Anusha of Prospect Corner: A Sri Lankan-American Anne of Green Gables

Anusha of Prospect Corner is now available! Meet my co-authors, Maram and Samira, in the video (above).

Our middle grade novel is a modern, multicultural homage to one of my favorite novels from childhood, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  Anusha’s family does not fully mirror our family’s ethnic or religious identities — it’s fiction, after all — but Anusha’s family and our family are both Sri Lankan-American (I’m half Sri Lankan).

In the video, Samira refers to “Anusha’s Origin,” which is a note at the beginning of the novel about how this project developed. Here it is:

anushas-origin-with-cover

To learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

We are excited to share Anusha with you!

my-family-january-2017

The Aroma of Autumn

ginkgo-leaves-fall-2016

Autumn greets us in September with the perfume of ripening apples and the smoky smell of burning logs, and then leaves us a few months later with the earthy odor of decaying leaves and the acidic scent of decomposing fruit and seeds. Of all of autumn’s aromas, the one that defines the season for me is the smell of rotting ginkgo nuts.

Peter Crane’s Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, a biography of the ancient species, describes the stench of ginkgo seeds as akin to rancid butter or human vomit. He writes:

ginkgo-by-peter-crane-with-quote

My backyard is full of ginkgo trees, which I’ve learned to love despite the smelly seeds the females of the species produce each fall. They are elegant trees with beautiful, fan-shaped leaves. They are among the last trees to change color, turning gold for two or three weeks before shedding en masse. Golden ginkgo leaves grace the cover of Amelia Elkins Elkins, my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and the trees also make appearances in both Two Lovely Berries, my new adult novel, and Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins (forthcoming, January 2017). For example:

  • Amelia Elkins Elkins:
    amelia-elkins-elkins-ginkgo-quote
  • Two Lovely Berries:
    two-lovely-berries-ginkgo-quote
  • Anusha of Prospect Corner:
    anusha-of-prospect-corner-ginkgo-quote

The ginkgo trees in my garden are suburban giants, bigger than their city cousins but smaller than the species is capable of growing. All of my ginkgo trees are male except, unfortunately, for the tree closest to my house. That one has covered my back porch with its noxious seeds every year but this one. For some reason, there are no seeds this year, and for some reason, I miss them. Autumn just isn’t the same without their aroma.

Two Lovely Berries (New Adult Fiction): “A lovely, intelligent, and honest novel”

Two Lovely Berries by AM BlairWhen I started this blog, I hoped it would make me more comfortable sharing my writing with others. At the time, my perfectionism and self-consciousness always stopped me from completing my creative projects.* Four years later, I’ve published two novels, and I’m thrilled and thankful whenever I learn that someone has read them.

For my 400th blog post, I am delighted to share Stephanie’s review of Two Lovely Berries on Eclectic Scribe (recommended to her by Monika of Lovely Bookshelf):

This is a lovely, intelligent, and honest novel about coming of age, family relationships, and the truths — and lies — that hold families together. It also illuminates how easy it is to slip into disturbingly familiar family patterns and the moment one chooses to take a different path. I enjoyed living in Nora’s head, and it kept me up late at night, wanting to read one page… or one more chapter.

Click here for the entire review on Eclectic Scribe.

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*See Perfectionism and Publishing.

**For more background on Two Lovely Berries, see Freshly Pressed & Freshly Published.

What Parents *Should* Do

In Please Stop Parenting My Children, I asked others to stop providing unsolicited parenting advice, especially when that advice related to what books my children should not read.

However, right now, I will provide my own unsolicited parenting advice to families. It’s advice that I believe is not only good for families, but also good for our society and the world:

Read

By “diverse books,” I mean literature that features individuals who come from underrepresented racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as literature that features gender minorities and individuals with disabilities.

This advice is most important for those parents who live in communities blighted by homogeneity. The United States Supreme Court ended race-based restrictive covenants on real estate in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and declared segregated schools to be illegal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but well over a half a century later, Americans still live in residentially segregated communities and send their children to racially segregated schools. For children in this unfortunate situation, their first exposure to diversity may be through books.

Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.

Hopefully, these books will bring us closer to someday achieving Martin Luther King’s dream in which individuals are not “judged by the color of their skin”– and I will add, their gender status, whom they love, or any other characteristic beyond their control — “but by the content of their character.”

It’s 2016, and we’re not there yet.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few of my favorite children’s books featuring diverse characters and themes:

I hope your family enjoys these books as much as my family has.

 

Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

On the move

In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.

In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:

“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).

But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.

In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:

“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”

When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.

I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.

How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?

***August 30, 2015: Oliver Sacks has passed away. He was 82. It’s impressive that he kept writing until the very end. According to the New York Times, “On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his ‘collaborator, friend, researcher and editor’ as well, wrote in an email: ‘He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.'”

Is Questioning Harper Lee’s Authorship Sexist?

TKaMB_cold metal and soft pages_misfortuneofknowing blog “Why is it only women who are ever accused of not writing their own books?”

Recently, Glynnis MacNicol asked this question in The Guardian, claiming only women like Harper Lee are accused of perpetrating such lies while simultaneously contradicting herself by admitting that President Obama has been on the receiving end of similar accusations.

As commenters were quick to point out, MacNicol forgot that the President isn’t the only male victim of such attacks. For example, one person (anavidreader) said:

“Point taken obviously. It is profoundly idiotic and speaks to an anxiety about women with authority…That said, *cough* Shakespeare *cough*”

Setting this omission aside, though, MacNicol raises an important issue. Women’s contributions are undervalued in many fields.

We have a pervasive cultural norm that sees women as lacking the intelligence, motivation, and ability to compete with men successfully.

So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if female authors are more likely than male authors to be the recipients of criticisms surrounding the authenticity of their work.

In Harper Lee’s case, rumors have swirled for years that others, like Truman Capote, were actually behind her book.

I have never thought someone else was the principal author of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, what I’ve read about the difference between the earlier draft, Go Set a Watchman, and the final product has made me think more about the extent to which heavy editing impacts the authorship of a novel. (See here for a profile of Lee’s editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey).***

As I wrote in “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch and Harper Lee:

If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review: “How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”

To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?

I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.

Remember those people in college who submitted drafts of their papers to their teaching assistant enough times that, after the TA’s comments were incorporated, the TA had effectively written the paper by the end of the process?****

Well, as annoying as I thought those classmates were, I’d still consider them the primary authors of those papers. Their role was instrumental in producing the final product, and I believe the same is true of Harper Lee, even if we assume that New York City editors had a heavy influence on the town in Alabama we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. What masterpiece doesn’t go through many rounds of revision? What masterpiece is really the result of only one influence?

The same would be true of books by men, especially those published at a time when agents and editors didn’t simply throw promising, but imperfect, manuscripts into the trash.

New “stylometric” research seems to support Harper Lee’s claim to authorship. Without getting into the math, two professors in Poland used statistics to compare the 100-650 most frequently used words in Watchman and Mockingbird with each other and with works from several Southern authors, including Capote, Faulkner, and Welty.

The most basic form of that analysis showed that Watchman and Mockingbird were more closely related to each other than to any of the other books compared. The more interesting part to me, however, is the second analysis performed by the professors that still showed Watchman and Mockingbird to be related, but showed a rather large difference between their styles — a much larger difference than that seen between, say, any of Eudora Welty’s books included in the analysis, or any of Faulkner’s books after 1930.

The professors themselves recognized “a more heterogeneous pattern” for Mockingbird than Watchman, in that the latter shared similarities largely with Capote (with a modest similarity to Faulkner), whereas the former had more balanced similarities to Capote, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. To me, that transformation indicates the work of a skilled and learned editor.

Maybe we never needed research to tell us Lee is the author of both Watchman and Mockingbird. That’s what MacNicol seems to be saying when she labels questions about Lee’s authorship as “sexist.”

Lee’s gender likely plays a role in these beliefs, but so do the mysteries surrounding her, from her reclusive behavior and dearth of additional publications to the differences between Watchman and the classic coming-of-age story it became. For these reasons, questions about Mockingbird might be more reasonable than they otherwise appear.

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*The image: My copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s one of my favorite novels.

**Of course, examples of the discrepancy between the treatment of women and men are too numerous to recount here (but please feel free to leave additional examples in the comments!).

***Thank you to Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood for sending me the article about Lee’s editor!

****That wasn’t you in college, right? 😉

Missing “The”: More On The Importance Of Our Disappearing Definite Article

TheAN

Earlier this year, I learned that “the,” our trusty definite article, isn’t around as much as it used to be. As I wrote in Missing “The”: Is There An Upside to Ambiguity?:

Linguist Mark Liberman first recognized this trend while analyzing State of the Union addresses, concluding that [the disappearance of the definite article] could be a sign of increasing informality in the speeches. With the help of an impressive undergraduate paper at Penn, he later discovered that there is an overall trend of “decreasing definiteness” in our language: “the frequency of the has decreased by about half; the frequency of a/an has increased by about a third (though of course the overall frequency of a/an is much lower).” The collections he assessed were mostly of written works in American English, which makes me wonder if this trend is also happening to our north and across various “ponds.”

Back then, I suggested that our decreased usage of “the” could be “a sign that we’re less inclined these days to convey superiority in our diverse society,” using the example of framing parenting advice as “a way to raise children” instead of “the way to do it.” (maybe someday).

I also wondered about when “the” still matters*–when it cannot be replaced by “a” or “an.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. AMB came across a good example of the continuing importance of “the,” a word that even a mighty insurance company couldn’t circumvent in an attempt to deny coverage to a policyholder.

Yes, the example comes from a court case about insurance coverage, Mutual Benefit Insurance Company v. Politsopoulos, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided on May 26, 2015. My husband sent me the decision shortly after it came out, but it took me forever to read it. The opinion is only 16 pages long, but the subject matter is very, very boring (though important).

Hopefully, my effort to explain it won’t be equally dull. Here goes:

The case is about a commercial liability insurance policy that covered more than one entity at the same time. In this case, it covered a restaurant and the owners of the property where the restaurant was located.

The insurance policy contained an exclusion. As explained in the opinion, “the policy did not provide coverage pertaining to liability for injury to ‘[a]n employee of the insured arising out of and in the course of… [e]mployment by the insured[.].’”

The Justices had to decide this question: What could the “the” in “the insured” possibly mean????

The insurance company essentially argued that “the” was interchangeable with “an,” meaning any entity insured under the policy wouldn’t have insurance coverage when sued by employees of any of its co-insured entities (not just when it was sued by its own employees).

The insurance company lost. As the court explained:

“[W]e are persuaded that, at least where a commercial general liability policy makes varied use of the definite and indefinite articles, this, as a general rule, creates an ambiguity relative to the former, such that “the insured” may be reasonably taken as signifying the particular insured against whom a claim is asserted.”

If the insurance company wanted the exclusion to apply more broadly, it shouldn’t have used the definite article in the provision.

We can glean at least three lessons from this case: (1) Words matter; (2) “The” and “A/an” aren’t the same; and (3) Insurance cases are incredibly boring.

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*And, like last time, Mr. AMB quips, “It makes all the difference.”