In LAST night’s book-publication anxiety dream, I could NOT make clear phone contact with my editor Sarah Crichton, publisher of Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar Straus & Giroux. Static filled the line, and there was a roar of background noise in the college hallway in which I stood. I stepped outside to try to hear her better, but her voice was breaking up and the line crackled; a strong wind blew, loudly shaking the trees. I jammed the phone into my ear and covered my other ear, as her words seemed important but beyond my reach. I thought I heard her mention John Kerry and, desperate to hold up my end of the conversation and somehow impress her, I breezily dismissed him: “Oh, John Kerry! well HE went nowhere.”
For the first time I heard Sarah’s voice clearly, as she said: “Walk into any bookstore in the world, pull down a book by or about John Kerry, and you’ll see it was published by Sarah Crichton Books.”
That wasn’t true, but that was the end of another night’s sleep.
Last night, three days from the new book’s publication date, I had a nightmare.
I was trying to speak about my new book to an audience but the room was so dimly lit, I couldn’t see my papers. Then I realized I was set up at the back of the room, all seats facing away from me. There was a loud and growing hubbub in the audience. I dragged a podium and a lamp to what I thought was the front of the room, and I plugged in the lamp, but all the bulbs were burnt out. I replaced a bulb and generated a wavery dim yellowish light, barely enough to read by. I felt certain that when I began my presentation, the audience would spring to life. But I couldn’t seem to reach them over the noise they were making. Then I looked up and saw that, once again, I was at the back of the room, nearly everyone facing away from me, and those few who faced towards me displayed supreme indifference.
Fortunately at this moment our very large long-haired sweet cat, Rosie, came and sat on my face, demanding breakfast. It was 6:15 a.m., but I didn’t mind getting to feed her. I was happy to escape that impossible audience.
This is a magnificent work of art, a novel I have lived with for the last few weeks–compelling myself to turn the pages slower than I wanted to turn them because I wanted to continue to live with these characters and because I was afraid of what the ending held.
This is a moving panoramic book, an antiwar novel of the heart, a mother’s story. The mother, Ora, is as full-bodied, intelligent, emotionally complex, and true a woman as I have ever met in fiction.
Why did Grossman tell this story through the voice of a woman, a mother?
Because it is the story of trying to preserve one small sweet family–a mother, a father, their best friend, and their two sons–against all-consuming military vigilance, “the situation”–that has turned a country into a war machine and its men into sacrificial heroes.
Recently I had to solicit blurbs for my new book.
This is the always-humbling process of offering your manuscript to big-name authors and begging them for a glowing and ecstatic and over-the-top recommendation that can be printed on the book’s back cover. Words like “heralding” and “new voice in American letters” and “the one we have been waiting for” are always welcome.
What sense does it make, in this economy, to keep bringing home more children? We could buy a new car every year and get off cheaper. Shiny ones, too, with foreign names and Italian engines. We could park each of the fancy cars at its own mansion and it would still be a cheaper approach to happiness in the long run than raising nine children with their accompanying family trips, I-pods, soccer cleats, summer camps, tuitions, and Saturday night pizza-deliveries.
Lyrics from “Hair” frequently cross my mind. The first are from “I Got Life.”
I got my head
I got my brains
I got my ears
I got my eyes
I got my nose
I got my mouth
I got my te-ee-eth
Well before Donny and I gained the privilege of raising children not genetically connected to us, we mastered the art of appreciating each of our children’s distinctiveness.
Molly, Seth, Lee, and Lily were unpredictable, inimitable, brimming with surprises, full of secrets waiting to be unpacked. We learned that children do not look just like their parents, nor act just like them, nor share all their tastes BEFORE we brought home children of whom it was not to be expected that they would look like us, act like us, or share all our propensities. Every one of our nine has the capacity to startle and amaze, producing a gift, a knack, an opinion beyond anything Donny or I possess. Watching the children reveal their inner selves has been one of the best parts of parenthood.
In October 1999, the week Jesse arrived in America, he and I took a walk up the sidewalk of a nearby hill. A huge city bus whooshed by us with a windy dust-stirring roar, blowing back our jackets and hair. A moment later it seemed a second city bus blew by us. But it was Jesse, age four-and-a-half, who had unerringly imitated the noises made by the first bus. He didn’t speak a word of English and he had remarkably few words of Bulgarian; but he mimicked the bus perfectly.
A few days later, I glimpsed our elderly next-door neighbors excitedly leaning over their bedroom balcony, peering towards the wood through binoculars. “What’s up?” I called.
“There’s been a solitary Great Blue Heron in the woods all week!” they cried. “But now we hear a second one!”
From high in the woods there came the dry crazy squawk. A moment later, a second dry crazy squawk was heard from my backyard. I wandered down the steps and found Jesse, sweetly seated on the rope swing, facing the woods, and screeching his reply.
“Isn’t is so different to raise children by adoption?” everyone asks us.
The truest answer is: not really. The children we adopted have been no more and no less surprising to us than the children to whom we gave birth; they’ve ALL been remarkably surprising.
On Sunday morning I tried to wake up a strange boy and take him to a bar mitzvah lesson. I thought it was Yosef since the boy was African or African-American and was sleeping in Yosef’s bed.
It was early, and dark, and the shades were drawn, so I couldn’t be certain. Several times I reached out, then hesitated. The boy’s Afro gave me pause, since Yosef’s hair was close-shaved the last time I checked. In search of someone more closely resembling Yosef, I made a quick circuit of the many dens and bedrooms where children can be found on Sunday mornings. Daniel was in his own bed and Sol was in his own bed. Camped out in Sol’s room were Austin, a white boy; Josiah, a Liberian boy; and Grace, from Congo. Jesse was in Lee’s bed since Lee was in Israel, and three of Jesse’s friends (one black, two white) slept on sofas nearby. But no Yosef. On the main floor of the house, I found Helen snuggled in a sleeping bag on a sofa, where she’d fallen asleep watching a movie.
Helen on the sofa? This gave me an important clue!
Upstairs, in Helen’s bed, I found Yosef! I woke him up for his bar mitzvah lesson.
Later that day in the kitchen, I discovered a strange boy enjoying a bowl of Froot Loops.
“Who are you?”
“Sammi,” he said shyly.
“Where are you from?”
“Did I try to wake you up for a bar mitzvah lesson this morning?”
“I bet you’re not even Jewish.”
“No ma’am. Muslim.”
“Okay then. Well, sorry.”
“That is okay,” he said politely. “I did not mind.”
We parents believe we are the creators and guardians of family traditions.
We offer sizzling sparklers and half-burnt hot dogs on the Fourth of July as if we invented them; we propose a masked hike around the block on Halloween as if we’re the first people to come up with this plan. We kindle a rack of candles or plug in a cord of blinking lights in cold rooms in December to take the children’s breath away with awe and gratitude.
But really it is the children who enforce family traditions, children who often miss the whole point, the underlying themes, and the historical context. The symbols and lessons that we, and our forebears, considered central to a holiday are overthrown by children, who elevate trivial aspects instead, and then cling to them against all odds. Small enforcers are among us, with photographic memories. They cast cool eyes upon our sheepish attempts to abbreviate, cut corners, or skimp.
“That is NOT how it looked last year,” a small girl will pronounce, brooking no dissent. Caught by Molly in the very act of laying out the everyday plates upon a blue tablecloth for Thanksgiving dinner, I sigh and start over. There is no point to explain that last year her grandparents were here and this year it’s just us. I reach deep into the sideboard for the good white tablecloth and the wedding china. Molly helps me set the table, while keeping a close watch against further backsliding.
My sweet mother, in her late middle-age, suddenly announced one December that she was weary of the muss and fuss of lighting the Hanukah candles. She was tired of scraping the old wax off the old brass menorah, or something. “Look! Look at the fun way we’ll do Hanukah this year!” she said when we arrived at her Dayton, Ohio, condo for a visit when Molly and Seth were small. [Read more…]
I stormed around and slammed doors in anger on Monday night, despite being all dressed up (wobbling in Lily’s high heels which she insisted I needed), and heading out to a book event. Within the hour, at the Horizon Theater, I would read aloud from my manuscript in “WordFeast,” an annual concert of writers, actors, and comedians to raise funds for the Atlanta Food Bank. I would read aloud from my book-in-progress, about our big family.
But long-neglected garbage cans were banked outside our kitchen door. The situation looked like the New York City Garbage Strike of 1975.
Luckily, it was Monday, a take-out-the-garbage night! I located my four younger sons bunched around the computer watching great basketball moments on You-Tube. They were in excellent moods and well they should have been. I’d just picked them up from the YMCA and had treated them to Mexican take-out on the way home. Nevertheless, despite the hours of fun and spicy food I’d provided, I approached the group skittishly, with a sickly smile of fake cheer. These kinds of encounters don’t always go well.
“Guys!” I greeted them. “Umm, the garbage cans…Let’s…”
Without even turning around–triggered by the syllable, “Let’s”–they instantly replied: “It’s not my turn.” They did this in perfect unison, even in harmony, like a Barbershop Quartet.
“I know,” I said. “Technically, it IS Daniel’s night, but let’s all…”
This time, triggered by the sound of the syllable, “all,” they erupted, dis-harmoniously, along the lines of: “Yosef never brought the cans back/I do the recycling/I do Thursdays/Why doesn’t Lily do the garbage?” and the ever-popular, “It’s not my night.”