Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Once Upon a Time There was Loehmann’s

Getting married in my Loehmann's dress.
When I was a little girl, I was transported by my fairy godmother, (okay, by my real mother) to a magic kingdom where the chairs were gilded, the chandeliers were crystal and an enthroned empress with silver hair presided over landscape of satin and silk in every color of the rainbow. From her perch at the top of a sweep of stairs, the imperial sovereign—in a long black dress and ankle boots (it was rumored she kept cash in her bloomers)—was serenaded by a chorus of ooh, aahs and “Would you believe this price? An Oleg Cassini. Such a steal.” Sweeter music was never heard than those arias of joy, of thrilled discovery, sung soprano by customers on the sales floor of Loehmann's, the fashion emporium of my Brooklyn childhood.

Loehmann’s flagship store stood on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sterling Place, a mecca that drew true believers in high fashion at discount prices from all five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester County and, likely, the ends of the earth. It was ruled by a former department store buyer, Frieda Loehmann who was probably a very sweet lady. But with cheeks rouged scarlet, in her mourning get-up, with a boney finger waggling at shoppers who were sloppy at re-hanging, she made for a formidable figure. A little scary. (Okay, a lot.) And then there was a place called The Back Room. How’s that for nightmare material? In fact, The Back Room was the repository of the store's most exquisite merchandise, couture clothes at everywoman prices.

Loehmann’s—which didn’t carry menswear—was no place for the hairy gender. Yes, they were allowed in, but then immediately sequestered. Husbands mostly, having driven their wives to the store, they took their rightful places in chairs clustered at the door or on the landings where they dutifully read their newspapers and tried mightily not to look at the aisles where bizarre rituals were taking place. Here, between rows of racked garments, women of all ages, sizes and shapes did quick asexual stripteases. Back then, Loehmann's provided no dressing rooms. Perhaps their absence had to do with the Judeo-Christian ethic—waste not (on curtained, mirrored cubicles), want not (room for more racks). So, right there in the aisles, in full view of each other and anyone who dared peek above the pages of his New York Post, women stripped down to their slips (full and half), or panties and bra or (oy!) girdles, before stepping into whatever dress or skirt looked promising. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Christmas Letter

Dear friends,

We just received your Christmas letter

and are delighted to know that everyone

     is even better than last year,

that your children are all at Harvard or Yale,

that you went to Bermuda or Barbados

     for  vacation

that the wives are all in law school,

the husbands were promoted

and the cat is doing TV commercials.

Things here are about the same:

chicken pox, high heating bills, and the

      lawn furniture is rusting.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Lost Ring

From the time of her marriage, my mother wore two thin gold circlets that served as her wedding band. After she died, my dad wore those rings on his pinky— and he was not a man for jewelry; about unostentatious as a New Yorker could get—but this was in memory of Mom. Before her passing, Dad had worn the ring given him by his parents at his Bar Mitzvah. That’s the ritual in the Jewish tradition that marks the entrance of a boy to manhood and welcomes him to participate fully in its observances. The ring had his initials WD for William Devens engraved in the gold and it originally held a small diamond that disappeared at some point, never to be replaced.

I inherited these bits of jewelry along with some other pieces, and they are—aside from my engagement ring, which is another bittersweet story—the most precious items I own. I wear the three together most days, fragments of memory wrought in gold, and think of them as talismans. I won’t fly, attend major meetings, or go to important doctors' appointments without them. I rub their surface for a blessing and am comforted by their warm glimmer in the flickering light of my parents’ memorial candles. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Midlife Love

My new novel Happy Any Day Now deals with a lead character approaching her fiftieth birthday who gets caught up in—among family twists and career turns—the complexities of middle aged love. And in Judith Soo Jin Raphael’s case, that’s a problem X 2.

Guest blogger Yona Zeldis
My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet)—my preceding novel—showcases a trio of bright and sassy women who find themselves single and ready for adventures in their fifties. But I’m far from the only author exploring the interesting topic of love seasoned by experience, sometimes soured by heartache, but always leavened with hope. Yona Zeldis McDonough is a talented practitioner of telling tales (30 or so years) out of school. She’s my guest blogger this week and she’s going to chat about her most recent novel, Two of a Kind (out today!) and the promise and perils of that midlife miracle called “love.”  —Toby 

Here’s Yona:
Yona's latest novel Two of a Kind is 
out today.
Young lovers approach each other with open and unencumbered arms; there are no strings, no baggage, no complicated back stories with which to contend. But middle-aged lovers approach each other with a truckload of emotional freight. If young love is a tabula rasa, then middle-aged love is a blackboard covered entirely in chalk. And it was middle-aged love that I set out to explore in my new novel, Two of a Kind.

My two protagonists, Dr. Andy Stern and interior designer Christina Connelly, are in their forties when they meet at a wedding. They take an instant and immediate dislike to one another: she thinks he’s boorish and brash; he finds her frosty and aloof. But because he needs his apartment redone and has heard rave reviews of her work, and she needs the money, these two mismatched individuals find themselves getting to know each other better—and then falling in love. 

It turns out that falling in love is the easy part; it’s staying in love that’s tough. There are differences in religion (he’s Jewish, she’s a lapsed Catholic) and differences in style (he’s loud, bossy and opinionated; she’s reserved and reflective). They each have experienced the death of a spouse—hers in a fire, his from ovarian cancer—and continue to compare each other to the partners they loved and lost. They have kids who have to be incorporated into whatever unit they try to build for themselves, and those kids certainly aren’t making things any easier. And Andy has the archetypal Jewish mother whose reaction to this union is less than ecstatic. 

But Andy and Christina persevere and it is the unfolding of their relationship, the push and pull of intimacy and fear, attraction and avoidance that became my focus in this novel. I had never charted a middle-aged relationship with all its fits and starts before, and I found I liked the process, perhaps because it dovetailed with the middle-age moment in my own life. While I am happily married and relieved that I don’t have to deal with the dating scene, I could really imagine the difficulties that would face me if I did. 

Maybe because I am middle-aged, I sympathized and empathized with my characters, both their desire for connection but also their fear of being wounded. And the events that help them overcome the fear were as surprising to me as they were to them. It was wonderful to find out that even middle-aged lovers—and writers—are still capable of being surprised now and then. 

Read more about Yona and her new book at: http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com/

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Book on the Brink...and Other Updates

 *A major giveaway of Happy Any Day Now is up and running on the review site Goodreads. Click on over to Goodreads and enter to win one of twenty-five copies of the book.  It's a great place to check out reader comments about all the latest releases. And you can post reviews of your favorites.

 *On another front, I’m thrilled to let you know that Happy Any Day Now will be out as an audio book, produced by Tantor Media and narrated by Donna Postel. You’ll probably recognize Donna’s engagingly warm voice from the thousands of commercials she’s done and the many audio books she’s recorded. In a recent email to me, she wrote: “I finished recording today, which is normally a cause for celebration, but I just didn't want this one to end!”  I can hardly wait to hear the story read aloud by this wonderful voice-over actress.

*Also, a reminder that as we head to the August 6th pub date, Happy Any Day Now is currently available for pre-order at online booksellers (there are hotlinks to a slew of them on my website 's homepage) and in traditional “brick and mortar” bookstores. Readers can choose from a smorgasbord of formats: trade paperback for those of us who still like to turn pages, electronically for e-readers such as Kindle and Nook, plus the aforementioned audio book, and in MP3 for download. Whatever the device, there should be version designed for it.

 *My heartfelt thanks to Romantic Times for awarding  Happy Any Day Now four stars in its "mainstream fiction" category. RT's advance review says, “This humorous tale of love and life...will have you laughing one minute and tearing up the next.” And no, HADN is not a romance novel, but love always plays an important role in my characters’ lives, and with two flawed but fascinating men vying for her attention, Judith Soo Jin Raphael gets caught up in a sizzling triangle that rewrites her past and threatens her future.    

 *Sometimes you need to take a break from writing and move to something that's also creatively satisfying, but high in calories. My most recent bout of cooking fever was inspired by two books. Last January, I fell in love with and blogged about Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients http://midlifepassions.blogspot.com/2013_01_01_archive.html  Now, its luscious sequel, The Lost Art of Mixing, propelled me back into the kitchen, and Nancy Baggett's All-American Dessert Book provided the recipe for a summer fruit cobbler (visit Nancy's  blog http://www.kitchenlane.com/)that was a sweet hit at a dinner party this weekend.

 *Finally, I love talking about Happy Any Day Now--the book's characters, plot and themes, how I came to write the story (a grandmother I never met and a cousin I hardly knew were major inspirations), and the joy and pain associated with creating a novel. My calendar is starting to fill, so if you're interested in having me speak to your organization, book club or group, drop me a line at midlifepassions@gmail.com.

 And I always enjoy hearing from you and about you on this blog.



Monday, June 10, 2013

The Two Minute Audition

Last Tuesday, I was in New York City for an audition before the Jewish Book Council's Author Network. The JBC is a godsend of an organization for authors who want to get the word out about their books. Here's what the network does. From their website:

"The JBC Network is designed to benefit communities that offer Jewish book programs and the authors of Jewish-interest books. The JBC Network—with over 100 member organizations across North America, including JCCs, synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Federations, and cultural centers—gives approximately 200 authors a platform for sharing their books each year. The program connects authors with their readers and promotes Jewish culture through Jewish book events."
I was one of sixty writers as I presented my new book, Happy Any Day Now, to an audience of movers and shakers from Jewish communities across the continent. If we did well and matched their needs, we'd be invited to speak to their groups back home.
Now, all of you who know me either personally or electronically (sounds like Elsa Lanchester in the Bride of Frankenstein, no?) are aware that I love to talk about my books. As I create them, I fall in love with my characters and their stories. My theory is that passion in all its forms is contagious. Therefore, if I'm crazy about my lead character, Judith Soo Jin Raphael, you'll be panting to meet her and hear about how this half Korean, half Jewish, poor, fatherless kid with her nose pressed against the window plays out her desire to become a real American, a happy insider. If I get her hilarious and wise Korean immigrant mother down right, if I draw an irresistible picture of her rascal of a father returning after an absence of decades, if I capture her Australian boyfriend and his rival, Judith's former lover, who's haunted her memory for decades and materializes just in time for her fiftieth birthday, if I make everything come alive, you'll be equally captivated. I can talk about my book for an easy twenty minutes, an easier forty, thrilled to introduce you to my latest literary cast.

In the name of full disclosure, I should tell you that in junior high school I was awarded first place in a public speaking contest for my rendition of Lewis Carroll's poem, "Father William." To this day, I have friends who might not remember what they ate for breakfast, but still vividly recall my stroking an imaginary beard as I intoned, “’In my youth,’ said the sage...”  Worse still: in high school I was voted a Senior Celeb. Not "Class Cutie" or "Girl Most Likely to Succeed," but "Class Orator." The only thing that saved me from terminal geekiness was that I was also an Erasmus Hall Booster, the equivalent of cheerleader, probably because my voice had been groomed to booming by my reading bible verses aloud on stage every Friday at chapel (my public school had been founded by the Dutch Reformed Church and did its own thing).

So I have a history of actually relishing "public speaking." Which, according to an old, perhaps apocryphal National Enquirer survey, topped "death" as its readers' most feared experience. All this to make clear that the thought of getting up before a hundred or more people to talk about my book didn't faze me. I looked forward to it. Except—here's the kicker—the JBC gives you only two minutes for your "elevator pitch." One hundred and twenty seconds. It takes me longer than two minutes to clear my throat and that's the time I had to present a book over which I’d labored for years.

And yet...two minutes is actually a genius idea because, like writing poetry, a constraint of time or space forces you to reduce an idea to its essence. And, more practically, it's the only way the JBC can get through 200 authors in three days. To its credit, the organization provided each of us a coach, who guided us through the process of getting our talks in shape. Joyce was remarkable. She made suggestions. She timed me. She helped me edit. She cheered me on.

And so, last Tuesday, in a large, well appointed room, I heard about books that featured a Jewish Superman, gay marriage, Hollywood in the thirties, a novel about Anne Frank's sister, a hard boiled LA mystery, some memoirs, coffee table tomes, and how-to's. Jewish and non-Jewish authors, young and old, strode to the mike and delivered the goods while a gracious woman held up posters that let them know how much of their precious two minutes they had left. Then it was my turn. As I absorbed the real meaning of Einstein's theory of relativity in terms of two minutes—hand on hot stove, long; lover's embrace, short—I gave it my all. Was it my finest hour? Well, of course not. My finest two minutes? Only time, that thief, will tell. But it was a challenge and an adventure. And, wow, was it fun!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Next Big Thing! An Interview About My Next Book

The Next Big Thing is an author interview series currently generating lots of buzz for its inside look into how writers, working in a variety of genres, create their best work. My special thanks to Becki Melchione who, along with Lauren Eisenberg Davis, invited me to participate and provided the questions. You can see Becki’s interview about her book, Practice Radical Hope: Motherhood After Cancer at: www.beckimelchione.com/blog

And now, although I’ve never been taller than 5‘ 3” in my life, it’s my turn to be The Next Big Thing!
Seeing Midlife Crisis on the bookstore shelf
 for the first time was a major thrill!

1. What is the working title of your book?
My new novel is called Happy Any Day Now.

2. What genre does your book fall under?
It’s considered mainstream women’s fiction, but I think men will also enjoy it. My first novel, My Favorite Midlife Crisis (Yet), was primarily marketed to women. But I got some wonderful,  surprising fan mail from men sent to my website www.tobydevens.com. Apparently, a number of XYers thought the story—and the characters—delivered some deep insights into female behavior. I’m amazed and also amused that many men really do think woman are a mystery and that guys need an operating manual to figure out how we work.

3. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Half-Jewish, half-Korean cellist deals with the return of two men—one father, one boyfriend—who deserted her when she was younger and, as a result of their reappearance, develops a  case of stage fright that threatens her career and her happiness. Whew! One very long, pretty convoluted  sentence that hardly tells it all.

4. Where did the idea come from for the book?
While doing some genealogical research, I unearthed the ship’s manifest for my maternal grandmother who emigrated from Austria around the turn of the century. That started me thinking about the immigrant experience which is universal. And so Grace, a Korean war-bride, and the mother of my protagonist was born. Judith came next, and soon we had a quorum of characters in search of a plot.

One strong thread of that plot came from a different direction. Having people from high school and college find me on Facebook and other sources online, sparked the theme of loss and return. What happens when important figures from your past suddenly barge into your present to make mischief? I had fun exploring that theme and constructing the narrative around it.

That’s as close as I can get to the source of the book’s origin. I try not to over-analyze the creative process. It’s like sleight-of-hand. You don’t want to look too closely. My theory is: don’t mess with the magic.

5. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

It’s difficult  to cast Judith and Grace because there are few Asian-American actors in the spotlight. Shame. But Lucy Liu would be perfect for Judith Soo Jin Raphael. Kathy Bates has Grace’s build and sly sense of humor. I think Daniel Crag would be spot-on as Geoff,  Judith’s big, bluff Australian boyfriend. And for Charlie, the judge who resurfaces to shake-up her life, Bradley Cooper, but aged by ten years with some laugh lines and a little gray in the hair. He’s got to lose the beard, though—Charles Evans Pruitt would only wear a beard if he broke the hand that held his razor. Cooper’s got the elegance, the intelligence, and Charlie’s electric blue eyes that Judith finds so hypnotic. Also, as her father, that rascal Irwin—Richard Drayfuss.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have had an agent for my past two books—a wonderful one, Elaine English. She handles only women’s fiction and is currently not taking on new clients. She’s been more than an agent really; she she’s been a mentor and a friend.

Happy Any Day Now and the book to follow will be published by Penguin/New American Library. Pub date for Happy Any Day Now is scheduled for this coming August. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon right now.

I’m already working on the next novel  a stand-alone with a whole new cast, fresh settings, and different challenges. It’s been fun writing so far.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript for Happy Any Day Now?

Almost a year. But that was the first draft. There were four or five more.  I kept coming up with ways to sharpen a plot point, add nuance to a character, prune extraneous material. I know writers who disparage the editing process. But that’s where the story really comes to life, in the editing. It’s the polishing that makes it shine.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t distance myself far enough to make that kind of judgment. The story is still too fresh and the characters too present. Ask me again in five years when I hope to have a grander perspective.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’m  always inspired to write by the woman—and men—who face challenges in their lives with grace and humor. My books have serious themes, but I’ve been told they’re LOL funny.  I want my readers to laugh a lot and tear up occasionally and come away feeling they’ve had a good, satisfying read.

On a more personal level, when things get tough in my life, especially in the writing aspect, I look to my daughter—my greatest accomplishment—whose confidence in me never falters. “Just a speed bump” she tells me, when I hit one with teeth-rattling force. Kids and grandkids are inspiring. You want to make them proud, and you want to serve as an example that creative expression is an essential part of a rich life.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Well, Happy Any Day Now deals with a character who’s bright, energetic, sexy, witty,  open to new adventures—and she’s on the cusp of fifty. Midlife and beyond can be (not to sound treacly) the beginning of your most happy, productive, fulfilling days. I count myself as a living example of that little bonus.  After all, it's the skills I've honed and the history I've amassed that help me write books people want to read.  I figure that more than compensates for a blaze of candles on the birthday cake.

Coming Up On Next Big Thing! Alan Zendell writes that he has been a physicist, engineer, and software developer. Later in life, he turned to writing fiction. His name is attached to three novels, a number of short stories, and an epic novel which is currently being serialized. His first love is science fiction, but he has a soft spot for romance and marriage which manages to peek out of everything he writes. Alan will discuss his well-reviewed novel, The Portal, next Friday at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4656741.Alan_Zendell/blog.
In the meantime, I'd love to hear questions or comments about my Next Big Thing! interview.
Toby Devens