Sunday, February 28, 2010

No Right To Know Everything

Although my husband is an engineer, often his words reverberate in my head like a Hallelujah Chorus for writers. This past week he was mentoring some new employees at work, which always fascinates me. What are the young people like these days? He said that one of the fresh grads--an intelligent young man--became paralyzed when he didn't recognize everything being tested. "You don't have a right to know everything," my husband advised. "Work with what you know first and move from there."
Yes, I thought. Work with what you know first. Don't worry if you don't see the whole picture. If you don't understand every detail of your character. If you aren't totally sure how to jump from one chapter to the next. Move anyway. With what you CAN do.
Book of the Week: A couple of weeks ago I asked for book ideas on Marx. There wasn't an outpouring of response--no surprise there--however I managed to unearth one: Karl by Susan Coll. It's hardly filled with facts, but is a novel paralleling the life of Marx's daughter, Eleanor, and that of a confused grad student. I got a smile out of it, and am ready to dive back into the dusty pages of history. Unless, of course, you've got some other fun ideas?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Come Join the Discussion

I guess some things are meant to happen. Many months ago, a woman in my book club suggested we all read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. I viewed the prospect with trepidation. I grew up thinking a trip to McDonald's or a serving of frozen fish sticks was a 'treat.' I had the feeling Mr. Pollan wouldn't agree...and I didn't really want to hear it. Fortunately, her suggestion was trumped....
But then the program director of the Indian Professional Business Women called and asked if I'd moderate this year's Silicon Valley Read's panel discussion. And what should be this year's read? You guessed it. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.
The book can be summarized in basically four sentences:
Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.
(No frozen fish sticks.)
Our discussion should be a little more provocative than that, though, with panelists including registered nurse and SCC Board of Supervisors Liz Kniss, registered dietician and Fitness Clinic co-owner Lisa Richardson,the Director of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association John Silviera and the co-founder of the South Asian Heart Center Ashish Mathur. Hope to see you there.
Date: Sunday, February 21st, 2010
Time: 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm
Place: India Community Center (ICC), 525 Los Coches Street, Milpitas, CA 95035

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shedding Some of the Traditions..but not the Happiness of the New Year

In China, the New Year is the most important holiday of the year--like a combination of our Christmas and Thanksgiving. It's celebrated on the first day of the year, according to the Lunar Calendar, and vacillates between late January and early February. This is the first time I remember the new year falling on Valentine's Day. How often does that happen? According to the LA times, about three times a century.

The holiday starts on the eve (this year, February 13). Certain foods hold great meaning. A whole chicken symbolizes family togetherness. Long noodles represent long life. (It's actually considered bad luck to cut the noodles.) Spring rolls and clams symbolize wealth. Sweet sticky rice symbolizes a rich sweet life. Many foods symbolize abundance, including: oranges, tangerines and fish.

When we first married, I went to great lengths to try to learn and follow all the Chinese traditions. I spent days--or perhaps it just felt like it--in the kitchen. I bought decorations depicting little boys and girls (again the symbol of goodness). We wrote out spring poems to put on our walls and gave the children hongbao (little red packets filled with money.)

These days, though--perhaps because we're nestled in the CA mountains far away from the center of all these traditions--I've lost my manic concern. While we make sure to eat a meal together, it could be anything. (This year, my eldest son baked his signature salmon and my eldest daughter made brownies) About the only tradition we stick to--to avoid a youth uprising--is giving the kids hongbao. And I realized that although the symbols are fascinating and the foods delicious, the being together is the fun part, the talking about your year--your plans, hopes and dreams. Cause in day to day life, how often do you get to do that?


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Celebrate What Is...and Fly High

For weeks,I've been struggling over a particular scene in my story. The dialogue's fun, but not necessary. The attitudes of the characters don't feel right. The action is not all that it can be. Fueling this struggle is the thought that I haven't been able to race ahead on schedule and turn in pages to my co-author for review. It's been days and days of writing misery.
Until yesterday, when I started a new practice: Moments of Gratitude. This practice was inspired in part by the talented writer and therapist, Beth Proudfoot, who wrote an amazing speech on filling your cup. It was also inspired by David Khorram, author of World Peace, a Blind Wife, and Gecko Tails.David, an eye surgeon who turned down offers awaiting him in America's leading medical centers to live and make a difference on Saipan, compiled the editorials he'd written for the local newspaper.
He has more to talk about than eyes, though. He shares stories about life: life on the island (communication mishaps, island celebrations, fireworks horrors) and life which can apply to us all. His vignettes about gratitude, acceptance, encouragement and change were funny, uplifting and inspirational.
I was so inspired that I tried an exercise he practices with his children: moments of gratitude. The purpose of this is to spend a few moments being grateful for all that is (rather than is not). In our case it went something like this:
"What are you guys feeling grateful for this morning?" I opened the car door.
"Shotgun!" My daughter, raced to the passenger seat, jumped in and slammed her door.
"I wanted to sit in the front." My son harumphed his way into the back. "How come she always gets the front? Can you turn on the radio?"
"No." I forged ahead. "Let's be quiet. Just for a moment. Let's think of things we feel grateful for."
"I can't think of anything," My daughter said. "Can I have a friend over after school?"
"Oh, there must be something." I urged.
"I don't know." My daughter sighed. "I feel grateful for music."
"So do I," My son agreed. "Now can you turn the radio on?"
Needless to say, it wasn't the uplifting outpouring of souls I envisioned. But the two siblings--always in rivalry--found a point of agreement. That's a start....for which I was grateful.
Just as uplifting was my moment at the end of my writing day. Rather than focusing on what I hadn't done--I'm still way behind my self-imposed schedule--I celebrated what was. I finished three pages of that scene, I told myself. I finished them! I finished them!
I felt higher than a kite.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Three Reasons I Quit Reading

The past week when I've gone into the bedroom, my husband is propped up against the headboard, book in hand, glasses perched on his nose...eyes shut tight. I know what he's reading....because I was reading the same book a week before. Karl Marx by Julius Smulkstys. After two nights of doing just as my husband and falling asleep mid-sentence, I gave up and instead devoured Stately Pursuits by Katie Fforde. Now before you think that I'm just into chic lit, I went on to read another of Fforde's books--Life Skills--and fell asleep right next to my husband.
It's not the subject matter. It's the presentation.
Three things that make me quit reading--or work "better than sleep medicine" as my husband would say:
1)The description of the world I'm being asked to occupy is confusing and I can't stand up. In fact, I feel brain dead. With Marx it was Dialectic, Hegelian Method, Negation of the Negation etc. With Fforde it was Locks and Windlasses.
2) The author skips all the conflict/drama. Marx, the father of the communist doctrine who stated that "religion is an opiate of the masses" came from a long line of rabbis. In fact, his own father was a rabbi! How did Marx get out of this? What family struggles were there? I want to read this.
3) I don't have enough invested in the character to want to turn the page. Now I'm fascinated by Marx--just as I am by other world theologians (Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, etc.) so it's hard to turn me off. With most books, however, I only know the character from the description provided. I only care about the character because the author is asking me to. In Fforde's book, the main character is an unmarried woman getting up there in age--and surrounded by people telling her she needs to have children before it's too late. But she doesn't care. She's not afraid of anything, not inhibited by anything. In fact, every scrape she gets into, she easily gets out of---even when she turns up pregnant. It's hard to care about a teflon-coated character. I want my character to feel fear and anger and sadness and longing. Or I think, "So what?"
I haven't given up on Fforde (who is amazing with dialogue, and humorous to boot) nor on Marx. However, please--if you know of a good book on Marx--let me know. We've had enough sleeping medicine.

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You