Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hush, by Eishes Chayil

I'll never forget the day, back in the 80s, when I told my husband, Charles, then just my boyfriend, about my history. "When I was a girl I was sexually abused by a relative," I said, forcing the words out. This was the first boy I had ever told. It seemed right, like the thing to do at that point in our relationship, but even as the words left my mouth I knew they could be a deal breaker. I waited nervously, the silence hanging heavy in the air. If he was going to break up with me then he should just say it and get it over with, I thought. "Well," I asked with an urgent, frustrated edge, "does this make you feel any different about me?" Charles began as always, slow and measured.
"Well," he said, and my breath caught as I realized that he was beginning a sentence that would take me to an unknown place, "I don't feel any different about you, but it doesn't make me feel very good about your relative."

Charles was one of only a handful of people I shared this with. The shame of what happened to me as a child gripped me so completely that I was a young adult before I even told my family, and even then the fallout from the abuse still hung over me like a thick, gray cloud. I couldn't shake it. Two more decades would pass before I could even imagine typing these words.

My story, and the stories of so many others, brings to light not only the scourge of sexual abuse against children, of course, but something else just as harming: the secrecy that surrounds it. Secrets are toxic; you hide something when you are ashamed of it. 40-years ago when my abuse took place the world was not nearly as enlightened as it is now, but this fact still holds true: Our society puts a premium on surfaces -- niceties and smiling faces -- at the expense of the more difficult work that comes with honest discourse. Children aren't unaware; they see this; they know others will be uncomfortable in the wake of their disclosure so they often keep it to themselves. Because children often keep their abuse secret, the shame of what happened falls not on the perpetrators of the abuse -- where it belongs -- but on the victims. This is when the abuse -- a terrible enough thing in and of itself -- becomes freighted. As a girl I knew implicitly that the adults around me would be uncomfortable if I disclosed what happened, and because of this I put myself in the position of being responsible for bearing the burden of the secret; I made it possible for those around me to go on with their lives unfettered by the discomfort of dealing with my suffering and having to confront the pedophile relative who abused me. The terror of being abused became spider-webbed in confusion and shame. The burden was crippling. The premium our culture puts on its smiley face has another notable repercussion: because victims keep their abuse hush-hush, their abusers face no repercussions and are allowed to go on molesting. (Just so you know, it wasn't my imagination that my family would not welcome my disclosure. When, as a young adult, 20 years ago, I finally summoned up enough courage to speak out about it they responded by insisting I stay quiet, murmuring that I was either unbalanced, making it up, or both. It has only been in the past few years that they've apologized and we've been able to sit down and talk about what happened openly.)

The long-held, unspoken belief within the Jewish community is that sexual abuse is not a Jewish problem, especially among the more observant Orthodox and Hassidic groups. It doesn't take a social scientist, though, to realize that cultures that seek to preserve traditions -- not an unworthy goal -- by definition tend to be insular, and that an insular society can be a breeding ground for predators if it handles its dirty laundry from within, as these communities do. There can be an enormous amount of pressure within these communities to keep quiet about sexual abuse. And because sexual abuse against children is almost always unwitnessed, and therefore unprovable, victims (and their families) are often told by those in power that their allegations fall under the umbrella of lashon hara, or gossip, which is strictly forbidden.

Although "Hush" is billed as a novel for young adults, the story is well-written and compelling reading for adults, too. It's telling that the author, a woman from one of the observant communities, felt compelled to use a pseudonym. It's sad that the atmosphere within these communities is still such that the author couldn't comfortably use her own name, although the pseudonym she picked couldn't be more fitting; Eishes Chayil translates as woman of valor.

In the author's note at the back of the book, Chayil writes that she used the story of her own life to craft "Hush," combining two events from her childhood to form the plot. As a young girl she witnessed a friend being molested, and also heard of an 11-year-old boy in her community who hung himself. In "Hush," Gittel's best friend, Devory, hangs herself in the aftermath of being molested by her brother. As the plot unfolds we see that Devory wasn't the only person victimized by the abuse; Gittel witnessed it and the guilt she suffers from keeping quiet about seeing Devory's abuse, and from outliving her, takes its toll in the form of symptoms we now know are part of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I had a few minor quibbles with the plot and structure of "Hush," but I hesitate to even bring them up. Those details are besides the point. "Hush" is an important book. It shines the light on the sexual abuse within traditional Jewish communities and, in the telling, secrecy and shame are vanquished. I can't help but believe that G-d would be pleased to see this. Eishes Chayil should be proud.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

Today I had the opportunity to speak with two relatives I'd never even heard of until recently. One was Jerry, who lives in Detroit and is the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed. The other was Tzuriel, a forth cousin who lives in Milwaukee and is the father of seven children!

Those are your clues, the giveaway to what I've been up to: working on my family tree. Genealogy is like crack cocaine: it leads to a quick rush and you're left wanting more, more more! (Just for the record -- My high school was in the Haight-Ashbury but my description of a crack high is purely conjecture.) For the few people out there who haven't heard, (and there must be someone out there I still haven't shared this with), the legend in my family is that we are descendants of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov (also known by the handy acronym, Besht) was born in 1700, lived in the Ukraine and is known for founding the Hassidic Judaism.

The path between Okopy, the Ukrainian village of the18th century that was Besht's home, and present day Indianapolis is, well, complicated. But even as the names and dates are filled in, a brief look at the mosaic of data -- and a family tree is so compelling, how could one not look? -- will reveal that the meat of the stories of those lives lies in the negative space, the myriad details that take place in between birth and death. Like my conversation last week with the niece of my great-grand aunt, Gitel Chervitz Ridker. That niece, Ruthie, who lives in Chicago and is not even my relative, was chatty and helpful, despite that she remembered very little about Gitel. But oh, what gold there was in those few tidbits! The negative space around Gitel's name reveals that she was a large woman. Well, large is not exactly how Ruthie put it. I believe the words Ruthie used were bottom-heavy! And, according to Ruthie, Gitel and David's family would never have been named "neighbors of the year." Ruthie recalled going to one of their Bar Mitzvah celebrations, still struck with how few friends they had.

"The Fortress of Solitude," which tells the story of two boys growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, is like the negative space of a family tree, in that it richly depicts the many twists and turns these lives take. Sure, FOS has some of the fantastical elements that are Lethem's trademarks, but these elements are rooted in the grit and grime of everyday life as we see Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude navigate the big issues of their Brooklyn neighborhood in the 70s: race, sexuality, crime and drugs. Like real life, the story of Dylan and Mingus is full of joy, wonder, heartbreak and loss. And like real life, you never know where the story will take you. In my case it might be to the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed, from who I learned that the name of the ship my ancestor sailed to America on in 1907 was the Carolina. Or it might be to a cousin in Milwaukee, who told the story of how our great-grand-aunt had her old country rebbe write down the names of her Baal Shem Tov ancestors on a slip of paper, and how she came to America with that slip of paper tucked into her father's Siddur. Life is a wild ride, full of moments just like these, rich and fraught. The phone rings -- it might be a long-lost cousin. A scrap of paper falls from the pages of that dusty, old Siddur. Even as I discover the bones of the structure of my family tree, it's the stories that rest in the negative space give it its color.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Elmore Leonard

Incredible. That's the only response I can come up with when I reflect on the hour this morning I got to spend with 20 other grad students at an intimate Q & A with legendary novelist Elmore Leonard.

To call Leonard a veteran writer would be an understatement; He's been at it for 60 years. Leonard began by looking back on his long career, which began in the '50s. He wrote westerns, which were in vogue at the time. In giving a nod to commercialism, he said that when he writes he always has in mind what the public will like, what will sell. It wasn't until the '80s, Leonard said, that he finally made the New York Times bestseller list. He reported that this didn't feel like a big deal, though, as he never read any of the books that made the list, but the achievement pleased him because he knew it would increase his book sales.

He spoke about his influences and how the first writer to profoundly impact him was Hemingway, although he also loves Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter, George Higgins and Jane Smiley. He spoke about his writing style, and how he writes a story solely through the eyes of the novel's characters, and that he eschews any writing in which the author's point of view muddies up the pureness of that ideal. Also, he noted that the point of view in a story can sometimes change as he writes a novel, as he realizes a secondary character has become more interesting than the primary one.

When Leonard was asked how he goes about writing from a point of view different from his own, he answered that the key is research, and that the details about the characters and their surroundings give them an authentic voice. Leonard then pointed to the back row, to a closely-cropped, serious looking, solidly built young man named Greg, who looked as if he could serve as Leonard's bodyguard, and could have been easily lifted from the pages of one of Leonard's novels. This was Leonard's research assistant and right-hand-man. At 86, Leonard is still sharp, but the few times he was unsuccessful in conjuring up the name of one of his novel's characters, his assistant would bark out the answer from the back row.

Leonard then addressed how he came up with the ideas for his novels, and said the genesis for many of his them come from photographs. Karen Sisco, one of the characters from "Out of Sight," came from an evocative photo of a female marshal.

I got a chance to ask Leonard about my favorite Elmore Leonard book, "Ten Rules of Writing." He said he originally wrote these rules out on two yellow sheets of paper as part of a speech. After the speech someone asked him for the sheets of paper and Leonard handed them over without a thought. Later, the New York Times asked him to write a column expanding on these rules, so he had to rewrite them. Meanwhile, the original papers were listed for sale, and Leonard had to buy them back for $600! Leonard went on to read us the rules, which are funny simply because they're so basic. He likes to bandy about the word Hooptedoodle, a word that sums up the intent behind his rules and has a sound that conveys its meaning: prose that is descriptive, flowery, extraneous and cluttered and, by definition, not dialogue. Leonard is a proponent of the "show, don't tell" school of writing, and said that he dislikes reading descriptions of what characters look like. He would rather paint of picture of the character with dialogue and action.

Telling us about his writing process, Leonard said he eschews computers. He likes to feel directly connected to his pen and paper, with no computer screen involved. He writes for eight hours each day, and no longer uses outlines for his chapters. He would rather see what his characters do, and that might not be what he originally had in mind. In order to get into the mind of his characters he may rewrite a scene from a different character's point of view. He shared an interesting anecdote about how a critic's accusation that he wrote his female characters in the style of Mickey Spillane led to Leonard taking a closer look how he writes the women in his novels. Because of this introspection, when he writes female characters he now thinks of them as simply as people, rather than women.

Leonard told us that it is said that it takes a million words to develop one's own writing voice. A prolific writer like Elmore has certainly achieved that many times over, leaving us with a distinctive voice in contemporary American literature.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue

"Room" is a breathtaking, captivating and suspenseful novel. Donoghue vividly depicts her story's narrator's world, and tells the story from his singular point of view. If I reveal anything else about the story, though, I would take away from the jaw-dropping awe that comes with discovering that world for yourself. I don't want to spoil it for you. Which leaves me in the tricky position of trying to put together a book review without revealing any of the plot. I'll just say this: you will be drawn in by the compelling premise of Donoghue's story, as well as by Donoghue's ability to convey her narrator's story so convincingly. And, as if all that isn't enough for one novel, Donoghue structures the plot of "Room" with a great deal of finesse, withholding information and then artfully releasing it bit by bit, so as to maximize suspense.

"Room" was an uncomfortable read. At its start it was apparent there was something vague and unidentifiably wrong in the world Donoghue was painting, and as I tried to make sense of it I was reminded of a slowly developing Polaroid picture that still had blurry, unidentifiable forms. I felt a creepiness. I wanted to put the book down, but I didn't -- the suspense had me in its vice grip. Then, very slowly, the edges sharpened and the forms became recognizable. By that time "Room" was one of those books that demanded to be read. I let the phone ring, and forgot to start dinner; I couldn't put "Room" down.

There are great books, like "Room," and there is also life outside of great books, and sometimes the two intersect. Which brings me to my story of the bar mitzvah party I attended last night, in this year of endless bar and bat mitzahs. Last night, amidst the flutter of near-teenagers and the boom of Cotton Eyed Joe blasting over the sound system, I was struck at how a party can be very much like a novel. A party and a novel each consists of a set of characters forced by circumstance -- the constraint of a party room or the plot that tosses them together -- to interact, which is something that inevitably creates conflict. The cast of characters at a bar mitzvah party is stock: there are shy kids who hang at the perimeter, heads tilted towards the floor; there are gregarious, macho boys; there are flirty girls with shiny, long hair who have one foot in the adult world; there are the one-drink-too-many older relatives; there are the I'm-way-too-cool-to-get-on-the-dance-floor older siblings, and of course, there are the boisterous, middle-aged friends of the hostess who take advantage of every bar mitzvah party to bust a move. (Guess which category I fall in?) When I see the shy kids I'm reminded of the shy kid I once was and I want to shake those kids out of their self-conscious, self-inflicted oppression. When I see the flirty girls I want to say to them hey, slow down, have some fun, and be sure to be nice to the chubby kids. It's only now that I'm pushing 50 that I see that it's only when we can step out of the stories we have written about our own lives that we are afforded the opportunity to transcend the constraints we've imposed on ourselves.

Which brings me back to "Room," which, in a very round-a-bout way, illuminates one of the central struggles we humans face as we make our way through this world: the impulse we have to impose constraints over ourselves. In "Room" we get a tousled, yet heartbreakingly poignant riff on this theme, as we see a transcendence so astounding it can't help but make us reflect on the limitations and potential in own lives.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The End of Overeating, by David Kessler

My husband and I closed in like vultures. It was 8:30pm, typically a dangerous time of rampant and flagrant late-night snacking in our house and our daughter had just come home from a friend's birthday dinner at the upscale restaurant chain Naked Tchopstix with a carton of leftovers. I placed a chunk of Kung Pao Chicken in my mouth. The texture: firm within, covered with a bumpy crust, and then coated by a silky sauce. The flavor: bursts of sweet, then savory, (the newly discovered taste of umami came to mind), then the tang of citrus, then a layer of saltiness, and more sweet. My mouth was paralyzed, flooded with pleasure. As I started to chew, the delicate crunch of the coating slowly dissolved into the smooth sauce, all of this melding into the tender texture of the chicken inside. Charles took a bite, and we looked at each other incredulously, our eyes wide. The question silently passed between us: How could anything taste so impossibly good?

It has seemed to me for awhile now that the food available these days, compared to the food I ate as a child four decades ago, is vastly different. Enter "The End of Overeating," an eye-opening book by David Kessler, a physician and former commissioner of the USDA, that confirms every one of my paranoid suspicions.

Sugar, fat and salt. Kessler writes that, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these substances, the food industry overloads our food with them and this diabolically changes the chemistry in our brains, thereby messing up how we regulate our intake. These three ingredients make food compelling, and the purposeful loading and layering of our foods with sugar, fat and salt makes them highly hedonic. Today's food producers design products so that consumers ingest substances with differing stimuli and sensations, taking into account such factors as mouthfeel, temperature, texture and viscosity.

As Kessler explains, the sugar/fat/salt issue effects all processed food, from packaged food in our grocery stores to the food we eat in restaurants. Kessler devotes several chapters revealing the practices of some of the marketplace's worst offenders, and then offers solutions, explaining in detail how we can retrain our brains, reducing the craving these substances give rise to and ease the neuro-biochemical roller coaster changes they induce.

The Kung Pao Chicken had a few stalks of deep, green broccoli. I took a bite. It was crunchy, yet soft, and cloyingly sweet; the taste of sugar completely overshadowed any vegetable flavor. When broccoli tastes like sugar it's no wonder that, as a society, we find ourselves at the mercy of the array of prepared foods sold in our groceries and restaurants. Willpower won't always trump our brain's quest for pleasure. In the battle of the bulge our appetites will win unless we arm ourselves with knowledge about the larger forces at play, forces that lead to food laden with unhealthful, addictive ingredients.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jonathan Lethem, Part Two

In my last post I tried to relay all the wisdom Jonathan Lethem imparted during his time at Butler. Since then, though, more bits of Lethem wisdom have floated back into my consciousness and I realize that because he was so generous in sharing his thoughts about his writing process, and about writing in general, there is much more to tell.

So here's part two:

When a student asked Lethem what authors have influenced him, he reported that, depending on what he's writing, a wide selection of authors inform his work. Still, he gave us a short list of the authors that became what he called structural influences, impacting everything he writes: Lewis Carroll, Shirley Jackson, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.

Lethem said he first aspired to the writing life as a boy. He said he had always been enthralled by books, but it wasn't until he read "Alice in Wonderland" that he had the sense that an author's hand was responsible for structuring the words on the page. He added that it wasn't long after that he developed an awareness of what constituted good writing -- and what didn't. He used "The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories" series as an example of the type of books he read that were predictable and formulaic, and lost the surprise and mystery he craved. Lethem said his goal as a writer now is to constantly challenge himself by exploring the uncertainty in the world, in an effort to find the surprise in a story.

Lethem then spoke about writing in general, saying that it is an intellectual pursuit that organizes one's thinking and increases one's understanding of the world, adding that writing is a game for the tortoise, not the hare. He compared writing to athletics, saying that the practice of training every day is common to both pursuits.

He discussed the genesis of the Tourettes suffering protagonist in "Motherless Brooklyn," and in doing so delved even deeper into the meaning writing holds for him. The idea of a character with Tourettes syndrome came from reading one of Oliver Sacks case studies. The man in the case study was a brain surgeon whose flagrant symptoms subsided only when he operated. When pondering the contrast between the chaos and the focus in the surgeon's head, Lethem saw a comparison in his writing. He imagined his own brain as a generator of a random boil of ideas that becomes focused when he writes. The disparity between the wild chaos and single-mindedness in the brain surgeon's mind echoed Lethem's view of his writing process. Further riffing on this theme, Lethem then saw his bustling, brash hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes." Painting this line of thought broadly, Lethem said that, like Tourettes symptoms, the "wrongness" and bullshit that are generated in his own mind are what is golden to writing.

All this, of course, culminated in Lethem's welling up when he spoke of those moments of connection, when an author experiences readers "getting" the work. This is the moment that stuck. It's rare thing to find someone brave enough to peel back the artifice, reminding us that at the most fundamental level, the essence of the impulse to put pen to paper is the basic desire to connect.

Oh, one last thing. Lethem has an awesome website, offering free stories and song lyrics for others to develop. Check it out at

In two weeks Elmore Leonard is scheduled to read at Butler, but until then, more book reviews!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jonathan Lethem

Last night Jonathan Lethem dazzled the crowd at Butler by reading the third chapter of his upcoming novel, which takes place in late '50s Queens. The chapter, titled Grey Goose, takes its name from the title of a Burl Ives song featured in those pages. Here, Miriam, the young daughter of Rose, a single mother (and apologetic communist), is on a quest to lose her virginity. Expectedly, the prose was rich and textured, and the sentences were saturated with nuance and color.

Lethem's two-day visit to Butler was off to a breathless start. After the reading it was time for questions from the audience, many of which had to do with the craft of writing. Lethem advised that the process of revision is where the real writing happens; that editing is a process of self-understanding. His best advise to aspiring writers is to write every day, although having said that he admitted his own practice is less than consistent. He joked that if someone were to take an average of the time he spends each day writing it would come to about 17 minutes! Even so, making writing an automatic part of the day is important, he said, adding that one's relationship to his or her writing practice is also important. He prefers to think of the practice of writing each day as a habituation (something you do because you love it) rather than a discipline (something you make yourself do).

In response to another comment, Lethem agreed that a theme common to many of his books is the negative space left by a missing or deceased mother, most notably in (my personal favorite) "The Fortress of Solitude." He said readers incorrectly assume that this book is autobiographical because it carries within it many details of Lethem's young life (Lethem's mother died when he was 14), but that the plot of "The Fortress of Solitude," most of which takes place after the mother absents herself, is completely unlike his own childhood.

When asked about his newest book, "Chronic City," Lethem said he aimed to emulate the "chilly" characters of his favorite conceptual writers but that what he ended up writing were "hot" characters, and the mess of their humanity gummed up the "chilly" concept.

Today there was more Lethem: a Q & A in the morning followed by pizza. At the Q & A Lethem spoke about "Motherless Brooklyn," saying he got the idea for a Tourettes inflicted protagonist by reading Oliver Sacks. At the time he was living in the Bay Area, an area much more laid back than the East Coast, and as he ruminated about the frenetic energy and spurts of thought and language that are the hallmarks of Tourettes, he came to see his hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes."

He went on to spend a good part of the Q & A addressing the subject of reading, emphasizing that no writing happens in a vacuum. Lethem was adamant in saying that writing is an intellectual pursuit rooted in language, and that every single word carries with it layers of meaning ascribed to it by the culture it exists in. He said that the supposition that a writer can generate work in an unsullied, pure environment, without contamination by the surrounding culture, is ludicrous. Reading and writing are reciprocal activities that feed off the other. In other words, read, read, read!

Then the pizza arrived, and even as we ate, Lethem generously continued to share his thoughts. In fact, it was during lunch that the most remarkable moment of Lethem's time at Butler occurred. One of my classmates asked Lethem what he thought about the workshop process (This is the structure of a standard creative writing class. Writers hone their craft by presenting work to a class of their peers who then offer feedback.) Lethem first commented that it has become fashionable to disparage the workshop process and say it turns out mediocre writers whose work all reads the same. He then offered his opinion: that writing workshops offer writers that golden, sought after opportunity to connect with other writers. A chance to say, "Hello? Anybody there?" through the can at the end of the string and find a "Yes!" at the other end. Lethem said that, as writers, this is what we all want, to be heard. And at this, Lethem's eyes actually welled up.

Butler's semester of visiting writers has brought authors of all stripes. While all of them read enthusiastically from their work, some clearly came with an agenda to engage, while others did not. But even of the authors who sought a mutuality to the author/reader dialogue, none of them did it with the articulate, generous, open-heartedness of Jonathan Lethem. An author who is brought to the brink of tears by discussing connecting with others through art? It leaves me all but speechless. All I can say is come back soon, Jonathan. We want more.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Madeleine Albright

On International Food Day the teacher in the children's book, "Yoko," tells her students to, "Try everything!" Friday I thought I would do just that by attending a talk by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As I made my way through Michigan Road's construction traffic, though, I wondered if I should bail. Maybe the hassle getting there was a sign. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not politically savvy, and I wondered if I would get anything out of hearing an ex-politico expound about foreign policy.

When Albright walked on stage I immediately knew that I made the right decision by not bailing. Now in her 70s, Albright had a gracious, erudite air about her. She opened with a funny, self-effacing anecdote that set the tone for a casual discussion. Throughout the talk Albright was accessible, witty and engaging. She approached all questions with candor, handling even difficult ones with aplomb.

When asked if she thought women brought a different sensibility to the job of Secretary of State, Albright replied that although women may bring more consensus building to the task, both men and women want the same thing: to defend the interests of their state. When asked about her thoughts about the results of the mid-term election, she explained how important it is for elected officials to work across party lines, recounting her work in expanding the role of NATO and how she found an unexpected and unlikely partner in Jesse Helms. When asked how she would rate the Obama administration so far, she said that although they had the added task of trying to overcome the legacy of the Bush administration's heavy-hand, she would give them a B+, praising in particular Obama's trip to India.

When Albright was asked about the subject of her newest book, "Read My Pins," she told the story of how she began to wear brooches. She recounted that Saddam Hussein printed a poem about her, comparing her to a serpent. In response she wore a broach in the shape of a snake. Thus the start of a tradition of wearing brooches whose designs matched the task at hand.

Albright seemed to enjoy discussing her close relationship with Condoleesa Rice (Albright's father taught Rice) and affectionately retold the story of the conversation in which Rice admitted to her that she was a Republican.

Albright was asked about her now infamous statement on the show 60 Minutes. In response to a leading question by Lesley Stahl, Albright had said that she stood by the sanctions against Iraq -- even though they resulted in the death of half a million Iraqi children. In a moment of refreshing candor, she admitted she misspoke and that she wishes she would have framed her answer differently. She reminded us that no one goes through life without saying something he or she later regrets. Then, in her own defense, she went on to dispute Stahl's figures. She added that Iraq was never denied food or medicine, explaining that ultimately it was Hussein who was responsible for the deaths because he used his country's resources to build palaces when the citizens of his country were in need.

Albright said that as a girl she began international relations clubs in the schools she attended and then made herself president. Now, in her role as teacher at Georgetown University, her goal is to make foreign policy less foreign. She defined foreign policy in simple terms: getting a country to do something you want. It was in these simple terms that Albright shared her stories, and she did it with style, grace and an open heart. I learned a lot listening to Madeleine Albright. I may not be well-versed in foreign policy but I do know that it's always a good idea to try something new; you never know what it will bring. I had no idea that in Madeleine Albright I would find an amazing role model, a woman with integrity who just happened to be our first female Secretary of State.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lorrie Moore

What was that sound, you say? Oh, that was the buzz that emanated from Butler University last week as the English Department readied itself for the upcoming visit by author, Lorrie Moore.

It was back in the '80s that Moore first entered the literary world, and she did it with a bang: her first published work was comprised of short stories she wrote for her master's thesis. She is now the author of three short story collections, and three novels. Her newest work is the novel, "A Gate at the Stairs."

Moore opened the evening by reading a section from "A Gate at the Stairs," and then went on to read the short story "Foes," which hasn't yet been published in the U.S.

After her readings she took a few questions. When asked if it had been difficult to write the more troubling scenes in AGATS, she said no, adding that the purpose of those scenes was to illustrate the damaging things adults unwittingly do to children. She also spoke to the setting of AGATS, saying that although the word "Wisconsin" is never used in the book, she wrote of a fictional place that resembles Wisconsin so she could "have a conversation with it."

When asked about the publishing world's current state of flux, Moore answered that she would be a writer even if she was not paid for her work, mentioning that although we may think that copyright laws have been around forever, they were created a mere 100 years ago. The upending of the status quo in the publishing world is, in essence, taking us back to those days before copyright laws when writing was unprotected.

And then it was over. Moore tossed out a thank you and headed for the book signing table. It all happened so fast. I found myself wondering if I had really seen Moore or if she had been a figment of my imagination. True, Lorrie Moore had read her work -- which was sharp and witty -- and answered questions. So why, when all was said and done, was I left with an undeniable feeling of dissatisfaction? Lorrie Moore was all-business. She kept herself at-a-distance. as she read her sharp and witty writing she gave no hint of the person who wrote those words.

Sena Jeter Naslund

Last week The Writers' Center brought in author Sena Jeter Naslund to speak on the topic of, "Structure, Style and Subject." I haven't read any of Naslund's books, (the most widely known is "Ahab's Wife"), but I was excited to hear what she would have to say about structure and style. "Subject" is a fundamental aspect of writing and although it mildly piqued my interest to know why Naslund choose certain topics, I came to her lecture to learn about writing; I knew the real learning would come from a discussion of structure and style.

Naslund had a thoughtful way about her. She chose her words carefully and had obviously put thought into preparing her speech. Unfortunately, Naslund got so involved with each of the anecdotes that told of how she came to pick her novels' subjects, she ran out of time before she could delve much into the topic of style. And she didn't get a chance to broach the topic of structure at all (Well, to be completely honest, she might have touched upon it, as towards the end of her talk I nodded off, but that was mostly because I got bored with all the anecdotes.) Not only did Naslund cheat us out of a discussion of the topics of structure and style, but she also missed out on a chance to read from her new book, "Adam and Eve." ("Adam and Eve" was just reviewed in The New York Times, which reported that it was a bizarre, crazy, unbelievable riff on the original. How ironic that a writer so wild and loose on the page can be so controlled and overly-focused in person. I guess it just goes to show that just because someone can write compelling stories doesn't necessarily mean they can be compelling writing teachers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Never before has a new novel brought with it such hype and hyperbole. Franzen on the cover of Newsweek. Franzen on the Oprah show -- and this after he got his previous novel, The Corrections, booted off her book club list! Franzen on the president's reading list, with his new not-yet-released book phographed in the clutches of Obama. Franzen on the cusp of a dustup in the literary world, such that the word Franzenfreude is coined in his honor; well, honor may not be exactly the right way to characterize the word. (Franzenfreude refers to the phenomenon that the powers-to-be of the literary world take work seriously only if it's written by men. White men.

So it was with much interest and anticipation that I sat down to listen to the audiobook version of "Freedom," which I had to nab from the library of the shiny suburb to the north, as my local system didn't stock it. And it is with great pleasure that I tell you, YES! It did live up to its hype! Freedom tells the story of the lives and marriage of Patti and Walter Berglund over the course of several decades.

Franzen's great strength is in the fullness, texture and depth with which he draws his characters. It's shocking how completely he gets into his characters' heads. Sometimes I think that characterization is a writer's primary task: draw the characters precisely, completely, and believably and they will do the rest, behaving in a way that befits their personalities, and thereby creates the plot. Franzen is also spectacular at elucidating the world that his characters maneuver in, and showing us the interplay between the state of society and the state of the individual, and how each of these two conditions effects the other. (Which brings to mind the old adage: The personal is the political.)

Despite my under-developed fiction gene; despite that I think that nowadays memoirs have supplanted novels as the most culturally significant way to tell a broad, far-reaching story, Franzen's new novel reminded me of the power of that form. When a novel is executed with such exquisite care and attention it can't help but compel. I'm only sorry to have finished "Freedom," and that I'll have to wait for Franzen's next offering.

Oh, and by the way, if you're an audiobook fan -- get your hands on this one! The narrator does a fabulous job conveying the pessimistic, personality-disordered grouchiness that is part and parcel of Franzen's characters.

And, click on the link below for Salon's recent Franzen interview

Reading Club interview: Jonathan Franzen answers your questions

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman

I love to read young, Jewish authors, and Goodman's previous novel, "Intuition," a story about institutional dysfunction at a research lab felt spot-on, so I was psyched to begin "The Cookbook Collector."

Because I had such high hopes for Goodman's book, I went against my usual practice of bailing out on books that don't work for me and stuck with it until the end, but unfortunately, by the time I reached the end the novel had become a painfully boring, hum-drum read. In "The Cookbook Collector" Goodman portrays the lives of two sisters whose personalities and lives an diverge dramatically. Sympathetic characters -- no, make that relatable characters -- can allow an author to get away with a multitude of sins, but I never related to or felt invested in either of the two main characters' lives. This is a novel heavy on dialogue, in which the characters chat endlessly about their feelings and motivations. It could be argued that, in this case, the dialogue almost serves as exposition. The end result is that all that explaining slowed down the pace, and there was not a lot of forward momentum to the plot.

Also, as a side point, although not an insignificant one, although I love that Goodman includes a thread about a sect of Hasidim, (the Bialystockers, a thinly veiled riff on the Lubavitchers and the Chabad movement), I thought her treatment of this group was heavy handed and pandered to Hasidic stereotypes in such a way as to almost render those characters caricatures. Goodman concludes "The Cookbook Collector" by delving into the issues of family lineage and Jewish continuity, issues of great interest to me, but even so, in my eyes, "The Cookbook Collector" didn't quite capture the right recipe.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jean Valentine

Let me just say this upfront: I know absolutely nothing about poetry. I haven't read much of it, and the few poems I've read I didn't understand. Occasionally I'll come across a poem that is more accessible than the rest, and a glimmer of hope will flicker through me that I'll gain an appreciation for this art form, but most poems leave me perplexed, scratching my head.

The poet Jean Valentine spoke at Butler tonight. In preparation for Valentine's reading I visited the library, taking out every one of her books. Over the past few weeks I looked through the pages of her books, sampling the poems. I was intrigued, taken by the sequence of her words. Even I could tell there were layers of meaning within but, alas, even the outermost of those layers remained out of my reach. So when I took my seat tonight in the Butler auditorium, I brought with me a deep curiosity. I was eager to find if I could come any closer to understanding Valentine's work by hearing her read it. Also, I wanted to see what Valentine would bring to the table as a writer; if she, like last month's poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, would bring a sense of mutuality to the reading, share her experience as a writer and engage with the audience.

From the start it was clear Valentine was up for the challenge. She read poems from her new book, "Break the Glass," several of which incorporated the subject of Lucy, the 3-million year old skeleton unearthed in the '70s in Ethiopia. Valentine's reading was lovely. Did the reading bring me any closer to understanding these poems? Not really. My experience in hearing the poems read was not unlike my enjoyment the few times I've gone to the symphony: I didn't understand the meaning of the program but I took pleasure in the sound. But even though my poetry literacy hadn't changed, there was still a revelation in store for me and it came with the Q and A session that followed the reading. In conversation with the audience Valentine was generous, and I learned not only about her writing process, but also about the ideal way for a writer to navigate the world of readers and other writers.

When asked about her use of blank space within poems, Valentine reported that she employs this feature to accent the emotional effect of timing in her poems when they are spoken. When asked how it came to be that Lucy became her muse, she amused us by saying that she first saw Lucy's face in an issue of AARP's magazine, and joked that AARP wanted to show its readers someone older than themselves! She said that the photo of Lucy's face effected her powerfully in a way she couldn't (and can't) explain, only that it spoke to her. When Valentine was asked how she knows when a poem is finished she told us of the three poet friends she uses as readers, adding that she endlessly revises. In response to another question she told us her early influences were ee cummings, (she liked how he flaunted the established rules and had a dreamy sensibility), and Emily Dickinson.

I asked Valentine about her beginnings as a poet, and she said she knew from the tender age of nine that she wanted to be a poet. Then, in a surprise move, employing a phrase she would use a few more times with other audience members after she was done with me, she turned the tables and asked me, "How about you?" After a moment of stun, I managed to reclaim my composure and say that, like her, poetry has always fascinated me; which I suppose is true, but perhaps not exactly in the way she might imagine!

Valentine seemed to take genuine pleasure in taking part in a conversation about her work, and that open-hearted engagement with the world can't help but draw others in. Even someone for who struggles to make sense of poetry, like me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Little Red Book, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

"My Little Red Book," a compilation of menstruation stories by a wide variety of women, was published by Twelve books, a relatively new publisher whose goal is to publish a small number of books each year (one per, like a woman's cycle!) that illuminate less explored aspects of our culture.

The essays in "My Little Red Book" range from winsome to sarcastic to downright hysterical. The stories that stayed with me the most were the ones in which women told tales of how, as young girls who hadn't yet learned about menstruation, they witnessed evidence of it. In these essays we get a glimpse back into the strange ways our young, innocent minds explain things we don't have the ability to comprehend. These stories bring to mind the childhood memories we all have of various aspects of the adult world, and how dangerous and frightening the terrain of adults can seem when seen through the eyes of a child.

It's a great world when subjects that used to be taboo can be exposed to the light of day and discussed freely. Now, if I could only convince my daughters, (who automatically reject every book recommendation I've ever made), to read it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Unhealthy Truth -- How Our Food is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, by Robyn O'Brien

Last month I received a copy of my family tree from a distant cousin. It's a scroll covered with rows of tiny black boxes, and each box is inscribed with even tinier black letters. The thing is huge -- end to end it measures over 8 feet! And, confirming the long held family legend, the name in the box at the pinnacle of this wide pyramid holds the name of the man who is credited with starting the Hassidic movement back in the 18th century, The Baal Shem Tov.

It's not just The Baal Shem Tov that draws me in, though. All the names on the family tree fascinate me, so I've taken it upon myself to try and find out who all these distant cousins are. My most useful research tool: Facebook! I'm still in the process of searching, but I've already found at least 50 cousins, and they reside in every part of the world. I never knew I had hundreds of cousins, but now that I know to look for them, I find them everywhere!

When I read "The Unhealthy Truth," this same scenario came to mind, but this time concerning the sorry state of our food supply: the not noticing, but then discovering it everywhere once you know to look for it. Robyn O'Brien wrote "The Unhealthy Truth" after learning that her children had severe food allergies. She began addressing this issue by doing what I'm doing: research. What she found is both illuminating and unsettling. She discovered that the rates of allergy and asthma have risen exponentially is the last several years. Just like my newly found cousins, O'Brien found that kids like hers were everywhere. She attributes the rise in these illnesses to 4 factors: our highly industrial environment; our overuse of antibiotics; increased pollutants and environmental toxins; and our increased consumption of processed foods laden with chemical additives.

The parts of "The Unhealthy Truth" that intrigued me most were the sections in which O'Brien exposes how Big Pharma and Big Food have corrupted the realms of food and health. She tells the story of how, in her efforts to educate the public about food allergies, she tried to elicit support from FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network). She thought her work would naturally into FAAN's framework, but every effort she made at trying to form a relationship was met with stony silence, until finally they ended up suing her with bogus claims. As she continued to research allergies, and the organizations in place to educate the public about them, she discovered that the FAAN web site was subsidized by Kraft Foods and peanut growers.

Another provocative issue highlighted in "The Unhealthy Truth" is the potential downside to all the genetically modified food we are eating. Foreign genes inserted into a plant cause it to produce new proteins -- and these new proteins are potential allergens. A mother might think a certain food was safe to give her highly allergic child but, if that food was made with an ingredient that came from a genetically modified plant, it could potentially cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

These are just some of the eye-opening facts in "The Unhealthy Truth." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the shelves of our grocery stores are filled with processed and unnatural stuff that masquerades as food. If you take even a cursory look at the state of our food supply, it is obvious there are problems everywhere, at every level. After reading "The Unhealthy Truth" I can't help but start being more mindful of the food I feed my family. You never know what you'll find out there when you take a really good look. You could find something really troubling, like the myriad issues plaguing our food supply, or you might find something that stuns and amazes you -- like constellations of cousins found all over the planet .

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

When I moved to Indianapolis, over 11 years ago, I met three neighborhood women. Back then we all had 1-year old babies, and 3 of us also had 2 older children, all roughly the same ages: 5 and 3. I didn't know it then -- at the time I couldn't see past the high maintenance child care -- but throughout the years we would forge long-standing friendships.

This year all 4 of our youngest children turn 13. They all have Bnai Mitzvahs scheduled. This weekend marked the second one. Last night, on the dance floor, I was thinking about the significance of the year. I love a good party as much as the next girl, maybe more but, while dancing with my three close friends, my mind wandered, and what settled in was the realization of how weighty this year of simchas is. I wasn't giving short shrift to the obvious significance of the year -- that our newly-minted teens are becoming responsible members of the Jewish community -- but I couldn't help but feel the passing of our lives as mothers to young children. It was a sad and joyful moment, looking back on our 11-plus years of mothering and friendship. I thought about our friendships and what came to mind first were the big, dramatic moments -- like when my friends swooped in and took care of my kids when I had my tonsils out; when they helped care for two of my kids when my middle child had an emergency appendectomy. Those are the things extended family usually help with, and because no one in our little group has extended family in the area, we have come to depend on each other. Then I reflected on the little, routine, everyday moments -- those smaller, everyday transactions like carpooling, venting frustrations over the phone, or joined holiday celebrations. Those are what makes up the bulk of the foundation of our relationships. Each one of those small transactions is like another pour from the pitcher, the layers of all these moments accruing, creating a deep, family-like bond.

Family. My parents divorced when I was young and my dad raised me in a town far away from our extended family. Sometimes I think the underlying theme of my life has been my attempt to recreate and recapture that elusive element. Even though I now have a family of my own, I think there is a part of me that is always searching. In "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers tells the story of his own family's dissolution. When Dave was in his early twenties, within a span of just months, both his mother and his father died of cancer. Because Dave's older brother and sister had commitments, Dave was left to care for his 7-year old brother. Eggers's memoir is a shining example of the type of fluid writing that many teachers nowadays encourage (and English teachers of yesteryear worked to quashed out of us). Eggers's story isn't easy to read -- I mean, how comfortable could it be to read a story about someone so young who had to deal with incredible loss, while at the same time bravely navigating the unknown by raising his own brother? Still, despite the difficult subject matter, because Eggers is such a lay-it-all-on-the-table writer, I found his memoir uplifting, in the same way you might be relieved after the burden of a long-held secret is revealed.

Family. Like Eggers, I guess we all strive to make the best out of our situations. Like Eggers, we may try to recreate a sense of family to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, like in Eggers's case, we may need to strike out on our own and be pioneers. Or, if you're really lucky, you might find family in unexpected places, like in the smiling faces of your friends on the dance floor.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert

The phenomenon of the celebrity chef was evident Thursday night when Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert joined forces at Clowes Hall. The event was sold-out; the crowd was a mix of well-heeled, privileged foodies from the shiny suburb just north of Indy and sandaled, Whole Foods-shopping, granola types. When I first heard news of this event I was surprised to find it would not include a cooking demonstration, or even a discussion of culinary technique -- and indeed, there were no spatulas or whisks used in this program. In fact, aside from the two couches and coffee table onstage, the only prop was an over-sized bucket of iced beer, the contents of which facilitated the two-hour conversation about food between these two celebrity chefs.

Initially, I was dubious about the idea of hearing these two men talk about food. I wondered if I could connect with them. After all, just because a person can cook, or can cook on TV, doesn't necessarily mean that what he has to say is worth listening to. But Bourdain and Ripert did have something special to offer. There was a genuine affection and a natural chemistry between the two men that made for an engaging and lively discussion. Also, their contrasting personalities played off each other nicely. Ripert's calm and thoughtful manner was the perfect foil for Bourdain's gregarious, unedited and provocative persona.

Some of the more noteworthy moments of the evening came when Bourdain let loose. He took on The Olive Garden (for bastardizing Italian food), and chef Gordon Ramsey (for his punishing ways on the show "Hell's Kitchen"). Bourdain's most entertaining tirade was when he took on one of the more cherished icons of the foodie world, Alice Waters. I heard Waters speak at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a year or two ago, and I remember her mentioning a program that would promote organic school lunches. Bourdain concurred that Water's goal of organic school lunches is laudable, but then put things in perspective by pragmatically suggesting that before funds are directed towards making sure a child's lunch is organic (complete with a flower vase decorating the table!), those funds should first go towards making sure the child can read.

I hadn't expected this non-cooking program about food to be so enjoyable. As I left, I reflected on how the two men, especially Bourdain, connected so well with the audience. Both men, despite being in the spotlight, were able to be themselves onstage. Each came across as comfortable in his own skin. This ease lent them a natural magnetism, and reminded me of what a precious gift self-expression is -- how the ability to express oneself facilitates connections -- and isn't that what we're all looking for, anyway? Bourdain and Ripert made for a fun night -- and this without consuming a single calorie.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem

Our family's tradition is to hold big dinner parties during the weekend that falls during the eight-day holiday of Sukkot. On those nights big, aluminum trays heavy with lasagna, and baskets of garlic bread cover the table in our sukkah. As the sun sets we light an oil-burning lantern that hangs from one of the roof beams and it casts a cozy, yellow glow over the faces of our guests. This year, though, something unexpected happened. This year, the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of a dear family friend was scheduled over the holiday weekend so, instead of the frantic bustle of big dinners, we had the honor of attending this special event.

Although I was excited to be a part of my friend's daughter's Bat Mitzvah, because I wouldn't be holding our usual dinner parties, I expected I might feel as though something was missing. What took me by surprise, though, was how meaningful the weekend ended up being despite the absence of our Sukkot dinners. In fact the experience of joining in a good friend's simcha touched my heart so deeply, I didn't miss the dinners at all. That was unexpected.

There were a few moments that stood out. The first came during the ceremony when the rabbi called the Bat Mitzvah girl by the wrong name. At that time the Bat Mitzvah girl was sitting way at the edge of the stage, not exactly close to the rabbi, but she had the moxie to interrupt him, and called out to remind him of her name! Moxie from a 13-year-old girl under the pressure of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony -- who knew? The next moment came later that evening, at the end of the kids' dance party. It was time for the closing song, which was, of course, Green Day's, "The Time of Your Life," (this was expected) and the kids had their arms around each other, singing and swaying to the music. And that's when, spontaneously, six of us adults -- all good friends of each other and the celebrating family -- formed our own little circle. We slung our arms over each others' shoulders, swayed and sang along like the teenagers. Sure, the song has been so overplayed that is has become a cliche, but it isn't every day that I get the chance to celebrate the important place my friends hold in my life. And the third moment? This one still has me floored. Turns out one of the guests at the Bat Mitzvah was just featured in the news. Her parents were killed in the Holocaust and, through several serendipitous twists of fate, JUST LAST WEEK she was reunited with a member of the French family who housed her and helped to smuggle her safely into America.

The weekend's lesson: even if I don't get what I expect, if I am able to keep an open mind, I may end up with something even better. Take Jonathan Lethem's, "You Don't Love Me Yet." I've never read a Lethem novel, but because he is scheduled to speak as part of Butler's writers series I felt spurred to fill in this particular literary gap. In "You Don't Love Me Yet" Lethem tells the story of the four members of a garage rock band. At the start, an avant-garde performance artist sets up a complaint hotline as an art exhibit and the female member of the band is charged with answering the phone. One of the callers, known only as The Complainer, intrigues the band member and the story is off. YDLMY was one wild ride, and although I didn't understand it, I sure liked it. What is Lethem's theme? I have no idea. In YDLMY, just as in my Sukkot weekend, I didn't get what I expected. But I sure had fun.

Check out the link below for the Bat Mitzvah guest's amazing story -- and no, unlike the recent fiction of the story of the man who reunited with the girl who tossed him apples over the camp fence -- this one is for real!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yet another perk of being a grad student at Butler is that not only does Butler bring in an astounding array of writers to give readings, but the writers also hold a separate Q & A session just for Butler students. This afternoon I sat in on Yusef Komunyakaa's Q & A session, amidst a couple of dozen undergrad and grad students.

Right away I could tell we were in for a treat. Mr. Komunyakaa has a distinctive demeanor: he was playful and thoughtful at the same time and had a warm, mischievous grin. He introduced himself by saying that his poetry carried a lot of insinuation and many possibilities of meaning. When he answered students questions, his answers were not straightforward, but open-ended, feeling as full of insinuation and possibility as his poetry.

Two aspects of the session warmed my heart. The first was that the students around me had a high level of attentiveness and preparedness; they were no slouches, and brought with them a plethora of intriguing and insight-drawing questions. Second, Komunyakaa was up and open to the challenge. Much later in the day when I saw him again, and I mentioned that the Q & A session had gone well, and K. agreed, saying it had developed into a good dialogue. And that was exactly right. Komunyakaa was clearly not an author going through the motions to sell books; he was utterly engaged in the mutuality of discussion -- reflecting on our questions, speaking his thoughts, and even tossing a question or two back to the students.

Here are some gems from his part of this thoughtful dialogue: K. told us that poems take us back to the oral tradition, and are templates for extended possibility...we read them to bring us to a mystery. Poems invite the reader to bring his or her own meaning to the words, thereby making the text elastic. When K. was asked why people write poems, he answered that we do this in order to have a dialogue, to understand. Lastly, he told us that poems have to have tension.

I had a few questions for K. about music, especially since his poetry is said not only to be lyrical, but have rhythm and tonality. First I asked K what his relationship is to jazz, and he responded that he loved the freedom of expression embodied in jazz. In addition, he told me jazz informs his poetry by giving an example of a wandering away from and then returning to a central theme. K. related this to his poetry, and said when he writes he likes to add discursive elements that are outside the logical narrative perspective. When I asked K. what he held close to his heart about Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist who is the subject of some of K.'s work, he said he is still struck by the astonishing tonality of Parker's work, along with the duality of Parker's love for his art and the agony the demons within him caused.

When I ask how he became a poet, K. recalled that the seeds of his poetry-making were sown in his childhood, in his singing to the radio, and reading of Whitman as well as the poets of the Harlem renaissance. For Komunyakaa, language is music, and the best way to gain access to the notes is to read.

K. devoted a portion of the discussion to poems about his tour in Vietnam and how it took him 14 years to write about his experiences there.

Lastly, I asked him about the 11 years he lived Bloomington, IN. K. said those years stayed with him, in a positive way, noting that much innovation in this country happens between the coasts.

Mr. Komunyakka, it was a pleasure. Next visiting poet: Jean Valentine.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

This morning my husband, Charles, asked if I had a good audiobook, as he needed something to listen to on his long drive to work. I recommended "Strength in What Remains."
"What's it about?" asked Charles.
"Well," I responded, "it's a genocide memoir."
There is a trend towards genocide memoirs these days. Despite the discomfort this label can evoke, these books have the ability to transform a story so mind-numbingly overwhelming in the scale and scope of its horror into a singular, compelling narrative. I'm reminded of Dave Eggers's "What is the What," another story of a massive-scale tragedy told through the eyes of one person. And what could possibly be more compelling than one person's story?
"Strength in What Remains" is the story of the recent genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, as told by Deogratias, a medical student from Burundi who is forced to travel through Rwanda to escape. Once in America Deo works delivering groceries and sleeps in the park. Ultimately, though, amidst Deo's gruesome struggles both in Africa and America, he finds help, and eventually returns to Burundi to help rebuild his homeland. Through Deo's efforts in Burundi, the reader is reminded that goodness can prevail over the suffering inflicted by the misguided or evil among us. Ultimately, what remains is hope.
"Strength in What Remains" is a difficult and inspiring story, and like all genocide memoirs it also educates, one of the side benefits of stories like these. The history, geography and political science (the stuff I snoozed through in high school and college) that informs the plot are told through the lens of one person's story, rendered, finally, in a personal, attention-holding way. Here's the tidbit that fascinated me the most, one I gleaned from Kidder's explanation of the seeds of the Hutu, Tutsi dispute: These two peoples coexisted peacefully until Belgium and Germany colonized the areas. The colonialists, in order to maximize their profits, chose to spend the majority of their time in Europe and therefore needed to use natives in order to implement their plans. To facilitate this, the colonialists created a mythology. They spread the story that the tutsis were white, even though their skin was black. Then the colonialists gave the tutsis power over the hutus, charging the tutsis with enforcing their mandate that the hutus do their back breaking labor. By the time Burundi and Rwanda reverted back to self-government, the rift between the tutsis and the hutus had been cemented.
I was glad to have listened to Kidder's beautifully told story about Deogratias. Next time, though, if I want Charles to listen to something other than NPR, I'll have to find a way to rephrase the genocide memoir label.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kim Addonizio

I recently had the honor and privilege of being included in a group of faculty and students that took poet/novelist Kim Addonizio out to dinner before her scheduled reading. I was so psyched. As a new grad student in Butler's English department, my mission is to milk the experience for all it is worth. Butler brings in a lot of famous writers, and in service of my mission I am determined to meet as many of them as possible. Now that I had a spot at Addonizio's dinner table, though, panic struck. What would I talk about with this famous author? But wait, I thought. Kim Addonizio's novels are set in the Bay Area, and the author herself lives in Oakland. That's something! I grew up in San Francisco, and my mom lived in Oakland. That small sliver of commonality in the Venn diagram of our lives gave me hope. Maybe all I had to do to connect with Addonizio was find a way to oh-so-casually drop this little tidbit into the dinner conversation. "Kim," I would say, "did you know we share a common geography?" and our Bay Area sisterhood would instantly forge. Like a true insider I would ask, "Is McArthur Boulevard still teeming with streetwalkers, and do they still get incrementally fancier the further you drive? And -- don't laugh -- but as I pictured her acknowledging my savvy, in-the-know question, this is how I imagined she would reciprocate: "Oh, Susan, they do!" And hey, have you ever had the Black and Tan sundae at Fentons?" (Fentons is Oakland's semi-famous ice cream parlor, and ice cream has always been my drug of choice.) And if all that wasn't enough grist for the mill to establish our sisterhood, there are the small matters of grit and bad decision making. The characters in Addonizio's novels tend to show both these qualities, and I was certain this was born of the grit Addonizio showed and the bad decisions she must have made in her own life. Double kinship! Kim and I were going to be tight! I couldn't believe how much we had in common! Well, except for the "tats," of course, but I was confident that, despite my unadorned skin, Kim and I were sure to bond. Our tablemates were going to sit by and watch our friendship meld with open-jawed awe.

So that's how I found myself, Thursday night, sitting nervously on a mile-high stack of unrealistic expectations, across the table from Kim Addonizio, ready to dish about our shared hometowns. And how did it go, you ask? Well, Kim was congenial, pleasant and affable, but she was pretty much all business. Not exactly forthcoming about her own life, and not especially inquisitive about anyone else's at our table . I guess I assumed a wide-eyed curiosity would be the hallmark of any writer, but Addonizio came off as, to me at least, a little guarded (perhaps it was me who was guarded?) When I look back on the evening, though, I have to laugh. Why should I have expected an instant friendship with a total stranger just because we both hail from the same part of the country or because we both have an interest in writing? There could have been a million things on her mind that night. Who knows, maybe she was tired. Maybe it ends up being a big drag to travel across the country to spend time with strangers (who carry all sorts of expectations with them!) and read the same poems over and over. And the Bay Area connection I so unrealistically thought would magically bond us? The couple of attempts I made at bringing up our common Bay Area provenance were met with nonchalance.

After dinner we all moved on to Butler for her reading. At Butler Addonizio pulled out all the stops, reading poems and accompanying some of them with blues harmonica, which made for an entertaining and informative evening. That my construct of a Bay Area sisterhood, (born of my fantasies of immersing myself in the world of famous writers), didn't pan out didn't take away from the fact that I HAD DINNER WITH KIM ADDONIZIO!

I'll remember Addonizio best by the button on the lapel of her jacket. She draped it over the back of the seat in front of me during her reading. It read: "F@ck the world. I'm an artist." (The button didn't make use of the "@.")

Well, it's on to author number two in Butler's series, another poet, Yusef Komanyakaa.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blame, by Michele Huneven

Friday night marks the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. Commonly translated as The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and contemplation. On Yom Kippur we don't ask for forgiveness from the people we have hurt; we should have already done that. On Yom Kippur we ask for God's forgiveness for our transgressions against Him.

It is particularly timely then, in this season of accepting responsibility and granting forgiveness, to review Michelle Huneven's "Blame." In an inventive plot, Patsy MacLemore, a History professor and reckless alcoholic has, in one of her standard evenings out, a blackout. When she wakes up she finds she is in jail, and discovers that while under the influence she had a terrible accident in her own driveway, killing two people. The bulk of the novel goes on to explore the changes Patsy goes through when she is convicted, serves her prison sentence, is subsequently released, and, with the help of AA, slowly learns how to rebuild her life, accepting the blame for the deaths of two innocent victims.

I had a few minor squabbles with "Blame." The first section concentrates not on Patsy, but on one of the book's supporting characters, and I felt a little mislead and confused when I finally realized, a third of the way through the book, that this minor character wasn't the protagonist. Was this just my peri-menopausal-brain's need for simplicity? Perhaps. Also, I found the last scene, although quite poetic, a little heavy-handed in its attempt at allegory. Still, if you're looking for a well-crafted, thought-provoking read in this season of atonement, then check out "Blame." (Also perfect fodder for book clubs)

Also, in a nod to Yom Kippur, here is Marjorie Ingall's article on the uber popular young adult novel "Hunger Games" and how it relates to this season. Due to my technical skills, or lack thereof, you'll have to cut and paste this as the link didn't come through....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Embers, by Hyatt Bass

I won't even try to give "The Embers" a just review. My brain is so sluggish from an over-generous Rosh Hashana lunch that I can barely eke out a coherent sentence. Still, I have had something to say about this book for awhile now. I've been "sitting" on this review for over a week now. I've been stalling, not sure about how I want to say how I feel about this book.

I try to find something admirable in every person I meet, and I try to find something compelling in every book I read. I was intrigued by Bass's plot: an exploration of a family as the daughter plans her wedding on the spot her brother's ashes are buried. As is my custom, I borrowed the audiobook from the library, and forced myself to listen to the first 3 CDs before I cracked and gave up. Not only was I not getting into this book, I simply wasn't getting it. Is there an actual plot to this novel, I wondered, or am I too obtuse to catch the subtlety? So I tried again, but to no avail. I am not a reader that needs to be hit over the head with gunfights, car chases and sex scenes, but I do need some sense, amidst the everyday chatter that fills in between more dramatic scenes, that there is something happening in a book that moves the plot along, and I could not find that in "The Embers." But just as people are different, so are books. "The Embers" didn't light a fire under me (who says I didn't inherit my Dad's pun gene!) doesn't mean that it won't do it for you.

Meanwhile, Shana Tova!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell

In a perfect world Muslims would be allowed to build mosques anywhere they want, but wouldn't choose to pick a site that offended. In a perfect world teachers in our Indianapolis Public Schools would have the funds to purchase all the supplies they need, obviating the need to dumpster dive in the back lots of the school in the neighboring, wealthy, suburban school. And, in a perfect world love would trump all.

Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp both descended into alcoholism in their younger lives; but despite their troubled starts, each recovered and went onto have successful writing careers. Then, in that 40-plus stage of life, they each found the other and forged a friendship of the highest caliber.

"Let's Take the Long Way Home" is their love story. And no, it's not a romantic love story; this one is purely platonic. Gail Caldwell, a journalist, and Caroline Knapp, author of the memoir "Drinking: A Love Story," bond over many things, but what stands alone is their shared love for their pets, the two dogs Clementine and Lucy. LTTLWH includes many stories about the two women walking and training their two dogs together, and this helped to cement their friendship. In one horrific part Caldwell tells of an incident in which Clementine is mauled by two pit bulls, and her description of the scene and the small details of her reaction are so spot-on I had to pause the CD, as it brought back in vivid detail memories of the time my dog, Mischief, was attacked.

Caldwell cared for Caroline in her last days (she died of cancer) and memorializes their friendship in stunning prose, including many passages that are descriptive rather than driven by scene, which adds to the depth of the narrative. LTTLWH is a gorgeously written, hopeful story. If you have a beloved friend, or a beloved dog, you will find your heart touched.

No, it's not a perfect world, but by giving us this glimpse into her friendship and showing us the unwavering, pure love two people can have for each other, Gail Caldwell reminds us how to make our world just a little less imperfect.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon

While in my dentist's waiting room today I noticed a poster advertising a special on teeth bleaching, compete with a picture of a face sporting the now common ultra-white smile. Staring at the face it struck now just how incongruous and ironic these uberwhite teeth are: teeth are one marker of internal health; if our teeth look good we look healthy. Bleaching teeth artifically gives them that healthful look, while in fact, not only are the now-white teeth no healthier than before the process, but the process of bleaching may damage teeth (Mine now have ultra-sensitive spots; this, after a few sessions of bleach, with the exception of coloring my hair is my one nod to artifice).
Every now and then I request "Nourishing Traditions" from the library, just to remind myself of what to shoot for, culinarily speaking. In "Nourishing Traditions," Sally Fallon has created a gem of a cookbook. It's beautifully designed, and also includes information about nutrition based on the research of dentist Wes Price back in the 1930s. Dr. Price is famous for rooting out some of the last remaining "primitive societies," ones untouched by modern culture, that ate diets comprised entirely of local foods. They people in these cultures had wide jaws with uncrowded (think -- no braces!) teeth. There were several factors these societies' diets had in common, and these are not necessarily thought of as healthful by modern society. These societies ate a lot of protein, either in the form of meat or seafood; they didn't eschew animal fat; they used broths made of animal bones; they fermented their food and, of course, included lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, along with raw foods originating from both animals and vegetables.

These "primitive societies" were found to be virtually free of chronic disease. Humans who grew up "nourished" on modern day diets, on the other hand, had narrow jaws, tooth decay, infectious disease and degenerative illnesses.

Fallon's book is complete, with chapters on every category of food and drink, and has the great feature of including tips and bits of supporting research in the columns on the outside margin of many of the pages. There is no shortage of theories that purport to know what and how we should eat, but I think one can't go wrong by sticking to the basics: eating a wide variety of fresh, whole foods.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and, as with all the Jewish holidays, there are certain foods that serve as symbols to ground us in the holiday's underlying meaning. Because Judaism has such a strong focus on the passing down of customs, there are myriad traditions to choose from. My son has already made the honey cake for the desert for this year's meal and, of course, there will be apples dipped in honey, both serving to forecast the sweetness of the upcoming year. The head of a fish symbolizes the new head of the year, although that is one traditional food that has never graced my holiday table; it seems a little hard-core. I always serve pomegranate, though, and it is said that there are as many purple-red, pulpy seeds underneath the leathery skin as there are mitzvot: 613. Every year my kids unsuccessfully try to debunk the theory by trying to count them; an obscenely, impossibly messy, impossibility. Pomegranates are an autumn fruit, but if Rosh Hashanah falls early enough, the fruit may not have hit the produce section yet. This sends all us Jewish mothers scrambling. There are frantic emails and calls, as we direct each other to the one grocery store that has the goods. It's as if we are a Jewish-mother team on the show "The Amazing Race," trying to get to Pomegranate-Land before sundown on Rosh Hashanah to win the grand prize.

As I make holiday dinners, as with any meal, it gives me a particular pleasure to think that the time, care, and energy (this concept is best conveyed by the Hebrew word kavanah, which translates into intent) I put into preparing the meal all are, in the grand, karmic scheme of life, metaphysically transferred to the food. So, when I read that Aimee Bender's protagonist, the young Rose Edelstein, can taste food and feel the emotions of the person who prepared it, I didn't assess this premise to be fantastical; the concept wasn't all that far outside of the Jewishy, New Agey spirituality that informs my belief system. It wasn't until much later in Bender's narrative, when the plot nose-dives into the surreal, that I realized that Bender's novel fits into the category of magical realism.

"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" is a strange, yet wonderful story, one that showcases the interior realm of its characters, as we are privileged to glimpse this amidst a world with different rules from the one you and I inhabit. I can't say that I was riveted throughout the entire book, but in the end, it didn't matter; Bender's prose shimmers. The characters in TPSOLC, despite their supernatural powers, are drawn with texture and subtlety. Their actions belie their complex emotions as they do the work of life, and overcome personal challenges to reach out and build bridges with each other and the world.

Rosh Hashanah is very early this year and I know I will be scrambling to track down my treasured pomegranates. Like "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," inside their covers are hundreds and hundreds of jewels.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Matter of Taste: Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard; Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart; and This Time Together, by Carol Burnett

Summer is almost over and in my fury to make it through the stack on my overflowing shelf of library books, I found three titles that, for various reasons, didn't hit the mark. It's purely a matter of taste. Here's my take. Maybe you'll feel differently.
On the drive home from my recent trip to St. Louis I was finally able to fill in one of the embarrassing gaps in my literary knowledge: I had never read or, in this case listened to, a single book by Elmore Leonard. Crime novels? They're not what I like to read. Still, Leonard is touted to be a master of the genre, and because I think I can always learn something by reading anything that's well written, I decided to give this one a try.
In "Road Dogs," Jack Foley, a cerebral bank robber, is released from jail and begins his new life as a free man by entangling himself in the dealings of with his friend, the Cuban gangster Cundo, and Cundo's psychic girlfriend, Dawn. Because I'm not a crime fiction fan, I can't wax poetic about the gritty plot details of murders and bank robberies. I read to learn about people's inner lives, of crimes of the heart. Although Leonard is a great storyteller and endows his characters with a complexity that lends them verisimilitude, the nature of the genre dictates that the story is saturated with testosterone. This might be one for my non reading husband.

One of my brother-in-law's favorite truisms is that if anyone tries to convince you of something, but has to tack on a modifierin order to make the statement accurate, then whatever they're trying to convince you of isn't all that great. My brother-in-law likes to site examples from when he had to relocate. Realtors and head-hunters attempted to "sell" their small towns by saying, it's a got a great (fill in the blank: symphony, library, park system, etc.), but then modify their proclamation by saying, "for a city this size." It's the telltale modifier "this size" that voids the proclamation. And so it goes with Gary Shteyngart's third novel, "Super Sad True Love Story." I wish I could simply say SSTLS is a great novel but, in order to be accurate, I have to say that SSTLS is a great novel, for a satirical story about modern consumer culture and globalization as seen through the eyes of Eastern European misfits. Here, as in his two previous novels, Shteyngart plays on his strength, his outsider-ness. He brings a clear focus to the crazy world we live in because he is the quintessential alien. I enjoyed "Absurdistan," Shteyngart's second novel, and SSTLS has the same over the top, sarcastic, dyspeptic tone. Still, there's only so much Eastern European-inflected, futuristic dystopia I can take before, well, I'm ready to move on.

I was excited to get my copy of "This Time Together" from the library. I still remember the Saturday nights of my childhood, wearing footie pajamas while sitting on the floor and looking up at the TV watching my favorite shows. The Carol Burnett Show was one of them. Burnett's humor was outrageous and slapstick, but somehow, amidst the hokey accents and goofy costumes she conveyed a sensitivity, a down-to-earth, I'm-one-of-you-ness. I wondered if Burnett's humor, like that of other comedians, was born of her inner struggles. I was curious. But TTT is more like a traditional autobiography than a memoir, and it was a disappointment. In TTT Burnett gives us a series of breezy vignettes about her path to stardom and the famous folk she befriended along the way. Her stories are entertaining, but Burnett only shared half-stories. Her tales were sanitized, and fairly one-dimensional, and in her language she often reached for the easy cliche. I'll have to read Burnett's memoir of 2003, entitled, "One More Time," which tells of her early struggles amidst alcoholic parents who left her in the care of her grandmother. "This Time Together" wasn't time well spent, but I'll always love Carol Burnett.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper

My Great-Aunt Lil always left a restaurant with her purse filled with sugar and Sweet N Low packets, as well as the occasional foiled-covered baked potato. I still remember the pearl of wisdom she dispensed to me -- with love and affection -- when I was 18. She called me Dolly, and advised me to put on my tightest sweater and go to the library to meet the boys; this, to combat freshman year loneliness.

If you love the eccentric, Yiddishy characters in your own family the way I love mine, you will fall in love with Jonathan Tropper's "This is Where I Leave You." Tropper's narrator is Judd Foxman, who tells his tale with deadpan humor. The story begins as the family gathers to sit shiva for Mort, the patriarch. Judd is one of 4 siblings, and each one arrives to the shiva with his or her own bulky set of family baggage. Despite the Foxman family's inability to communicate effectively on an emotional level, in true Jewish/Yiddish tradition, they spar, and toss barbs and bon mots back and forth like ping pong balls.

Tropper is a master craftsman: although the characters are drawn from bits and pieces of stereotypes, the cast of characters, and there are a lot of them, rings true. The story artfully weaves in and out of Judd's complicated relationships with his wife and each of his siblings, compelling me to read to the very end. The pacing of the story was impeccable. I never had a single one of the I'm-not-sure-I-care-enough-to-read-on moments that frequent my reading these days. It is amazing to me that Tropper can write novels from the male perspective and is able to credibly mine the emotional landscape of his male protagonists in a way that can't help but appeal to both men and women. I'm not positive, but I even think my reading averse husband might even enjoy TIWILY. It's definitely not chick-lit. Is it dude-lit?

I have had the opportunity this summer to reconnect with several parts of my extended family, and the family bonds we strengthened and forged have reinforced the importance family holds for me. Tropper's trope is just that: that those crazy, twisted, and sometimes tortured relationships we have with our family are precious. Aunt Lil passed on years ago, but I still remember her raspy voice as she called to me, and how she used to plant a big one on my cheek, leaving a smear of waxy lipstick. You may not have had an Aunt Lil in your family -- but with any luck you had someone close.

If you're looking for a fun, yet well written, end-of-summer read, I highly recommend "This is Where I Leave You." You might want to check it out from the library. Just remember to put on your tightest sweater before you go.