16 December 2011

In praise of a great first novel

Plot yourself on your couch and enjoy a fantastical magical journey in The Night Circus. Oh these fabulous first novels... Read the review
Happy reading.

15 December 2011

Living the Balance

Another year comes to a close. And it came so fast, again.

One after another, and they add up. We reflect, we learn, and we move on.

I don't do much in the way of resolutions but I recall that last year I promised myself to stay true to my goals of good health, to make just enough money to live comfortably, to live more in the moment and finish my novel. Unbelievably, even to me, always goal oriented, they have indeed been fulfilled.

So I suppose we can say this was a very good year. It was, Mostly. I walk almost every day, I read every day, I speak or see friends often. My daughters are healthy and following their paths with satisfaction and success. That alone makes for a very good year.

I have good clients and meaningful work. I don't charge too much because greed is not good. I did only one volunteer gig this year, need to do more. I support the charities I can.

I finished a serious draft of the novel I wanted to write and it turned out well. Okay, better than I hoped. Where it goes, that remains to be seen in the 2013 year.

I wrote book reviews all year [always wanted to do that] and a new column and of course newsletters and annual reports and grants, all to the best of my ability.

I traveled to Turkey, spent just one weekend in the wine country and not enough time but good time in New York and Connecticut, days filled with the best of friends, plus art and  theater and the many joys of the Big Apple.

Most of my friends are healthy and doing well, for this I am most grateful. However this was the year I lost the man who became my brother. Not a good year for dear David and his family and friends. it would be easy to let this great loss wipe out all the other gifts of the year, but this is life. Every year - the balance of blessings and sorrow. The balance of wins and losses.

Perhaps a good year is merely the balance. Thus, it's been a good year.

31 October 2011

A time for change

Change is in the air - the very essence of fall, and, to a large extent, the essence of those of us who have reached the autumn of our lives. I embrace change. I often long for it. For so many others, change is feared. I've never understood why, but it is ubiquitous.

Many of my favorite moments have to do with change. That day every year our family stepped out of a dark frigid February, through the clouds and into the heavy heat of a Caribbeanisland vacation. The first chill of Autumn, colored by falling leaves, or the first days of Spring, backlit by hyacinths on the hill and forsythia along the side of the road.

The smell and feel of a new car. The rush of new furnishings and new shoes. Freshly painted walls. The first settling under the fluffy quilt that replaces the flat cotton blanket.

I am reminded often of Peggy Lee's "Is that all there is?" Her sultry voice whispers often in my ears. I cannot imagine the sameness of days, the permanence of place or work, the constancy of the same people, however much I find myself, now and then, admiring those who have that.

And now, I face a life ahead without my anchor. My dear friend is gone. Only memories to make me smile. This is the change, unwelcome and jarring, that defines aging. Loss, and its sister, longing, diminish the pleasure of change, unless we can accept, fully and peacefully, that losses define us as much as the memories and more than the promise of what will be.

I believe every day that the best is yet to be. A personal mantra. Although, of late, I might be happier to stay put in what is good, without losing anyone or anything - willing to trade intransigence for loss.

Then again, tomorrow I may change my mind.

07 September 2011

The Werewolf Within

This blog for the most part has to do with change - within and without. Or, in contrast, the rut one easily falls into without sufficient change, even the littlest bit, day to day. Even reading the same sort of material, which I generally do, preferring literary contemporary fiction with an interesting story, can become its own rut. Thus, when presented by a knowledgable friend with a new novel that has to do with a werewolf, my first reaction was, no way.

And that is the AHA moment - why not try something that seems otherwise out of my range of interest? After all, it's just a book - not a paradigm shift. Following are the results. Once again, change is good.

This is not a book I would have read. Yes, the reviews were excellent. And yes, it is published by Knopf, one of the best fiction publishers in the world. Still, I don't read about werewolves. As a rule. But every rule has its exception and much to my surprise, I can wholeheartedly recommend THE LAST WEREWOLF by Glen Duncan. It is one helluva read. [And many thanks to Robyn at Laguna Beach Books for the heads up.]

Smart. Exciting. Philosophical. Jason Bourne crossed with Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. Erotic. Violent. Gruesome in parts, oh yes. Touching, yes that too, much as that seems unlikely. You will absolutely fall in love with the Jake – the last werewolf on earth after the systematic destruction of all others by an occult group bent on vengeance. But, as every action has a reaction, there are the others who want to keep him alive [I won't say more, too easy to spoil the fun]. Of course there are the moonlit victims. The lovers. The advocates. Quite a line-up of characters, all well drawn.

In the end, like all good fiction, the writing makes the book worth reading. The descriptive prose and existential angst reads like literary fiction. The voice of a lonely creature, not so different from all the lonely creatures who have wandered the planet for hundreds of years. "Humans are moving into a new phase, one based on the knowledge that talking about their feelings has never got them anywhere. The Demonstrative Age… I shan't be around to see it. That, since I asked the question myself, is how I feel, surer than ever that my clock's been right all along, that I've had enough, that it's time to go, that I really can't stand it any more, the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love."

I tend to see all good literature as metaphor, so I spent the better part of the book, while entranced with the complex plotting and captivating characters, wondering what it is that the author wants us to understand. Or, perhaps, this novel is merely a grittier sexier Harry Potter for grown-ups [although not so many wizards to keep track of]. I’ll leave that to you to decide for yourself, but consider this:

"Monsters die out when the collective imagination no longer needs them. Species death like this is nothing more than a shift in the aggregate psychic agenda. In ages past the beast in man was hidden in the dark, disavowed. The transparency of modern history makes that impossible: we've seen ourselves in the concentration camps, the gulags, the jungles, the killing fields, we've read ourselves in the annals of True Crime. Technology turned up the lights and now there's no getting away from the fact: the beast is redundant. It's been us all along."

Now you want to read it too, don't you? So, take a break from the classics or the mysteries or whatever reading rut you are in, and enjoy something as intelligent as it is improbable. Or is it?

And doesn't he just look like a werewolf???

Bravo to Glen Duncan.
Author of The Last Werewolf.
A great read.

24 August 2011

Worth reading

"Love of my Youth" by Mary Gordon. See book review at

28 June 2011

Summer Reading

Not that I've had a free moment lately nor has the weather been optimum to sit on the beach [by the time I like to go, at day's end, it's been a bit too cool even with a sweathshirt] but I am reading a lot and always happy to share. You might know that I am the OCBookBlogger for a regional website and I've posted recently one book I especially like plus a summer reading list for grown-ups. Go to www.ocinsite.com/index.php/blog and scroll to me.

As for what's on my pile [or my Kindle] The Borrower, the new Mary Gordon, Silver Sparrow, War and Peace [never got to that one last summer] and the latest Lionel Shriver, plus another look at the Pulitzer Winner by Jennifer Egan.

Speaking of which, I am seriously miffed that The Warmth of Other Suns lost out on the Pulitzer and I still consider this book the achievement of the last year.

Happy summer reading.

13 May 2011

Turkey Part II: Istanbul

Istanbul. Once Constantinople. Not exactly beautiful, but elegant, vibrant. Ancient and eclectic. The skyline is a cross between Hong Kong and San Francisco. The great Bosphorous, the river that spans the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is the gateway not only for ships large and small, but the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The only city in the world that spans two continents, and that’s only the first distinction of this fascinating place.

Turkey is bordered by six countries and four great bodies of water, central to almost every major historical culture, is it no wonder that it has been the target of conquerors forever. Now, 97% Muslim, moderate and modern, Istanbul, while not the official capital [that's Ankora] is the heart of the country.

I am awakened at dawn first by the call to prayer and then by seagulls and foghorns. At night, one hardly realizes that the lights sparkling on the hillside beyond rise above the Golden Horn, the harbor, the right arm of the Bosphorous that marks the European side of the city. Above the streets, the noise dims, but the traffic flow Friday night around the city is like nothing I’ve seen before. Despite its 8500 year lifespan, the city is not at all ready for modernity. But it is trying.

Muslim women are hardly in evidence, not here, nor anywhere we travel. They are invisible or hidden under scarves and heavy garb. It is tradition here. Men on the other hand seem to own the streets, the shops, the very essence of Turkish life. They are the waiters, the shopkeepers, the hoteliers, the hawkers in the incredible spice market and Grand Bazaar. They gather at sidewalk cafes for tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee, they hold meetings on street corners, and some, what they call the commission agents, hound tourists and single women to nudge them into their pottery or carpet shops. They are not threatening, but tenacious. They think I’m French [must be the scarf] and speak to me in that language. I have been advised not to engage so I don’t, although I so much want to chat with the locals. At last, at a late lunch in a small café, I chat with a waiter who is a former Russian skier who learned English while training in Colorado. Small world. Limping and seemingly unflappable, he brings me lentil soup with a wedge of lemon [delicious] a diet Pepsi [rare in the world of Coca Cola] and then offers me apple tea, on the house he says, which I discover is quite often the case here and a lovely gesture. He kisses my hand when I leave, as if I am royalty. Nice touch.

Throngs of tourists here, largely European, surprising number of Russians, lots of Germans, and the rest. Everywhere there is tile, tile and more tile, especially in the remarkable Hagia Sofia church and the Blue Mosque, but also the tiny mosaic museum tucked off a winding cobblestone street in old Sultanahmet, near an elegant bazaar and a pudding shop, and off the side streets where the old Ottoman wooden houses are badly in need of repair. Stores filled with many forms of “Turkish Delight” [colorful squares that look like marshmallow] which is too gushy for me, as well as Baklava and Halvah. The tea is so dark they provide urns of hot water to dilute. No lemon or milk allowed, but always cubes of sugar, thankfully. I am reminded how much I love cubes of sugar, which Splenda has yet to recreate.

An ancient cistern that provided water to the basilica, now darkly lit and graceful, holds evening concerts on a small stage resting on the water. Along the perimeter of mosques are basins for washing – one must wash both hands and feet before prayer – which, among the observant, is five times a day. Every hotel room has both spare pillow and prayer rug. The call to prayer is always the same, except the first, which adds something to the effect that it is more meaningful to pray than to sleep. The Friday mid-day prayer is the most holy.

I confess, I find this prayer cycle, which follows the cycle of the sun, to be inspiring. Just to think that Muslims all over the world are stopping at similar times in their day to pay homage and to consider their blessings. These moderate Muslims in Turkey are reverent people. They show respect for one another and for their traditions. They do not condone violence. They respect all Abrahamic religions and have special reverence for Jesus, a prophet, like Mohammed. He is mentioned 100 times in the Qur’an. Beyond the spirituality of the prayer ritual is the beauty of the music of the Imam calling from minarets everywhere. Like steeples ringing their bells.

We take the tram to a funicular, up a steep hill to Taksim Square, sort of Times Square without the theaters, considered the center of modern Istanbul, and wander down the main drag – Istiklai Caddesi – to the Galata Tower and then down to the harbor. Sunday afternoon. Istanbullas and their families walk, eat and shop – sound familiar? On this side of the harbor is also the amazing Dolmabache Palace, their own Versailles, built in homage to the monarchy but ending with the founder of the Republic, Ataturk, living and dying there, not very long ago. A gift from Queen Victoria – a 4 ton cut glass chandelier, is amazingly beautiful. Two polar bear rugs were gifts from the Czar Nicholas. Stunning large carpets[double knotted in the Turkish tradition.] For me, massive carved painted ceilings are the highlight, just gorgeous. The “Harem” meaning the private quarters, separate from the work center, have many bedrooms for royal wives and many guestrooms. A short walk from the palace takes you back to the Galata Bridge, ont he way to the spice market. Lower level of the bridge are fish restaurants and coffee houses. Along the quay, fishermen sell not only fish from their boats, but freshly grilled fish sandwiches, wrapped in flat breads with tomatoes, peppers, olives.

The spice market is just that and more - nuts, spices, seeds of every variety, and the smells are simply amazing.

The Topkapi Palace is so besieged by tourists that I don’t go in, but instead, wander the lovely park surrounding the palace and discover the archeological museum, filled to the brim with artifacts and sarcophagi. Great find.

The old mansions along the river are largely used as summer homes, many boarded up. Orhan Pamuk wrote so beautifully of these in “Istanbul” which I’m so glad I read before traveling. They seem a reminder, perhaps an admonishment, of the European tradition.

I also visit the Istanbul Modern Museum, housed in an old warehouse on the river, a lovely display of Turkish art spanning all the same movements as other European countries, just a bit later. Turkish impressionists, Turkish realists, etc. Great open space, very hip, framed by river views. The café is filled with Europeans, with drinks and prices to match. And the obligatory techno music! In the distance, ferries and cruise ships. Minarets and curved mosques watch over the proceedings with pride.

On the Asian side, which we see only as the overnight train passes through on the way to Ankora, the homes are larger and more modern, suburban. There is real affluence here.

On the last day of my visit, an extended day I took to have more time in Istanbul, which I’m so glad I did, I have dinner with my lovely new friends from Victoria, British Columbia, at a small neighborhood fish restaurant [Sultanahmet Fish House] run by a family, the best meal of the trip for me, with fine Turkish white wine. A perfect end.

There is much more to see in Istanbul and I can imagine returning some day, but not until many other places have been seen. Where next is the only question. And when?

This was another great trip organized by Gap Adventures: www.gapadventures.com

09 May 2011

Turkey Part I: Overview

16 days from big city to villages, mountains to sea, ancient to modern.

Captivating country. Diverse and visually arresting. Ancient and holy. Bounded by four major seas and six countries. A crossroads of cultures, races and religions over centuries, now a secular Republic, 97% Muslim. Five times a day the call to prayer hauntingly reminds you of where you are. Muslims here are reserved, kind, good humored. Patriarchal. Still largely agrarian although the number one source of revenue is now tourism. Turkey has been found!

Our tour leader also serves as a guide, a wonderful young Turk with a degree in tourism, knowledgeable and reverent. Perfect host. 15 people, largely Canadian and US, lovely group.

I begin in Istanbul – 15 million+ population – busy, sprawling, but also surprisingly intimate. A place that has been through so many iterations and is perhaps unprepared but charging into modernity. Crawling with visitors. The Bosphorous River, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, is wide and elegant. Istanbul is the only place on earth that spans two continents - Europe sits on one side of a bridge and Asia on the other. The Golden Horn, the harbor, connects the two European sides of the city, where the major sites are spread out. The Blue Mosque shares a plaza with the elegant Hagia Sophia church – a metaphor for the city and the country, from Christian to Roman, Byzantine to Islam…

On an overnight train, we head to Ankora, the capital, and business capital, which is merely a station to connect with ground transport to the Cappadocia Region where remarkable rock formations create vast networks of “buildings” and caves line the hillsides. Underground cities have been excavated for visiting. Brown and arrid, we hike and explore the remarkable landscape. Hot air balloons take off every morning at dawn for an hour or so to float over the stunning topography. From below, the formations seem like stalagmites, from above stalactites [or is it the other way around?} The summation: more than 10 million years ago, three volcanoes erupted, dropping lava, mud and ash. Over time, they cooled to compress into a soft porous rock, which eroded and carved out structures that seem like giant trolls. They call them fairy houses. It is said the wind also contributed to the molding into tall cones and pillars. Indescribable so view good photos at http://www.google.com/search?q=cappadocia+turkey&hl=en&rlz=1G1ACAW_ENUS328&prmd=ivnsm&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=fzvITcmpCqbx0gGE7f2iCA&ved=0CD4QsAQ&biw=1172&bih=436

Goreme is a charming, old-West sort of city. Avanos, the pottery center, spreads out along a river with tree-lined paths. The Turkish Baths is quite the communal experience [shared the sauna with a lively group of Russians!] A performance of Whirling Dervishes presents the trance-like homage to Allah. We enjoy a home-cooked meal at the home of a family with adorable boys.

Konya, center of the conservative Muslim community, is a way station on the way to the Mediterranean. Also home to gypsies living in encampments on the edge of the city. Rumi Museum honors his poetry and spirituality.

On the way… rooftop solar panels on almost all the apartment buildings to heat water. Cost: $800. Lasts roughly 12 years. Visually an odd rippled affect. Also limestone and marble quarries, big industry in southern region. Whole hillsides carved out as if antiquity, but instead the signs of rapid population growth. Government builds standard issue apartment buildings for moderate income families and sells as condominiums. Not much variance in the modern architecture.

Note: Men stare at me, neither threatening nor admiring, rather as if I am odd in some way. I discover that a fellow traveler, also gray-haired, has the same reaction. Women dye their hair or cover their heads with scarves, so silver hair is indeed an oddity.

Antalya is Turkey’s version of Miami Beach – tall buildings line boulevards along the sea. In contrast, the old city, flanked by stone pillars and cobblestone streets, surrounds the marina. A walking path above the sea parallels the tram line, which leads to a lovely museum filled with iconography, excavated statues and ornately carved sarcophagi. We have a glass of wine at sunset on the hotel patio overlooking a cove – snow capped mountains are visible in the distance. Feels like the Cote D’Azur – in Turkey, the Turquoise Coast.

Kas, I could have stayed there a week – charming coastal seaside village. As if in Greece. We spend a lovely day on a boat owned by a local couple. He navigates, she cooks lunch. Warm people. Gorgeous day. The Med is cold for swimming but the sun is high. We travel close to the coastline to see a 4th century sunken city [kayakers get an even closer view] and an island disconnected from the mainland by a 10th c. earthquake. Simena, a tiny village built into the hills of an island, all wooden structures, mostly café’s and pensyons, is accessible only by boat.

Note: Buttercups, tulips and daffodils. Red poppies grow wild. Rows and rows of greenhouses [they look like salt flats from a distance] filled with tomatoes, cukes, corn and pumpkin. On hillsides, olive, peach and fig trees. Interspersed with tall pines along the mountains.

Turkish carpets are double-knotted, thus considered superior to Persian. Huge industry – 50,000 people involved. Men run the business, women do the weaving. Working conditions have improved so that some women can work from home. Natural dyes. Wool. cotton, blends and also silk – Turkey is third largest producer of silk. I succumb and negotiate well a lovely small cotton carpet in gorgeous shades of blue.

On the Aegean Sea. Fetiye. Lovely city, more upscale, sophisticated. Brits have summer homes here. Temples carved into rock. Seaside path with café’s. Lovely Bazaar. Some of the group visit the mud baths. Lunch in a tree covered courtyard downtown – mezes [tapas] largely eggplant and tomato based, also fava and lima beans, hearty and healthy, always with big chunks of baguette or flat breads. We also sit at tables by a dirt road where women cook filled pancakes [spinach, potato, eggplant] on a flat stone in the fire. Food is otherwise hard for me here – so much meat and cheese. Kebabs are good, also casseroles cooked in clay pots. Lemons squeezed into lentil soup, delicious. I rediscover halivah and also the pleasure of Greek tea – very dark. Apple tea an afternoon favorite, served in small tulip shaped glasses, the shape of the Arabic letters that spell Allah. [I bring a few home, will be perfect for afternoon tea.] At the fish market one night, we choose a fish, pay for it, then one of the restaurants within the market cooks to taste, served with rice and salad. Lovely meal.

Denizli, unusually modern city, home to textile factories and coal mines. Nicer looking new buildings. We lunch here at a hilltop café, en route to Pamukkale – circa 7,000 BC, built by Greeks. Mineral waters here crystallize over time into white cliffs. The remaining pools are pale aqua in color and varied in temperature. Geo-thermal engineering captures underground waters for irrigation. We explore the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient holy city, a teaser to Ephesus which comes next.

Ephesus, 6th – 3rd century BC. Maybe as many as half a million lived here. 24,000 can sit in the theater. Once perched along a u-shaped harbor, which no longer exists. Greeks, Romans, Ottamons, they all lived here. Every sort of column is represented – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Once the center of “Asia Minor.” Founded by Amazon Goddesses. It is said that Mother Mary spent her last days in a stone house near here, under the protection of the Epostle John who spread his gospel from Turkey. Sophisticated infrastructure. Clay water pipes. Toilet houses with deep troughs flushed by flowing waters below. Fabulous library, which even empty feels like a library. Pagans and Jews here at one time as well - a mazuzah carved into a footstone near bibliotec. Only 15% of the site has been excavated – it is against the law to do more until the technology improves, so as not to destroy antiquity. We visit Sirince, an old Greek village in the steep hills above Selcuk, where Greeks resided until population exchange at close of WWI. Half a million Turks living in Greece were sent back to Turkey and over a million Greeks deported. Low pitched roofs, white stone walls, brown trimmed windows, all seem like Greece still. Narrow streets filled with vendors like a bazaar. Lush hills grow olives turned into oil and soap.

We enjoy a wonderful dinner at a cozy restaurant in Selcuk before departing for return to Istanbul. This city needs its own blog. To be continued…

Photos at: https://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Turkey#

09 February 2011

What's great about working freelance...

Take a typical day for example - ah, there's the answer - there is no typical day, and that's what makes working on one's own so great. Often, I walk first thing in the morning, a great way to energize the day. Sometimes I walk at the end of day, the sunset walk, to soothe the savage [born most often of difficult clients] or simply to stretch the spine that sat too still at the computer for too long. Sometimes, like today, I manage the email, read the headline news, listen to NPR, and even have time to watch a few fabulous TED talks, before I head to Zumba or Pilates class. Sometimes I stop mid-day for a class. In between, after showers and between meals, I work. I write. I interview. I council or conference with clients. If I feel like it, and sometimes I do, I take an extended lunch with a friend or colleague, or I read, the guiltiest pleasure of this freelancer. Late in the day, when the work that must be done is done, I might take my audio Spanish class or meet a friend for a bit of vino. Make no mistake - I work hard, I make my deadlines, I satisfy clients. The work is always top of mind but not all. I learned long ago that working smart is better than working hard - one has to stay focused, outcome-based, with a working calendar that lays out week by week what needs to be done and when. It's the in-betweens that make life delicious, perhaps there is a true metaphor here. This is the time once taken by superfluous meetings or wasteful chatter, the trappings of the office life. Even commuters can read or listen to a book and that must ease their pain. [Woe to those who listen to talk radio!] Sure, sometimes I miss the collegial environment, but much less so in my advanced age. Solitude and silence have become good companions, and facilitate productivity. I'm blessed with marketable skills and the discipline to work for myself. And savings that cushion my cash flow. I've also vigilantly reduced expenses in recent years, although this largely to pay for the wanderlust that grows more demanding over time. Still, I manage. I don't need much and that's a comfort. I hope I have seen my last "desk job" but one never knows - perhaps some fabulous post will come to my attention and I'll go back inside, it's happened before. But, in truth, I am spoiled and sated by this life, and most grateful for it. And for the clients that sustain me.