Thursday, October 3, 2013


Fall for me is definitely the time of change, renewal, nostalgia for the past. I spend hours neatly putting away my summer clothes and getting out the winter clothes. Among my stored clothes, I always discard a few. That also goes for other items like wool hats, scarves, blankets. Every year I remove a wool blanket, a green and red Pendleton, from a chest redolent with mothballs, and consider adding it to the discard pile. But then I don't. Though I never cared a lot for the blanket in the first place,  that is its colors and design, it was a gift from my brother and his wife 35 years ago. When I look at it, I see them – young happy hopeful. Among other things, hopeful that the leukemia that had seized my brother ten years earlier was in remission and would just somehow disappear or stay at bay. Of course it was not to be. Only a few years later, Henry was dead and his wife had a two-year-old to raise on her own. My family mourned this loss for years and years, in anger, bitterness, regret. That's what I see when I look at that blanket -- that spring of hope (though it was delusion), that momentary pause in the pain and stress and helplessness; a time when we weren't the people we are now. When we didn't have so many scars. The same goes for many items that long ago should have gone to Good Will -- a shabby stuffed elephant that belonged to my son, a robe my mother used during beach holidays -- we hold onto these material reminders like the madeleine Proust tastes that brings back his youth, we revel in those moments of feeling how we used to be, the people we once were. Even if the present moment is just as good, or better, it's not the same; we're not the same. But honestly I think this year I will give the red and green blanket away -- it's time to cease dipping into the's time to affirm the present moment.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Movie "Lore" shows the perils of innocence...

I just saw the film "Lore" based on a book The Dark Room about a 14-year-old girl who travels with her young brothers and sisters across the savage landscape of post-WW II Germany to find her grandmother.

This subject fascinates me because I write a book series: Far and Away about children displaced and relocated during WWII. My middle-grade and YA novels include True Brit about an English girl who flees war-torn London for sunny Santa Fe and the most recent, Forced Journey: The Saga of Werner Berlinger about a German-Jewishboy who leaves Nazi-held Germany for the United States, hoping his family can follow. The theme of Far and Away is "sometimes you have to travel far and away to find your best self". That's certainly true for Lore, the 14-year-old who is featured in the recent film. She's a lovely innocent, yet she's also clearly tainted by the fascistic Nazi obsessions of her parents and other Germans of the time. There's this strange dichotomy between the simplistic notions of Lore and her siblings who cling to a gentle china faun (sort of reminiscent of the glass collections owned by the excessively-shy sister in Glass Menagerie) and the children singing and dancing  sweet German folk melodies and their fierce hatred of Jews and others who don't belong to their culture.

Lore wavers between these attitudes, just as she wavers between childish innocence and budding sexuality. In the scene's climax, she crushes the faun and other china creatures under her heel -- she's so outraged with being deceived by her parents. And so unprepared to deal with life's real exigencies. Earlier in the film she's buried in the mud a picture of her father (who has claimed to be defending the homeland  in Belarus) along with a picture of starved concentration camp victims -- she doesn't understand exactly how the two are linked but understands there's some connection and so she despises both.

It occurs to me that my books are simplistic to a degree also. Perhaps that's why I choose to write for's an excuse (professional and personal) for not delving more deeply into complexity, ambiguity, and the lies we perpetuate about our culture, our families, our selves. Movies like "Lore" inspire me to reach further....rz

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Cross Between Saturday Night Fever and Long Day's Journey Into Night

Everybody who’s seen Silver Linings Playbook probably has an opinion it. I was very eager to see the Oscar-nominated film especially after viewing the interview between Katie Couric and the director, David O. Russell and the two lead actors Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. The interview was a heartfelt discussion about the experience of a family who’s impacted by mental illness – the struggle, the frustrations and pain of parents attempting to help their child, the tears…

Naturally anyone impacted by mental illness is gladdened by the fact that this brain disorder is being addressed in a mainstream feature movie. The fact that this topic which is so often ignored or sensationalized receives attention and visibility is a plus. However after seeing the film, I did have some questions that were similar to those I experienced after seeing the Broadway musical Almost Normal. Both films depict individuals with Bi-Polar Disorder. And certainly Silver Linings does a good job of capturing the mania of the protagonist Pat who’s just been released from a psychiatric facility after physically assaulting his wife’s lover.  Unfortunately, depicting the depression which usually accompanies Bi-Polar Disorder is much more difficult to show on the screen because movies are about “action” and depression is often about “inaction”.

Also I thought this plot point was the story’s weakness. Just like in Almost Normal where the mother ostensibly becomes ill due to the death of an infant, the implication is that Pat becomes ill and behaves in an out-of-control manner because of his wife’s infidelity. In other words, if bad things didn’t happen to good people, we wouldn’t have mental illness. That simply isn’t the case. Though schizophrenia occurs more frequently when abuse is present in the person’s background, there are many young people from happy healthy environments who are vulnerable to the illness. And people from extremely abusive homes who don’t get it. Ditto for Bi-Polar Disorder. Circumstances like stress or abuse can trigger attacks of the illness but it often arises “out of the blue” with no discernable causation. The irrational and unaccountable nature of mental illness is usually very difficult for people to understand or accept. Especially in movies we want clear-cut reasons for why things happen!!

When describing Silver Linings to others, I tend to use movie shorthand: “Well it’s kind of a cross between Saturday Night Fever and Long Day’s Journey into Night. As you may recall, the first movie is a wonderful dance flic about a working class family while the later is about an extremely dysfunctional family scourged by the opiate addiction of the mother. The first is basically an upbeat love story revolving around a dance competition and that’s the direction that Silver Linings takes after Pat meets the gorgeous, nutty Tiffany, starts popping his meds and learns to dance. In other words, meet the right girl and the right medication and you’ll be all right. Everyone will cheer for you in the end.

As we all know life rarely has such triumphant moments. Mental illness goes on and on and on. There are victories and then there are defeats and then possibly another victory and so on – if you’re lucky you can maintain an equilibrium between the two ­­– that’s what you end up striving for.
And yet there’s a lot to cheer for in Silver Linings because it does bring mental illness into the spotlight in a very humanizing light; these are all people we can recognize and relate to and care about. We see their anxiety, embarrassment, grief, tears. We want them to succeed – not just the two lovers ­– but Mom, Dad, Brother, Friends – it’s a whole community that finally pulls together. And let’s face it – that’s what we all need!!

Friday, February 22, 2013

what is it like to be famous??!

What is it like to be famous?? That's the question a ten-year-old student poses to me at a school book-signing. Like most authors, I do not feel at all famous. Any more than I feel rich. What I do feel is humble and grateful and, at moments like this school book-signing, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be able to contribute to children's minds and hearts and imaginations. Why else would I write children's books?
The kids I speak to are genuinely interested in why people write stories. So I get a chance to think about and express why I write and what I feel about storytelling. And I tell the kids that  stories are about journeys and growth. My books in the FAR AND AWAY SERIES are about actual journeys of children fleeing war-torn countries and going someplace safe (they hope) during the war-torn years 1939-1945.  But I tell the kids that this "external" journey must be matched by an "internal" journey -- the journey from selfishness to compassion; from fear to courage, from prejudice to understanding. And I explain that stories give us the opportunity to travel all these journeys in ourselves. Stories enable us to grow ourselves into bigger, more humane, kind, understanding, brave people.
When I speak to school groups I always write down my talking points and they're usually pretty simple. I never include the word "passion" and yet when talking about storytelling I become totally passionate. Stories have fed me and continue to feed me. They provide me with the meanings about the world that help me continue and move forward with my life. And I tell the children that frankly writing is even better than reading because you are telling the story you most need to hear. You are doing for yourself first what you hope to do for them - you are creating the meaning that is most likely to sustain you, you are repairing the ill and strengthening the frailty; you are imbuing yourself with the fortitude to continue.
So far my book True Brit has been read and enjoyed by adults as much or more than children. I think that's because I'm not just writing for children, I'm writing for the child within...But I'll explore that topic another time.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Draw of Downtown Abbey -- an intimate community

After posting that negative reaction to Downtown Abbey, I've continued thinking about the appeal of this program.  There's the element of mingling with the rich, powerful, eloquent and well-dressed, of course. That's a distinct draw. Who wouldn't want to engage in such clever repartée with a quick and appropriate response to everything said?

Another feature of the program, I believe is the representation of a tight community. At a time when few of us even share a meal together on a regular basis, here are the servants and the nobility sitting down together and dining on home-cooked (looking delicious) fare 3 times a day. Who wouldn't want to be part of that group who live dormitory style; who share their woes and their thrills; who engender a sort of intimacy that we rarely experience as we drive around solo in automobiles (mini-gated communities I call them) or dine alone or go to movies or the library or walk the dog or pursue other solitary pursuits?

It's not just a community -- it's a very active and for the most part caring community -- and the caring seems to waft upward from servant quarters to the main house and trickles down (a substantial trickle) from up above. How genuine it accurately it represents real attitudes and behavior, I'm not sure...but it is a complex sophisticated portrayal of the interconnectedness of relationships between different classes.

As someone who grew up in the South with black "help", I have often remarked that there's rarely if ever a portrayal of the subtle and complex relationships in that society -- it's almost always romanticized, exaggerated or stereotyped in one way or another with villains and heroes or heroines who are completely at odds with one another. Quite different from Downtown Abbey....

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Leap-frogging into grandparenthood

A friend was speaking to me today about the fact that he met young people who said they didn't want to be parents but wished they could be grandparents. He expressed confusion. He wanted to know what did these young people mean?

The obvious meaning is that they don't want the responsibility of being parents -- the fuss, the time, energy, mess, fear, anxieties of the most difficult job in the world -- they want to fast-forward past all that and just be grandparents -- people who can enjoy a child for a few hours or even a whole day or week but always be able to hand back Joey or Zoey to the parents who takes all the responsibility.

Grandparents also enjoy the freedom to love purely without the demands of parenting. Since you're not responsible for the food, the dentist, the tutor, the rules about eating, dress, behavior, etc. -- you can simply love!! It's very sweet. You can love children in an extremely wholesome and undemanding way for the kids are no longer consciously or unconsciously an extension of your ego -- your looks, brains, musical ability or whatever else you had planned for your child -- they can just be who they are. And, without the overlay of ego, grandparents usually have a real curiosity about this new individual who's entered in the world without the desire to shape him or her into anything else.

Unfortunately, however, for all young people who wish to leapfrog over parenting and go straight to grandparenting, that's not how it works. You don't become chef in a kitchen without learning how to boil water and peel onions and scrub pans. Parenting comes first -- with its peculiar delights and major difficulties. You earn grandparentdom like you earn wrinkles and white hair -- it's a reward, an honor to be accepted, appreciated, and relished. As it usually is...

Downton Abbey -- What a pill!!

I find it hard to believe that even the most die-hard Downton Abbey fans of which there are legion could have really enjoyed the first episode of the new season. Hardly anything interesting or entertaining appeared. All the show was offered were tired story-lines (except maybe Bates and his cell mate). The conflict between Mary and Matthew seemed entirely trumped up while his receiving a huge fortune, at the same time Lord Grantham was losing his, was unbelievable (if the Lavinia's father had really believed Matthew was marrying Lavinia, wouldn't he select his future son-in-law as first in line for heir, not third). Of course no soap plot is entirely logical.

The coup de grace, however, was Shirley Maclaine in the role of Cora's mother. First of all, there was no familial affectionate connection between Shirley and Cora or with any of the granddaughters (except a tiny nod to Ethyl when she wants to marry an older man) -- it's one thing for the English to be such patent snobs but Cora is American and it is her mother. I don't even recall their having any intimate conversation. In the second place, presenting viewers with such a crass unattractive wealthy (possibly Jewish as her name is Levinson) American woman is so clichéd. Perhaps the English are Yankee-bashers but this treatment was obvious and extreme!! Julian Fellowes has shown so many subtle touches in the past, it's truly disappointing that his wizardry has begun to fail.