RWA 2013: There and Back Again

P07-20-13_07.16Back from Atlanta as of last Sunday. Still processing everything I’ve heard in workshops and from various eloquent speeches given by RITA and Golden Heart honorees. And still adjusting to the three hour time difference, which can turn me into a heavy-eyed, sleep-deprived zombie on a moment’s notice.

At some point, when I’m more coherent, I’ll share some memories and anecdotes of the conference. But for now, I hope some pictures will do.

P07-20-13_12.27Groundling’s eye view of the conference hotel–the staggeringly tall Atlanta Marriott Marquis. Glancing up towards the roof, and the elevators climbing up into the stratosphere can give one vertigo! Fortunately, the sessions were held on the much lower levels.

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Decor at the hotels ranged from the striking, as in this electric “sail” sculpture on the Atrium level of the Marriott . . .

 

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To the seriously silly, as evidenced by this dolphin sculpture outside of Trader Vic’s, a Polynesian restaurant in the neighboring Hilton Atlanta.

 

 

 

Quite a number of decorated dolphin statues could be found in downtown Atlanta. An obliging passerby offered to take a picture of me next to one (painted with aquatic life) outside the Regency Hyatt. P07-20-13_19.14

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Personally, I think this guy (from my visit to the Georgia Aquarium) made a slightly better photographic subject, if only because he knew how to stay perfectly still.

 

 

 

Visiting the Georgia Aquarium was one of the highlights of the trip. Where else can you see creatures as diverse as …

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Sea otters…

 

 

 

 

 

Beluga whales…Belugas&seals

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Penguins…

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And albino alligators.

I have to confess the last guy kind of gave me the creeps, even though he appeared to be sound asleep when I visited. Nonetheless, I was relieved that there was a thick pane of glass between him and me!

The humans I met on this trip were a great deal less alarming. But more on them in a later post.

Until then!

RWA 2013: Atlanta Bound!

Hello, everyone! Just a short entry to announce I’m off to the RWA National Convention, being held this year in Atlanta, from July 17-July 20. Last year in Anaheim–practically my back yard–was my first experience at RWA, and I very much enjoyed the chance to meet other romance writers at every stage of their career. Back then, I was in the process of transitioning between being a writer and being an author, having signed my first contract but still awaiting publication, scheduled for six months down the road. I knew I had a lot to learn, and I was eager to learn it.

This year, I am attending as an official author, with one book out as of last December and another forthcoming in October. I will be participating in two signings–the Literacy Autographing held on July 17, 5:30-7:30 pm and the Sourcebooks signing on July 20, 3:00-4:30 pm. I still have a lot to learn, however, and maybe even a few things to pass on.

Like a few conference tips, perhaps. Several writers have posted columns full of useful advice to those coming to their first RWA. This one, by Vicky Drelling, is especially helpful, and so is this one, describing the weather and various sights in Atlanta. I can heartily concur with all these suggestions–especially regarding comfortable shoes and bringing enough business casual outfits to compensate for surprise stains or wardrobe malfunctions.  And here are a couple more:

1. Get plenty of rest. It’s more tiring than you’d think to sit still and have people talk at you for an hour or two. So if you find yourself needing to slip up to your room for a nap, go for it. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

2. Be pleasant, polite, friendly, and discreet. You never know whom you might meet in the elevator or even the line to the women’s restroom!

3. Asking another attendee what she writes is a pretty reliable ice-breaker. And it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

4. Hydrate. The air in the hotels can be very dry, especially at night, so drink plenty of water.

5. Bring business cards to pass out. And promotional bookmarks to give away if you have a book out or forthcoming. (I just received some beautiful promotional bookmarks for A Song at Twilight, my October release at Sourcebooks, which I’m looking forward to sharing).

6. Familiarize yourself with the conference hotel and surrounding environs. Getting the lay of the land can help you get to sessions and other appointments on time.

7. Keep a weather eye on the weather! Atlanta in July is hot, but it’s also having a very wet summer this year, so if you’re staying off-site, or planning on going off-site, you might want to pack an umbrella or a light raincoat or rain poncho.

8. Enjoy yourself–whether that means attending lots of sessions/workshops, making friends with other writers, sampling works by authors new to you, or even holing up in your room should sudden inspiration strike (a tendency every writer will understand–and most likely forgive!)

Hope to see some of you there!

Much Ado about Much Ado

As you can probably guess by the title of this post, I’m about to rhapsodize about my favorite Shakespeare play (among the comedies, anyway. Hamlet may hold that spot among the tragedies).

I think one hallmark of a favorite play is how many times you can see it performed/adapted without growing tired of it. And as I sat in the movie theater last weekend, getting ready to watch Joss Whedon’s new film version of Much Ado about Nothing, I reflected on the reasons for the play’s lasting appeal for me. Wit, wordplay, a romance between equals, absurd or potentially absurd situations, and a delicious happy ending are among them, of course. But there are also dark elements to Much Ado: shame, slander, jealousy, deceit, malice, guilt, sorrow, painful choices, and a not wholly painless redemption. But those elements make the happiness at the end seem sweeter because it’s more hard-won.

"There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn."
“There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.”

Looking back, I’ve seen about seven or eight different versions of Much Ado About Nothing, counting both stage and screen productions.  The first was a much-praised version starring RSC actors Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack as Benedick and Beatrice, the primary couple, held as part of the Olympic Arts festival in 1984. Jacobi was elegant and polished, perhaps more the courtier than the soldier (the costumes showed a Cavalier influence, all lace and ribbons) but still effective, while Cusack was a moody, almost solitary Beatrice, hovering at the periphery of her family and still carrying a torch for Benedick, which she appeared to resent. (There is indeed a hint in the play itself that B&B had a previous involvement that ended badly.)

"What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?"
“What, my dear lady Disdain, are you yet living?”

Soon after, I saw a grimmer, more serious, more traditionally staged BBC adaptation, with a dour Benedick (Robert Lindsay) and a brittle Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi). They nailed the church scene, though, so I forgave them the grimness.

In subsequent years, I saw some open air productions of Much Ado About Nothing, one set in mid-nineteenth century America, another in a more modern era, reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s (the actress playing Beatrice seemed to be channeling Katharine Hepburn at her most mannered). And while in graduate school, I attended a minimalist version performed in modern dress by five British actors visiting the U.S. Despite the skeleton cast, which performed multiple roles between them, the production worked very well.

"Serve God, love me, and mend."
Serve God, love me, and mend.”

The best-known adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing would have to be Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, a bold, colorful, rambunctious romp set and shot in sun-drenched Tuscany, featuring a properly witty if somewhat manic lead couple in Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson, and performances that run the gamut from serviceable to splendid to just plain . . . strange (Hello there, Michael Keaton as Dogberry!). While somewhat lacking in subtlety, this version is still loads of fun, especially when one is in a “summertime” mood.

"Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion."
“Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”

And just a few years ago, thanks to the magic of video, I saw the acclaimed 1972 television production of Much Ado, directed by Joseph Papp as part of his Shakespeare in Central Park project. Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston, both startlingly young and gorgeous, played Beatrice and Benedick against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century America. You can imagine all the soldiers returning in triumph from a short action like the Spanish-American War, high on their victory and ready for romantic diversion that the ladies are no less willing to provide. Outdoors are gardens, gazebos, porch swings, and even a dainty miniature carousel. Benedick and his friends gather at the town barber shop, Beatrice and her friends sneak out into the garden to share a cigarette between them, and Dogberry and his minions engage in a Keystone Kops-like chase of the villains all around the stage, complete with flashing strobe lights. It’s a charming, off-beat staging that proves Americans can perform Shakespeare just as adeptly as their British counterparts.

So how does this new version compare? Quite well, I’m happy to say. I didn’t know what to expect, especially after hearing that the director shot this movie in black-and-white film in 12 days, essentially in his back yard (albeit a very spacious, even luxurious-looking back yard), with a small cast of actors he’s previously worked with on other projects, many of whom are unfamiliar to me.

An intimate moment between Beatrice and Benedick
“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

Vanity project? It could have been, but fortunately, I found myself charmed, rather than irritated. The setting was contemporary–the men wore business suits and traveled by limo–but the black and white cinematography gave the film a timeless feeling, and the small cast and confined staging gave the production a special intimacy. It really did feel like “a family affair.” The text of the play was cut by about a third, some roles were eliminated and others pared down, but the story didn’t suffer for it overall.  Because I didn’t know the actors well, I could focus more intently on the characters they were portraying. So Amy Acker played a clever, coltish Beatrice–a trifle klutzy at times, but not too broad or slapsticky–while Alexis Denisof was a witty but slightly curmudgeonly Benedick. The setting gave a new resonance to the couple’s skittishness: who dares to be emotionally vulnerable, to wear their hearts on their sleeves, in this slick, superficial modern age? Whedon also makes explicit what is only implied in the text: that Beatrice and Benedick were romantically involved in the past, and it didn’t end well. But while they fight whenever they meet, they also can’t seem to stay away from each other. Their exchanges have an almost private quality to them, as if, even in a room full of people, they’re not really paying attention to anyone else. And once each is convinced the other still cares, their defenses crumble like wet sand.

There are other nice touches too: one minor character gets a gender reassignment that works surprisingly well in context, another minor character adds a subtext to his actions that I’ve never seen or even considered before, modern technology is used to entertaining effect at several points in the story, and nearly everyone is seen with a glass in hand, suggesting that alcohol fuels some of the play’s more absurd situations. And for all its seeming slickness, the film delivers a sweet closing image that will satisfy even the most diehard romantics.

So, do I recommend it? Absolutely. If you love the play and are intrigued by the possibilities of a modern reimagining, you’ll find it worth your while. I’m even thinking of seeing it again–especially since it’s opening in more theaters next week. See you at the movies!

A Pair of Birthday Girls!

April has been a very busy month, what with work, income taxes, getting used to a new season and a new schedule. Fortunately, there were other, more pleasant reasons for this busy-ness–namely, two birthday celebrations I had the honor of attending just over a week ago, in Palo Alto.

LongevityFan2The first honoree–an old friend of the family, especially of my mother who has known her from more than 50 years–was observing her 99th birthday, a watershed marked by the Longevity fan on prominent display at both parties. The matriarch of a large, far-flung family, she has lived a rich, full life, is still as sharp as a needle, and was apparently pleased and excited to see so many friends and relatives in attendance at her party.

RedEggs2By contrast, the second honoree–great-granddaughter of the first–has just turned one, an occasion marked in Chinese tradition by a “Red Egg Celebration” (where hard-boiled eggs, colored pink by red calligraphy paper, are served to the guests as symbols of a fresh start and new beginning). All things are still to come for her (including her first set of teeth), but she too was majorly stoked about her birthday party, if for a slightly different reason. As her fond mother reported with pride, “This girl loves to eat!”

Which turned out to be a very good thing, as both birthday dinners were Chinese banquets featuring a multitude of dishes and courses. My advice to anyone who happens to attend such a dinner: Pace yourself.  In between the cold meats and salads that began both meals to the noodle dishes (for longevity) that ended them, there was soup, Peking duck, Chinese-style fried chicken, rice-stuffed chicken, Mongolian beef, beef with broccoli, sweet and sour pork, shrimp with glazed walnuts, and steamed fish (the last carefully deboned at the table by the waiter). It’s possible to sample everything, but, depending on your capacity, keeping your servings small to moderate is generally a good idea! I managed by restricting myself to single servings on most dishes (with a couple of exceptions–could never resist Peking duck!), and bypassing a few others (like the jellyfish–it’s the texture, not the taste, that puts me off!). Dessert on both occasions was thoroughly Western birthday cake: strawberries and cream the first night, chocolate and raspberry the second.

(Strangely enough, the red eggs never did get eaten, possibly because they were eclipsed by everything else on the table. But they were carefully packed away in styrofoam cartons for another occasion. I overheard someone murmur something about “egg salad” the next day.)

My mother (left), with the first birthday girl
My mother (left), with the first birthday girl

A very happy birthday to both honorees! Thank you for inviting us, and we were glad to be there, celebrating with you.

 

Stepping into the Past: The Lure of a Historic Hotel

I have a thing for historic hotels–the Empress in Victoria, B.C.; the Coronado del Mar in San Diego; the Savoy in London. But, as I have neither the occasion nor the wherewithal to stay in any of them, my interest has remained purely academic. (Although I have at least visited the first two, and taken copious photographs!)

That changed last week during a brief visit to Northern California to celebrate the birthday of an old family friend–details to come in a later blog post. My traveling companion wanted to be as close to the restaurant as possible, so after some searching, I secured us a room at the historic  “art-deco” Cardinal Hotel in downtown Palo Alto, less than three blocks away. My initial goal had simply been to find clean, affordable accommodations for a couple of nights–and while that goal was satisfactorily met, the charming detour into the past was an unexpected bonus.

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Walking into the lobby of the Cardinal was like walking into a more elegant, leisurely era, or so it seems to the harried, 21st century traveler. Tiled floors, wrought iron chandeliers shaped like acorns, a Batchelder fireplace flanked by a pair of tall wrought-iron torchieres that haven’t been moved from their original placement since the hotel was first built in 1924.

Other furniture included well-padded leather sofas and upholstered armchairs, gilt-edged mirrors that made the room appear even larger; an antique piano by the fireplace; a disabled telephone switchboard in one corner and two wooden phone booths at the far end of the lobby; and even a pair of octagonal game tables complete with old chess and checkers sets to occupy guests in the evenings or while they waited for the dining room to open. GameTables

The Cardinal also once boasted a restaurant called Wilson’s, and according to a posted menu from the 1920s, the price of a lavish meal there could be reckoned in cents, not dollars! Alas, that was one custom that did not survive the passage of time! Still, complimentary coffee, tea, and hot chocolate were available at all times in the lobby, which was a nice courtesy, especially in the morning.

Upstairs–reached via an old-fashioned elevator with an outer door you had to open manually before entering–the decor was much more modern. No air conditioning, but a large ceiling fan revolved almost soundlessly and kept things nicely cool. The plumbing was (mercifully) up to date, and there was a large color TV and wireless internet access. Some bedrooms shared a hallway bathroom and shower–a practice in some European hotels, while others had private baths. (We opted for the latter–in this case, convenience trumped style!)

Not everything about the Cardinal was perfect. There’s no on-site parking, for example, and you have to stow your vehicle on the streets, the public lots, or the parking structure across the way.  The good news is that on weekends–after 5 PM Friday until 8 AM on Monday–you can park pretty much wherever you want for as long as you want. This was just about about ideal for us, as we checked in Friday afternoon and stayed until Sunday morning. But the staff was unfailingly helpful and courteous, the amenities provided were of good quality, and the period ambiance irresistible. For a few days, the Cardinal Hotel provided us with the perfect escape.

“E” is for “Entry”

To a different world, and a different culture.

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Last week was an experience for me. But not just because Waltz with a Stranger was finally released. On December 5, I was one of a small party that attended a reception in honor of the King of Thailand’s birthday, held at a local country club. (A relative teaches the general consul’s son, and unexpectedly received an invitation. The rest of us came along as moral support.)

So there we were, all dressed up for the evening–can’t go wrong with a little black dress and a sparkly necklace!–and getting an on-the-fly lesson in Thailand’s political history, an eyeful of Thai traditions, and later on, generous servings of Thai food (tasty, but definitely on the “hot” side. I regretted the apparent absence of Thai iced tea to cool things down, afterwards.) There was a great deal to see, hear, and absorb–much of which I’m still reflecting on–but here are some thoughts/discoveries to start with.

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Massaman Curry, photo by Ernesto Andrade

Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, has ruled Thailand for 65 years, and is still a popular, much revered figure in his country. As a citizen of a nation in which we “fire” our head of government every four years if we’re dissatisfied with his policies and see a changing of the guard every eight years whatever the outcome, I found myself amazed by the thought of any one person being in power for six and a half decades. And then remembered Queen Victoria and her own 64 years on the English throne, and the reverence she most often inspired in her subjects, even those who were critical of her. The British and the Thais were both fortunate to have monarchs who appeared to have their country’s best interests at heart.

It was intriguing to hear how invested the Thais were in the outcome of our own recent election. One of the speakers of the evening proposed a toast to President Obama, in honor of his second term, and mentioned that the president had made a recent visit to Thailand after winning reelection. He voiced the hope that Thailand and the U.S. would continue their friendly relationship of many years.

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Meeting of President Obama and Rama IX, 11/18/12

Back in the club, monitors showed news footage of Bhumibol’s past visits to the United States. A placard displayed an excerpt of a speech he gave on one such visit.

On lighter subjects: Thai national dress is stunningly beautiful. We saw a number of Thai women, many exquisitely gowned in silks and satins, lovely sheeny fabrics heavy with embroidery or crusted with gems.

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Thai girls in traditional costume. Photo: Yashi Wong

Thai culture seems to place a high value on beauty in general. On the terrace where the reception was held, there were corners in which guests could see popular Thai pastimes at work: garland-making–jasmine is a staple, because of its perfume; fruit and vegetable carving, into beautiful, elaborate shapes; and calligraphy (I now have a bookmark with my name written in Thai).

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Carved carrot and cucumber. Photo: Mattes

Throughout the evening, we glimpsed some traditional Thai dances–“glimpsed” because the terrace was very crowded and visibility at something of a premium. I marveled at the sight of the dancers in their elaborate headdresses, which I hoped were lighter than they appeared. And a small group of musicians played throughout the evening. I noticed a cello, a hammer dulcimer, something that looked like a large xylophone, and a thoroughly modern electronic keyboard! Or perhaps it was a synthesizer–I never plucked up the nerve to ask.

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Khon Dancers in Performance

But, in the midst of all this fascinating history and culture, perhaps the most novel experience of the evening for me . . . was finding myself, at a mere 5′ 4″, among the taller people at the party. An evening to remember indeed!