Paul Revere and the Raiders, Fire Me, and Me

To demonstrate what a crazy dreamer I am, this story:

When I was a preteen/teen, I had the usual crushes on bands. Music wasn’t my main attraction. It was their look. So what’s not to like about a band whose members dress up in 18th century costumes? Yes, I was a Paul Revere and the Raiders fan. Don’t hate me.

During that time, I cherished this daydream: The Raiders would be on tour. They’d stop in Baltimore for a performance. They’d decide to take in the sights while there. They’d drive out to my suburb and get lost. On my street. And their car would break down. In front of my house.

That never happened — God loves me — but it does show what a cockeyed optimist I could be, how outlandish my hopes could be, how far my overactive imagination would take me.

As I grew older, I could see quite clearly that no band would likely land on my street while touring the Baltimore area. I lived in a suburb where the most interesting sight might be the new drugstore (open on Sundays!) at the top of a hill.

If I became more practical, I still couldn’t shake some of that wild optimism, which often manifested itself in a simple question, whispering in my mind: Why not?

Why not give that idea of mine a try? Why not become a writer? Why not try to get my novels published? Why not try to grab attention for one of them that I thought would be great movie material?

Even crazy optimists have to overcome inner fears, so it took a while before I did end up becoming a writer, getting novels published, and…landing a film deal for my humorous women’s fiction book Fire Me. And the road to that deal is probably as circuitous as the one that would have deposited band members on my doorstep oh so many years ago.

Fire Me was the “options clause” book in a contract I had with Harlequin. Their Red Dress Ink imprint published my first adult novel, Loves Me, Loves Me Not, and, like most book contracts, my deal with them specified they had the exclusive option to buy the next similar novel I would pen.

That novel was the story of Anne Wyatt, who goes into work one day intending to hand in her resignation but changes course when she learns her boss will lay off someone by the end of the day. So she tries instead to earn a Worst Employee of the Year award in order to snag the generous severance package that goes with a layoff.

My terrific Harlequin editor looked over my proposal and suggested changes, which I made. I submitted it again. And it was rejected. Unbeknownst to me, the Red Dress Ink imprint was shutting down. (I’m grateful for her suggestions, though, which enhanced the story.)

By now, I was moving on to other writing projects, but I couldn’t give up on the idea of this book, which I believed held great appeal. Between agents, I posted its rights were available on an industry subscription website, Publishers Marketplace.

Within a short time, I had a call. From a Hollywood agent. She asked if the property was still available. Why, yes, it was.

Fire_Me!And the rest is history. Well, ten years of history. That woman believed in this  project as fiercely as I did, so when she left the agency, she kept in touch with me. She shopped Fire Me around, and found a home for it at a respected production company. After that company’s option ran out, interest sprang up from another, and the book ultimately ended up at Twentieth Century Fox.

Options give companies the exclusive right to consider a project for film. They don’t guarantee a film. Last year, however, Fox bought the film rights outright, one step closer to actual production (not there yet!).

As to the book itself, Sourcebooks bought its rights and published it in 2009. Book rights reverted to me, though, this year. So I’m releasing it again, after an update and revision, this spring, excited to have it on the book market once more.

Paul Revere and the Raiders never came to my door, but I feel blessed, nonetheless, for preserving the crazy dreaminess of that preteen girl who could envision such a wild idea happening. Now I’m using that same sense of optimism to guide me through this new release of Fire Me, hoping it finds new readers who are amused and moved by Anne’s tale, which is ultimately a story of a woman finding her own dream and asking: Why not?

 Fire Me by Libby Malin will be released on Kindle this spring, in paperback this summer.

 

 

 

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Easter Music

For the church music director, the two big holidays of the liturgical year — Christmas and Easter — are fraught with peril. Expectations are high, and there’s often a dizzying array of pieces to choose from. Finding just the right selections for a choir’s capabilities, though, can be a challenge.

During the few years I served as a church music director a long time ago in a galaxy far away, I well remember how happy I was to have found a sweet set of Renaissance pieces with little percussion instrument parts that I knew my volunteer choir could handle for Christmas. And I also remember my disappointment when they thought the pieces odd and not at all what they associated Christmas sounds with! Today when I look back at that Christmas, I smile broadly. I sing in a volunteer church choir now, and I know our own director puts up with similar grumblings from us about this or that piece.

unnamed-2Although the Easter preparation includes all the Holy Week music, I always found Christmas music preparation the most anxious and the heaviest work load. Choir would prepare about twenty minutes of music to be sung before the service, then have an anthem ready for the service itself. It all had to happen on that one  night.

Holy Week, at least, is broken up into more, oh, digestible pieces. There’s Maundy Thursday (with a rehearsal ahead of the service), Good Friday (with a rehearsal ahead of the service), and Easter (with a rehearsal ahead of the service). So, while you’re preparing a full slate of musical selections, you don’t have to do them all at once on one night. You have the chance to refresh your musical memory, to go over problem spots, before each service.

When I sang in a professional choir at a church in Baltimore, Holy Week services varied little from year to year, but the music was transcendent. We sang Maurice Durufle’s sublime rendition of “Ubi Caritas” each Maundy Thursday, and Antonio Lotti’s eight-part “Crucifixus” each Good Friday. Several years in a row we sang William Byrd’s lovely and difficult (rhythmically) “Haec dies” on Easter itself. (Links are below.)

On Maundy Thursday, the organist would switch off the organ at a certain point, and it wouldn’t be heard again until a powerful,  improvised introduction to the Gloria at the Saturday Easter vigil. Until then, we sang everything a capella — hymns, chants, anthems. One of the basses was tasked with giving us pitches softly, using a pitch pipe.

All of that unaccompanied singing created a solemn and somber mood, making the exuberant sounds of the majestic organ all the more wonderful at the Easter vigil — it was as if you were hearing the organ for the first time, bringing you, in a small way, into communion with those who, on that first Easter, found brightness after silence and darkness.

That same kind of exuberant joy shines through the reintroduction of “alleluias” after the forty days of Lent, during which they go missing. At my current church, the rector occasionally, during his Easter sermons, would proclaim the Easter “Alleluia! The Lord is risen,” look at the choir and know, without doubt, we’d enthusiastically reply, “The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!” with no  prompting.

This year, our choir’s Easter anthem was “You Are the New Day,” a piece with a pleasant undulating melody and warm harmony, and words that sometimes…seem as odd to me as those Renaissance pieces I chose years ago must have sounded to that choir. The composer of “New Day” apparently wrote the piece after experiencing personal difficulties and acutely fearing nuclear war. So some of its lines have a whiff of apocalyptic warning.

Was there grumbling in the choir stalls? I won’t tell. 🙂 But I will say that we sang with all the joy in our hearts and discovered this piece has special warm meaning for our rector and his wife. Since this is his last Easter with us before retirement, it was a musical gift I’m sure everyone in the choir was happy to offer them and the rest of the church.

Ubi caritas by Maurice Durufle

Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti

Haec dies by William Byrd

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

 

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Book review: “Lilies of the Field” by William E. Barrett

Chances are, many of you have seen the movie version of this book, the 1963 film for which Sidney Poitier won the best actor award — the first African-American to win that Oscar. It’s a magnificent movie, one that you can’t stop watching if you happen upon it on TCM or another channel.

If you can’t stop watching it, part of that credit goes to William E. Barrett, who penned the novel upon which it is based. Recently I read the novel, and the movie is very true to Mr. Barrett’s subtly moving story of an itinerant worker coming upon a group of nuns in the American wilderness (Colorado in the novel, Arizona in the movie) who want to build a chapel. The nuns are German, having escaped communism at the end of World War II and learning of an inheritance for them in this wild land.

51IXowMk9hL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Homer Smith — “Schmidt” to the German Mother Superior — eventually helps them build this “shapel” and it all comes to pass through a combination of grit, faith, and the belief that even the lilies of the field are tended to by a benevolent God.

The book is as straightforward as the movie — Homer Smith comes upon the nuns in need, their Mother Superior sees him as sent by God, and he eventually does respond to their need for reasons of his own.

In the book, those reasons are crystal clear — when he applies for a job with a construction company, the owner learns the nuns have asked him to build the chapel. When the owner discovers Homer is an African-American man, he scoffs at Homer’s ability to get the job done, something that sticks in Homer’s craw:

I expected a different type.” Then, another sentence, “I wanted to see you before I told her.” He’d let old Mother down merely by being black.

Of course, he didn’t let her down, and it had nothing to do with him being black, except in his desire to prove that construction company owner wrong. As he does so, he develops a bond with the stern Mother Superior and she with him.

The bell rang and he straightened. Old Mother never rang the bell for the nuns because they knew when to come for meals. That bell was for him.

If Homer has a bond with the Mother Superior, it isn’t one without irritation. He knows that the Mother Superior believes he was sent to her to use for her goals. This chafes.

She had never got it out of her head that God had given Homer Smith to her. If that was a fact, she’d be certain that he couldn’t wander off. He belonged to her. That was something Homer had never liked. The idea of belonging to someone stirred a racial antagonism in him. No Negro was ever going to belong to anybody again. Not ever! He was free.

You feel for Homer in this circumstance–even though he’s proud to be accomplishing something the white construction owner thought him incapable of, he still struggles against the notion the Mother Superior might hold, that he was sent to be her servant in this grand task of building a chapel. As an African-American man, he wanted to be no man’s servant.

While this theme is apparent in the movie, and particularly in Sidney Poitier’s brilliant portrayal of Homer, it is clearer in this simple novel.

Also clearer is the role of faith, and here is another, broader deviation from the film — the Catholic priest in the movie is a cynical soul; in the book, he is a true believer who counsels Homer on what that means  “If a man believes in an unreasonable thing, that is faith,” the padre tells Homer.

I ordered this book to see if it was as moving as the movie. I enjoyed it, and I think it would be a particularly good read for teens and young adults, those on the cusp of understanding greater truths, of learning about worlds and beliefs beyond their own.

And once you read it, of course you must watch the movie, a film that stays with you beyond the last note of the “Amen” that Homer cheerfully sings.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, Fall from Grace, has been hailed as a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book review.

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ER Ruined the ’90s

Through the miracle of cable television, the old TV series ER now shows up every day. I started watching it again after not having seen it since its original airing. And I have come to the conclusion that ER ruined the 1990s for me. I was a young mother, with three kids in grade school or starting grade school, prone to fret about them, and week after week, ER treated me and other viewers to a cavalcade of …gloom. No wonder I was a Nervous Nellie during that decade.

As I view the show now, I think of the fates of the major characters. Every single one faced some sort of catastrophe, with few or no rays of sunshine. Think about it:

Dr. Mark Greene: is mugged, faces malpractice suit, eventually dies of brain tumor

Dr. Peter Benton: talented surgeon whose son is diagnosed as deaf

Dr. Doug Ross: notorious womanizer, he finally settles into a relationship with the love of his life, nurse Carol Hathaway, and then he gets booted from his job just as he and Carol are on the right trajectory.

Nurse Hathaway: see above (oh, and in the pilot episode, she was a suicide attempt)

Dr. John Carter: Cousin suffers a massive drug overdose, and John himself is a stabbing victim when deranged patient kills…

Dr. Lucy Knight: Medical student Lucy Knight has a contentious relationship with Dr. Carter that seems to be improving until…deranged patient kills her and stabs him.

There’s more…most of these core characters left the series eventually to be replaced by others who had similar bad fates. Someone should post a warning in that hospital’s HR for job applicants: Only work here if you can accept personal heartache on a dizzying schedule.

ERTitleCardThese leads’ stories, of course, were interwoven with the many tales of characters on each episode, the ones who end up maimed, dead, infected, whatever. Yeah, there were bunches who were patched up just fine, but this ER was surely a circle in Dante’s Hell.

I know that ERs see a lot of bad stuff, and this was, after all, a drama. It was just relentless in its bad stuff. And, since it was also a top-notch drama — with consistent and well-acted characterizations, good plotting, riveting story lines — it stuck with you, as all good drama does, well beyond the last flicker of pixels on the screen.

That’s the problem — ER was so darned good at what it did that the shadows would stay with me long after I watched an episode. It ruined the 1990s for me, people!

Seriously, though, ER probably accurately portrayed the many awful challenges we face as humans. I can think of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances who’ve suffered horrible illnesses, terminal diagnoses, disability, tragedy. It’s part of life.

But also part of life is hope. Faith. Especially of the religious kind. Many of those I know who’ve suffered awful circumstances, some too heavy to contemplate bearing, have a grounding in religious faith. So their gloom is lightened by the brightness of promise, promise that the Lord is with them, that…the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Lord.

That was never a part of ER. I don’t remember many, if any, visits by chaplains or rabbis to those in distress…even though most hospitals do ask patients to list such affiliations if they have them.

There was never much sense of true happiness either. Even when tormented characters found some measure of peace, they still …suffered.

ER was fantastic television drama and deserved all the awards and praise and viewership it received. But re-viewing it now makes me realize that sometimes I need to step away from good dramas like this if they’re unrelentingly dark.

I’ll do that…after I catch up on the next episode.

UPDATE: After watching more episodes I must amend this post. There is a storyline involving Dr. Luka Kovac and a bishop, his patient. The bishop is a saintly man, yet very human. He senses Luka is troubled, and for good reason. It turns out Luka lost his wife and children in a mortar attack in Croatia, and Luka feels immense guilt over this, over not being able to save them. As the bishop is dying, he tells Luka there’s not much time and he needs to hear Luka’s confession. That’s when we hear Luka’s story, his immense guilt and remorse for allowing his family to stay in unsafe circumstances, for not being able to save them, for making poor choices. The bishop is able to “absolve” him of this guilt. It was a lovely moment. Wish it had lasted longer, been explored more.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called “a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

 

 

 

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Five-paragraph story: (She Loves Me) Like Jesus Does

by Libby Sternberg

Why should traveling tire you out when all you’re doing is sitting while someone else steers? He’d been on a plane for three hours, a train for two, and now was in the backseat of an Uber, and he felt like he’d put in a forty-eight hour shift at the hospital. He drummed his fingers on his knees, anxious to get there, afraid of what he’d find.

She’d understood the first time, he reminded himself. She’d checked him into a program and taken him back when he was done, even softly explaining how it wasn’t unusual for medical staff to be tempted, to cross that line into substance abuse. She knew other nurses who’d gone this way. Of course, she herself hadn’t.

She’d understood the second time, too, with encouragement and a disciplined lack of judgment. He’d actually seen her schooling her face so it registered none of her disappointment when she suspected he was using again. No rehab then, nor the time after, nor…how many more times had he slipped?

This last time…there was a coolness. A sense she was reevaluating. She’d found his stash and thrown it out, flushed it right down the toilet. He’d tried to joke with her about that not being the most environmentally friendly way to discard meds, but she’d looked at him as if if she’d given up — on herself. On trying to figure it out, figure out how to be supportive but not enabling. When he saw that look, he went to rehab on his own. Checked himself in. Pulled himself up. Prayed every day it would stick this time. Prayed she’d be there when he got out. So that he could at least say he was sorry. Just that — say he was sorry. Please…

Seventy times seven, he murmured to himself after he’d lugged his duffle from the car and stood in front of their tidy bungalow. Please, Lord, let her forgive me.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “She Loves Me Like Jesus Does” is a song by Eric Church. Video below.

Other stories in the five-paragraph series are:

 

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E-Readers or Dead Tree Books?

by Libby Sternberg

Note: This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2011 under the title “From Papyrus to Gutenberg to Kindle.” It has been updated for this blog.

When the Kindle and other e-readers first made inroads into the book market, they were treated with derision by steadfast lovers of DTBs (“dead tree books”). These readers value books as objects, not just as a means of communicating a story. Despite the Kindle’s popularity, some people still refuse to use them, loving the feel and smell of regular books. Perhaps some historical perspective can help these holdouts adjust to our new era, when electronic reading devices exist side by side with books as objects:

***
From a fifth-century A.D. Sumerian clay tablet discovered in the Euphrates delta, remarkably intact except for the salutation and signature:

“A thousand pardons for hitting young Jezebel in the head with my last note.

I am sure no one will notice the scar after it heals. You do keep your tent very dark; she will still find many suitors. (Editor’s note: It is unclear if the writer is saying “suitors” or “donkeys” here as the words are very similar in cuneiform.)

Please do not worry about the new papyrus we have heard so much talk of. The clay tablets we provide for the village elders are far more durable. They have a rich earthy smell and make for heft in one’s hands. Papyrus will never take the place of clay.

So confident am I that clay will never be replaced, that I have taken a loan from Old Fatima-mae to make some improvements to my tent. I will be able to pay it off quickly with the delivery of our next set of tablets.

But please stop using the clay to write down what you are calling ‘poems.’ It is a waste of precious material, my cousin. No one wants to read those when they can hear them round the fire at night.”

***
The following appears to be a clandestine letter written by an Egyptian scribe to his wife. Although the date is missing, experts peg its provenance somewhere between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D.:

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: Look at both ends of the scroll to see which one is the beginning of the story. It’s no wonder that Nanatu, the Story Seller, would not buy my latest effort. You presented him the scroll with the ending first!

And no, my dearest one, I refuse to try that product they are calling parchment. It is thin and one must use many separate sheets of it, which can easily become lost. If one scroll confuses you now, what will you do with many single pieces? I can see it clearly—parchment blowing every which way in the wind like the petals of a flower during a sandstorm, and you giving Nanatu one of my stories with half the pieces missing.

Nanatu is temperamental enough as it is. If I hear him say once more that he wants a story with a boat journey in it like the one that Homer fellow told, I will scream. Putting my stories on parchment will not make the difference; getting rid of the likes of Nanatu will.”

***
Fifteenth-century epistle from an older monk at an Alsatian monastery, Schwer-an-Bier, to another younger monk in a nearby German abbey:

“Please try harder to color within the lines, dear Frère Aefle. Your latest efforts were a strange mess of colors in odd cube-like forms that reminded me of images seen through shards of glass. But I must say at least it was better than the blurry pictures you did on the previous manuscript. That one created mere impressions, rather than a specific image. It made one feel as if one were viewing a landscape through wine-besotted eyes.

Abbot Pierre exclaimed after seeing it: Je vais chercher du bon vin à la cave. (Editor’s note: The loose translation for this phrase is: “Wine is good. Very good. Very, very good. Is it five o’clock somewhere?”) Such shoddy workmanship on your part will only feed the talk that our efforts are useless decoration and unnecessary toil, especially now that villagers are all in a fever over the printing machine you described.

Gutenberg, Schmutenberg, I say, Frère Aefle. Even your most pitiful illumination efforts are more vibrant than the cold black and white letters I’ve seen coming from his machine.

Rest assured, nothing will replace our artistic efforts. And even if Herr Schmutenburg’s device takes hold, I have been told by Friar Chuck that such ‘presses’ will still need laborers like us. He has devised a plan to work together with the Gutenbergs, something he is calling ‘the agency model,’ providing manuscripts to the presses for distribution. It is very complicated. But the important thing to remember, mon Frère, is to keep toiling away, perfecting your craft and trusting Friar Chuck and all the Abbots to look after us.”

***
Just as well-meaning scribes adjusted to papyrus and the printing press, so too have authors, publishers, readers and agents made the change to a publishing world where e-versions of books are now a must. The reading and publishing world marches onward. To paraphrase a famous playwright, “the story’s the thing,” not where or how you read it!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose books are available in print and on e-readers. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

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Five-Paragraph Story: Written in the Sand

by Libby Sternberg

She’d seen the receipt, on top of his dresser. Maybe he’d left it there deliberately. Now she knew, and she sniffled as she threw cosmetics in her purse, her few pieces of clothing in a bag. She’d be gone by the time he got back.

When she’d met him, she’d wanted a fling, something light and fun. She couldn’t afford serious. She’d known, lately, though, that she was lying to herself about it all being a lark. He was everything she wanted in a man — sensitive, strong, creative, funny. His sense of humor was what had first attracted her to him, the way he’d joked with her when she’d served him beer at the Tap House.

She’d find a new job. Bars, restaurants, diners always needed a waitress, and she was a good one, friendly, pretty, fast and attentive. She remembered things, had practically a photographic memory, hardly had to write down orders. Swearing, she hit her balled-up fist on the dresser, causing the receipt to float to the floor. Her memory was a curse.

She couldn’t stop herself. She bent and picked up the paper, replacing it on his dresser. And then she couldn’t stop herself from investigating further. She pulled open his top drawer, and there it was, nestled among white T-shirts and gray boxers. A velvet box. The kind that only held one kind of jewelry. Her hand reached out, touched the soft cover, but then pulled back as if she’d touched a hot stove.

She’d not look at it. It would burn into her memory, and she’d weep inside whenever seeing its image in her mind. Her memory was a curse. She pulled out her phone as she left the house, calling her WITSEC contact, telling him she was on the road to someplace new.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “Written in the Sand” is a song by the country band Old Dominion. Video below. Previous five-paragraph stories can be found here:

 

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