Bees and Books: A Shameless Self Promotion

We are the proud new keepers of a hive of bees in our backyard.  We figured that tens of thousands of efficient pollinators would logically complement the little fruit orchard that Lali planted on our 1/12th of an acre homestead.  So just like the chickens provided insight on a whole world of foul language (poultry idioms), the bees have offered their own sweet insights.

So please excuse the reach while I resort to bee references to share some exciting news.

Since publishing Through These Veins in 2011, I have been busy as a bee promoting the book in any way I could conceive – which has borne some interesting fruit (though perhaps no fruit is as interesting as a fig, which is actually pollinated by wasps, not bees).  Last year, somehow an audiobook publishing company foraging through Amazon.com found my book honeycombed among the millions available.  The publisher, Cherry Hill Publishing, asked if I would like to narrate the book.  I would.  So, with a bee in my bonnet to finish my work within the contracted deadline, I spent several months waking early to read the story aloud to myself in my makeshift closet studio.  Then Cherry Hill worked their magic and voila, the audio version of Through These Veins is available from Cherry Hill and on Audible.com.  How sweet is that?

As I was trying to give voice to the story, (hopefully I wasn’t droning* on) I received a call I thought was the bees knees; a friend had been in touch with an independent film producer about the book, and all of us agreed that we would like to see a film version of the book.  I have no idea how to make that happen, but the producer, who formerly headed Sony Development, does.  So I am now receiving an education in film finance and enjoying dreaming of the film with a slightly more realistic idea of how that could come to be.

But perhaps equally exciting, I now finally understand why the bees knees are so great.  In observing the busy bees coming in from their long day of sexy cross-pollinating, most have bright yellow or orange pouches full of pollen from all of the flower foraging. And those pouches are located – you guessed it – on their back legs where we would imagine they have knees!  Inside their wooden box – in that hive of activity – the pollen, collected as the bees fertilize millions of flowers within a six mile radius of where they live, moves through an intricate and elaborate process to become ‘bread’ for baby bees, honey for the workers and drones (and the humans who occasionally rob the hive), and royal jelly for the hardworking queen who is mother to them all.  Much nicer than a hornet’s nest.

We haven’t harvested honey yet, we expect the girls will make a surplus by next spring.  So between the prospects of Hollywood and honey, Los Angeles is treating us very well.  Maybe we should look into goats so we could live in the land of milk and honey…

* a hive’s drones are just a few hundred males kept in reserve for their primary purpose of fertilizing a virgin queen in a single dance of copulation hundreds of feet in the air. A drone gives his life for this as the queen takes his reproductive organ with her, and draws on it for the next few years as she lays tens of thousands of eggs.

Joining the Ranks of the Carnegies for $25

Owning a library used to be the purview of the rich or the wildly rich.  Think of the wildly rich Carnegies and their libraries.  But now I own a library too.  Or rather my neighborhood owns a library and I am its steward, providing the property, the building and administration.  I wish I could say I came up with the idea, but the folks at Little Free Library came up with this brilliant idea worth spreading; find a place, erect a bird-house-like structure to house the books, let people know they can take a book or give a book, and voila, the world has another library!

My cousin sent me a radio story about the Little Free Libraries a year ago and as fast as you can say dusty paperback I ordered one of their library nameplates for $25.  My template is inscribed with number 1162.  A year later, by the time I finally got around to erecting my library and uploading my photo of the library to the organization’s global map, the libraries numbered more than 5000! I have joined the ranks of library stewards from Pakistan to Brazil, the Congo to Norway.

My library, I mean my neighborhood’s library is most popular with the children who pass it on their way to the elementary school two blocks away.  But all kinds of books have passed through its little walls: philosophy, comic books, history, trashy paperbacks, music, history, cooking, and even a singing Sponge Bob book.

Aside from the obvious benefits of putting books in circulation in my neighborhood, the library has conferred upon us a few side benefits:

I have culled my shelves of many a book gathering dust, incrementally lightening the load of ‘stuff’ that I am convinced is part of the drag on our journey through life.

Since my boys check the library every day, we usually have the first crack at new books before we put them back in circulation (Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up is our current favorite).

And perhaps most importantly, the library gives me a reason to engage my neighbors, explaining the mind boggling simplicity of the rules, making recommendations, and asking them to leave some books of their own.

So when you come by to see us, visit our library, take a book or leave a book.  Thelibrary belongs to you.

The Next Big Thing – A Literary Chain Letter

Apparently, The Next Big Thing is considered a kind of online chain letter for authors.  While I can’t promise your dreams will come true if you forward this to twenty people within the next three hours, I know it has been good for me to reach out to other authors, as so often we write in isolation.

Here’s the idea behind The Next Big Thing –  I am tagged by a writer, and I in turn tag fellow writers – all of us write a blog post called The Next Big Thing, a Q&A in which we answer questions about a forthcoming book or work-in-progress.

Kim Fay, the author of 2013 Edgar Award nominated novel, The Map of Lost Memories, graciously tagged me in her episode of The Next Big Thing .  As we share a passion for vicarious travel through fiction, I loved my journey through her evocative prose to Cambodia and I look forward to being transported to Vietnam in her next big thing.

Now, for the authors I am going to mercilessly tag into this game …

Lisa Napoli is another kindred traveling spirit.  Given her recent travels to Germany to promote the translation of Radio Shangri-La, an illuminating memoir/travelogue to the distant kingdom of Bhutan, we may have to wait a week or two for her episode about her next big thing.

Amy Wilentz, journalist and incredible literary tour guide to Haiti, surely has something amazing brewing.  With her wickedly insightful reporter sensibility on display in her recent book Farewell, Fred Voodoo I will look forward to her next big thing.

Mary L. Tabor takes us through uncharted territory of love and memory and aging in the novel Who by Fire.  Robert, narrator and widower, searches for the story of his wife’s betrayal which he discovers in her final days. In seeking for his story and hers and in the telling he discovers both.

And now, I am going to use this excuse to tag two writers whose work I admire.

Abraham Verghese has become one of my great heroes, not only for somehow mastering careers in both medicine and literary fiction, but for telling an epic tale of Ethiopia in Cutting for Stone.  I have traveled to and written about Ethiopia myself and appreciated each of his words about such a fascinating place.  I would love to know what next big thing we can expect from such a talented writer.

And finally Vikram Chandra, as I am among the legions to marvel at the wonder that is Red Earth and Pouring Rain a sprawling, mesmerizing tale of love and dislocation in India and America.  Read on to understand why such topics are particularly close to my heart.

Now to the main event, the ten interview questions for The Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Beneath the Same Heaven

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
An American woman marries a Pakistani man who then commits a terrorist act as revenge when his father is killed near the Afghan border in a US drone attack.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
More than a decade ago, I fell in love with a Punjabi man who was born and raised in Mumbai.  Since then I have been trying to reconcile how someone I love and respect can hold ideas and beliefs often diametrically opposed to mine.  While not autobiographical, aside from some simple demographic similarities, the book explores a very personal and fictional ‘what if,’ a kind of worst case scenario from two distinct perspectives.

What genre does your book fall under?
Hmmm, this kind of question stumps me.  How about literary, multi-cultural, international-politics-becomes-personal.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?Casting directors would have a much better answer.  I could easily pick someone like Kate Blanchette for the female lead, but my top ten list of South Asian American actors is about 9 people short.  Perhaps someone like Kal Penn.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Represented, insha’allah.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About 18 months.  I set myself daily and weekly word count goals, and exercised my best Germanic discipline to reach them, most often writing on the bus on my way to work.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Think Homeland meets Cutting for Stone.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m not sure I can describe the vagaries of the creative process, other than to say after a lot of late night drives up and down the length of California to visit Punjabi relatives, a question in my mind took form in characters, and those characters took action, and that action became a story I had to write down.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
In the process of writing this story I realized that our own culture has found all kinds of ways to ritualize or nationalize revenge, so while we may express our impulses in very different ways than other cultures, we all share the same human desire for justice in the face of suffering.  Perhaps on a less cerebral note, the story includes all the things we like to read about, love, sex, murder, international travel, terrorism, media, religion, you know, the compelling stuff that makes up our lives.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation – Blog Touring

You might think from the paucity of blog postings here that I am either:

1) one of those legions of novice blog writers who embark earnestly down the path to fulfilling their need for expression online only to fall exhausted by the wayside when they realize that blogging actually requires effort, or

2) one of those people who has some fantastic teaching gig that affords them a summer off to frolick in the south of France without fretting about unemployment

I will assure you I am not the latter (and I know from watching my sons’ teachers that theirs is no easy gig), and hopefully this post demonstrates I am not one of the former.

Actually, I have spent the summer blogging, but mostly on other peoples’ blogs.  I guess you could say I did a blog tour – though I did most of it while riding the bus home from the office!  So below, I offer a sort of virtual slide show of some of the stops along the way.

June 22  I joined dozens others on We Wanted to Be Writers, offering each other the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what books we have piled by our beds.  My list includes a treatise on omelets and some family memoirs.

June 24 The Next Best Book blog graciously shined their spotlight on me and I talked about the story behind the story of Through These Veins, fact-based fiction, and the fantastic Italian man.

July 19  I confessed on We Wanted to Be Writers that I am a recovering journalist addicted to the Costco Connection and Saudi Aramco World magazines.

July 27  Rachelle Ayala asked some great questions and I waxed on about travel to obscure places, mothers’ milk in Ethiopia, cross cultural marriages, and I even answered the question ‘chicken or egg?’

July 31  I just sat back here and let J.D. Jung of Underrated Reads do the talking aboutEthiopia, AIDS, and character/plot balance.

August 1  Even though I don’t write paranormal novels, which Laurie loves, she posted an excerpt from my book, and invited my fictional Ethiopian character, Zahara, to comment on books,Hollywood stars, and winning the lottery.

August 12  Amy Manemann asked about my past and my future and I got a bit philosophical about writing, laundry versus manuscript, alternative careers, work ethic, and the bus as writing studio.

August 17  Here I hopped the pond to theUK, where Jeanz asked me about my next novel, reading reviews of my own book, and my favorite authors – including Dr. Seuss!

August 24  In advance of the West Hollywood Book Fair I talked with Kim Fay, author of the recently released novel, The Map of Lost Memories, about our love of foreign places, cultural hegemony, making friends with people whose countries theU.S. government invades, and a few other nearly unspeakable things.  This one is in audio, and we will be talking more at the West Hollywood Book Fair on September 30, 2012.

Phew!  Writing again for my own blog feels curiously similar to the sensation of waking in a new bed, after traveling for a good long while, and thinking for just a moment ‘this is a nice hotel…maybe I should stay a while,’ only to realize with relief that you are actually in your own bed and won’t have to pack your bags…at least for a spell.

Talking Chicken -Tandoori and Tikka

I am no spring chicken, and I thought I had covered a lot of linguistic ground with my blog post about chicken idioms.  But I guess I had just been a little cocky, crowing about all those words.  Just as a fox should never be left to guard a henhouse, you clever readers reminded me I shouldn’t be allowed to monopolize any linguistic territory.  In fact, your missives revealed I had just scratched the surface.  One good egg even corrected my spelling, which made me about as mad as a wet hen.  Just a little more evidence that I don’t rule the roost. 

Since you were all so gracious in sharing your chicken chat I didn’t feel henpecked.  So I am going to ask you all to write back to me if you have experience or ideas for me to ponder.  But I am not putting all of my eggs in one basket.  Sure as a rooster announces the rising sun, I am moving on to another topic, cross cultural marriages between Indians and Americans or between Pakistanis and Americans. 

I just spent a long weekend in Northern California with a few of my husband’s Punjabi relatives – maybe 40 or 45 aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews related through various degrees of marriage and blood.  So I am thinking a lot about the mixing of great global flocks (as an aside – a distant cousin really did experience a chicken tragedy: a flock of 32 chickens eaten over the course of three days by a hungry coyote).  If you have any friends who are not from South Asian origins, but have married into South Asian families, I would appreciate an introduction.  I am interested in comparing experiences.  Then maybe I can hatch a post that has more to do with bangra and basmati than chickens and eggs.

How to Talk Chicken

I am the proud new mother of four hens (thankfully I didn’t have to lay their eggs myself, we adopted them from a neighbor who had an overabundance of chickens in his urban backyard).  Predictably, our girls provide us with eggs and offer hours of amusement as we observe their bird-brained antics.  But an unexpected benefit of keeping chickens is the insight they have given me into the origins of some of the great idioms in the English language.  I can answer the question which came first the chicken or the egg?  The chickens came first, delivered in a cardboard box.  But of course, this is a situationally specific answer, the larger philosophical debate will continue to rage.  Less than 24 hours after their arrival the largest one flew the coop while I was at the office.  We tried to console our disappointed children about their chicken loss when a neighbor walked up with our runaway bird under his arm.  He had retrieved her as she wandered down the block.  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Our neighbor, a more established chicken owner, had the answer: she still had all her feathers.  He advised that we needed to clip their wings

The next morning, away from a discarded pile of clipped chicken wing feathers, the girls moved en mass (birds of a feather flock together) to their water dish.  I noticed that the black and white speckled bird suffered from her low status in the pecking order.  When she tried to dip her beak in the water, the others literally pecked at her and skittishly she backed away, waiting for her turn.  All of this would be enough to make anyone brood, so she eventually retreated into the henhouse (which is not guarded by a fox) and laid an egg amidst a series of clucks and squawks. 

In order to support their impressive daily ovulations, I provide them with chicken feed (which is very cheap) which looks like ground up grains.  Everyone knows they can’t chew tough stuff, because of the scarcity of hens’ teeth.  The boys always want me to catch one so they can pet her.  But you know the hens are chicken and they run away in fear.  When I do finally corner and grab one, we stroke her a bit, but by the time we let her go, her feathers are ruffled

As our flock is not coed, the eggs are not fertilized, so I won’t be counting my chickens before they hatch, and the girls won’t have little ones to take under their wings.  And now that we have named them and grown fond of them as our pets, I expect that I will have no experience of one of the greatest of chicken idioms, that of one of the girls running around as a chicken with her head cut off.   I will be content to contemplate my new appreciation for how to talk chicken over an omlette.

Does the world need even one more novel?

The piles of books around me keep growing – by my bed, on the shelf behind my desk, inside a cupboard that I try to ignore.  Everywhere I look there are books that I want to read.  Books friends have recommended, books I have read about in the newspaper, on Goodreads, at the library.  Then of course, there are the classics – books I should read to be a well rounded, well educated person.  Surely there are more than enough good books in the world to keep me reading for the rest of my life.  With this abundance of good literature, why do we need more, why do people keep writing novels?  In fact, isn’t the endless supply of new novels just contributing to our collective angst, the feeling that we will never be able to get through our reading lists, the growing piles by our bed?  Perhaps. 

But every once in a while, I come across an idea that I haven’t yet seen well explored in print, a story I want to read but haven’t yet found.  As stories are simply reflections of our ever changing world and lives, so we will always need more stories, written in our current vernacular, about our current questions, technologies, crises.

I am working on one of those stories.  I am asking the question; what happens when two people, who come from radically different cultures, with different ideas of justice and revenge, who marry out of a common love, must confront an act of violent injustice within their family?  This will be another novel, an incremental addition to the piles of books we all face.  But the world needs more stories.  At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Never too old for a bedtime story

I will be reading from my book tonight at Stories bookstore and café.  Actually, by the time I get this posted, that should be past tense.  Book readings are old hat for me now, I usually do two or three every night, but my audience is very small, two small boys to be exact.  And I don’t usually read my own book, instead I am making my way through the children’s literature at our glorious public library.  And I never need to publicize these readings, my children relish the nightly ritual, always showing up on time, ever requesting a third book. 

I think back to the years that my mother read me books at bedtime.  I remember when we graduated from picture books to chapter books.  I learned from her that books opened up worlds upon worlds for readers, and I have grown up to model her habit of always having a book on hand.  I cannot seem to travel further than a few blocks without a book in my bag, just as I could not seem to sleep without a bedtime story. 

In the years when my children were small, I despaired that I had no time to read, until it occurred to me that I was reading dozens of books every week, though mostly of the Hop on Pop genre.  Six years in, I can report that children’s literature is fantastic stuff, infinitely varied, amusing and enlightening for adults.  The converse doesn’t work as well.  The one night I tried reading my book of adult literature to my children – my eldest had proudly dipped into his piggy bank three times to legitimately purchase his own copy of my book (his younger brother told him to stop wasting his money) – they were both asleep before I could finish the second page.

Do you love a library? How about public radio?

I love my library – well of course it isn’t mine – it’s ours.  That’s the beauty of a library; by definition a collection of books to be used by multiple readers.  I also love radio, a medium simultaneously expansive and intimate.  This week I had the privilege of marrying those two passions.  I got to talk about how I love the Los Angeles Central Library on the radio.  Thanks to Sarah Harris for making that possible on her show Hear in the City on KPFK.  And that never would have happened if Sarah and I hadn’t run into each other (thankfully not literally)  while riding our bicycles in downtown Los Angelesa year or so ago.  What – you say – people actually bicycle in downtownLos Angeles?!  Yes – I say – this great global city is full of all kinds of unexpected delights…like the library.

Once again, here is the audio link http://soundcloud.com/hearinthecity/library-love

More art = more life

I have a theory that art actually confers upon humans an evolutionary advantage.  Given the confines of a single body and a single life, a single human is confined to a relatively narrow set of experiences (of course even that narrow set can be stunning and profound).  But art – whether literature, poetry, film, music, sculpture, visual arts, etc. – expands the range of experiences a single human can have.  By participating in art, by receiving it, appreciating it, experiencing it, a single person can live a multiplicity of lives.  So the more art a person experiences, the better equipped a person is to respond to the vagaries of life, the drama of human relationships, the rhythms of life and death.  At least that’s my theory.

Recently I actually came across some data that seems to uphold my ideas.  The Utne reader summarized an article from the Scientific American Mind (Nov. Dec. 2011). 

“Several studies confirm the heightened emotional intelligence of bookworms: In 2006 researchers found that people who read fiction rather than nonfiction can more easily decipher the emotions of others, simply by looking at their eyes.  The following year, researchers discovered that reading a single short story would temporarily improve subjects’ social skills.  And in 2010 they showed that exposure to stories made preschoolers more able to take on the perspectives of others….MRI scans show that when we read fiction, our brains mirror the protagonists’ actions and our emotions swell in response to their plight.”   

So go ahead and read stories, it will probably make you smarter, and it may just give you more life.