Friday, December 7, 2007

Press, We Got Press

While I'm recovering from this travel exhaustion/flu/whatever it is, I'm passing on a couple of links for you. The first is from the The Student Printz, the campus newspaper of the University of Southern Mississippi, and it tells you more about the event I just came from, only in much more erudite terms. Great newspaper. Here's the article.

The second is a review of ALL-STARS by Donald Harrison for the San Diego Jewish World News. (Their motto: "There's a Jewish Story Everywhere.") I'm thrilled with this review - it's thorough and thoughtful and... different. Here's a bit of it:

SAN DIEGO—When Jewish families speak reverently about the great Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, typically the story told is about the time that he declined to pitch one particular World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur. The story reinforced to us as children the point that there are some things more important than the routines in our day-to-day lives, and even more important than our Little League teams.

In this book for young readers, Koufax again serves as an example, but his observance of Jewish ritual has nothing to do with it. Twelve-year-old House Jackson broke his elbow in an unfortunate collision with would-be ballerina Frances Schotz, a major misfortune for the Aurora County All Stars, which perennially lack sufficient players to sustain a full season. Benched, House reads and re-reads a story about a time in Koufax’s career when the Dodger great pitched an important game notwithstanding the fact that he was in terrible pain.

Koufax is only one of the baseball role models in this book; another, similarly important to the resolution of the plot, is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the majors. In Aurora County, Mississippi, local folks pointed to Robinson and regretfully told the story of the great-grandfather of Frances Schotz—the still living, still athletic, Parting ‘Pip’ Schotz.
You can find the entire review here. I will say, too, that I knew Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. As a writer juggling lots of balls with ALL-STARS (pun intended!), I had to choose what to put in, what to leave out, and I chose to focus on who Koufax was by showing his determination to be the best he could be and to do right by his team, even in the midst of an elbow that turned black, and fingers that were tinged with gangrene -- he never complained, he never explained. He did his job. He retired before he was 30 -- his arm was worn out. He was a stellar ballplayer; he remains a stellar human being. I modeled my character House after Koufax. See if they don't have the same strong, steady, silence, the same dedication to a cause, the same honor and dignity. Koufax is House's hero. My hero, too.

Reviews are so subjective, don't you think? I always say that when a story leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the person who reads it, and each reader brings his or her own sensibilities -- her own prejudices, too -- to a book. "It's not for me," is a refrain that a good friend of mine uses when a book is being touted as excellent by so many people, but he just can't see why -- he didn't like it. "It's not for me."

And that's true: Every book is not for every reader. We have such different tastes. But I think there IS a way for readers to read like writers, to learn to appreciate a story for how it is told.

For instance, ALL-STARS is told in the tradition of the Grand Southern Storyteller. It spins out and reels you in. It might even seem meandering or leisurely at points, as one reviewer has pointed out, but then, the writer knows what she is doing, all is purposeful -- she is honoring that southern storytelling tradition, and she is also honoring the serial novel tradition (talk about meandering!) of cliffhanger endings, great suspense, multiple sub-plots, edge-of-the-seat conclusions, a cast of characters to rival ULYSSES, mysteries revealed, secrets kept, betrayals turned to advantage, and... dead guys.

It's a huge undertaking with so many balls in the air to be juggled well, so many ends to tie up (or leave hanging), and so much emotion to be mined -- the Victorian serial novel is not all that different from the Southern gothic! It was grand fun and a great challenge to try my hand at this Southern Victorian Serial Novel Form (as I began calling it) and bring it to young readers.

As a reader, I love to find a story that takes a traditional structure and bends it, shapes it, augments it, gives it a personal stamp. I settle in for the ride, knowing I'm in good hands. Reading like a writer: It's an important skill to master, especially if one is reviewing. "What was she trying to do here? How well did she do it?"

Reading for sheer pleasure is yet another skill. We were talking about this in our NCTE workshop last month in NYC -- reading like a writer, reading for pleasure -- can they be one and the same? How do we read and appreciate what goes into a story well told? Given that we are such different people, how and what do we appreciate, and how does that appreciation carry over into our own writing?

I was delighted to read Donald Harrison's review in the San Diego Jewish World, in part because he had discovered something new to write about, something other reviewers hadn't touched on. There are so many layers to a novel; it's a thrill to see them uncovered by readers. Thanks, Donald Harrison, for this appreciative -- and very different! -- review.

Back to bed for me. Hack hack. Sniff sniff. It has turned cold in Atlanta. We keep a crackling fire going all day. I can sit in front of it for a morning, an afternoon, mesmerized by the flames and the warmth, working away on my laptop from time to time, but not today. Today I must rest this head on a pillow. More dreaming.