PLAYING WITH FIRST NAMES

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Long before I ever anticipated what’s evolved into my newest novel, What’s Left, I ended my first published novel with a young woman named Diana, in part because I liked the two puns it allowed. Her husband-to-be, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, had returned to Indiana – and now he could boast of a love that allowed him to be in Diana as well as in Dhyana, or deep meditation.

Not that you have to understand Sanskrit to read it. Shouldn’t the mere hint of something exotic should suffice?

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FRAMED BY TWO BROTHERS AND TWO SISTERS

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

In my personal genealogy research, I’ve found that brothers in one family wedding sisters in another was a common occurrence in earlier times, especially when marriage fell within a shared religion or ethnic tradition. I’ve been intrigued with the actually functioning within those households, especially when they moved off together to resettle on the frontier. I’ve assumed that each member brought some specialty to the wider relationship.

Thus, in my new novel, What’s Left, having her great-grandparents be one-half of the quartet that founds her family in the New World makes perfect sense. I like being referring to them as brothers/brothers-in-law and sisters/sisters-in-law. It does make for an especially close family.

Having them break so completely with the Old World is another matter altogether, though I’ve heard their argument told by descendants of other immigrant families.

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ANOTHER UNSEEN INFLUENCE ON HER LIFE

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel. If only this one were pink, like hers.

In my new novel, What’s Left, her maternal grandparents are both dead before her birth – they’re victims of a late-night collision on a rural highway. But they cast a big influence over her life, all the same.

Stavros and Bella are second-generation Americans, bridging hard work and success to establish the family restaurant, Carmichael’s, as the campus landmark it becomes.

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POOLING THEIR FAMILY RESOURCES

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

In my new novel, What’s Left, the family’s nest egg was built by living on one income – in a single household – while everyone worked at the restaurant. The surplus went into savings and investments. Once the kids come along, their earnings also go in the pooled income, to be drawn out for college or marriage. Over time, as the family grows, the house has parents, grandparents, kids, aunts, uncles, and cousins. What a circus!

As for pocket money? Take it from the till? Some places, yes. And some places, no.

They’re about to start over, in a way, when Cassia’s father-to-be shows up.

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THAT OLD EAST-MEETS-WEST CONUNDRUM

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others. The logo of the new Gyro Spot in downtown Dover takes the traditional Greek blue-and-white border and twists it into a G. Or is that Gee!

Decades ago, in selecting a Greek-American family as the closing destination of my first published novel, I imagined its circle of siblings as an embodiment of Western civilization – a bohemian counterbalance to the Tibetan Buddhism my hippie-dippy Dharma bum was carrying back to the American heartland. I intended the fusion of two non-mainstream cultures to suggest the rainbow of alternative lifestyles emerging in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the optimistic possibilities before us.

Frankly, some of what I wrote was semi-autobiographical. After an immersion in yoga practice on a small farm in the Pocono mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, I had returned to a rural corner of Ohio – a small town I call Prairie Depot in some later novels. While our yoga was Hindu-based, the teachings allowed me to explore an earlier interest in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism – enough similarities exist for me to feel comfortable in that part of my story.

What still astonishes me, though, is my intuitive flash to make the family Greek. I vaguely sense my decision may have been based on a local family-owned restaurant that had undergone a similar tragedy, though I would have known little more than what I’ve just related. Only in the past half-dozen years have I begun to perceive how prevalent Greek immigrants and their descendants have been in the American experience, yet even when they’re as numerous as they are where I now live, their presence is nearly invisible to the general public.

I hope my newest novel, What’s Left, will change that perception.

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TWO BROTHERS/BROTHERS-IN-LAW ALONG WITH TWO SISTERS/SISTERS-IN-LAW

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

Centering the story of my new novel, What’s Left, in a Greek-American family required me to consider just what each member might have undergone in the years from arriving in the New World up to her father’s introduction to her mother. (Or more accurately, before her father-to-be meets her mother-to-be.)

While creating a suitable scenario presented a fascinating challenge, I did have to start wondering just why Cassia herself – or the typical young adult reader, for that matter – would have any interest in such ancient history.

I hope a hint of scandal helps, along with a few other twists, before their curiosity kicks in.

~*~

Much of the novel revolves around Cassia’s prolonged examination of old family photos – images that might amuse younger viewers or even intrigue them. Think of looking at high school yearbooks from earlier decades. Yes, those geeky hairstyles are real. As for the dress?

Any collection of family photos is bound to include birthday parties. What’s your favorite cake for the occasion?

AND NOW, FOR A COVER!

Thanks to everyone who responded to my earlier invitation for comments regarding a few possible covers for my newest novel.

The survey ended in mixed results and prompted some heated in-house discussion, ultimately sending me back to the drawing board for a more compelling design.

Just what do we want as a cover, anyway? Are people’s faces a help or a distraction? Does a jacket work best if it somehow reflects a scene in the story, as my earlier mock-ups attempted to suggest? Or is reaching for a less constrained, emotional reaction more effective?

What’s Left

As you see, I’ve opted for the later. Here the image invokes a sense of being broken out from a protected shell and falling through space. It’s also appropriate for a family that owns a restaurant – food being a theme running throughout the story. Will this cover encourage a browser to open the book to discover, in effect, just what happens to the yolk? Where it will land?

That, of course, is my goal. To see if it fits, go to Smashwords, where you can order your own Advance Reading Copy for free. The offer will expire after 90 days, when the first edition comes out at $4.95, so act now.

Your early reactions will be most welcome in preparing for that release.

WHAT AN AUTHOR SEES IN AN AMBITIOUS NOVEL

A young organist once mentioned that he doesn’t listen to music the way some of the rest of us do. While I’m usually aware of the time signature, or at least a basic pattern to beat, much more than that fills his awareness. We could begin with the key or chordal progressions or structural development or phrasing. As for emotions? Way down on his list.

Of course, something similar happens for me as a reader. The author looks at much else besides the story, as reading reviews of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex reminds me.

I’ve already mentioned that my primary interest was in its presentation of Greek-American life. These aren’t celebrities or university professors or artists but people trying to survive the economic challenges of everyday existence. He does so in a matter-of-fact way, with a darker view of humanity than I’d usually take but more accepting of their foibles and failures, too. Everyone’s flawed. He’s not afraid to reveal the villains among them, family or not. If only I could revisit my own Sunday dinners with such cold accuracy! (The skeletons in my family closet, from what I can tell, are much further back and mostly in my mother’s ancestry. But the dysfunctions, well, that’s an entirely different matter.) To put his accomplishment here in a different light, his details are both particular and universal. They hit close to home. If only we had terms of affection like Dolly mou, which I take to be a variation on Koukla mou. Or, for that matter, if we were only so outwardly open and affectionate, period.

The novel’s more prominent theme, Cal’s sexual identity, advances in good taste. Nothing salacious but rather an ongoing, almost innocent discovery by narrator and reader alike. Eugenides manages the rare accomplishment of being a male who writes a convincing female character from within. In fact, he gets close enough to have had me wondering if were writing autobiographically of his own condition. That, alone, is astonishing.

As I was reading, I wasn’t yet aware of his reputation as a short-story master, but it makes sense. Much of this novel builds as shifts between stories separated over time.

Technically, his use of point of view is amazing. His Virgin Suicides was acclaimed for its daring use of first-person plural. Here, though, he mixes first-person singular, with its immediacy and intimacy, and third-person, with its semi-omniscient awareness, sometimes in abutting sentences, so that you get a stereoscopic view at once from within and without. Through the first half of the book, especially, much of this happens before Cal’s birth, which creates a kind of time travel. And it works. How much of the related details are “real” and how much merely imagined by the narrator, we should note, remains up in the air. But it’s effective, all the same.

Eugenides’ presentations of the massacre by the Turks and later race riot in Detroit are masterful and moving.

Throughout, the factual accuracy feels right. He’s done his homework and often conveys complexities with a few confident brush strokes. His insights on Eastern Orthodox Christianity are especially notable that way. As for his takes on hippie experience, I’ll simply say, Ouch! As I said, he often takes a darker view of humanity than do I.

Another major subject is his corner of the American Midwest. Contrary to common opinion, the region is hardly homogeneous and is anything but compact. Ohio, for instance, is the size of England. Presentations of it in contemporary literature are surprisingly rare, at least in proportion to the population. And there are many variations in the underlying cultures and outlooks. Kurt Vonnegut’s Indiana, for one thing, is quite different from Saul Bellow’s Chicago – and neither of them resembles what I know of Eugenides’ locale, Detroit. (Let me add my own emphasis on the importance of place itself to the extent it might be considered a character within much of my writing.)

What Eugenides presents is a more compact metropolis than I remember, but definitive in a blend of influences I recognize across much of northern Ohio and Indiana as well. Whether dealing with the older inner city, which then leads into issues of race and racism, or later suburban life, the descriptions resonate with what I found throughout the industrial Rust Belt. Cal’s grandfather’s encounters with Ford Motor Company’s melting-pot police or Cal’s father’s dealing with the real estate point system quickly demonstrate the cost of maintaining a unique identity. You didn’t have to be an immigrant to run afoul of that, either, I’d add from another direction.

It’s not a “perfect” novel, but nothing this ambitious could be. As the Detroit Free Press review expressed, “What Dublin got from James Joyce — a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts — Detroit got from native son Euginides.”

For me, a drift sets in late in the volume with the introduction of the Desired Object and Cal’s sexual desire awakening. The tight construction seems to be coming apart, sprawling, but! In retrospect, it’s more that a second novel is taking off with leaps to Manhattan and then San Francisco before coming to a powerfully focused and moving conclusion.

So here I am, full of admiration and wonder. How does he pull this off? Where do those brilliant flashes of humor spring from? How does he make some essentially unsympathetic characters come to life in daily survival?

He plays throughout the story with Cal’s grandmother’s skillful touch with silkworms and the ways their silk reflects events around them. It’s one more stream of knowledge that runs like a thread holding the work together.

Eugenides, then, may be seeing himself as a silkworm issuing the long, long filament – for that matter, a nearly endless stream of organ chords – or, as we’d say, spinning a yarn.

Somehow, it all fits. Marvelously.