On Literary Fiction

Once upon a time, I used to work for a major book publisher. The company prided itself on publishing literary fiction, and the books were generally well reviewed. They weren’t necessarily best sellers, but they did win awards.

As an editorial assistant in the trade and reference division, I proofread flap copy, checked bound galleys, and eyeballed blues. (I also prepared corrigenda, ordered supplies, filed, and did whatever my supervisor or the editors asked me to do, but that has nothing to do with this discussion.) So during my time there, I read a lot of literary fiction–more than in all the years since. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts on why I don’t, as a general rule, enjoy literary fiction.

1. It’s pretentious. Today’s literary fiction aspires to be tomorrow’s classic. The text abounds with themes and hidden meanings that beg to be analyzed, which is great if you’re a college student writing an English paper. On the other hand, it’s not so much fun if you want to just unwind with a book after working hard all day.

2. The jacket description is too profound. The prose is “luminous” or “lyrical.” Sometimes it’s “elegant” or “elegiac” (especially the latter if tragedy is involved). It might even be “compelling.” Translation: Expect complex compound sentences.

3. It’s sad, or at least ambiguous. Someone almost always dies. Consider Cold Mountain. I remember spending a fair amount of time engrossed in the story. It’s a great read. Really. There’s adventure, there’s struggle, there’s love, there’s redemption. And then the main character dies. And at that point the book stopped being a good read for me. Instead, I felt angry that I’d spent all this time only to be disappointed. (What can I say? I prefer happy endings.) Exceptions exist, of course; The Color Purple comes to mind. (I have to admit that I saw the movie before I read the book, so I might be thinking about the former, given how Hollywood takes liberties; for that, remember The Natural.)

I don’t mind editing literary fiction. As an editor, I pride myself on being able to edit everything and anything. Just don’t ask me to read it in my spare time.


What’s in a Name?

So asks Shakespeare, or, rather, Juliet: “That which we call a rose /  By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Easy to believe if you’re a rose. Not so easy when you name is, say, Bryna.

Most people can’t pronounce or spell my name properly. “Y” as in long “i”; stress on the first syllable. Brī′-na. I get Brina (“i” as in “it”). That doesn’t really bother me–it’s easy to confuse “y” and long “i.” Some people pronounce my name “Bree-na”; again, that’s just “y” confusion. I’ve received mail for Brian (wrong body parts).  Occasionally I’m called Brana. I do have a friend by that name, and people who don’t know either of us are often confused when they meet us both at the same time. Brana and I are somewhat entertained, at least. More often than not, I get Byrna. I don’t know what it is about my name that makes people dyslexic, but something does.

I’m often asked where my name comes from. The more common origin of Bryna is from the Gaelic, as is Brian, meaning “strong” or “of the light.” You don’t see very many Jewish Brynas given Irish names. Granted, my mother almost named me Bridget (really–what was she thinking?). But then while I might have had an Irish name, I wouldn’t be Bryna.

My parents also almost named me Betsy Sue. Given the generation I grew up in, that wouldn’t have been so bad at the time. There was a time when I would have preferred it. By the time I was in junior high school, I hated my name and I hated my parents for choosing it, although that was mostly the fault of boys. During the requisite health education class, they realized that my name rhymed with a certain female body part. It took years to live that down. There’s a reason my children all have “normal,” mainstream names. That and the fact that I hated never being able to find my name in the magnets, keychains, and other name memorabilia for sale at any self-respecting tourist attraction.

Back when Barry and I were trying to figure out what to name our children, we spent a fair amount of time looking through different books of baby names. Of course, I looked up “Bryna.” I also did a little web surfing before I sat down to write this blog post. With respect to Jewish women named Bryna (there are a few of us out there–in fact, the mother of Barry’s close friend Mark is a Bryna)–our name probably comes from the Yiddish for “brown,” brun. Or maybe from brenen, meaning “to burn.” No one knows for sure. It could also be from the Slavic for “protector.”

By now, I’ve gotten used to “Bryna” (and I’ve long since forgiven my mother). In fact, explaining my name makes a good icebreaker at parties, networking events, or job interviews. I tell people I’m a strong, fiery protector with brown hair and eyes. I stand for all of us with unusual names that are forever being misspelled or mispronounced, or left out of the souvenir junkyard.

Someday, I’m going to walk into a store and find a mug or slap bracelet with my name. And when I do, I’m going to buy them all.




Jazz Is Life

Yesterday evening, my son had a jazz concert at his high school. All three of the jazz bands played, as well as a combo made up of celebrity alumni. I like jazz best when I’m listening to Danny, but at last night’s concert all the groups played so well, it didn’t much matter.

However, the point of this particular post is not to sing Danny’s praises.

Several of the pieces last night sounded, at times, somewhat discordant. And it occurred to me that jazz is life–or, at least, jazz is a metaphor for life. All the musicians play their pieces. Sometimes there are sudden key changes, or changes in tempo–jazz is notorious for temp0 changes; think Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Sometimes, while each of the musicians is playing his or her part, all at the same time, it seems to be cacophony. Then, all of a sudden, the different parts come together, and the music soars.

Life is like that. There are days, at least for me, when the kids and I are busy going our separate ways, sometimes in conflict. Schedules don’t work out; personalities clash. And then, unexpectedly, there comes that moment when everyone is in the same place at the same time, and we are all in agreement with one another. The moment may be fleeting, but it’s there. It leaves me with the knowledge that if there can be one moment, there can be more. We, too, can come together and soar.

And So It Begins…

Originally I was going to call this “BlogBlessings.” Like so many other people do at the beginning of January, I think of things I want to change in my life. One thing I’d like to work on is being more aware of the world around me. And so I thought I’d try to start a daily blog in which I would note one thing I’m grateful for.

However, the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. For one thing, here it is almost two weeks into January, and I’m just beginning. So the whole idea of a daily posting is already off to a late start. It reminds me of the Page-a-Day calendars my kids and I buy every year. We start out every January, each with our brand-new calendar. (Okay, we start a couple of days late there, too, because I always wait until after January 2, when the calendars are always half-price, to buy them.) And the first few days, or even weeks, we industriously rip off the previous day’s page–sometimes sharing it with one another, sometimes not. Then we start skipping pages–a day here, a week there. Next thing we know a month has passed, and we’re frantically thumbing through days’ worth of jokes, or brain teasers, or tangram designs, or sports-team facts. So I’m officially nixing the idea of a daily blog post. I don’t want to feel guilty before I even start.

The past few days, it’s been fascinating to read about and listen to the debate raging about civility and political discourse. I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been already said, much less in a profound manner. I’ve also been drawn to the coverage about the final illness and death of singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, whose music so changed and inspired–and inspired to change–the American Jewish community. I lack personal memories of her. I never went to a camp at which she was a songleader, I never attended a convention–URJ, Hadassah, or other–at which she performed. I regret that I never attended one of her healing services when Barry was ill. He did not subscribe to such things and I honored his preference, but I wish I had gone for me. Debbie’s “Mi Shebeirach” never fails to move me, often to tears. We are almost all of us in need of healing at one time or another. Debbie’s song spoke to the healing of the soul as well as the healing of the body. I thought of the song last night as I listened to President Obama speaking in Arizona. And  it occurred to me that we should be singing “Mi Shebeirach” not just to honor Debbie Friedman, but in hopes of healing ourselves.