Friday, April 13, 2012

The Renaissance Club - another excerpt - Chapter One

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I've been asked to share more from my novel The Renaissance Club. It's great fun to do it! Especially if there's an interested reader. Here's the next installment of Chapter One.


Norman looked down the side street at a larger-than-life-size nude statue on a plinth. The figure suddenly turned its head, combed its curly beard with his fingers, and gave back a challenging stare. It must be one of those street performers, Norman thought, like the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf who paint themselves silver and stand still as statues, then move and surprise the tourists for tips.

“Just look at that,” he said to his wife. “So lifelike. You could swear he’s alive but he stands as still as if he were stone. Did you see him move?”

From behind her large, opaque sunglasses, Kathleen glanced at him and then at where he pointed and said, “Norman, it’s just a marble figure. Look at the white eyes.”

Norman shook his head, blinked to settle his contacts, and decided to make an appointment with his optometrist when they got home. She was right. It was just a statue.
“Is it Zeus, do you think?”

As they passed, she looked briefly at the statue, her generous curves straining the tight silk suit, yellow hat shading her pink cheeks.

“Why would you ask me? Was Zeus Greek or Italian?”

“Greek, if you recall,” Norman said, trying to keep the professorial tone from creeping into his voice. “But as we learned in our club meetings, in the Renaissance they rediscovered classical Greek art. So it could be Zeus.”

“Honestly, Norman, I didn’t exactly take notes. You did that for all of us. And turned it into a booklet we all have to carry. Can we go on down to the shops now?”

He fingered the small card in his pocket, his smallest walking guide to Rome, and wished he had brought the large one so he could identify the statue. Vagueness bothered him, names and numbers anchored an indefinable sense of drift that always threatened to overtake him.

“Sure,” he said, unconsciously slowing his pace.

Kathleen said to her daughter, “Sandra, just think: Bulgari and Fendi are right down there.” Kathleen poked her in the shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of The Spanish Steps.

“Cut it out, Mother.”

Norman laughed, hoping to dissolve their tension. “You can take the girl out of Dallas but you can’t take Dallas out of the girl.”

Then he thought that maybe he made that joke too often. Kathleen did not smile.

“Norman, you promised us an hour away from history and in Rome’s best shopping,” she replied. “I’m not being a princess. I want one hour to do what I’m interested in, out of your three weeks of art and history.”

“I know, honey. I just don’t want to miss anything. Anything I’d regret when we go home.”

“Well, neither do I,” she said, and squared her jacket like a fighter adjusting his mouthpiece.

“Okay, we’re going,” Norman said.

Sandra averted her face from her parents, these middle-aged coots. She liked the word coots, with its reference to ducks, quack-quack-quacking as they strolled. She pulled out her phone and talked a note into it, pulling her fingers through her hair and letting the wind ruffle up her bangs. She couldn’t be less moved. Rome simply felt like the place that was going to free her, if she worked her plan right.

Norman strolled even more slowly, moved by the city’s earthy colors in this golden light. Its ancient ruins, towers, and palazzos brought the Renaissance alive for him. They made Concord, California seem flat and unreal, and his life there like a headless statue. Here he could touch stone walls that might have been old when Jesus was young. He could memorize every forkful of pasta and stroll past columns bearing the initials S.P.Q.R.—The Senate and People of Rome. Life here meant no longer counting time on his pocket planner.

Wasn’t that why he had formed The Renaissance Club, to first study and then visit the Italian Renaissance—to be reborn as they had been, by a humanism that was nearly lost in twenty-first century American life? He couldn’t wait to watch his fellow Renaissance Club members enter a city with two thousand years of history embedded in its bones. He wondered if it would change them as quickly as it had changed him. They would be arriving in a few hours. He did not quite know how to tell them about the loss of their guide, but he would figure it out.

The three Wesleys paused to look out over the view, the light sharpening tiers of tiled roofs and the far-off, enormous domes of St. Peter’s.

Each of them looked out over a different city to fall in love with.
Norman leaned on the railing, watching not the view but the olive-skinned women passing by, the old men with hooked noses, and the girls with dark eyes. He saw in their faces Da Vinci paintings, a beauty inborn in every Italian. One woman stopped and stared back, a feeling of recognition growing on both sides. Then she turned and walked away.

Kathleen saw in the streets radiating off the Piazza di Spagna clothes to suit her prettiness and to decorate her own best canvas, herself. The slim Italian women around her in their shades of avocado green and stiletto heels made her itch for her credit card, the one Norman didn’t know about.

Sandra saw stories within the many windows curving away to the horizon, stories she itched to take down. She lifted her phone and spoke into it, but the dictation scrambled her Italian and she had to type instead.

As Norman leaned on the railing, a pigeon flew onto it, startling him. He looked over at its iridescent head and then past it, recognizing the famous house where the poet John Keats had lived and died.

“Girls, do you want to see the Keats and Shelley Museum?” he asked. “The immortal poet lived and died right here, in that building next to the steps.” “I do,” Sandra said. “Truth is beauty, beauty truth. That’s all you need to know. Keats.”

Sandra looked at her father and then at her mother. Kathleen shook her head.

“We have only one hour,” Kathleen said. “Don’t let’s waste any more time on history! You can’t get Prada in Assisi.”

“You can’t get Keats and Shelley there either,” Sandra murmured. “Thou still unravished bride of quietness . . .”

But Norman was not listening to his daughter, he was looking at his wife whose blonde and pink beauty made him as glorious to him as Rome. She was right, it was going to be three long weeks of art history lectures, and she deserved a little of the kind of thing that was her fun. Besides, a little shopping would be good for their plain Sandra, who spent too much time in her head and on her cell phone.

The pigeon turned and gave him a penetrating stare and Norman felt for some odd reason accused until the bird fluttered away. Then he felt uneasy about Kathleen carrying the club funds through these crowded streets, now that she had changed the dollars into lire. They should hurry back to the hotel, but he had promised his girls this grand shopping hour, and after all the time they had spent helping to organize this tour, he owed them that. They had attended every meeting of his Renaissance Club for months and were now sharing their Italian vacation with nine other people. Kathleen had mapped out the itinerary, getting the best rates a travel agent could find. Sandra had helped with computer work because to Kathleen computers could either be productivity tools or just things to spill coffee on.

So he now rushed them down the long flight of the Spanish Steps to the Via Condotti. Its narrow sidewalks were thick with bodies veering around and jostling each other. It was a pickpocket’s paradise. Kathleen and Sandra kept stopping and then Kathleen would race ahead while Sandra lagged, forcing Norman to watch in two directions. They weren’t being cautious. Sandra let her purse dangle away from her body and Kathleen leaned over to look in windows, her backpack a target. He had read that in Rome innocent-looking children could be pickpockets. Thieves on scooters could zip past, cutting purse straps to grab. But in an hour they would be back at the hotel. He practice patience, waiting in front of yet another window, combing his hair with his fingers.

“Kathleen, can we either go inside or move on?” he finally said.

“If you don’t want to shop with us, go back to the hotel,” she said. “You can go back and make calls, but I want to buy Sandra something. We’re not going back until I find her something lovely.”

They went in. Marshaling his cheer, Norman followed as they browsed the aisles. Kathleen steered Sandra over to a display of stilettos.

“If you wore something like that, you’d be really attractive, Sandra, These would show off your good legs. We could do something with your hair, maybe cut it and get some highlights.”

“Mom, do you want me to look like a hooker?”

“Well, right now you look like someone cut your hair when they weren’t wearing their glasses. Try those. I’m going to buy you some great shoes today.”

Norman noted that Kathleen had appropriated his treat to them as her treat to Sandra, but Sandra wasn’t going to take any parental treat.

“Thanks, Mother, but I don’t wear that trashy shit.”

“Don’t swear at me, Sandra! Please.”

“You swear enough for both of us, Mom.”

“Girls! Let’s make some decisions. We still have work to do.”

Neither woman paid attention to him. Sandra drifted behind her mother. Kathleen stopped and picked up a peach suede shoe. A handsome, dark-haired clerk stood nearby but offered no help. Probably he was thinking she could not afford even the one shoe. He gave her a sharp look. She put the shoe down and moved on, but when Sandra came to it, he gestured, inviting her to pick it up.

“Prego,” he said, without smiling.

Sandra responded to his invitation and handsome face with one of her rare smiles, picking up the shoe her mother had put down. She reached past him to get it, brushing his arm. He didn’t step back but leaned in and picked up the other shoe.
“This one would suit you, with your pale skin.” He smiled his brilliant smile, one that said he knew exactly how handsome he was.

“Grazie per il complimento,” Sandra said. “Si deve vendere un sacco di scarpe.”

The clerk, to whom she had just said he must sell a lot of shoes, laughed. “Your Italian is very good,” he said.

Sandra moved on, carrying the shoe. She put it down in another row and he followed, looking at her as if now seeing something he had missed before. Sandra and Kathleen browsed their way through the store before Sandra agreed to try on a pair of olive pumps. The young clerk fitted them on her narrow feet, looking up at her and pushing them on with a slowness that annoyed Norman as Sandra smiled down at him. Then she nodded, got up, letting Norman pay.

As they emerged from the store, Norman said, “Let’s stick together and hurry. We have to be careful, there are thieves just waiting.”

“Norman, I’m a travel agent. You think I don’t know all this? You think I’m not the one who told you all this?” Kathleen said.

Norman refrained from reminding her that she hadn’t worked as one for twenty years. He just said, “I wish you hadn’t worn a backpack today.”

But she and Sandra lagged behind, and finally Norman, pushed beyond his patience, sprinted ahead. He knew they’d catch up at the big corner. He had to walk off his irritation, giving him momentary relief in swift motion. But at the corner, he turned back and couldn’t see them, even though he had only gone half a block. He stood there, dancing anxiously in frustration. Finally they emerged from a small street they obviously had ducked into, lured by another shop.

He walked back toward them, faster now, angry. Before he reached them, he saw the ragged-haired woman in a long green skirt rush up behind Kathleen. She had a blue shawl wrapped around her hips, as if she were in costume, and she pulled a small boy in a bright yellow shirt by the hand. He was too far away to be heard shouting. The woman cut the straps of Kathleen’s backpack and at the same time, the little boy got the wallet out of Sandra’s purse. Norman waved at them as the gypsies ran. Kathleen and Sandra had not yet felt the theft.

The gypsies were quick, dodging around tourists who didn’t even seem to feel them brushing by, as if they were made of fairy silk. He watched in surprise, running himself, as they navigated the crowds at what seemed unearthly speed. By the time he caught up to Kathleen and Sandra, they had discovered the loss. Kathleen’s cheeks were bright pink. She and Sandra were looking around, having no idea in which direction the gypsies had gone.

“They came up behind you,” he said, out of breath.

“Get them!” Kathleen shouted.

Norman ran past, his chubby frame agile enough to dodge slow-moving tourists. A sprinter in college, he could keep them in view, but every second it became clearer that the young woman, even in her long skirts and pulling the boy, was too fast. She seemed to float. They dashed into a side street and he put on his last speed burst, reaching the street and looking down the length of it, seeing no sign. He trotted along, looking into shop windows. Not a sign, amazed at their vanishing. Sandra had made him read a website about Rome’s professional thieves and how they wouldn’t snatch a purse without an escape route, but their speed seemed supernatural. Someone must have been waiting to open a door for them.

He bent over, panting, hands on his thighs. What was Kathleen thinking, wearing a backpack? And what was he thinking, not to have insisted they go straight back with the cash. He hoped it wasn’t much. He wanted to greet his club members with exciting prospects, and not just problems.

Norman shook his head as he breathlessly approached the girls. He could hardly explain to them how quickly the gypsies had vanished. All he could do was shrug and tell them it was as if they had been heading for a house nearby and got in so fast he couldn’t even spot where they had turned.

They walked silently back to the hotel.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rome in My Mind

On this rainy April day in Northern California, I'm enjoying my own novel's first page, set on a sunny April day in Rome. For now, I'm going to Italy in my mind.

Chapter One. Rome, Day One.

Norman Wesley had walked the city for only two days, but already the sumptuous face of Rome had changed him from community college dean with a blank wall life to a man riding a time machine into the world of Medicis, Michelangelo, dynastic popes, and levitating saints. He had just three weeks to figure out how not to go back.

Norman and his wife and daughter picked their way through the piazza above the Spanish Steps. Norman steered his girls past painters capturing views of the Eternal City to sell to the tourists, each small canvas a different window on jewel-like Rome. At each vista, Norman, the son of a Methodist church organist, let go a little more of the idea that plainness is a virtue. The Renaissance domes, stone gods, and lion fountains put him into a kind of trance, seducing him, making him want to spend his life in this capitol of beauty and passion.

As if approving of his wish, the wind gently lifted his carefully combed-over hair. He smoothed and held it, snagging a few hairs in his college ring. A few more hairs bald, he felt that the more Italy changed him, the happier he was. Rome had already taken his preconceptions about the Renaissance. Even after the year of studying it, he felt he had traveled to a distant planet full of unexpected sights. And Rome made him feel distant from his family in a way he could not explain, but which was strangely delightful.

He looked down the side street at a larger-than-life-size nude statue on a plinth. The figure suddenly turned its head, combed its curly beard with his fingers, and gave back a challenging stare. It must be one of those street performers, Norman thought, like the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf who paint themselves silver and stand still as statues, then move and surprise the tourists for tips.

“Just look at that,” he said to his wife. “So lifelike. You could swear he’s alive but he stands as still as if he were stone. Did you see him move?”

Monday, April 09, 2012

To Self- or not to Self-(Publish), That Is the Question

And it seems the question that won't ever be definitively answered. But this interesting article sparked by some controversail remarks by Jodi Picoult gives some new (to me) reasons for self-publishing. Still, for my novel, I'm thinking print and conventional publisher, for a little help widening my audience, however modest the publicity and distribution such a publisher might provide. Oh, to BECOME an aggrieved midlist author so I can take back my rights after six months and self-publish to continue selling the book!

Here's another article on the economics of self-publishing. I don't think most of this article is right, but it's food for thought. I have absolutely no opinion. Yet.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Renaissance Club - excerpt


I've been talking for months now about the novel I'm working on, the one set in Italy. I thought I better produce some evidence, if only to show that I'm not making it up. Well, I am making up the novel, just not the story about writing it. So here goes. A short synopsis and a little taste.

THE RENAISSANCE CLUB

A month-long art history tour of Italy promises its organizer, middle-aged professor Norman Wesley, a new life of freedom from his messed-up marriage and deadening career. His fellow colleagues at Mount Antioch Community College, The Renaissance Club, wander through Italy with him, following broken loves and unsatisfied desires. Enter some down-to-earth saints come alive from their sculptures and paintings, and four couples find the marital deck shuffled and art and love proved to be chameleons. Their enigmatic tour guide, George St. James, keeps losing his gold cigarette lighter, which, passing through many hands, kindles surprising transformations.

EXCERPT -- CHAPTER ONE

At eight o’clock that night, nine tired Renaissance Club travelers stood in line at the concierge desk of the Grand Hotel. The eighteenth century grandeur of the lobby was filled with a crush of Italians in jewel-bright cocktail dresses and dark suits shouting at each other across the dark green and gilt expanse of a vast room. The club members stood in line to get their room keys, feeling dowdy and wrinkled after a twenty-three-hour trip as they slowly edged toward the desk. The vaulted, chandeliered space was filled with chattering, smoking Italians that seemed to be in a Fellini film, herded together into small groups by an energetic, tiny woman in a pouf of green taffeta and feathered hat. A man in an olive green suit jostled past them pulling along a woman in a strapless green dress. Green, oddly, was the dress code.

The travelers quickly unpacked and found their way back to their private dining room where Norman, Kathleen, and Sandra waited for them at a long table decorated with large silver pedestal fruit bowls and tall silver candelabras that glinted against dark green walls, making them feel they were seated in a jewel box.

Norman Wesley surveyed his club with satisfaction.

“It’s wonderful to begin our first happy dinner party in Italy,” he said. “I must make a few brief announcements. First, we’ve changed our plan. We’re staying in Rome’s best hotel because we got a discount.

Eva Manookian, the art instructor, looked sharply at him and said, “Norman, how much of a discount?”

“Let’s say it’s a grander hotel at exactly the same price as the one we were booked into.”

Waiters served the table gnocchi and, exhausted and hungry, they all began eating with such concentration that few even looked up as Norman said, “I must announce that we’re having a sort of imbroglio. A bit of crisis.”

No one was listening. He always had trouble commanding attention when he chaired Mount Antioch College meetings, so he tapped his water glass with a knife.

Little response. In all the meetings he’d ever chaired, he had never tapped such a knife against such a glass: real silver on real crystal. He tapped again, then raised the knife to again tap, but Kathleen put her hand on his sleeve and tugged. As the dining room grew completely quiet she said,

“Jesus H. Christ, Norman! Spit it out.”

He looked down at her, surprised. His spouse looked like an agitated sunset in her coral suit and pink face.

“I have to call it a crisis,” he said, “because the shortage of funds will revise our plans, but of course hidden inside every crisis is an opportunity. Essentially—”

“Shortage of funds?” someone said.

“Why are we short, Norman?” Eva asked.

But abruptly, Norman burst out coughing and couldn’t go on.

Eva said, “Kathleen, can you translate for him?”

Norman waved at Kathleen, drank some water, opened his mouth and looked at his fellow travelers. He felt as if he had never seen any of them, though they had been meeting for more than a year to study the Renaissance.

Rick Waller, the IT instructor, now stood up, letting his lanky height emphasize his assumption of leadership. He often challenged him when Norman waffled.

“Just tell us what the hell happened. What do you mean, shortage of funds? We have a right to know.”

Rick’s wife, Marianna, looked at Norman and nodded. With her wavy long dark hair and large serene eyes, Marianna was always the most beautiful woman in any room she entered. Now she looked at Norman, flashing at him the force of her displeased beauty, which Norman felt as a douse of chilly water.

“Why are we suddenly short of funds, Norman?”

Sandra reached up and touched his arm.

“Dad, tell them about the gypsies,” she said, and fixed her pale eyes on her father in the way that young women thought meaningful. He brushed her hand away. pulled it back and began typing on her phone.

Rick sat down and also pulled out his phone and began typing. A few others looked down at their phones, so as to avoid the awkwardness.

But Norman had two dilemmas to reveal, and he chose the first one. “Several turns of event have unsettled our plans somewhat. Our esteemed guide Massimo, the Renaissance expert we hired to escort us throughout Northern Italy, has . . . well—”

“He’s lying in a hospital,” said Kathleen. “Apparently, having to escort American teachers around Italy gave the Pope’s tour guide a heart attack.”

They all looked at Kathleen, who frowned back.

Eva said, “I’m sure we can just pick up a guide specializing in the humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance. Let’s just step out onto the sidewalk and hail one. Oh, Guide, oh Renaissance Guide! Hello?!”

“I know someone who might help us,” Jacob Ismail said.

Jacob had been teaching at Mount Antioch for only a few years. Norman treasured his suave middle eastern good manners and his ability to create harmony. Perhaps because he refused to join departmental political brawls, most club members considered Jacob an outsider. Norman had no idea how to go about finding a replacement guide qualified to conduct a Renaissance art history tour, but Jacob had lived in Rome and specialized in Medieval-Renaissance Studies. Norman silently prayed that he could pull off a quick miracle.

“Yes, but what does he cost?” Eva said.

Jacob said, “The man I have in mind taught at Oxford. He lives here part of the time. George might do it just for free, for the fun of escorting such a well-prepared group.”

Eva found no way to complain about a free guide. Shaking back tawny bangs from droopy seventy-year-old eyes, she said, “I’ve said all along we should guide ourselves. We’ve studied the Renaissance. I teach art and Darren teaches history. Why do we need a paid guide?”

She was too tired to completely glare at Norman, but with what little eyelid power left to her, she tried.

“Eva, we’ve discussed this,” Norman said. “Italy has strict regulations about guides.”

“If you’re worried about silly regulations,” she retorted, “let’s just pretend we’re talking among ourselves. What are they going to do, arrest a bunch of Americans willing to spend money in their country?”

Eva hadn’t wanted to come on this tour, but did because of her husband Art’s interest. She liked to bicker with her husband—they often referred to themselves as The Bickersons—but she rarely denied him anything. She figured anyone who would put up for twenty-five years wit her temper was worth keeping.

Norman said quietly. “Eva, my job is to steer us clear of problems. We can’t add breaking Italian laws to the ones we already have.”

“What are our problems, Norman?” Rick said. “What happened with our money?”
Norman, besieged, confessed. “The gypsies hit us on the Via Condotti. We were carrying some group funds, they got it all, and now we’re a little short.”

“Exactly how short?” Rick persisted, his voice rising in annoyance at the way Norman was drawing it out.

He was about to go on when Marianna gestured to him to pick up her tote bag and get something out of it. This totally undermined his stance. He reached down and hauled the pink suede bag into his lap, put his hand in and searched through its contents, then pulled out a mirror and lipstick and handed them to his wife with a disgusted expression.

Norman, given a moment to gather himself, summarized.

“Number one: We lost our guide. Number two: We lost some money. Number three: We need to find another certified guide and address how to deal with the shortfall. It’s simply a matter for decision-making. I know you’re all tired, but surely we can manage that tonight.”

Marianna merely shook her head sadly. It affected everyone like the simultaneous snuffing of a hundred candles.

Rick said, “Give us the amount we’re short, Norman.”

Still Norman hesitated. Kathleen’s complexion was moving beyond cotton candy pink to bright orange, an interesting combination with her blonde hair. Sandra looked up and opened her mouth just as Kathleen boiled over.

“Norman, just fucking tell them!”

Sandra smiled.

Rising, Kathleen said, “Here’s the situation. I changed some of the club’s funds into lire to get a good rate and before we could get back to the hotel to put it in the safe, a gypsy cut off my purse and ran. Unfortunately, Norman wasn’t fast enough to catch her. We lost about six thousand dollars.”

“What the hell, Kathleen,” Rick said, frowning deeply. His thick dark eyebrows loomed over his thin face. “You lost our cash—now it’s yours to replace.”
The group was suddenly, chaotically noisy.

Rick said, “Let Norman find us a new guide. This trip was his idea.”

Rick spent most of his time assigning code and logic to an illogical world. He was satisfied that he had solved their problems and assigned responsibility in two sentences.

“A theft isn’t my fault!” Kathleen shouted. “We don’t have that kind of money with us. Besides, we all agreed to share responsibility on this trip.”

She didn’t mention that they had used up all their credit, raided their savings, and used some of their own funds to pay extra so the group could stay in Rome’s best hotel. The more she thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed like Norman’s fault.

“Our money was your responsibility when we handed it over,” Rick persisted.

“That must seem to you like the easy solution,” she said, “but Norman and I don’t have enough, even if we wanted to.”

“Are you just crazy?” Rick said, as always using unrelenting offense to win. “Why did you turn our funds into cash and then walk around Rome?”

“What do you know about Rome? You can’t just dash across town.”

Rick stared at her and said, “How can you even be arguing about this?”

“I don’t see that we should be responsible for an accident,” Kathleen retorted. “We said we would all share responsibility whatever happened.”

“Flagrant carelessness isn’t an accident.”

Kathleen repeated, “We said we’d share responsibility.”

Norman hurried to add, “She’s right, we can take care of this as a club. We’re on an adventure, aren’t we?”

But no one in the room believed this was part of an adventurer, or for that matter took Norman seriously as an adventurer.