there, somewhere. Her aim, she once explained, was “to penetrate the natural to reveal the supernatural” by writing about “unthinkable acts of grace.” And yet, her prose writing is so accomplished that Flannery O’Connor cannot be described as a “a Christian Writer,” any more than Shakespeare can be labeled “an English poet.”

Plot Variations:  A man intends to take his family from Georgia to Florida for a summer vacation, but a car accident places an escaped convict in their path.  A racist woman who runs a farm seeks to run a scrub bull from her property singlehandedly, like she does everything else. A PhD and amputee opens her heart to a traveling Bible salesman, only to see his true colors exposed. A young girl contemplates her silly cousins in the same day she measures the possibility of becoming a martyr.

Buy One:  Easy.  Buy Complete Stories, the perfect sampling of Flannery O’Connor. Available Here

Favorite Quote:  O’Connor viewed Christianity differently than how she viewed the church: “The only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the body of Christ, and on this we are fed. The operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.”  

Trivia: Flannery O’Connor is cited by many authors as a writer who influenced their work, but many others have been affected by her as well.  Once in an interview, Bruce Springsteen was asked to name his biggest influence.  He replied: “One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

The bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus: True to Southern Gothic Form, O’Connor wrote The Violent Bear it Away, a story about Francis Tarwater, a fourteen-year-old character who does not want to fulfill a destiny that God is calling him to: being a prophet.  A modern-day version of Jonah, many people say that they see Flannery in him. As he walks the road to his destiny, Flannery shows the reader: "His black eyes, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus."

Sunday, July 17, 2016


James Joyce

“O pa!” he cried. “Don't beat me, pa! And I'll… I’ll say a Hail Mary for you... I'll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don't beat me… I'll say a Hail Mary....”
~ from Dubliners by James Joyce

James Joyce was born on a Thursday - the second of February in 1882 –in Brighton Square, Rathgar, Dublin.  His parents, John and May, were a middle-class Irish Catholic couple, were reportedly bad with money and unhappy.  James was the first of their ten surviving children, and his childhood was filled with painful memories.  A brilliant student, he excelled at Jesuit schools, despite his father's alcoholism and his family’s unpredictable finances. He went on to attend University in Dublin and later began writing and teaching.  Joyce bleeds green, and his Irish experiences are at the core of his writings, providing the settings for his fiction.   He is best known for writing Ulysses, the massive novel that no publisher would touch and Joyce self-published –it is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  Joyce is also known for his heart-wrenching poetry, short-stories and his published letters.

When We Met:  I grew up with an Irish Catholic father who loved Joyce and had many of his works in his extensive library.  One night, when I was about sixteen, I decided to read from my father’s bookshelf instead of  the pulp well from which I usually drew.  I borrowed a copy of Joyce’s Dubliners, a book that appeared to be a collection of short stories.  I read a story called “Counterparts,” a haunting masterpiece that I still consider one of the best stories I have ever read.  It seems simple in plot—one day in the life of a man in the throes of alcoholism—but it injects the terrible emotion that accompanies abuse. I didn’t sleep much that night, but I never forgot the way the story affected me. 

Why He’s Good:  Joyce is seen as a “writer’s writer” constructing both the long and short story with personal tension and human idiosyncrasies.  He speaks the Irish Catholic dialect of the English language so well that the reader can hear his heart beat while reading.  Joyce describes the inexplicable guilt that permeates our DNA.  He shows unattainability in love and life.  He juxtaposes unsinkable hope and a dismal future.  He introduces us to the priest who says mass, the barmaids pouring drinks, the children with one coin to spend, the fathers who cannot remember their children's’ names.  Everything he wrote seems as if it is sealed in his blood.

Plot Variations:  A Dublin resident wanders through one day, his appointments and relationships changing through the massive, ever-shifting sea of prose, directing his world and future.  A particularly offensive young man uses women as sexual objects and then cons them into giving him money. An author details his own Dublin upbringing, his family relationships, and his eventual questioning of all things conventional.

Buy One:  A summer read is Dubliners, the book that made me a Joyce fan.  It also is the easiest of Joyce’s to read, since it is a collection of his short stories.  It’s rewarding and rich and beautiful, and pretty cheap here.  

If you really want to get a sampling of Joyce, pick up The Portable James Joyce, which includes four of the six books on which Joyce's astonishing reputation is founded: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man,  his Collected Poems ; Exiles, Joyce's only drama; and his volume of short stories, Dubliners. There is also a bit of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  How’s that for a cheater recommendation?  Available here.

Favorite Quote:  It’s deceptively easy and Irish; also filled with pain and longing, like all of Joyce’s work: “When I die, Dublin will be written in my heart.”

Trivia: Joyce was born in the same year as Virginia Woolf, a fellow modernist writer!  Both were born in 1882, and both writers also died in the same year, 1941. Both wrote landmark modernist novels, published in the 1920s, whose principal action takes place over just one day in mid-June (Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway). Both pioneered “stream of consciousness” – a technique associated with modernist writing.

Poetic License: Joyce was a poet first and foremost.  It is poetry that shaped his beautiful, flowing, liquidy prose.  James was an outspoken opponent of the Catholic church, but his writing betrays his own heart’s quest to find God.  I leave you with a one of his poems, simply entitled “A Prayer”:

Come, give, yield all your strength to me!
From far a low word breathes on the breaking brain
Its cruel calm, submission's misery,
Gentling her awe as to a soul predestined.
Cease, silent love! My doom!

Blind me with your dark nearness, O have mercy, beloved enemy of my will!
I dare not withstand the cold touch that I dread.
Draw from me still
My slow life! Bend deeper on me, threatening head,
Proud by my downfall, remembering, pitying
Him who is, him who was!

Together, folded by the night, they lay on earth. I hear
From far her low word breathe on my breaking brain.
Come! I yield. Bend deeper upon me! I am here.
Subduer, do not leave me! Only joy, only anguish,

Take me, save me, soothe me, O spare me!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
― The opening of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 Jane Austen portrait by James Andrews (colored and reproduced) 
Jane Austen was born on 16 December 1775 in Stevenson Rectory, a small village in Hampshire, England.  Jane's parents, George and Cassandra, were well-respected in their community. Her father, educated at Oxford University, served as village rector of their Anglican parish. The family was close and the children grew up in a creative environment. When Jane was young, she and her siblings were encouraged to read –from their father and mother’s extensive library. All eight Austen children wrote poems, plays and novellas.  Jane soon distinguished herself among her siblings with a creative voice and wrote novels.  Two of which –Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice—were published anonymously.  

Since Jane was a lady in the registered gentry, she could not earn a living from the sale of her writings nor sign her name as the author.  It wasn’t until Jane died, at forty-one years old, that her siblings, Cassandra and Henry, pushed for the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, and for authorship to be attributed to all of her works.   

When We Met:  I was 29, and we had just moved to Sacramento, when I saw the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  I fell in love with the story and decided to read the book.  It took a minute to get used to the language, but Austen’s story was powerful and easy to love.  After Sense and Sensibility, I read Pride and Prejudice, a perfect novel that leveled me halfway through when Darcy proclaims his love for Lizzy. No film has ever been able to deliver the surprise of that paragraph – or the written perfection of Lizzy’s reaction. After that Came Emma, then Mansfield Park, my favorite.  After that I read Persuasion, another perfect beauty. 

Why She’s Good: She’s funny.  She tells stories of families, not just individuals.   Austen delivers stories about the search for true love and understanding in a world that is not perfect.  Her characters have faults, weaknesses, and strengths, just like we all do, and they remind you of people you know.  The reader can’t tell the heroes from the villains until disaster strikes—and disaster always strikes.  Austen is able to deliver socially complicated stories with happy endings, one right after another.  Time after time, she stepped up to the plate, hit a home run and then (because she was an English Lady) was not allowed to run the bases.  I think Jane serves as an example of writing something for its own beautiful reward, that may or may not be recognized in a writer’s lifetime. 

Plot Variations:  Two sisters, one rational and the other romantic and emotional, find themselves fatherless and unable to enter respectable English society without a stigma attached to them.   An intelligent daughter of a country gentlemen realizes that she will soon be expected to marry, even though her dowry would never attract anyone of sound character.  A brilliant young lady is sent to live with an unkind aunt, who serves at a beautiful estate that is paid for and run by slave labor.  A young matchmaker with no financial concerns discovers that she is not the lady of noble character she thinks she is.

Buy OnePride and Prejudice is Austen’s most revered novel, and the one I have read the most.  BUT I usually recommend Sense and Sensibility, the easiest read and the one that brings the reader right into the life of the British gentry at the end of the 18th century.  In both novels there is a strong sister relationship between the two main characters and you love them both—even though they are polar opposites.  If you have a kindle, Amazon offers a free Pride and Prejudice for download here and Sense and Sensibility for a whopping ninety-nine cents here.  You’re welcome.

Favorite Quote:  Jane Austen was as witty as Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice) and wrote as much as Fanny Price (Mansfield Park).  I love how she would candidly express her mind, especially when ladies were ostracized for saying such things.  About the gentry not reading modern novels, she said: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Trivia:  Many modern stories borrow from Austen.  Clueless is a modern version of EmmaBridget Jones’ Diary is a version of Pride and Prejudice, complete with the scandalous love triangle.  Bollywood did their own version and called it “Bride and Prejudice” – because that’s allowed, apparently.  From Prada to Nada is a modern Sense and Sensibility.   And everywhere, everywhere there are vampire and zombie renditions of Austen’s novels.

The Secret Betrayal:  Austen was dissatisfied with the way that society treated women.  English ladies could not earn their income and their financial support was given to them in an allowance from their husbands.  If a woman stayed unmarried, usually because she was not pretty, she was most likely to become poor.  Austen was seen as someone who disrespected the ways of the gentry by writing about the dependence of women on marriage, especially to gain acceptable social standing.  Would it be possible that many women traded their quest for love in favor of economic security? Oh, you bet!

As Austen writes in Mansfield Park, “There are certainly not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.” 

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and six pence, result: happiness!  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result: misery!
― Wilson Micawber, David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born on  February 7, 1812 in Portsmouth, England.  Because of poverty, he was forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory when his father entered debtors prison, just to feed himself.  No kidding, you can’t make this stuff up.  He read constantly, escaping into books for solace and comfort, and because he craved an education.  Despite a lack of formal training, he later found work in publications in London, where he worked as an editor of a weekly journal.  He bagan to publish stories in the journal (Bleak House was published in installments and later published as a book – one that is long and difficult to piece together).  Arnold Hausser wrote that “…masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha'pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.”

He was revered by the English as a literary genius, enjoying what authors can only dream about: popularity during his lifetime.  Over the course of his fifty-eight years, Dickens wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles.  He also was an important voice, advocating reform for children’s laws, especially those of child labor.   

When We Met:  Like most English speaking children, I met Charles Dickens at Christmas.  A Christmas Carol, his most famous literary work, is a novella that tells of Ebenezer Scrooge, the dry, twisted miser who works his only clerk, Bob Cratchit to death.  Scrooge is given three ghosts in order to bring repentance (yes, the story advocates repentance and redemption) that will appear to show him why he is the way he is.  He sees that Cratchit is one noble man, typical of the working poor in London, supporting his family and rejoicing in the little blessings that life has to offer.  A Christmas Carol is woven into my heart, like fabric that makes me Janet.  It preaches the real joy of the season and true blessing of living for Christ and mankind.  After reading A Christmas Carol, I devoured Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Why He’s Good: Because he’s Dickens.  He knows how to terrify you to your core – “He scared the Dickens out of me” is an idiom for a reason.  He creates characters that are so multifaceted that you could swear that they are real – and that you’re related to them.  I can sketch the faces of Wilkins Micawber and Mr. Dick, not just from words that Dickens has written, but because they live in my heart forever. For writers, few masters can compare to William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.  They epitomize the beautiful skill of presenting a story with the most masterful language imaginable. 

Plot Variations:  A young man, left fatherless, makes his way to the big city to find his Uncle in order to find support for himself, his mother and sister.  An orphan is sold on the streets because of insolence at his oppressive orphanage.  A boy is raised in a school for the unwanted, making friends that will last a lifetime.  A young writer, working as a Parliamentary reporter and a roving journalist takes over a failing newpaper and finds success in his collection of color sketches of London life.

A sketch from David Copperfield
Buy One:  There is no easy way to do this.  If I do recommend reading Dickens to a non-reader, I often recommend “A Christmas Carol” just to show how Dickens achieves the impossible- raising the dead to life.  To the reader, I recommend David Copperfield, the closest thing to an autobiography that Dickens has.  As you follow David through his life, all you can think is “How can this happen to a child in a first-world country?”  The answer that Dickens gives the reader is the same: “How can this happen to a child in a first-world country?” Available here for less than eight bucks.  

Favorite Quote:  There are so many, but I cannot help quoting one from Bleak House that brought me to tears when I read it.  He describes a very young girl that was forced to work (as are so many characters in Dickens’ books) just to feed her family.   “I don’t know where she was going, but we saw her run, such a little, little creature, in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court; and melt into the city’s strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean.”

Trivia:  Dickens had ten children, and was said to have lavished them with attention and love.  Just like Pip in Great Expectations, and many of the characters he created, he gave each of his own children their own special nickname, like  "Skittles" and "Plorn."

Why I am an English Major:  Dickens elevated language for the working poor.  He brought beauty, through words, into the world.  He gave us characters that we would give our hearts to, loved us without knowing us, and comforted us in our grief by letting us know that we are not alone.  I love him and relate to him. I leave you with a quote that is attributed to Dickens near the end of his life:

“Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.”
 ~ Charles Dickens

Thursday, July 7, 2016


“Always remember that the courageous soldier flies like an arrow toward his goal without questioning the one who launched it.”
― Naguib Mahfouz, Khufu’s Wisdom

My favorite picture of Mahfouz.  At his home 

Naguib Mahfouz was born on December 11, 1911 to a lower middle-class Muslim family in the medieval Fatimid quarter of Cairo in Egypt.  Mahfouz was the  baby of his large family – his parents, Abdel-Aziz and Fatimah Ibrahim had six other children before him. The Mahfouz family were extremely devout to the Islamic traditions and customs, and Naguib often spoke of his strict upbringing.  Mahfouz was a seven-year-old at the time of the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and it had an enormous effect on him as a writer and a person, shaking the security of what was the Egypt of his childhood.  In 1930 Mahfouz was admitted to the Egyptian University, later renamed Cairo University, where he studied philosophy. After graduating, he worked in various government ministries until his retirement in 1971. Mahfouz then worked as a journalist, before his own writings received enough notoriety to feed his family and pay his rent.  He wrote prolifically, publishing thirty-three novels, sixteen short story collections, several plays, thirty screenplays, and a variety of other works of non-fiction over his 70-year career. He was an outspoken advocate of peace between Egypt and Israel, a position that made him a controversial figure in his homeland. An assassination attempt in 1994 shocked to country, when an Islamic fundamentalist stabbed him. Weakened by age and debilitated by the attack, Mahfouz was unable to write longer pieces in his later years.  He began to compose extremely brief, dream-based vignettes.

When We Met:  Another author I admired, Augusten Burroughs, was interviewed and remarked how he would have not read Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley if he hadn’t seen the cover.  Curious as a cat, I chased it down and read it.  It was amazing.  It was horrific and wondrous, challenging and poignant.   It was so well-written that I could not stop reading Mahfouz.  On a ministry trip to Cairo I bought the Cairo Trilogy and devoured all three.  The more I read, the more I wanted.  Some authors deliver more than a story – they bring a microcosm of their world in a tale.  Mahfouz is one of those. 

Why He’s Good: Mahfouz has a way of taking the complicated history of modern Egypt and making it easily digestible for foreigners. As he paints a picture of Egypt, Mahfouz patiently weaves the stories of the obviously oppressed and the not-so-obviously oppressed.  Mahfouz tells what he sees –and it is easy to understand how Egypt’s alleys can hold a myriad of tales.  Some people refer to him as the Arabic Charles Dickens, portraying characters with such intricate detail that you hope that no harm will come to them.  When you’re in that attached, heart-rendered place, something happens that takes your breath away. Mahfouz is half literary genius and half artist.

Plot Variations:  Three generations of the family of a tyrannical patriarch reveal secret lives, dreams and incorrigible self-indulgence. Citizens inside of a modern Cairo neighborhood unwittingly reenact the lives of their holy ancestors.  An orphan raised by a foster mother, is drawn into prostitution. A former thief returns home from prison only to find that his beloved wife and his trusted henchman had conspired to betray him to the police so that they could marry each other and keep his six-year-old daughter from him.

Buy One:  Since The Cairo Trilogy--Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street— is three, it cannot be on the “buy one” of Mahfouz’s list. I recommend the terrible and wonderful Midaq Alley – a tale of good and evil and a tragic heroine that is (almost) redeemed by love.

Surrounded by crime and broken hearted, Hamida, an orphan raised by a foster mother, is drawn into a life of prostitution after her true love leaves. A cafe in the alley, is a drug addict and a lustful homosexual. Zaita makes a living by disfiguring people so that they can become successful beggars. Transcending time and place, the social issues treated here are relevant today. Midaq Alley available here.

Favorite Quote:  Mahfouz had a strict Islamic upbringing. In one interview, he elaborated on the stern religious climate at home during his childhood: “You would never have thought that an artist would emerge from that family.”

Trivia:  Mahfouz was named after the Coptic physician who delivered him, Naguib Pasha Mahfouz.

Utterly ridiculous beautiful irony: Mahfouz gives us a world that cannot collapse-and then does.  He paints us a picture that is too beautiful to be destroyed, and then pulls us away as it is slashed before our eyes.  The author of many lines I remember later, in an ache, I love his staying power.  The highest compliment I can pay to any author is that they write“utterly ridiculous beautiful irony,” which Mahfouz does - every single time.

Let my example of this be from Palace Walk, the first book in the Cairo Trilogy:

Just as he had reconciled the opposing forces of sexuality and ethics, he was also able to merge piety and debauchery successfully into a unity, free of any hint of either sin or repression.”
~Naguib Mahfouz,  Palace Walk

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


You told us with your own mouth that there was only one god. Now you talk about his son. He must have a wife, then.”
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe was born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Nigeria on November 16, 1930.  His parents, Isaiah Okafo and Janet Anaenechi, lived as traditional Igbo (EE-bow) until they converted to the Protestant Church Mission Society, or CMS.  After their conversion, neither parent abandoned the beliefs or practices that were found in the Igbo traditions.  This familial environment proved to be a permanent crossroads that affected Chinua dramatically. After secondary school, he won a scholarship and studied world religions and traditional African cultures.  His short stories and poetry tell of the changing African political climate of his day, and the overriding importance of family and tradition. 

When We Met:  I started reading Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s magnum opus, when we moved back home in 2013, after living in Africa for seven years.  I fell in love with the round, natural words of Achebe, dripping with respect and formality.  His genuine love of traditional expression was not wasted on me.  I was homesick for the continent and was able to hear the conversation of my friends, as well as remember the challenge of being a missionary to tribal people.  

Why He’s Good: Think of your favorite Uncle who tells stories – then make him African.  Achebe is the quintessential African story-teller, filled with love and connection, carrying on the amazing oral tradition of his people. Achebe isn't a great African writer because he describes the colors of the African sunsets, or the roaming bok, but becasue he pulls the reader into the world of traditional African people – in most cases, the Igbo--and fills our hearts with their plight.  He writes of the long-standing feud between colonialism and traditional societies.  Themes of polygamy, masculinity, and respect come to life as Achebe deftly weaves their importance into the story.  Beneath the surface is the universal struggle to find God, significance, love, and security.  Achebe’s Post-colonial themes offer a unique perspective on modern literature, infused with politics that cannot be ignored.

Plot Variations:  A tribal leader, trying to live a life of honor and strength, falls from grace with the tribal world and later confronts aggressive Christian missionaries. A marketplace official tries to understand the smallpox epidemic that he suspects is the result of angry gods.  A hair dresser living in New Haven, Connecticut writes a popular blog in which she explores what she calls Racial Disorder Syndrome.

Favorite Quote:  Because I worked as a Christian missionary in Africa I loved how Achebe recognized God’s power and his ability to uplift people, especially women.  Even so, he recognized the shortcomings of organized, institutional religions, especially when the leaders “forgot” how to live in the love of Christ: “I thought that Christianity was very a good and a very valuable thing for us. But after a while, I began to feel that the story that I was told about this religion wasn't perhaps completely whole, that something was left out.”

Buy OneThings Fall Apart is a bucket list book (one that you should read before you die).  If you love to read, or if you are looking for one book that explains post-colonial culture in Africa, make it this one.  The story unfolds perfectly, is told with a perfect African perspective, and concludes – perfectly.

Trivia:  Achebe's unabbreviated name, Chinualumogu, means "May God fight on my behalf", a parents’ prayer for divine protection and spiritual stability.  Chinua’s five siblings also had English and traditional names – in the spirit of embracing both cultures.

Revelation: I leave you with a powerful quote from one of Achebe’s stories that explains how the poverty-stricken African people were overtaken by globalization:
“But progress had turned [the marketplace] into a busy, sprawling, crowded and dirty river port, a no-man-land where strangers outnumbered the sons of the soil, who could do nothing about it except shake their heads at the gross perversion of their prayer.”
~From "The Sacrificial Egg" by Chinua Achebe

Sunday, July 3, 2016


The Fourth of July  is:
  1. ·        the day that we remember our act of high treason against the crown of Britain.
  2. ·        we hang the flag in honor of our armed services who have protected our rights and liberties since the founders signed the historic document called the Declaration of Independence. 
  3. ·        when Americans barbeque and blow things up. 
  4. ·        All of the above
Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900

In 1776, the American colonists were tired of being second-class citizens in the eyes of England.

They had no rights, other than the protection of the British Army and Navy.  They wanted to govern themselves and knew they could do it without a sovereign.

What the land-owning Founding Fathers had was a voice that England would be forced to listen to.   We are no different than you are – we are gentlemen ourselves.

John Adams convinced the congress to allow Thomas Jefferson to compose an official document called “the Declaration” in which the representatives of the colonies would sign their names and send it off to King George to make the treason official.  Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776.  The document was signed two days later by the colonial representatives or our “founding fathers” who were there.

John Hancock was said to have signed it first – in a grand and dark signature ---so that King George could read it without his spectacles.  To this day, his is the American benchmark of signatures.

If the Founding Fathers believed that all men were created equal, they had a funny way of showing it.

The declaration of Independence has a beautiful preamble:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Like most wealthy men of their time, the Founders were gentlemen only in theory.  Many of them owned slaves, they all would fit into the upper one percent of wealth back then.    It is important to remember that the founders were influenced by the culture and the time.   Washington and Jefferson privately expressed distaste for slavery (Jefferson once called it an "execrable commerce"), but they also understood that it was part of the political and economic bedrock of the country they helped to create.

The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness they spoke of was for land-owning men.  White men.  Not women; not slaves; not foreigners.

Congress   encouraged fireworks on the Fourth of July from the very start.  Authorizing a display on July 4, 1777, in Philadelphia, a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  “At night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons,” reads a journal from that year.  
Another colorful display took place in Philadelphia on July 4, 1779: “In the evening a set of brilliant fireworks were exhibited, particularly excellent rockets, which, after ascending to an amazing height in the air, burst, and displayed thirteen stars.”

California fare for the Fourth of July is grilling out with the family.  Families often celebrate with picnics and barbecues. Our grilling traditions sizzle with the weather – can you believe we grill in this heat?  BTW – Southerners Bar-b-que. Westerners grill.  The difference is in the sauce.

It is a day that all of us flawed Americans  celebrate high treason, eat too much and blow things up.

 And we remember those who have fought for our beloved Independence.  After living abroad for years, I can vouch that this country is my beautiful home and still does a lot of things very well.  Do not be dismayed and do not give up praying.  Take time out to thank our armed forces once again this holiday.  

God Bless You All.  God bless us in this transition.