Monday, December 28, 2009


I love the beach house, Las Piedras, in Vieques, Puerto Rico, so much that I had to write a book that was set there! I will be posting more and more of READING THE RINGS within the next few months.


On the plane from Miami to Puerto Rico, Julia takes a small package from her purse. It’s wrapped tightly in the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times Science Section, scotch-tape criss-crossing each of the corners. She scans the words--- something about how ducks imprint on their mothers--- and then peels back the newsprint to uncover a black, leather-bound journal. Jake’s head has just fallen toward her, his long brown-grey hair shading his face from view. She can hear his even, sleeping breath, and knows he won’t wake until the stewardess makes the landing announcement. She runs her fingers along the cover of the book, traces her initials, JAL, and the number, 21. Twenty-one years. She remembers the first journal Jake gave her, also on a plane, and the thrill that had gone though her. He remembered. She had opened it, handed him a pen and said, “Write down what you think it’ll be like there.” Jake groaned, No, No please, he had said, but she was smiling— she loved this exercise and made her students do it all the time, whenever they were embarking on any new experience. She’d ask them to imagine what the air would feel like, the people they would meet, the color of the sky. The students fought her, just like Jake, but she knew that when they were deeper into it, whatever it was, they loved coming back and realizing how different their presumptions were from the reality.

That first journal was black leather, too, but not as fine as this, with it’s beautiful red stitching. Jake had given her back the pen that time. “You first,” he’d said. “Okay.” She held the pen above the open page, and then wrote, in her tight little lefty’s script, Too many people close by. House small and dark. But outside, no place to get out of the sun. Nervous to be with Jake for all that time. Will he get tired of me and want to leave early? What if we don’t know how to work together, to make this vacation fun for both of us? What will it be like to have all that time on our hands, and no plans? She thought of tearing out the page and stuffing it in her purse, but decided to leave it be.

“No peeking,” she’d said, turning the page and handing Jake the pen. He didn’t write anything for a long time. Then he picked up her hand, kissed each of her fingers. Hot, sunny, perfect weather, he wrote. Gorgeous house. Plenty of privacy. Sex everywhere. Heaven.

She has them all, books 1 through 20, lined up on Woody’s curly maple sideboard in her dining room. Woody left her all the good furniture, the silver, the gold-plated dinnerware. Julia has carted her grandmother’s possessions around the country, first to Buffalo, then a mirror or a table to one boarding school or another, one teaching job or the next, until she finally settled at Simon’s Rock ten years ago. Each piece now has a home, and Julia never gets tired of any of them.

She moves the journals into the bedroom on the rare occasions when one of her colleagues or a student comes over for dinner or a conference. She realizes how nutty this is— why doesn’t she just leave them in the bedroom and be done with it? But she loves the way the leather and the wood look together, soft and hard, and when Jake comes to spend the night, she wants them visible, where he can pick one up at random. “Listen to this,” Jake will say. “'Rainy, humid, unfriendly locals. Bad food.' You wrote that. Guess where we were going.” Julia tries not to look at the number on the front of the book, because that would be a dead giveaway. Number 4— Hilton Head; Naples, Florida; Montreal. Number 19— Thailand; Paris; San Francisco. But she doesn’t need to see the number to remember writing that entry. It was Book 2, and they were headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico. That turned out to be a glorious trip, a lazy, funny, sunny vacation that made them fall in love with all of Puerto Rico. They have been back many times— to Vieques (Book 3), Culebra (Book 7), Rincon (Book 11), Vieques again (Book 15), Humacao (Book 17).

Now, twenty years after they first discovered Puerto Rico’s charms, they are heading to Vieques again, to a beach house they have never seen, Las Piedras, The House of Rocks. Julia takes out her pen and writes, Wonderful house. Great breezes. Big deck with lots of spaces to read or sleep. Morning shade. Evening star-watching. Long lazy strolls on a beach that’s all but deserted. Locals on horseback smiling at us. Best of all, Jake within reach every minute of the day and the night.

Without even realizing it, Jake's optimism has worn off on her.

And then she turns to the last page and starts making little hash marks. She marks off four of them, frowns, and then adds two more. Six, she thinks, and smiles. Six. And the vacation hasn’t really even started.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Woodstock Writers Festival

Lots of amazing and fabulous things have happened in my life, but putting together the Woodstock Writers Festival has been one of the highlights. Along with my partners--- Abigail Thomas (A Three Dog Life), Susan Richards (Chosen by a Horse), and Barry Samuels (co-owner of Woodstock's indie bookshop, The Golden Notebook --- we have put together a lineup of writers that literally reads like a who's who of memoir (this year the festival is Celebrating the Memoir). Everyone we called signed on, including Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Julie Powell (Julie and Julia), Ruth Reichl (Tender to the Bone), Dani Shapiro (Slow Motion), Marion Winik (First Comes Love), , Shalom Auslander (Foreskin's Lament)... the list goes on and on! Check out the website and pass it on to all writers and readers in your life.