The eagerly anticipated sequel to Gayle Brandeis' beloved Bellwether Prize-winning novel The Book of Dead Birds is now available exclusively as an ebook. Narrated by Darryl Sternberg, Ava Sing Lo's love interest from The Book of Dead Birds and now her husband and the father of their baby, The Book of Live Wires is an electrifying novel about love, identity and family secrets.
Still grieving the death of his first wife, Darryl Sternberg enlists a woman to translate his grandmother's journals from Russian, French and Yiddish. He finds himself increasingly embroiled with his quirky yet provocative translator as she uncovers hidden stories within his Jewish roots. His new wife Ava, meanwhile, is searching for her unknown father, who had been a black soldier in Korea. Their baby is diagnosed with sickle cell anemia; as Darryl and Ava learn to navigate Bella's illness, they also learn to navigate and confront the secrets they've kept from one another (and themselves).
Readers of The Book of Dead Birds will cheer the return of cherished characters, and new readers will fall in love with the Sternberg-Sing Lo family for the first time. Filled with humor and heartache, The Book of Live Wires is ultimately a story about moving forward with love, even in the face of uncertainty.
It was the way she moved her arms. It was the way the four year old moved her arms as he lifted his own arm to swing his axe. It was like they were dancing together, his arm, her arms, as he sliced through her mother’s stomach, her father’s chest. It was the way she moved her arms that convinced him to spare her.
They rose up from her shoulders like tendrils of smoke, like steam from a fresh wound. The tendons were so beautiful, streams running down her triceps, he almost cried. Her wrists turned as if oiled. Her fingers waved like wild grasses. He held his axe over his head and watched this girl’s blood-spattered arms undulate as she tossed her head back and screamed and screamed. He had never seen anything so lovely in his life. He lowered his axe, let it drop to the floor. He held out his hand.
It was hard to explain to his regimen why he was bringing a four year old girl back with him to St. Petersburg. If he said the word dance, if he said the word ballet, the men would most likely kill them both. He told them his mistress wanted to adopt a little girl; it was his job to be on the look out, he said. This girl was perfect. Her hair wasn’t too curly, her eyes were clear. Her posture was perfect. She barely looked like a Jew at all. His mistress would reward him mightily, he said with a wink. Maybe she’d even see fit to reward the other men. They elbowed each other and said what they would do to her when it was their turn. They didn’t know there was no mistress to speak of, only a photo of a long lost lover in his damp room.
The men tolerated the girl, especially after she stopped crying. She stared into space. She didn’t speak. It was just as well; they wouldn’t have understood anything she said, Jew talk full of mucus and spittle.
It took two days for him to get her to eat something. The men were taking a vodka break. After each sip, they held a slice of rye under their noses and inhaled. The sharp yeasty smell cut the bite of the vodka, made it easy for them to keep drinking well into the night. He could feel her eyes on his bread each time he lifted it to his face.
“You want?” He held out the slice.
Her eyes widened. She tentatively lifted one of those beautiful arms, then hesitated. He thrust it closer to her. She grabbed it and held it to her nose, like the men. Her eyes rolled back in her head at the smell of it. When he could see her pupils again, they looked changed, full of fire. She pressed the bread against her nostrils, breathed in again, deeply.
“Eat,” he said. He held his hand to his mouth and pantomimed chewing.
Her eyebrows lifted. She took a couple of little nibbles off the crust. When she broke through to the dense bread, her elegant spine hunched and she ate like an animal. She wolfed the food so fast, he worried she might choke. Other men tossed their slices of bread at her. She ate and ate until she was too full to sit up; she tipped against his heavy coat and fell asleep.
Little one, this is the story of your blood. Your strange and crooked blood.
I wanted you to have a record from my side of the family. Your mother has already written the story of her mother’s, your grandmother’s, life. It was not an easy story for her to tell. Someday—knock wood, knock knees, knock heart--you’ll be old enough to read it. This is my grandmother’s story, your great-grandmother’s. Written in her own words in the third person, as though she were standing outside herself; written in different tongues—Russian and Yiddish and French, sometimes a strange conflagration of the three. I’ve found someone to translate it for us. Someday you’ll be old enough (yes you will, yes you will) to read it, too.
I wrote that note to my daughter before everything happened. I wrote it to her with a green pen on an ivory note card--good, heavy, card stock. I glued it onto the first page of the scrapbook where I planned to keep all the translations, page after page after page of them. I planned to give her the book when she turned 16, maybe, or 18, or 21. Maybe when she got married, or had her own children. I don’t know what to do with it now.
I still can barely believe I have a daughter. A perfect little caramel colored daughter. Bella Sternberg-Sing Lo, born about six months ago—November 17, 1997. Ava and I had considered blending our last names into something new, like Songbird, for the baby, but we decided that would be just a little too cute. I sometimes call her that, though. Bella Songbird, I sing, sing me a song, and her voice rises to join mine, a lovely gurgly coo.
Ava got pregnant pretty early in our relationship. Pretty early in her own sexual life; she was 25, I was her first lover. We had taken precautions. We thought we were safe.
It took Ava awhile to get comfortable with the idea of sex, much less the experience of it. She didn’t seem to think it was her right to have a decent sex life after what her mother had endured on US military bases in Korea and massage parlors in San Diego. Helen had been lured to Kunsan with the promise of being a singer, a star—she ended up an indentured “bar girl”, forced to work off her debt under US servicemen. I had seen the bite marks on her back, had seen the toll those years had taken on both her and Ava. Ava wanted to break through her own emotional blocks, but they were heavier than even she realized. I didn’t pressure her. It damn near drove me crazy. But I waited. I knew she wanted it to happen. And then she was ready. And then she got pregnant. And now our baby’s sick. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We had a cake-and-punch wedding at the Aloha Room, our friends Frieda and Ray’s joint by the Bombay Beach trailer park at the Salton Sea. It was nothing like my wedding to Deborah with the chuppah and the broken wine glass and the Hora and the $20 a plate chicken dinner reception. Ray got ordained through some obscure church he found in the back of a magazine and performed the ceremony; Frieda was our de facto caterer, her salmon colored hair poofed up higher than normal as she handed out paper plates of sheet cake. None of my relatives were present. Just Ava’s mom, Helen, plus a few friends and Fish and Wildlife coworkers. Helen and her friend Anchee each carried a bird cage—Helen had Yukam, the Zebra finch, inside hers; Anchee had Sunny, the robin. Ava has a history of accidentally killing her mother’s pet birds; we weren’t sure if the presence of the birds was an act of forgiveness on her mother’s part or a symbol to remind Ava, even on our happy day, of what she had done.
When I married Deborah, I felt as if I was marrying into something greater than myself—a big Jewish mishegas of family and tradition. Even our daily married life felt bigger than the two of us; we were wrapped in a warm cushion of air, like precious, collectible figurines that someone (I’m not quite sure who--our parents? God?) was taking special care of. When I married Ava, I felt myself moving into something smaller—not lesser, just smaller. Riskier. Like I was moving into myself.
I hadn’t told my parents about Ava. They call themselves liberal, but they don’t always walk the talk; the thought of me dating a non-Jewish woman, a Black-Korean-American woman (an “ethnic” woman, in their lingo) would have given them conniptions. They found out about her when I called from a pay phone during the reception to let them know I was married and was going to be a father.
There was a long silence on their end. They had wanted me to have a child with Deborah so desperately; they had begged us to save some of her eggs before the surgery, to use a surrogate, but that hadn’t felt right to either of us. My mother finally cleared her throat and said “Well, we’ll have to celebrate. Are you planning a honeymoon?” Her voice was strained.
I told her no—we didn’t have the money for a honeymoon, plus we were busy looking for a place in Los Angeles; I would join Ava out there as soon as I was done training my Fish and Wildlife replacement at the Salton Sea refuge. I had a new F&W job lined up in Long Beach, studying raptor power line electrocutions.
“We’ll send you two tickets to San Francisco, then,” she told me. “We’ll Express them tomorrow.” She set the phone down on a table with a clunk. I could hear her blow her nose.
“Is she planning to convert?” my father asked me. My mother muttered in the background—either feeding him lines or talking to herself.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ve never really talked about it.” I had fallen away from any sort of Jewish practice after I finished saying Kaddish for Deborah.
“You love this girl?”
“I do, Dad.”
“You love her or you love the sex?”
“Dad! It’s not like that.”
“Good nooky can blind a man, Darryl.”
“Dad, I promise you, that’s not why I married her.”
“But she’s pregnant, is she not? That requires sex, the last I checked.”
It wouldn’t have if we had taken Deborah’s eggs out of her cancerous ovaries, if we had mixed them with my sperm in a petri dish and put them up some stranger’s vagina with a turkey baster or whatever they use. The sexiest part of the whole process would have been jacking off into a cup in some doctor’s office; with my wife on death’s door, I can’t imagine having been able to summon the necessary enthusiasm. My father must have been thinking the same thing because neither of us spoke for a while.
“She’s a wonderful person, Dad,” I finally said. “I love her. A lot.”
“I’ll see you at home,” he said, his voice grim. “Mazel tov.”
I hung up the phone, shook myself like a wet dog, and went to find my new bride.
2002 was the most exciting year for me ever as a writer. My first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, had just been published by HarperSanFrancisco (now HarperOne), and while I was on my book tour, I found out that my novel, The Book of Dead Birds, had won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change and would be published by HarperCollins the following year. In addition to Barbara Kingsolver, the other judges had been Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, my three favorite writers in the world. All of them had been (and continue to be) role models for me. My pantheon of literary goddesses. To get their blessing was so incredibly thrilling and affirming. It was also discombobulating. I came down with writer's block for the first time in my life; I let myself believe that every word I wrote from then on had to be worthy of a national award, worthy of the praise of the three amazing women who had chosen my novel. After months of frozen creativity, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, figuring that if I tried to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I wouldn't have time to worry about whether those words were any good. It worked. NaNoWriMo helped me get back out of my own way; it returned my writing to me in all its messy, juicy glory.
That November, I chose to reconnect with my characters from The Book of Dead Birds; I had wondered what they had been up to after the first book ended. Dead Birds had taken five years to write; writing the sequel was like a month-long family reunion, catching up with the people who had spent so much time in my head, and who I loved dearly. It was hard to see them going through new, painful struggles, but I was grateful to hang out with them again.
Over the years, I've mentioned the sequel at my readings and book club visits. Readers have always expressed interest, but I've told them I didn't have any plans to release it—it was too raw, too much of a personal project. It didn't feel right to share it, somehow. But enough people asked that I finally decided to take another look and was surprised by how much life I found inside the story. I shared the draft with my first reader and dear friend Laraine Herring, who thought the book contained some of the best writing of my life (which was both awesome and awful to hear—had I really not written anything as good in almost a decade?!)
After some revision, I started to think about how to go about releasing the book. The publishing world has changed a lot since 2002. I have published five books with major presses (including another NaNoWriMo novel, Self Storage) in the intervening years, and have watched budgets for promotion of said books plummet. Publishers have gone from arranging multiple city book tours with fancy hotels for midlist authors like myself to setting up a couple of local readings within driving distance of home. Much of the promotion has gone online—blog book tours, book trailers on YouTube, Skype visits with book clubs. It's a whole new world, one authors need to learn to navigate and be proactive about if we hope to stay relevant.
When I first started hearing about the shift to digital books, I was horrified, but eventually I let myself realize how exciting it is to live during a time of transition, of change. I decided to embrace that shift rather than resist it—to see it as an opportunity, an adventure, rather than a death knell. And I realized that it behooves writers, who are increasingly in charge of our own promotion, anyway, to learn how to take publishing into our own hands. So I decided to do just that.
Nine years after I sat down to write it, The Book of Live Wires is now available as an ebook. I released the novel in November to celebrate NaNoWriMo and to get a head start on celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize this coming January. Self-publishing has required a steep learning curve, but it's been a fun and illuminating journey. Being in control of every aspect of the process--from finding and negotiating the use of a cover image on flickr to choosing which platform to use (I decided on a combination of Smashwords and Kindle) to obtaining ISBN numbers and taking out all the tab indents, page breaks, etc. in order to format the manuscript properly—is exhilarating and at times overwhelming. And of course now all the promotion is in my hands, too (although I've enlisted a professional publicist to help with this, something I've done on occasion when I've published books traditionally, as well, to get more muscle behind the book and reach further than I could on my own.)
I see this all as a grand experiment. I do hope to continue to publish books the old fashioned way—I am grateful for the support and storied tradition of the established publishing world (plus I want to help keep brick and mortar bookstores alive!)--but I'm happy to know that I can always choose to release my work on my own, if I so desire. We have the power—the power of the pen, the power of the pixel. Let's use that power to create a brave and beautiful new world of words.