Pico Iyer, Paddington, and me

I so enjoyed reading Pico Iyer’s “Critic’s Take” column in The New York Times’ Book Review, titled PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.

(Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/books/review/please-look-after-this-bear.html?_r=0)

In it, Mr. Iyer expresses the response to a beloved book that is remarkably congruent with my publishing philosophy. I’ve always said that what I want to publish are books that readers don’t just like, but that are deeply meaningful to them; books that they love so much that they would say, when asked “Oh that was my FAVORITE book as a child” and they would keep those books throughout their lives. In talking about PADDINGTON BEAR, Mr. Iyer says, “On the single shelf for books I have in my two-room apartment in Japan, Paddington sits next to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene.” Exactly!

I too loved PADDINGTON BEAR, laughing appreciatively at what Mr. Iyer describes as Paddington’s attempts to “master the confounding laws of middle-class [English] life.” These weren’t the same laws that confounded ME exactly. But, like all the other children who read and loved Michael Bond’s books, I was making my way through a world controlled by adults, with rules and realities I had yet to master. On another level too, I was a Jewish child, growing up in a primarily Christian world, separated from my peers by that and a host of other intellectual, social, cultural, and even affectional differences. The comedy of Paddington made light of these kinds of gulfs, even as it acknowledged them in a profound (if subliminal) way.

Iyer, whose parents immigrated to Oxford from Bombay, felt a deep kinship with the bear from “Darkest Peru” who found himself in a nearly all-white and homogenous England. I felt that kinship too.

I think this response is important to remember for those of us engaged in the movement to diversify Children’s literature. Books that present the perspective and experience of non-majority characters are not meant to be read and appreciated solely by the specific culture or ethnicity of the main character. Wider representation in our literature as a whole is crucial, but the audience for that diversity is not just a tiny specific slice of a splintered whole. Literature speaks across boundaries. Pico Iyer and I can BOTH read and love the story of Paddington Bear despite the fact that neither of us is Peruvian (I’m not sure if Mr. Iyer would describe himself as British, like Michael Bond, but I’m certainly not that either.)

Thank you, Mr. Bond, for the gift of Paddington. And thank you, Pico Iyer, for articulating so beautifully what a gift it is.


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My father’s eulogy

It’s been nearly a year since my last post, titled “Endings.” Yet I’m following it now with the eulogy I gave at my father, Dr. Milton L. Levine’s funeral last Sunday.

Notes for my Dad’s Funeral 7/13/14

My dad was the happiest man I’ve ever known.  Perhaps I’ll never know for sure what the secret of this happiness was, but I have some ideas.

For one thing, it seemed that when my dad found something he loved, he embraced it with a profound certainty and permanence that he never diminished through restlessness or boredom.

He met my mom, his high school sweetheart when they were teenagers sharing a desk at Tilden High School; decided (correctly, and apparently despite some early trepidation from his mother) that she was the love of his life: and more than half a century later they still would spontaneously hold hands walking down the street. He would wave at her affectionately from across the dinner table.

My dad found Shelter Island through my mom’s cousin Jerry around 1960 and from then on it was the place he wanted to spend every spare moment, never tiring of it or wishing for someplace shiny and new. He was happy puttering around the house finding things to fix, he was happy at Town Beach struggling to haul in the sail of a windsurfer, or chatting up strangers who might be wearing a t-shirt that said “Brown” or “Harvard” or “Harry Potter”; he was happy with the salmon at Bob’s on Friday night. If he’d had his way in fact, he would have attended none of your weddings, bar mitzvot, or special occasions. No that’s not quite right. If he’d had his way, you would have held all those celebrations on Shelter Island. Sometime other than August.

Because REALLY what made him most happy was to share the things he loved with other people. Mornings, for instance. He loved the song “Oh What a beautiful Morning!” from Oklahoma, and he sang it early, often, loudly, and with great feeling in that gorgeous tenor that was always ever-so-slightly off key. Now I will say that many of us who shared a household with my dad were NOT Morning people. I won’t name names, but after the serenade we were often told, “Get up! You’re missing the best part of the day!!” The replies he got were usually not as sweet as the sentiment, but nothing could rain on the parade of his happy day.

It was the same with his work. I think my father decided he wanted to be a doctor when he was just a kid. And as far as I can tell he never doubted or second-guessed that decision for a second. He just LOVED being a doctor. He loved the intellectual challenge of listening to a patient describe their symptoms, of putting the facts together like a detective and solving the problem of their complaint. He loved having a job where he could talk to lots of people every day (a captive audience whom he could regale with tales of his children’s accomplishments, I gather) putting them at ease with his confidence and his sunny manner, leaving them better off than before. I think he was a fantastic doctor, but he wasn’t arrogant about it. One of his favorite things to say to patients was, “You’ve come to me just in time! In another day you’d have been all better on your own.”

When I was a kid he used to say to me, “Artie, you can be anything in the world you want to be” and he’d count off on his fingers, “An opthamologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist…” But he was kidding of course. What I took from that was that I should try to find work that filled me with the kind of satisfaction that his job gave him every day. We all should be so lucky.

Of course the path of my dad’s life had its obstacles and potholes, but somehow even his stories of travail were colored by optimism, and a belief that good wins out. So he got in trouble as a grade school kid; it was only because he was too bright and bored and eventually that worked itself out. So Columbia rejected him because of an anti-semitic quota system, on the same day he was notified that he’d received the top score in the city on a scholarship program administered by the University. This became a story of how Grandpa Sam refused to be cowed by a system stacked against Jews. And how his confrontation led to my dad’s immediate acceptance. Good guys win, the story went. The path of life leads to happiness.

On the phone in particular, my dad was not a big conversationalist but he loved a good happy story and I would save those up for him to share:

Great test scores, a promotion, something wonderful that had happened to Max. I knew he would eat them up and then say, “Want to talk to your mother?”

When I was younger, of course, he was the one telling the stories to me. While my mom liked to read with me, my dad preferred making stories up on the spot. His favorite were stories of a boy named Henry who had a magic whistle that could call the animals of the forest or the ocean to his aide in times of crisis. (The crises I’m talking about were things like being tied to a train track in the path of an onrushing locomotive, or being held by outlaws tied up somewhere in a basement. You know, your typical suburban danger situations.) My brothers, whom I guess thought they were past the age technically of having stories told to them, would often creep in to my bedroom to catch the latest installment. Listening for the moment when poor Henry was at his most desperate when he would remember the magic whistle, and then “Down From the Sky Came Baldy Eagle!” or some other brave animal rescuer to make things right.

My dad is no longer here to tell those stories. But we all have them inside us now. And I’m sure that when life seems unbearably sad to me, fraught with danger, perhaps even hopeless, that I will remember Henry and the Magic Whistle, along with the example of a man who was supremely content with his life. And happy.

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imageI have always struggled with the endings. Sunday evening always felt hard.  The end of the weekend’s relative safety, and the prospect of another day in school. All the homework deadlines rushing at – and past – me, like runners with furious kicks.

Summer vacation was the same thing only an order of magnitude worse. A whole month of being with my friends who knew and understood me and appreciated me…turning over to 10 months of something less.

I feel these things now, even when I could fit three of my younger selves into the time that has past.  Even when the situation is so much different. But the transitions are still painful, even if the cause of the pain has changed.  Now, I think it’s more about my sense that each sweet moment could be the last.  Will my parents be there next year to hug me goodbye? Will my sweet child still want to hold my hand on the ferry?

Even my sense of what and when an ending IS has changed.  “Vacation” isn’t as firm a line from work, and anyway the duration is so much more limited and the relief less total. One never leaves behind the obligations of one’s work life with that blissful totality of having wrapped up all the final exams, cleared out one’s locker. FINISHED.

Now. truthfully, I don’t even WANT to be “finished” in such a complete way.  My sense of the fragile impermanence of things makes me tie little strings to everything I might leave behind.  And so I pull on the strings, follow them back, and then unravel them again until I’m a bit further along again…closer to the end of the transition despite myself.  It’s not as clean as it was before.  And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  I still have the heaviness about me of the end of summer, but without the relative lightness preceeding it.

So, here are some things I am actually looking FORWARD to:

* Dinner at my favorite local Italian restaurant where I plan to have one final carb-loading dinner before returning to eating like a sane person.

* THE U.S. OPEN – here’s to binge-watching tennis and stumbling through work with eyes the size and shape of tennis balls.

* Celebrating the 20th Wedding anniversary.

* Getting back to my wonderful books at work

* Starting the first week of continued-contact with my novel. I’d like to prove to myself that this time I CAN do it!

Thanks for following me everyone. Happy vacations to those of you who are on them or planning them. And to those that aren’t? May your transitions be smooth.

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Thank you from the Island

At some point this morning, as I drank my coffee on the porch, I thought of a whole blog post that would be big and analytical and cause all kinds of debate.

But then, after getting the house ready for departure, doing a couple of loads of laundry, and heading out to this secluded spot where I’ve been so happy writing this week, I instead leapt right in to the novel. And I started with a description of a view I’ve loved all my life…a view and a love I decided to give to one of my main characters.  And the pleasure of describing it just wrapped me up for a few hours, wherein I plum forgot what the whole point of that blog was supposed to be. 

So – how well. No controversial blog this morning folks. Sorry. No insightful meditations on publishing, where it’s going, what I might do about it if I were King.  :)

Instead you get just the vaguely contented few paragraphs of a guy who might actually one day be a writer if he can make himself continue in the weeks ahead, when it’s much harder to find the time to warm into his creativity. 

I wrote more than I’ve every written before in these past two weeks. I’ve BLOGGED more than I’ve blogged in all the previous years of my blogger-dom combined. (I think. I haven’t added it up.)

I hope those of you who are reading this have gotten something out of it. I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Hope the conversation continues.

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Book Browsing

The other day, before seeing Blue Jasmine (which I found completely depressing) I went shopping in Book Hampton, a small indie. I didn’t have anything in particular that I wanted to buy. I was happy to browse and see how and if I was inspired.

The first thing I did was insert myself into a conversation between an enthusiastic, very young sales clerk and a lady my age looking for a book for a 14 year old boy whom she didn’t know. The three of us got into a discussion of what she DID know about him (he was a good reader, he was experiencing some bullying, he liked fantasy) and which books might appeal: WONDER? THE GOLDEN COMPASS?  I hope it was helpful. The customer didn’t know me, nor did she know the sales clerk. But from our brief conversation I imagine she got a bit of “personality context” to judge whether our recommendations made sense, beyond what she could have gotten from reading the titles in brief posts on the internet.

Then I shopped for my son, and found some Tin-Tin books (later he would grab one and climb the stairs to his grandparents’ cozy room to read one, and would not even make it beyond the top of the stairs where he settled, book open, to read the entire thing uninterrupted!)

For myself I found a mystery whose title and author I would never have remembered, but when I saw it I said, “Yes! I’ve been meaning to read that!” (I’m sorry, Watchung Booksellers, I felt a little guilty buying at another store, but at least it was another Indie…?)  My husband stumbled onto a book that explored the slave-owning history of a local family of which I was not aware.   And there were a couple more “finds” that actually, at this moment I cannot recall, but will be happily surprised by when I look into the BookHampton bag when I get home.

Now, I feel a little self-conscious writing such a baldly old-fashioned paean to the physical book store experience.  But honestly, as a consumer, I just can’t capture that same thing virtually.  I OFTEN don’t remember the title or author of the book I heard someone raving about the week before, or of which I read a review three weeks ago.  Handling the physical book reminds me. And inspires me to buy. I also, OFTEN,  find posted consumer reviews lacking in context, and just plain insufficient to convince me to buy a book. Plus…I don’t know…I just like to SHOP in bookstores.  Would our time waiting for the movie have been as much fun if we sat in Starbucks, each of us scrolling through our tablets?

I worry that these feelings and opinions of mine are like particles of dust in a cloud stirred up by a roaring truck that sped by two minutes ago.  But I also worry that folks don’t know how urgent it is that they support their local physical store if they themselves want to preserve this same shopping experience. Yes, some are holding on, thank goodness. But it is a battle, every day.  (It’s kind of like voting, in some ways. I know so many people who have the same political points of view that I might have, and yet who don’t get out there to vote because they assume their town, or their state, or the country will vote overwhelmingly one way or the other and render their vote insignificant. It’s true that one vote may be insignificant. But those votes add up. Sometimes to a landslide.)

So here I am, being a little sentimental about bookstores today, before I turn to work on a novel that may or may not ever have a shelf to sit on.

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It’s mostly a great privilege to keep friends and traditions over the course of one’s life. No, strike that – it’s TOTALLY a great privilege. But it has its emotional dangers.  Riding my bicycle on a path I’ve ridden thousands of times, under an August sun that registers the time of my life in increments too small for notice. My feet on the pedals, my legs knowing just when to speed up so that I’ll make it up the next hill…and when to coast.  The salty brine of low tide wafting up from under cattails.  I could be 50. I could be 15.  There is no one beside me to comment on the fact that on this ride I’m riding a helmet over the fragile smooth egg-dome of my head, whereas the teenager would have had long straight hair blowing back like a flag.

I also played tennis this morning with a friend I’ve known all my life. When we were teenagers we used to compete in the local island tennis tournament, where we would lose with regularity to adult players with far less athletic ability.  Ilena’s father, a psychologist, offered once to give us pre-match subliminal messages that it was “Ok to beat our parents” to see if that would help.  We didn’t take him up on it.  And we kept losing. :)

I’m not sure if it was in fact that we had a deep-seated reluctance to best our “parents” on the tennis court. I think (speaking for myself) that I just didn’t know how to compete.  I didn’t know how to keep my mental focus where I wanted it to be and so it would hover uncomfortably in a place of anxiety and self doubt.  After many years of competing (as an adult, in USTA leagues) I have actually finally learned how to compete and now that’s one of my strong suits.  (I have BECOME one of those intensely focused older players that used to bother me as a teen!) When I’m on the court I try to keep my attention on what will help me — where my opponent is moving, where I’d like to hit the next shot, what strategies have been working, etc.  When I start thinking of unhelpful things — say, how obnoxious my opponent’s personality is, or whether I feel tired, etc. — then I just try to nudge my brain back on track.

Playing doubles with my friend Ilena (against OUR husbands) of course reminded me both of who we were and how far I’ve come.  At one point I (unhelpfully as far as tennis was concerned) started to think of how cool it was that my childhood friend was now a well-established journalist/editor, and that he husband is a renowned literary agent…that we were having a little publishing tennis party right there on the court.  But then I brought my focus right back to where I wanted to hit my return. :)

Focus has actually been a theme of my conversations with my friends this week. Walking with Ilena and another friend, Sarah, on the beach yesterday we were talking about “mindfulness” and the practice of being AWARE of where your emotions are pushing you, being kind to yourself about that process, and reminding yourself that you have the ability to make choices about how you REACT to those emotions.  This mostly came up in the context of trying to balance home/family and work. How we don’t want to let work tension ruin the time we spend with our loved ones.

It’s harder than it sounds. Knowing you CAN make choices about your mental processes doesn’t instantly translate into instant results — kinder responses to stress, improved productivity.  Witness writing.

I HAVE the option to put aside my doubts and inertia and just get out a draft out of my #@#$%^ novel.  Thinking ABOUT it doesn’t help me at all. Thinking inside of it could. What will happen if I just open up the document and work on it for an hour or so? What if I just push aside thoughts like, “I have no idea what should happen next in this novel?” Or “This feels TOO OVERWHELMINGLY BIG for me!!! MY IMAGINATION IS NOT BIG ENOUGH FOR THIS TASK.” What if I just instead try to do something small, like figure out what’s going on with my main character and write a bit of that?  

Let’s see….

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Alternative Self

This post is dedicated to “Dr. Art Levine” of Los Angeles.  Wordpress informs me that a good portion of the people who landed on my blog were searching for him and they found this instead.  I’m going to go google the guy now…ok that was a weird exercise. There are SO many Arthur Levines on Linked In alone (I myself am NOT on Linked In thought I get “invitations” to sign up all the time) it’s like looking in a fun house mirror of alternative lives.  There’s a pretty good-looking Arthur Levine who’s a “Financial Executive” in Florida. And there’s the always affable-looking Arthur Levine who is a leading Educator.  Seems to be a pretty wide variety, though alas, no Arthur Levine the gorgeous bodybuilder.  No Arthur Levine playboy-billionaire. No Arthur Levine reclusive head of an Island-state somewhere in the Caribbean, last seen here in this photo with Colin Farrell.  Oh wait — there ARE pictures of me with Colin Farrell; he helped us launch the book CLICK – a collaborative novel that was to benefit Amnesty International.  That FEELS like an alternative me (did I really get to stand next to Colin Farrell with his arm around me??) but isn’t.

This is in fact why I included the “A.” in my Imprint name: Arthur A. Levine Books. At the time of my imprint founding I belonged to  a synagogue in New York City where there were three other Arthur Levines beside me.  So I could only imagine how many other generic Arthur Levines were out there in the world.  

It’s a strange sort of twinning, really.  One that it never occurred to me to think about as a child growing up without the internet.  Back then I wondered what it would be like to have someone ELSE to talk to who looked like me, who sounded like me, who had the same sort of brain as I did, but who maybe had different experiences.  There was no one like that, of course. But there WERE all these other people with the same name, growing up with different families, having different experiences, making different choices.  If I met these other Arthur Levines would there be ANYTHING familiar about them?

I’ve reached a stage in life where I am struggling to make conscious choices.  How do I want the summary of my career to read? What would I like people to say about me in general?  I don’t want to coast in anything I do — not my job, not my marriage, not my friendships.  Too often coasting leads to cessation.

So I’m heading out for a ride, folks, doffing my hat at all you other Arthur Levines out there, all the many versions of my ACTUAL self smiling at me from Google’s search engine, and of course, to any of you who might be reading my bloggish nonsense on this beautiful August day.

Please be nice to any Arthur Levine you happen to meet.

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