Wednesday, August 31, 2011

And They're Off!

After two days of school cancellations due to the detritus left behind by Hurricane Irene, the kids are back in school.


Does anyone else feel this was the longest summer ever?

But a good one.

And speaking of sending off, just popped into the FedEx box a wee little manuscript to an agent who requested the full monty. I am exhilarated and terrified and not sure whether to vomit or weep.



Saturday, August 27, 2011

To Be Sung Underwater (Review)

The man sits hidden among pines on a bluff overlooking the grid of farms and county roads lying north. It is hot. Several times now the man has moved his three-legged camp stool to maintain full shade. That is how long he has been waiting and watching and drinking. He watches through a scope, a 3 x 9 x 40 Bushnell, the one he has used in his lifetime for large, wary prey – deer, for example, and sometimes antelope.

So begins TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER, a novel by Tom McNeal (Little Brown). But the man is not waiting for game but for a woman, the woman he loved twenty-five years earlier as a seventeen year-old transplant from Vermont. This is the love story between Willy Blunt, a young carpenter with pale blue eyes, and Judith Whitman, a driven young woman who comes to live with her father in Nebraska. In one summer, they fall in love and to Judith, marrying Willy seems the natural next and best step in her life. But when college takes her to California, Judith pursues her dream of a film editing career and forgets Willy. She marries a successful banker, has a daughter, and lives a dream life. But her marriage has secrets, some of them kept from her, and Judith becomes dissatisfied and restless with her life. She remembers the sweeter and slower times she had with Willy in the wide-open Nebraska plains. This story is about what happens when a woman trying to remember love reaches back into her past to find the man who never forgot her.

To Be Sung Underwater is both lush and transparent. The prose sings without drawing attention to itself. McNeal paints the beauty and harshness of Nebraska, as well as the rush and sparkle of Los Angeles, with enviable ease. The story alternates from past to present, and he weaves the two time periods seamlessly. For a man, McNeal writes girl good, especially when he writes Judith as a teenager. Here, the writing shines with wit and irony and the right touch of rebellion of every young person. This, when Judith first meets Willy, who has come to roof a neighbor’s house:

Judith watched him follow her in and didn’t stop watching until the door closed behind them. When she turned back, the station wagon was still there and the bearded roofer was looking her way. The red brim of his Purina seed cap was stained dark with sweat, and his amused expression seemed to suggest he knew a little bit more about this country and about this farm and possibly even about her than she ever would. It was quite an irritant. With all the hostility she could muster, she said, “What’re you looking at?”

The roofer made dropping his gaze seem like an act of deference. “Well, I was looking at you,” he said, then raised his eyes again and let them settle even more fully on Judith. “And I’ll bet I’m not the first.” He was smiling again.

Judith gave him a stony stare and said,” Are you half-witted or just easily amused?”

She expected this to send the roofer into retreat, but it didn’t. His smile in fact loosened slightly. He raked his fingers through his beard and said, “Just exactly how old are you, anyway?”

“Seventeen,” she lied.

He nodded, stared off for a moment, then turned his face to her again. “Well, then, I’d call you dangerous.”

McNeal shows great affection for his characters. They come across as honest, flawed, and compassionate. Judith is the girl of the seventies, a time when women began openly to flex their brains and muscles. She doesn’t quite trust relationships, even with Willy, due in large part to her own parents’ failing marriage. Willy uses big language and once had big dreams, but finds his talent and his lot in carpentry, in building things. This love estranges him from his father, who wishes nothing more than for him to take over the family farm.

Summer in Nebraska is full of lazy days drinking beer at secret swimming holes, making out in Willy’s truck, Thursday afternoon trysts in Judith’s bedroom while her father is away. Willy drinks beer in almost every scene, and I wondered why Judith, astute in most other ways, never questions his constant drinking. Her neglect of this detail plays a significant role in their relationship and in their ends. Without giving away too much, the finale has a Hollywood feel, perhaps too closely scripted and contrived relative to the rest of the novel. You sense the oncoming tragedy, the tension palpable.

McNeal writes a gorgeous, devastating tale, one which will make you rethink what is important in your life. It is a story of living a reflective life, even if that soul-searching comes too late for redemption. It is a story of choices made, and how to gain some happiness by returning to those wrongly made choices. Reading To Be Sung Underwater often left me in a state of peace, of serenity, an almost spiritual place. If this is what Rufus Sage, Nebraska feels like, then take me there. Transport me, the way this book does, to a place of greater grace.

About the Author: Tom McNeal's first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, won the James A Michener Memorial Prize and California Book Award. His short fiction has appeared in the The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize XXI. He lives near San Diego with his wife and sons. To learn more about Tom and his writing wife Laura, check out their website McNeal Books.

Peace, Linda

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back Again

Back from a trip to West Virginia (it really IS remote). More on that jaunt later, but for now please take a gander at my story POISON PILL, thanks to the kind folks at Every Day Fiction. Peace...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

You know you're a writer when...

You go back-to-school shopping and your kids get embarrassed because you're salivating over all the lovely Uniball gels and fine-tipped retractable Sharpies and smooth green Ticonderogas...

You know those 3-ring binders students zip up and throw over their shoulders like a book bag? These lovely school essentials now come with insurance. Yep, for a mere five bucks, if your binder breaks at any time in 2 years, you can return to your local Office Depot for a free replacement. You better believe I jumped all over that offer. Last year alone I bought three of those suckers -- for just one child. Kaching!

The crickets are chirping. Their song has replace that of the cicadas and tree frogs. Early morning, when I wake to write, a rogue cricket chirps from the basement. This is how I mark the wane of summer -- cricket song.

The end of summer means the beginning of school. This summer felt interminable. I'll be happy when that yellow bus turns the corner in another week. I think the kids will be too. A few days ago, after a particularly nasty spat of sibling sparring, I asked them, "Why do you fight so much?" My eldest sighed. "Mom," he said. "Summer is just like a long weekend. A really long weekend. We get bored, so we fight. Plus, it's fun."

This fall semester will find me on both sides of the desk. I teach a graduate level health policy class, a lot of fun and a chance to engage with the student seminar-style. But I'm also going to be a student myself, starting course-work for a Masters of Art in Creative Writing. I'm excited, I'm petrified, but mostly I'm wondering how the hell I'm going to keep all my balls in the air.

What are YOU looking forward to as summer winds down? Peace...

Monday, August 08, 2011


I slipped into the city swelter a fish returned to spawn...

This line came to me as I walked alongside the Lexington Market to my office. The hot summer smells of roasted peanuts and rotting vegetables, greasy chicken wings, hot tar from the pavers. A thin breeze brushed the city with the faint brine of ocean.

I have not walked this route for two weeks, yet all remained predictable: the commuters rushing to the sanctuary of the University, the young girl squalling in the unattended stroller, the dread-locked man nodding by the wall, the methadone kicking in. It occurred to me I had not missed this five block walk, that the daily ritual depressed me; I had felt lighter walking alongside the soybean fields in North Carolina.

Most of my co-workers drive to work and park in the eleven floors below our offices. They take the elevator and stay all day in hermetically-sealed rooms until their work is done. They take the return elevator to their car, and leave the city for cleaner, safer, antiseptic space. I used to justify my metro commute -- the walk through the hustlers and buskers, the whores and junkies, the workers who sell their wares, the street cleaners and parking lot attendants, the roving gangs of kids out of school -- as a needed dose of reality, innoculation against the sleepiness of the suburbs.

But for two weeks I didn't miss the walk. Now, I feel my edges turning blue. Peace...

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shhhhhh... Summer Is in Progress

It's quiet here, and for good reasons. Most of all, I've been away, sweltering last week in North Carolina while visiting family. I've been a single mom, with Henry out West for his brother's wedding. The heat and humidity made most everything uncomfortable, and we did all get cranky being housebound, but we did manage to swim a lot, consume frozen confections of various types, and even take in a Mudcats ballgame as the sun set at 102 degrees. Beer and Dipping Dots made the weather bearable.

I didn't write a damn thing other than a short scene for my novel that came to me one morning. My blog post was written the week before and was a retread from last summer. I've barely blog-hopped, tweeted twice, and don't think I popped onto facebook a single time in ten days.

Back in Baltimore, a tad less hot. For three days I've had the house to myself, and have used most of that time to work on final edits on a novel, readying it for marketing. It may be hot, but it felt like Christmas when I unwrapped helpful edits from two talented and trusted writers.

I've also ruminated a lot, mostly on being a mother and the difficulty in finding a balance between being a friend and being a disciplinarian. Raising children is a lot like writing a book -- there are infinite ways to get to the ending. I'm fairly tolerant of their antics -- they are just kids after all -- and try to use their less-than-admirable times as teaching moments. But sometimes Mama comes undone, and that's cause for reflection. Mostly I realize I not perfect, and neither are my children, and try to cut all of us some slack.

Reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) which started slow but quickly catapaulted me into the culture, history, and mouthfeel of the Dominican Republic. I wish I understood Spanish, Diaz sprinkles the language throughout; I know I am missing the fullness of his work in my half-ass translations.

Two more days of vacation. This is the first time in 16 years I have been away from work for two weeks. I've enjoyed the laziness, the solitude, the reliance on pizza and tomatoes from the garden, the absence of the internet. It's gonna be hard to leave the slow lane. Peace...