Until Our Last Breath

The Cajoler

Sometimes a photo says it all.  Here I am with my good friend Pamela Shekinah Perkins, who was writing her own book around the time I was debating whether to write UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH.  Both our books came out roughly the same time, hers from Wiley dscn2808xand Sons, entitled THE ART AND SCIENCE OF COMMUNICATION.  She’s the one I acknowledged in the back of UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH as having “cajoled and challenged” me to take the leap as a writer that UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH required.  She’s also the founder of the Human Communication Institute (www.hci-global.net)  Think we’re glad to be friends?  I am so proud of her.

Until Our Last Breath


I’m spending the weekend up in the San Bernardino mountains working with my son, Ivan Corona, co-founder of Singularity Pictures (http://singularitypictures.com) on a video about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. That’s him, to the right, on location for another project. I have two equally strong professional identities, one as a writer and then676996563_9908 other as an educator. I started teaching writing at the college level more than thirty years ago, and whatever I’m doing, I’m always tracking how it might be of use to students. I’m thinking now in terms of two contributions I can make through this video.

First, I learned a great deal about writing by taking on the multi-year task of writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, which was, among other things, my first book for an adult audience, my first full-length book, and my first experience working with someone else on a project where I was the writer. With content as interesting as that in UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, it’s easy to overlook the other story of any book, which is how it came into existence–how a writer decides to take on a project and the initial decisions that have to be made once that decision is reached. Voice, point of view, interwoven narratives, and the different and occasionally conflicting demands of storytelling and historical accuracy are all things I know a lot more about as a result of writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. I would like to share my perspectives as its author with high school and college students taking composition classes, as well as book groups or other audiences interested in writers and the writing process in general.

Second, as a result of a number of recent mandates, a great deal of effort is going into improving classroom instruction about the Holocaust. My new video project, “A WORLD ENTIRE,” is intended also to work as part of this new curriculum by providing background information about the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, the Vilna ghetto, and Jewish resistance. Talking about my own experiences writing about the Holocaust may also help students open up about the subject themselves. To make this project maximally useful for teachers across the curriculum, the video will conclude with about a dozen topics for class discussion or writing assignments.

My plan is to provide this roughly 20-30 minute video free of charge to schools and other groups interested in using it for non-profit, educational purposes. Ivan and I are also working on a short introduction to the video, which will be posted on YouTube. We’re still several months away from completion, so I hope you will check back for updates.

The Four Seasons

Venezia, Venice, Venise…

Recently I posted images of the cover and some proof pages of the German translation of THE FOUR SEASONS, and just last week I heard from the French translator, Jacques Guiod, who tells me he is also finishing up. The Spanish translator also has written to tell me that she is starting work in March, so it appears that THE FOUR SEASONS will be out in 2009 in at least three foreign languages. Translation rights have also sold for Portuguese and Turkish at this point, but I have yet to get status updates on those two. My niece Melanie tells me she can’t wait to come to hear me do a reading in Turkish, but I think I’ll have to limit my foreign language activities to reading the dedication in German to my partner, Jim, and my sister, Lynn. If there’s such a thing as malpractice of a language, I think the Germans have a good case!
Jacques sent along a few photos that I’m posting here, one of himself and his wife in the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, and a beautiful one of the Pieta, taken from the Venetian lagoon. The view of the Pieta is particularly gratifying to me, since the fog never fully lifted during my trip, and the details on his shot are so crisp. The actual site of the Pieta is the Metropole Hotel (on the right of the photo, you can see the five stars and the first two letters of the sign). The alley between the two buildings leads to the Piccolo Museo della Pieta, where instruments and other artifacts from the cloister are kept. Definitely worth a visit! On the side of the building of the Pieta is a plaque to Vivaldi, praising his years of work with the coro.

Until my next posting, auf wiedersehen, hasta luego, and a bientot…

The Four Seasons

The Dog Ate My Homework?

The dog ate my homework...
The dog ate my homework...

Cheers to my friends Nancy Regan and Carolyn Shaw. Nancy finished THE FOUR SEASONS and left it on the couch for Carolyn to read. Harry, the new Corgi pup, gave it an interesting review, finding it “tasteful,” “easy to tear through in one sitting,” and “offering much food for thought.” Woof!

Until Our Last Breath

In Praise of Critics

The cancellation of Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, An Angel at the Fence, affected me personally because, if not for timely criticism of an early draft of Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, I might be facing something similar.

For those of you who may not be following this story, the pivotal event of Rosenblat’s book is being saved from starvation at Buchenwald by a girl who threw him apples over a fence. It’s a great love story, since many years later in New York he accidentally reconnected with the girl, and they eventually married. The problem is, he has now admitted he fabricated the story.

“So what?” some have asked. It’s a great, uplifting story, and memory is a tricky thing anyway. Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, has a succinct reply. “If you make up things about parts, you cast doubts on everything else,” Lipstadt recently told a reporter. “When you think of the survivors who meticulously tell their story and are so desperate for people to believe, then if they’re making stories up about this, how do you know if Anne Frank is true? How do you know Elie Wiesel is true?” She’s right. If someone wrote about being wounded at Midway but wasn’t actually there, no one would offer this as proof the battle never took place, but such denial happens all too easily with the Holocaust.

My research partner in Until Our Last Breath is the son of two Holocaust survivors, now deceased, whose role in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania, forms an important part of the book. Jews who fought back are rarely the focus of Holocaust books, and I had more than enough documented facts to write the historical parts. The problem was we wanted a stronger narrative focus on this one particular couple’s story than the known or inferred facts allowed. Since this personal element of love and resistance distinguished this book from others, we initially made the decision that I could write as if they experienced certain things personally, when all we actually knew was that such things happened in places they were. After all, if what I wrote was generally true, all I was doing was making the book a better read, no?

No. And here’s where my praise of critics comes in. They did exactly what critics sometimes need to do: they panned the manuscript. A number of publishers turned it down out of discomfort with the fictional feel of parts of it. Good for them! I am genuinely grateful. Individuals close to the family gave even more pointed feedback about the need to stick to the facts. At that juncture I understood that, well-intentioned as we had been in including what only could have happened, the book fed the denial that Lipstadt warns against.

It would be nice if we’d gotten it right the first time. It’s never pleasant to be wrong about something in which one has invested a lot of time and effort, and I can attest to how tedious a major rewrite can be. This was a case, however, where what at first felt like a burden turned out to be a blessing. I wish for Mr. Rosenblat’s sake, that he had been similarly blessed.

I’ve worked with editors for many years and agents for a few, and I know the importance of having an open mind about something as personal and fraught with ego as one’s own writing. I know the down side also–that criticism can undermine fragile confidence and wreak havoc on a writer’s voice, but today I would like to say thank you to those who, by their willingness to give me feedback I haven’t always wanted to hear, have had a constructive influence on my writing.



Surprise! If you have visited any of my websites before, you were probably expecting the same old same-old, but now, after several months of work with Gabriel Porras and Patricia Maas of Blue Jay Technologies, my new, consolidated website is up and running. I hope you’ll take minute to look around! There’s a new blog page (“diary”), and a schedule of upcoming events (“calendar”) on the home page (past events will fall off after the scheduled date). Another neat feature is the photo gallery–click on a picture to enlarge it for viewing. I’ve included photos from my research trips as well as writing and hobby-related shots. “Book shelf” gives you access to pages about each of my books, and “Links” will connect you with places I’ve guest-blogged, articles, and other information about the subjects I’ve written on. Hope you like it!

The Four Seasons

The Reading Chair

Many thanks to Taniya Barrows, Owner/Manager of THE READING CHAIR Independent bookstore in Ramona, California for permission to reprint her blog entry about THE FOUR SEASONS

Monday, November 10, 2008


I prejudged!I did, really! I had the honor of meeting an incredibly talented new author (and a local one at that) by the name of Laurel Corona who personally put her new novel, The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, in my hands and I did not truly appreciate the gift I had just received. Granted, on that day I had a lot of books placed into my hands by authors, publishers and sales reps so it’s understandable that I didn’t fully grasp the treasure Ms. Corona handed me.But that wasn’t bad enough… I prejudged again!

I was in a foul mood. I had just endured a pretty crumby weekend and I was in between books. Four Seasons caught my eye and I remembered how much I enjoyed chatting with Ms. Corona. So I plopped onto my couch and began examining the exterior of the book, at which time I began to get a sinking sensation (yes, you could insert the age old book cover cliché here). I loved the concept of the plot; two orphaned sisters raised in the Venetian orphanage Vivaldi taught at and composed for and how the three lives intersected and influenced each other. But I have been burned before and something on this jacket cover, I can’t really articulate what, gave me the suspicion that the pages inside held the expected: superficial characters, a drawn out plot line and the sensationalistic and predictable subjugation and use of women in 18th century Italy!

Wow, was I cranky or what?! I was also very wrong!

Three pages…

That’s all it took, just three pages and I was hooked! I honestly started this book in the absolute worst mindset. I even told myself to just power through it and skim if I needed to. Yet, three short pages into this book all of that melted away. I was now emotionally invested in these two young girls who only had each other in a frightening world. I had to keep reading – not skimming, reading! I had to know that my girls were going to be okay. I needed to know that someone would be there to look out for them and shepherd them through a society that didn’t exactly view women as much more than pretty things that produced heirs; and if she wasn’t pretty, a nunnery was the best she could hope for.

The most remarkable part of this book is the growth of these two women. I found it easy in the beginning to think of them as “my girls.” Each moment I had to sit and read I was able to check in on “my girls.” However, as the story progressed and they were growing up, Maddalena and Chiaretta could no longer belong to anyone, not even the reader.

The Four Seasons is a magnificent surprise. Read it, I urge you! It is a story of life and the journey we all travel from childhood to adulthood artfully told. Two sisters diverge on the road of life and follow their own paths yet remain true to each other. Laurel Corona has given us a beautiful lens to watch these incredible girls grow into the remarkable women anyone would wish for as a sister, a wife, a friend. Corona even rejects the stereotype of the domineering man who must be overcome and beaten down. Men, women, the Catholic Church, the whispered customs of 18th century Venetian nobility and a demanding and controversial composer of the day are all respectfully represented and honored in this beautiful book.

-Taniya Barrows


The Four Seasons

Sharing the Wealth

San Diego City College celebrated itself this week. Coming the day after the election, I saw the showcase of faculty and student talent that launched my novel, THE FOUR SEASONS, from a perspective that might have escaped me otherwise. This has been so much on my mind that I want to share it with anyone who is listening.

My good friend and colleague Stephanie Robinson (pictured with me to the right) has been training in the operatic style of singing for years, but probably only a handful of people at City knew that, since she teaches electronic music composition–almost the polar opposite. When we talked last spring about putting on a launch for my novel, we realized that we knew almost nothing about what our colleagues do when they’re not at work. My guess is we had the skills among us to have offered a work for chamber orchestra at the event, but we didn’t know whom to ask. Most of us, myself included, try to cram as much work into our time on campus as we can, and don’t do much hanging out in the corridors, or sitting down in the often-deserted staff dining room area just to see who stops by. “I don’t have the time to get started,” I tell myself. “I don’t have the energy to get involved in any more lives.”

This isn’t good. I realize this with a particular sense of urgency now, since less than two weeks ago, a thirty-nine year old colleague in my department had a stroke. It isn’t clear why, but she thinks she knows, and her message to all of us, even before she had regained the ability to speak clearly, was “Slow down.” I’m going to try. I’m clear enough about who I fundamentally am not to expect a sea change in how I go through my day, but even baby steps to connect with others will make my life richer.

But that’s not really what I most want to say. In the afterglow of the election, I want to shout to the world a beautiful principle that was reinforced by putting on this show. When I decided that I didn’t want my launch to be just about me and my book, but to include others whose achievements also deserved celebrating, I set in motion something that has come back to bless me many fold. Rather than a small event in someone’s home or in a restaurant somewhere, THE FOUR SEASONS was launched in a theater packed with several hundred people. I don’t have that kind of draw myself, but together all the performers–Stephanie, dj, George, Terry, John Mark, Zaquia, and Ramon—did. The bookstore sold two full cartons of books, many to people who knew nothing about my novel before the event and can’t wait to tell others about it. Stephanie and all the other performers have new fans, and people are talking about how the college can keep this form of self-discovery going.

Sharing the wealth is not a scandalous concept despite recent attempts to make it seem so. It is the wellspring of the most profound blessings that come to us as individuals and as a society. Especially in times that are bound to grow more difficult for all of us, we must never forget that our real treasure is each other. I am reminded of this every time I enter the classroom at San Diego City College. The environment in which I teach was not possible when I was growing up. In fact, when I started kindergarten in 1955, it was illegal. My students (Stephanie’s and my team-taught class is pictured below) are African-American, Asian, Latino/a, and White; gay and straight; Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Atheist; male and female; native born and immigrants; vegan and omnivore. They span several decades in age, have more brains than money, and more hope than despair. It’s wonderful how comfortable they are with each other, and how open and eager they seem to be about making friends with people unlike themselves. They “get it,” that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and they are a microcosm of where we as a people need to be. We all need to want for each other what we want for ourselves, because we are all in this together.


The Four Seasons

The Cross-Eyed Joker

When I was little, waiting for my birthday was sheer torture. Time was so mean to me! It refused to do anything but creep along, wagging its fingers behind its ears with its eyes crossed and its tongue sticking out. A month ago, waiting for THE FOUR SEASONS to be released felt a little like that.

One difference, of course is that at my age, one has to be crazy to want time to pass quickly, since it feels increasingly short. More to the point, however, the busy life of an adult makes having only one horizon, one thing to concentrate on, a long-forgotten luxury. I’ve had papers to grade, deadlines to keep track of, tests to revise, errands to run, presidential debates and World Series games to rush home for. One horizon was two days out and another three, and before I knew it a week had passed and then one more. And now here I am, on another kind of birthday—the debut of my firstborn novel.

Pop open the champagne! My book’s in stores, glowing with gold trim and a radiant violinist on the cover. Yesterday afternoon, when I first saw it in the new fiction case of Borders, I stood for a moment in front of it before taking a photo on my I-phone and rushing out of the store to call my friends and family. “Oh yeah,” I realize a while later, far from the store. “I’m supposed to sign stock!” I’m kind of glad I didn’t, though. I need some time to get used to this.

If the lead-up to my birthday was torture when I was young, the day after was the true valley of despond. If time ever played a cruel joke, it was making kids wait a whole year to be acknowledged like that again. This birthday is different, since it will just keep going. The first time I see someone reading THE FOUR SEASONS—maybe on the trolley, or on a plane or in a waiting room—is going to feel like the Fourth of July! I can see that cross-eyed joker, Time, sticking out its tongue again, getting ready to make me wait.