Category Archives: Read This

Friday Five: Getaway Edition

Reading: The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. Here is a screen shot of all the books my queue (my virtual nightstand). But I was craving a mystery, and I’m a sucker for anything with “Paris” in the title.

photo

Watching: September brings not only a new school year, but a new TV season. Hooray! My favorites start this weekend. Fortunately, I’ve had Ray Donovan, Broadchurch and my old standby, House Hunters International on HGTV to get me through the summer. I am addicted to HHI — so formulaic! Having lived in NYC, LA and Boston — apparently, if the rental prices on the show are accurate, the most expensive cities in the world — I get a kick out of people bemoaning the prices of rentals in, say, Berlin or even Rome.

Cooking:  The children are still eating greens and couscous and chicken and stuff, but between travel schedules and Back-to-School-Nights and work events, I am neither cooking nor eating. All I can muster up is my new favorite breakfast, but at least it makes me feel like I’ve done something healthy for myself: Fage Greek yogurt with flax seeds and a bit of granola mixed in. Berries & peaches.

Listening to: Katy Perry’s “Roar”. Look, the girl can write a hit song. Extra credit for one appropriate for both mother and first-grade daughter to sing at the top of their voices.

Doing: Off to Nantucket. My dear friend Lindsey describes in words more lovely that I ever could what I will be doing this weekend.

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Tuesday Five: Julie Flygare

wide-awake-and-dreaming-cover-final-JPEG1-683x1024Julie Flygare is a writer, runner*, yogini, and lawyer (my kind of girl!). While in law school, she was diagnosed with narcolepsy and cataplexy (lawyers: can you imagine?), and chronicles her diagnoses and the aftermath in her memoir,  Wide Awake and Dreaming: A Memoir of NarcolepsyShe quickly found an agent for the book, who sent the manuscript around to all the right editors at all the right imprints. But as many talented writers find, if you’re not a celebrity or Cheryl Strayed, memoir is a particularly competitive and difficult genre in which to publish. Julie, however, knew her story needed to be told, and this book would be her calling card and her entrée into the world of advocacy for her disease. So she self-published, and her experience and motives are the perfect example of why I am actually a big fan of self-publishing (more on that tomorrow). The result? She has ordered numerous reprints of the book and her website has crashed from all the traffic. She is currently a spokesperson for narcolepsy research, and her influence and platform are only growing — with the book (a truly compelling read, by the way) to back it up.

How do you know me?  We went to Boston College Law School together, and had mutual friends who put us in contact directly a few years later when I was going through the book publishing process. You looked over my proposal and my previous agent’s efforts and gave me honest helpful advice for proceeding forward with my book.

Why did you go to law school? I went to law school to study art law. I was an art history major at Brown University and fascinated by intellectual property, international art trade treaties and WW II reparation issues. My father (a lawyer) was influential in this decision as well.

When did you know you wanted to write a memoir? I’ve always loved writing and took a few creative non-fiction writing classes in high school and college. As my experience with narcolepsy evolved, I never thought to write about it. I wanted nothing more than to hide my narcolepsy and erase it from my life.

Graduating from law school, I’d planned to write a different book, based on a law school health law paper I’d written. My law school mentor, Professor Chirba had strongly encouraged me to pursue a career in writing. About a month into learning about the writing and publishing process, I found myself drawn to telling my own story with narcolepsy. Once the idea hit me, there was no turning back. Something clicked, stars aligned – it felt so “right”.

What has been the biggest surprise about self-publishing?  Very few people seem to realize or care that my book is self-published. I was surprised that the current print-on-demand mechanisms make it challenging to mimic the well-planned “book release date”, but once it released, it’s been no stress at all. Of course, it’s harder to get coverage in major magazines and self-published books are ineligible for many book contests – but it’s been so thrilling to get my story out there to the world. Self-publishing was a lot of work, but I am a control freak and so it was nice to maintain control at every step, especially in the book cover process. I am very proud of my final product.

Describe your perfect day.  My perfect day would include giving a presentation at a conference and hosting a book signing afterwards. I get to talk about myself and people clap? It’s still a bit surreal. I love traveling, making people smile and inspiring them to reach for their dreams now – don’t wait!  As a person with narcolepsy, these activities leave me totally exhausted but when I close my eyes to sleep, I know in my heart I’m doing what I love.

*Julie ran the Boston Marathon after her diagnosis. Badass.

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Friday Five: What I’m…

Reading: (Or, more accurately, read — the past-tense — as I devoured it) The Hive by Gill Hornby. A snarky, funny, yet poignant story of the friendships you make almost by default when your children start school.

Watching:  Broadchurch on BBC America. Like a good Maisie Dobbs mystery, I’m hooked on British policewomen and picturesque English towns with a dark side.

Cooking
:  Last of the summer tomatoes. This recipe is adapted from the cookbook Time for Dinner, and is really this easy: Fresh chopped tomatoes (use a knife if you must, but squishing with hands OK too), chopped garlic, basil leaves, salt, pepper in a bowl. Pour hot pasta over to cover tomatoes and cook them slightly for about two minutes. Toss. Throw on some olive oil and cheese if you want (I always want).

Doing:  Early fall weekends seem to be filled with soccer and birthday parties.

soccer

Wearing: Oops

shoes

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Looking for Wonder Woman: Slaughter, Sandberg, and Spar (and Me)

WonderWomanI have already downloaded (on my iPad, remember?) Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College. The book was published yesterday, and she was interviewed in the New York Times over the weekend and wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Superwoman Myth.” She seems poised to continue the conversation started by Anne-Marie Slaughter last June in The Atlantic in the controversial piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s equally controversial Lean In. Both Slaughter (whose book  stemming from The Atlantic piece will be published by Random House next spring) and Sandberg have helped me rethink — and have encouraged me to change — my attitude and approach toward working full-time in a competitive industry with small children. And even in just these two articles Spar has suggested intriguing (and undoubtedly also controversial) theories about the modern woman in the modern workplace. I cannot wait to read the book.

To summarize Slaughter’s nuanced Atlantic article: she  was director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton; ultimately she felt she couldn’t mother her teenage sons while working such a time-consuming, long-distance job. And so she set out to look at why that was and why even women as educated and accomplished as she faced similar frustrations. Amidst her many anecdotes, a very small quotation in the article had a disproportional impact on me. Slaughter wrote of “a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.” I interpreted this as:  biology plays an undeniable role in women’s actions in the workplace, yet it is largely ignored. But the reality is we get pregnant and tired and then we are mothers who are torn (at times) and tired (at all times). Moreover, so what if we have a biological predisposition to assume more of the physical parenting of small children? Instead of a working culture that says, “Women have proved that they are smart enough and capable enough of working in the same ways as men – so they should. Exactly the same,” why not value  biological differences and, as a result, as a culture make it easier to both work and caretake?

Sandberg, in Lean In,  urges women to speak up for and fight for policies that promote their success in the workplace. To tackle the demanding jobs and to change from within. To not be afraid to work hard and to like it, and even though the quotidian worry about two important things — the job you love and the children you love — is exhausting and frustrating, to admit that is not a weakness or a failure. This last point was a revelation for me. I had long wondered if my anxiety at work meant that I made the wrong “choice” and might actually be happier at home with my children, or, worse, that I should be able to handle both worlds and because I couldn’t I was a failure.

Instead, I realized  the ambivalence and I anxiety I felt at work was simply because working full-time with children is difficult — and the entrenched powers that be make few real allowances for that.   I didn’t make the wrong “choice” in the work/stay-at-home dichotomy — rather, this particular dichotomy doesn’t even apply to me. (Which is a relief, too, because I have long been uncomfortable debating a “choice” that is actually not a choice for so many women; one of the things I thinks Sandberg does in Lean In is to move the conversation well beyond this privileged “choice”, although I know many  will disagree. ) So though in many moments of despair and exhaustion I have been tempted to light my law degree on fire in favor of an idealized (and yes, I know, unrealistic) alternate reality of Lululemons and perfect playdates,  that is not actually what I want. In fact, love my job. I just don’t love the attendant parent-specific stressors of full-time work, both micro (getting up for work after a night of puking kids, false client deadlines, commuting) and macro (the stigma of dark under-eye circles, snow days, sick nannies, nonexistent maternity policies).

Whereas Slaughter’s intellectually probing article legitimized that which frustrated me about being a BigLaw lawyer, by identifying the source of my anxiety, Sandberg inspired me and re-energized me and began to restore some of the confidence I had lost. My frustration was neither (a) because I was actually meant to be home with my children and thus was failing them nor (b) because I was a slacker mom because I stayed home with a barfing child when none of the men I worked with ever did and, as a result, I was a sucky lawyer.

Should allowances be made for women who want to stay home with the puking kid, though? Or for pregnant or nursing women who might be nauseous or exhausted and need to work from home? For years I have argued that if we, as a society, value families, the answer is yes. So in the Chronicle piece when  Spar wrote…

     To begin with, we need to recognize that biology matters. Women are not in any way physically inferior to men, but they are distinctly and physically different. They have   wombs and breasts and ovaries, physiological attributes that—for better or for worse—tend to affect the course of their lives. 

…I almost jumped out of my chair. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I have long been greatly influenced my brilliant, progressive-thinking aunt, who was one of Spar’s predecessors as president of Barnard. And, related: if this is the conversation that young women are having at women’s colleges – remember, Barnard was also venue for one of Sandberg’s viral speeches on “leaning in” – sign me up. Or, rather, sign my daughter up!)

Just as important, however, Spar tackles the post-feminist need to be perfect. We haven’t been able to make a dent in the overall workplace attitude, so we’re focusing our energy — and our frustration — back on ourselves.  We beat ourselves up because we have been raised to “do it all” — and we can’t.

She’s right. I have been raised to think I can do it all — and I want to. I do!  In contrast, a wise mentor at my former law firm  told me during my first week, “Outsource everything.” When she made partner three decades ago (one of the first women to do so, working full-time while her husband was chief of surgery at a prestigious hospital), she didn’t think twice about day-nannies and evening-nannies, housekeepers, cooks, dog-walkers, tutors. Making partner with two  children was difficult enough. Now, it seems that because making partner is “easier” — because women have the same opportunities as men — whipping up Gwyneth’s kale and quinoa stir fry shouldn’t be an issue either. (Do you know how freaking long it takes to chop kale?)

Spar writes: “Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection.” In the Times piece she suggests that we give up the PTA. Or a perfect body. That second-best is OK. We should learn to pick our battles. (PTA or the body. Kale or PTA.)

It is going to take me awhile to internalize this one. I don’t really practice settling (“satisficing,” Spar calls it). As I point out to my non Type-A husband often, “Being driven and committed can be a good thing !” I want to train for a half-marathon. I want to go on the Tuesday morning field trip to the fire station. I want to  chop and  sauté  the goddamn kale. I don’t want to do all these things because I’ll be perceived as a “perfect mother” – but, rather, because I enjoy them. I love to cook. I love to run. I enjoy my children and being involved in their daily routines when I can be. I also love my job.

But, frankly, I also get down on myself. Not because I’m not perfect (well, sometimes because of that). But also because sometimes — though now, thanks to Sandberg, I  can articulate this — It’s. Just. Difficult. I know that being home with children all day is difficult — I know that. Believe me, on school holidays when I’m flailing without a set at-home routine, I know it. But in addition to the undeniable stresses of modern parenthood, there are the undeniable stresses of the modern workplace with its 24/7 connectivity and economic instability. That endemic unease of something else tugging at our attention, always. And, always, always, there is the potential for a full-blown panic: the babysitter is sick, or an unhappy West Coast client schedules a 9 p.m. call, or there is a snow day. Or eight snow days. Or the croup. Things that would be annoying but not a crisis in another context, in another life. We feel anxiety, and then we feel panic — because we love our jobs and don’t want to be the slacker colleague. And because we love our children and don’t want to be the slacker mom. We’re going to be both, likely even at the same time. And that doesn’t mean we should thus quit our jobs but…it’s still just hard.

And thus, ultimately, Spar — like Slaughter and Sandberg — suggests we turn our focus outward to the issues that present the greatest challenges to working moms. If women are not worrying about every volunteer meeting or waking up in time for CrossFit every morning (i.e., worrying about themselves), but instead spend that time both with our children and collectively changing cultural norms, perhaps the result will be a workplace that doesn’t instill a baseline level of panic — panic borne from the fear that by embracing motherhood we are not living up to either professional expectations or potential.

I think about all of this, all of the time. And so I’m grateful to women with the experience and platforms — and success — of  Slaughter, Sandberg, and Spar for using their positions to share their stories and opinions. Undoubtedly, another conversation has begun – a conversation that includes the phrases “have it all” and “lean in” and, now, “joyous feminism”. Indeed, I hope these three phrases are the beginning of a new phase of feminism, one which embraces biology and ambition.

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Monday Five (Tuesday Edition): J. Courtney Sullivan

imageOne of the things I love(d) most about being a journalist is meeting interesting people and asking them questions. Every Monday, I hope to bring that here, interviewing writers, lawyers, creators, and all-around cool people. Today’s edition is a day late, as I am in New York for work, but hopefully worth the wait as it features New York Times best-selling author, J. Courtney Sullivan. Her most recent novel, The Engagements, was published in June by Knopf.

How did you meet me? I met [you] through our mutual Kneerim, Williams & Bloom family. My wonderful agent, Brettne Bloom, introduced us. [We] bonded immediately over Red Sox baseball and good Milton restaurants. (Yes, they exist.) Later on, [you helped] me navigate the legal ins and outs of my most recent novel, The Engagements, which deals in part with the behind-the-scenes workings of the diamond industry.

What was your major in college? Did you take any creative writing classes? I was an English major at Smith. At least back then, the department skewed heavily toward literature. There was only one fiction writing workshop. You were allowed to take it twice, which I did. The second time, my professor was a brilliant author named Doug Bauer. The next semester, I created a one-on-one tutorial, wherein Doug and I met twice a week, and I wrote a novel. (Smith is great about letting you choose your own adventure in this way.) That novel now lives in a drawer and will hopefully never see the light of day. But it was a terrific, educational experience for a young writer. Kurt Vonnegut also came to campus one year and taught a master class that I was lucky enough to get into. I remember his main rule was that every character you write should want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. He also encouraged us to create a piece of writing—a poem, an essay, a short story—and make it as perfect as possible, then throw it away and never share it with anyone. Creating just for the sake of creating. This was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter. In our current culture of over-sharing, I like this idea a lot. (Though I’ve never been brave enough to actually do it.)

Do people think they see themselves in your characters? Has that created problems or are the generally flattered? On a couple of occasions, I’ve worried that someone might see herself in a character, and it’s never come to pass. Other times, I wasn’t even thinking of a person and he became convinced I was writing about him. You would think people would clam up around a writer and become very protective of their stories. But on the contrary, people are constantly telling me their secrets and encouraging me to write about them. (I usually don’t.) Back when I was working as a researcher for an op-ed columnist at the New York Times, I learned a valuable lesson: Most everyone wants to tell their stories. I believe it’s just a human instinct. For The Engagements, because I was writing about worlds unknown to me, I interviewed people who had certain things in common with my characters—several paramedics in Cambridge, a classical violinist, French women who moved to New York for love, and so on. The real-life inspirations for these characters were generous and happy to share what they knew.

Where do you write? I mostly write in a corner of my bedroom. I have a lovely antique desk set up by the window. My husband and I both work from home in our one bedroom apartment (and we have a large hound dog who may as well be named Procrastination—he loves attention and is far too cute to be ignored.) I dream of one day having a gorgeous beach house with a writer’s cottage in back. Basically, I want to be a novelist in a Nancy Meyers’ movie.

What is your fantasy day in Boston? I grew up in nearby Milton and though I’ve now lived in New York for ten years, Boston still has my heart. For me, the city is full of memories. It’s where I attended preschool in the North End, where my mom used to take us to see the Nutcracker each Christmas, where I rode the T into high school at BU Academy, where my friends and I spent hours strolling around Newbury Street. And every time I return home, there’s something new to try. Most recently, my husband and I checked out the food trucks in the South End. Loved that. My fantasy day involves a morning walk around Castle Island. A visit to the Gardner Museum. An afternoon Sox game, with seats in the Green Monster. Dinner at Sam’s and drinks at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

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J.K. Rowling vs. the Debut Author

CuckoosI am one of the thousands of people who have recently bought J.K. Rowling’s “new” mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling. When the book was simply an obscure, if well-reviewed, debut novel by a writer named Robert Galbraith, I had no interest — quite simply because I didn’t know about it. And even it I had, would I still have bought it? Perhaps. I love mystery novels — but there are hundreds of new mysteries released every year, and how would I know that this one would be worth not only my money but my time? As soon as I learned that Galbraith was a nom de plume for Rowling, however, I scooped it right up. Not only because I thought it might be well written but because, by that time, I was intrigued by the “scandal“. No-name author = no sales. Mega-huge author = bestseller list. (For the record, I really enjoyed the book. I hope Rowling writes other Cormoran Strike — what a Harry Potter-esque name for its troubled detective protagonist! — mysteries.)

This brings up one of the perplexing issues authors face in the publishing world right now: that of reviews and sales. It’s a circular, chicken-and-egg issue. You are a debut novelist. Do you have any chance of writing a best-seller? It actually may be out of your hands.

Consider this: You write a solid book that reviewers like. Those who actually review it, that is. There are almost no national papers reviewing books anymore. Reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly are read mostly by those in the industry. And to snag a review in People or — gasp! — the New York Times Book Review is an almost impossible feat. So with fewer outlets reviewing, how will potential readers know about your book? They don’t. And so you sell very few copies in your first couple weeks on the market. Booksellers look at those numbers and decide not to restock copies and take your book out of its front-of-the store location (if it was there to begin with). And when it’s time to write your second book, your publisher looks at your sales numbers and offers a lower advance.

There are other issues at play other than reviews and publicity, of course. The e-book revolution has significantly changed the ways publishers publish, and I plan to discuss this often on this blog, but for a good overview as to how digital publishing affects debut authors, see this 2010 Wall Street Journal article. In short: “mid-list” authors — those who are not the marquee best-sellers but who nevertheless write books that, in the past, would have sold respectful numbers — are being squeezed out.

But back to the issue of publicity. Who gets the reviews? Big-name authors. Who gets the front-of-the-store placement? Those same authors, who bookstores know will sell — e.g., J.K. Rowling.  And if you’re not a big-name author who commands the attention of the publisher’s p.r. machine, the pressure to sell and seek reviews is left very much to the author him or herself, which is why many publishers also are very interested in a potential author’s social media “platform” — yes, even for fiction writers. In other words, how many people can an author herself convince to buy her book? Can she write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal? Can she exchange Tweets with other authors who will recommend her novel? Can she leverage her network to get on the Today Show?

So I do encourage all writers to make a place for themselves in the social media world and to forge connections that will help them find their readers. This piece is an interesting summary of what several agents look online for when evaluating a potential writer.

Lest  you get too discouraged, however, I am still an idealist (or try to be!). I really do fervently believe that if the writing is good, editors will recognize that. My friend Lacy, whose novel EARLY DECISION was just published is a case in point — she is truly the only one of my friends not on Facebook (gasp!) but, yet, her writing credentials and contacts were solid and her prose stunning.

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September 3, 2013 · 11:41 am

On Writing

One of my dear friends, Lacy Crawford, has a book being published tomorrow: Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy (William Morrow). The story is about a “college whisperer”, Anne, who is hired by elite families to help their children with college essays and the application process. The topic resonates in this age of helicopter parenting, and Lacy is getting a lot of great press. As she should, because she has not only hit upon a goldmine of a plot, but her writing is flawless.

And always has been for the past 20 years. So it irked me a bit, then, when the headline of a Daily Beast piece read, “College Application Guru Turned Author.Turned author? Lacy is a Writer. A WRITER. She has always been an author. She came to Princeton knowing she wanted to major in creative writing; she studied with the best (Toni Morrison, Russell Banks). After college she wrote and wrote: novels that were never published, stories, essays, and continued to study and hone her craft. Her writing is laced with literary references and exquisite prose. And Lacy writes about Anne:

 “…quite simply, she loved words most of all.”

 In a way, this is what I want my blog to be about. Words. My love of them, most of all. And, thus, a consideration of words and writing through my own lens of experience. Whether struggling through the same creative writing classes as Lacy in college (Joyce Carol Oates terrified me and it was clear that I had not the talent for fiction as Lace!), going to journalism school and literally writing for a living, teaching writing both to high school students and as a teaching assistant in law school to 1Ls, to now working as a publishing lawyer and literary agent: I write, and I work to promote writing. Without really meaning to, I’ve ended up  making career choices that have allowed me to examine it from different perspectives – from deadline-driven news articles to legal briefs to book proposals to copyright protection.

So welcome to Literary & Legal. I hope that some aspect of my musings on writing – whether about books or legal topics or the publishing world – will inspire and interest you.

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