Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Stolen Life, by Jaycee Dugard

Alicia Erian, author of the novel "Towelhead" and upcoming memoir, "The Dragon Lies Down", told me that some stories are too fascinating to be ruined by pedestrian writing. To illustrate her point she mentioned "Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison," by T.J. Parsell, "My Lobotomy," by Howard Dully, and "A Stolen Life," by Jaycee Dugard. I had never considered reading Dugard's story. Why? I imagined I'd feel slimey, like a voyeur.

When Erian told me Dugard's memoir riveted, I decided to shelve my misgivings and put "A Stolen Life" at the top of my to-read list.

Dugard does an admirable job. She tells her story evenhandedly, and avoids getting caught up in emotion. Given what she's gone through, that's a literary miracle in and of itself. In Dugard's case, not being a writer may be a plus; it's hard to imagine being able to read a story like this if the teller had gone at it with a heavy hand. The writing doesn't dazzle but just as Erian said, I didn't much care. And sometimes the lack of writing mojo worked to Dugard's benefit; that she was able to periodically break into platitudes, casting a little sunshine -- something that would diminish most other stories -- made her story even more compelling. As added value, for those of you who, like me, prefer audiobooks, Dugard narrates "A Stolen Life."

It occurs to me that I thought 'A Stolen Life" would leave me feeling sad and scared. When I think about Dugard and how she survived this nightmare, though, what I'm left with is hope.

Monday, December 12, 2011

One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman

Ackerman's "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a sparkling gem, the tale of a young Polish couple in the 1940s who manage a zoo and save Jews by hiding them in animal cages. When Diane Ackerman came out with the intriguingly titled "One Hundred Names for Love," I couldn't wait to crack the book's spine and again lose myself in her prose.

OHNFL recounts Ackerman's experience as caretaker after her husband suffers a major stroke. Sadly, although "The Zookeeper's Wife" rivets, this medical-recovery memoir disappointed, was riddled with cliches. Ackerman does a lot of "telling" here, presenting information and directing us toward a conclusion, instead of "showing" us and letting us form our own thoughts about the outcome.

Mike Dahlie, (esteemed teacher at Butler, and author of "A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living"), says that, contrary to popular notions about writing, it's not always wrong to eschew showing for telling. He wasn't, of course, referring to prose pocked with cliche. Here's a taste: "So our days together still include many frustrations, but once again revolve around much laughter and revelry with words." There's a lot of generalizations and broad, descriptive words packed into that sentence! I dug into OHNFL with high hopes, but it wasn't long before drowsiness overtook and, craving caffeine, I found myself rummaging through the kitchen junk drawer, searching for toothpicks with which to prop my eyelids open.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

"I just finished 'This Beautiful Life.' What did you think of it?" asked Rebecca.
"Um..." I stalled.
"It's on your blog list thing, isn't it?" she asked.
Fair enough.

Let me explain. Fall brought a glorious parade of rockin' authors to the circle city. Anita Diamant, Myla Goldberg, Richard Rodriguez, John Green, Lee Martin -- oh my God, it was enough to make a girl swoon! Fascinated by the literary line-up, I may have lost my way -- temporarily. Titles on my "Waiting to be Reviewed" list have languished since summer. So when Rebecca asked what I thought of "This Beautiful Life" -- a novel I finished before autumn's first chill -- all I could conjure was a faded feeling of vague disappointment.

Memory-refreshing is the order of the day, and the "Waiting to be Reviewed" titles are back on hold at the library for that very purpose. While my beleaguered brain struggles to recover plots (how shocking is it that these storylines are so easily lost?), with "Blue Nights" I'll start anew. After all, if Didion can't cut in the "Waiting to be Reviewed" line, who can?

Didion's newest memoir, "Blue Nights," explores her feelings about growing old, and the tragic death of her only child, her daughter, Quintana Roo. This, on the heels of the sudden and unexpected death of Didion's husband, John Dunne, an event that spurred her previous memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

Do I recommend "Blue Nights"? Absolutely. For God's sake, she's Didion -- sparkling prose, and an eye that doesn't for a moment shy away from brutal self-examination. Do I also have reservations? Well, yeah.

In "Blue Nights" Didion elegiacally examines her perceived motherly failings, her detachment. I couldn't help but find a parallel detachment in her memoir. Maybe anxiety's the issue -- something I know only too well. Anxiety tends to stain, darkening all other aspects of relationships. As an admittedly anxious mother writing about her relationship with an anxious child, Didion's worries are well explored, but her mother-daughter bonds -- not so much. I yearned to read about Didion's connection with Quintana, and hoped she would do so with the same unsparing prose she uses to chronicle the unease. Instead, Didion filled page after page with stories of celebrity friendships, and her literary jet set lifestyle. There's enough celeb name-dropping and discussion of designer labels to wean People Magazine and QVC from the most addicted fans.

In the end, though, I consider a book satisfying if it moves me. Leaves me feeling changed. And despite the annoying arm's-distancing Hollywood babble, "Blue Nights" succeeds.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lee Martin and his memoir, "From Our House"

Martin was the keynote speaker at The Writers' Center annual Gathering of Writers. TWC always pulls in big names -- previous speakers include Alice Friman and Elizabeth Stuckey-French -- and although I always enjoy listening to authors discuss writing, Martin's words resonated with me in a way others haven't.

Martin began by admitting that he never meant to write memoir. He thought of himself as a fiction writer, but life took him to unexpected places -- a new job at a university teaching CNF (creative nonfiction, my genre of choice). Stepping out from the "scrim of fiction" for the first time, he was prompted to pen the essay, "From Our House." Martin said that writing the essay awakened something in him, and led him to arrive at these conclusions: "This is me. I'm here to tell the truth. I'm no longer keeping secrets." Compelled to leave the "safety of fiction," he "opened the door and stepped back into memory."

In writing and teaching creative nonfiction, Martin also realized these things: All lives hold private truths; memoir writers speak when they have a reason to speak; memoirists write to understand themselves and others. He encouraged us to write from what we don't know, saying that by investigating and digging into layers of memories we allow our former selves to come into focus.

Martin quoted the memoirist Patricia Hampl, saying that memoir is never about the past, but the future.

Writing "From Our House" opened the floodgates for Martin, who continued to write about his life and saw the arc of a narrative. This exploration led to his memoir, which carries the title of the essay.

After the Gathering of Writers, one of the first things I did was shuffle Martin's "From Our House" in my lineup of books, placing it on top. Good decision. The memoir is gorgeously rendered, the story of Martin's life as the only child of older parents, and his struggles with his father. Lee Martin's father lost both his hands in a farming accident when Lee was a baby, and although Lee's father sometimes displayed heart-melting tenderness toward him, more often than not he terrorized his son with an out-of-control rage.

Martin responded generously when I asked him if writing his memoir changed him. "Shaping that experience into something that I hope is artful required me to have a simultaneous immersion in memory and an aesthetic distance from it. By the time I finished, I knew the experience more intimately, and with knowledge comes control. Instead of that experience controlling me -- I'd had my own anger issues for years as a result of my father's influence -- I now in some way controlled it simply because I'd faced it and shaped it. I look back on my younger years now with much more clarity because I had to see it wholly and completely in order to write about it."

Just as Martin's speech did, "From Our House" spoke to me and left me changed. At the finish, despite not being overly sentimental, I wiped away tears. "From Our House" is memoir (and for that matter, storytelling) at its best. Move it to the top of your "To-Read" list. You won't be sorry.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Anita Diamant talks about the body

Reeling from my fun, cousin-filled Thanksgiving holiday, I'm also still processing this fall's authors' readings. In literary terms November brought to Indianapolis an embarrassment of riches. Anita Diamant came to Indianapolis and gave two talks (as did Myla Goldberg a few days before). The first was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center's Book Festival, where she talked about the body as a way to connect her works.

For those unfamiliar with Diamant -- can there be anyone out there who is? -- she is the author of four novels and many more nonfiction titles. Her bestselling "The Red Tent," a historical novel based on the Old Testament's Dina, is a mainstay of book clubs. And her Jewishly-related how-to books have served as Jewish life-preservers, assisting non-Orthodox Jews (the vast majority of the Jewish population), in navigating and renegotiating Jewish life with a modern day sensibility.

Diamant began by noting how the subject of the body is so multi-faceted. "As a journalist I have written about food, AIDS, and infertility treatments," she said. During the past ten years Diamant has spent her time "underwater," involved in the creation of a new type of mikvah in Boston. Mikvah, a pool of water in which Jews ritually immerse -- sans clothes -- is inextricably tied to 'body.' Diamant shared that she has a cellular empathy for telling the stories of women, and that although her four novels are very different, each focuses on the common threads of women's friendships, the female body and the concept of resilience.

According to Diamant, the female body was historically problematic. When she comes up against the problem of telling a story in which the feminine and the divine are not mutually exclusive, she turns to the body -- "an unbroken continuity of flesh and bones."

Her recent novel, "Day After Night," takes place at the close of the Holocaust. Diamant noted that Holocaust stories weren't freely told until the early sixties, that it wasn't until the time of the Eichmann trials that the floodgates opened for the telling. She strives to get into the emotional and psychological landscape of the time she writes about, but said that out of all her novels, "Day After Night" was the most difficult to write; living in a female body during the Holocaust held a particular kind of risk.

That evening Diamant took part in a program sponsored by Indianapolis's Spirit and Place Festival. Here she was part of a panel whose task was to have a conversation about the body. Sharing the stage with Diamant were Thomas Lynch (essayist and undertaker, whose work inspired the creation of HBO's series "Six Feet Under), and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Thomas Lynch spoke about language: the words gravity, gravitas, gravid and grave are all on the same dictionary page, and Lynch pointed out that the body, just like language, plays tricks on us. Diamant spoke about childbirth being the crucible of womanhood, and that her experience of giving birth allowed her to write "The Red Tent."
Abdul-Jabbar remarked that athletes die twice -- the first death occurring when the body can no longer continue in professional sports. He disclosed that he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, and credited his otherwise good health to his long-standing yoga practice, that it provides his body with preventative maintenance.
Diamant, also a staunch believer in regular yoga practice, said that as a sixty-year-old, she is learning to accept the blessings of her body. Both Abdul-Jabbar and Diamant spoke out against plastic surgery, expressing the wish that society valued wisdom and experience over youth.

The panel spoke to a packed house, and the conversation was followed with opportunities to buy books penned by these three authors (Yes, Abdul-Jabbar is an author, too!), and have the books signed. I was anxious to shake Diamant's hand, as I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to interview her for The Jewish Post & Opinion. (Thanks, Jennie!) I was worried there would be a long line at Diamant's table, but the only line that formed was at Abdul-Jabbar's table. That night I drove home happy, my signed copy of "Day After Night" resting on the passenger seat.

I guess I shouldn't cast stones at the star-struck basketball fans. Next to Diamant's table was Lynch, who despite his own impressive oeuvre, I never thought to visit.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Myla Goldberg

Let me just say this: Myla Goldberg is unique. She's remarkable. In preparation for her visit, I had the good fortune to profile Goldberg for The Jewish Post & Opinion. We spoke on the phone, and she gave great interview -- was well-spoken and thoughtful. Despite her focused, articulate answers, she took a relaxed path from Point A to Point B, peppering her erudite explanations with almost whimsical twists. Goldberg clearly retained the wide-eyed curiosity and creativity that most of us lose as we passage into the adult world. As Myla answered my questions, this quality of uninhibited creativity shined. Goldberg made an appearance recently at the Jewish Community Center's book festival, and it was a delight to see how much more evident this Myla-ish-ness is in person.

Indy fans were treated to two Goldberg talks that night. The first was a discussion of "The False Friend," Goldberg's most recent novel. The second was a discussion of what it means to be a Jewish writer.

Today's post will focus on Goldberg's second talk. (See my blog post of July 17th, 2011, for a review of "The False Friend.") Goldberg admitted that she bristled when she first heard she was labeled a Jewish writer. She was uncomfortable thinking that this classification might turn off non-Jewish readers. Then she reflected that the memory that provided the seed for "The False Friend," a childhood incident of throwing a pair of scissors at her best friend, resurfaced on Yom Kippur. Also, she described her recent urge, as a mother to two young daughters, to reconnect to Judaism. In navigating modern day options in the Jewish world she found a home in Progressive, Humanistic Judaism. Her connection to this part of the Jewish community brought about a new openness to the idea of being a Jewish writer.

In considering her work and her Jewishness, Goldberg noted that the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is threaded through each of her books. She gave the example of the character of Lydia in "Wickett's Remedy" who helps with the investigation of vaccines.

Goldberg concluded that she no longer bristles at the Jewish writer label; now she embraces it. She noted that Jewish literature is a broad category, and that the books labeled as such don't necessarily even concentrate on Jewish subject matter. Jewish literature must gaze through a lens that has been shaped through thousands of years of Jewish history, but as long as the prose is written from this perspective, the subject examined through that lens can look at anything.

Before leaving us for the evening, Goldberg answered her fans' question about the subject of her next novel. Kind of. Comparing the novel-writing process to gestation, she explained that she feels the need to protect her fetus-like subject matter. She left us with one word: ambition. It was a teaser, to be sure, but one made with Goldberg's characteristic openness and candor.

When authors give readings I look for this unguarded quality, a willingness to share of themselves. Hopefully Goldberg will find her way back to Indy again soon. If she does, grab a front row seat.

For more on Goldberg, here's the link to my profile:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Richard Price

Why do Jews fixate on IDing other Jews? I saw Richard Price standing behind the lecturn, and here's the pressing question that came to mind, the question every Jew asks: Is he, or isn't he? It wasn't long before Price answered this essential question. I asked him to describe his path in becoming a writer, and he mentioned the legacy of his grandfather, who wrote Yiddish poetry. Richard Price: MOT (Member of the Tribe, for those who aren't.)

Price, who now lives in Harlem, filled us in on his background. He was the first in his family to attend college. He almost succumbed to family pressure to get a professional degree (M.D. or J.D.), but took creative writing courses instead, and despite feeling guilty about wanting to write, enrolled in an MFA in creative writing program.

Now that the vital mystery of Price's ethnicity was solved I could use my considerable brain power for literary purposes. What I learned at the Q&A/lunch with Price (by the way, thanks for the pizza, Butler), is that at 74, he has written several novels (set in gritty, urban landscapes that tell stories where drugs and race relations play a big part), and has screenplays and TV scripts to his credit. He has written for the HBO series "The Wire." He is known for his authentic use of dialogue.

I can learn something from anyone as long as there is an honest exchange, and Price didn't disappoint: He's a good guy -- engaging, entertaining and shockingly candid. He began by bemoaning the fact that whatever project he is working on quickly becomes a drag, and that he always wishes he could go back to whatever he was working on before -- even though he wasn't any happier working on that project.

Price spoke of writing for TV and movies. Despite the bigger audience and heftier paycheck that comes with working in TV and movies, he loses control of his work. Novel writing is where he maintains artistic control. Price noted that his novels are what's ultimately important, his prize.

About books and movies. Price said that great novels can be made into terrible movies, that the people involved with the adaptation tiptoe around the prose, giving the literature too much respect. The result can be that the movie is solemn. Doesn't do well. Conversely, B-novels can make great movies.

About dialogue -- Price's strong suit -- he said that there are moments in the TV series "The Wire," that are so authentic, people are convinced they are unscripted. That's not the case. Price also emphasized the importance of the visual: if there is a choice between giving a great actor fantastic lines, or simply allowing the actor's face to communicate, it is best to short-shrift the dialogue and let the visual "speak." In a related comment Price said it's a mistake to write a role with a specific actor in mind. His advice is to build the most interesting character and the right actor will come.

Speaking about his novels, Price claims he's not interested in "whodunit," but "why-dunit." He doesn't aim to write genre -- nothing as transparent as good versus bad -- but a layered, realistic portrayal of life where the good guys are always a little bad, and the bad always a little good. His most recent novel, "Lush Life," is an exploration of the Lower East Side, where many worlds encapsulate, but never meld; people only have eyes for those like themselves. One-hundred-years ago Price's great-grandparents were arrested for stealing fifty cents in order to make rent. Now gentrifying, Price found it ironic and amusing to see five-dollar dishes of gelato for sale there. Today, in the way things often come full-circle, his daughters spend time in the Lower East Side.

In researching "Lush Life" Price said the first thing he did was find a cop to shadow. Price said he "tried not to be a jerk," so he could meet as many people as possible while on patrol. Price said that the draw of "Lush Life" was that, in telling the story of a killing that occurred during a robbery, it brought many of the Lower East Side's worlds together.

Richard Price must have accumulated boatloads of great stories during his lifetime, in researching his novels, and in his work in Hollywood. If only we had more time together. Come back soon, Richard Price.

Monday, November 7, 2011

John Green

Butler blows me away with its visiting writers series. Last week brought YA (Young Adult) author John Green. For those of you without resident tweens or teens, Green's most well-known titles are "Looking for Alaska" and "An Abundance of Katherines." I've never given much thought to YA books, but Green's talk was eye-opening.

According to Green there are two camps of YA literature. The first is typified by the Chris Crutcher-type book, one that aims to help kids feel less alone by giving them a group to identify with. The second camp focuses on the "I," emphasizing that every person (teen) is unique. These 'second camp' books are inherently empathetic. According to Green, books that fall into the first camp miss the point. Despite that we need stories about under-served populations, these 'first camp' books are not the be-all, end-all of reading.

The most notable thing about Green was the sincere affection and appreciation he expressed toward his readers. He gave the impression that his work isn't an entity separate from his fan base, but that the two are part of a whole. He originally built this fan base by engaging in a project of video blogs, or vlogs, with his brother. The project's premise -- which became wildly popular -- was that the only communication between the brothers would be through their published video blogs.

Green spoke about his authorly beginnings, entering ISBN codes into a computer for Booklist. Despite the scut-work nature of his job Green made a point to remain friendly and helpful. When Booklist needed someone to review books about Islam, they asked Green, as he had studied Islamic culture in college. After 9/11, the number of books about Islam mushroomed, and Green's career was headed in a more literary direction. When Booklist's reviewer George Cohen died, Green given Cohen's old "carnival gig," which included books about conjoined twins, and little people. It was around this time that Green also started reviewing YA literature. At first Green looked down at the genre, thinking it would consist of simplistic, moralistic titles like "Don't Bring Your Gun to School." But at closer look he saw a community of YA writers who were writing great stuff -- unpretentious, and not overwhelmed by irony. This was when Green caught the YA bug. He joked that he thought that by writing YA he could steer clear of the cut-throat, Pulitzer-seeking competition of the adult literary community; this didn't turn out to be the case, though.

In characterizing the YA genre, Green said that, in general, stories in this genre don't employ narrative distance -- the story happens in real time. He used "Catcher in the Rye" as an example of a story that does employ narrative distance -- within those pages there is a consciousness that a few years have passed between the telling of the story and when the story happened.

Green said these things about his work: his books often change plot dramatically while he writes; he needs lots of guidance, and has had one editor who has been invaluable. Green commented that he feels a duality in his writing: both confident (brilliant, the way F. Scott Fitzgerald felt) and despondent, as if he's the "worst writer ever." Expanding on this Green said that without confidence he can't write well, but without doubt he loses the sense that he's fallible.

We MFA students had the chance to chat with Green over lunch and then at the Q&A that followed. Throughout this two-hour chunk of time, the one comment that left the biggest impression was when Green spoke about why he writes. He reported that he struggles with depression and anxiety, and writing makes him feel less crazy. Writing does that, doesn't it? It helps us to make sense of the world, and helps us to understand ourselves. Green added that modern society is one of surfaces. We skim, surf the web, and employ a million distractions to escape from the ennui and boredom of life. For Green, writing makes this feeling go away. "It's contemplative. It feels like paying attention. I need to write to be engaged in the world," said Green.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe

Now and again I crave fluff. Literary fluff. In a literary sense, a steady diet of fiction and creative nonfiction provides nourishment the same way three-squares and green leafies do. Still, we all need a treat now and then. When one of those days hit, what I look for is the literary equivalent of a bowl of Cap'n Crunch.

Enter the celebrity memoir. Celebrity stories are a great way to yummify your reading. Who better to immerse you in drama, and distract you from the tedium of your life than a celeb? Has anyone in Hollywood not fallen from grace? These juicy stories drip with drugs, politics and sex. Not to mention the name-dropping. My list of 'Stars I Pine Over' has never included Rob Lowe -- that chiseled jaw is just too perfect -- but from the moment I saw "Stories I Only Tell My Friends" I was hooked. A Rob Lowe memoir -- what could be juicier? After all, if it's literary fluff you're looking for, you might as well go "all the way."

So, you ask, what did I think? I liked it! I really did! SIOTMF was a fun, rollicking read. Lowe doesn't disappoint, gives us everything we're looking for: insider notes on the Sheen family; encounters with royalty; the sex tape scandal. Lowe tells all. My only complaints were the name-dropping, which was so prevalent it became tad wearisome, and the way Lowe sometimes let himself off the hook too easily, rationalizing away his outrageous behavior.

Even while engaged in the story, though, I burned with curiosity What I really wanted to know was whether Lowe worked with a ghost writer. Celebrity memoirs are a dime a dozen, and not many credit a professional writer. C'mon. But Lowe claims he wrote this alone. And who knows -- it's obvious from reading SIOTMF that Lowe's no dummy; maybe he did pen it hemself.

In the end, "Stories I Only Tell My Friends" is the literary equivalent of a huge sugar high. So if you find yourself smack in the middle of a bad morning unable to tackle one more egg white omelet, pour yourself a bowl of literary Cap'n Crunch, and cozy up to a copy of SIOTMF. It's delicious.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Richard Rodriguez

Okay, I'll admit it: I went to Monday night's Richard Rodriguez reading AMA (against medical advice). Since the Thursday before I had been roasting with fever, keeping my husband up at night with my barking seal cough, and I was done, DONE, HEAR ME?, with illness causing me to miss out on life. No matter that the doc, who sent me for a chest x-ray, had that very Monday afternoon slapped me with a diagnosis of pneumonia. I had already missed my Thursday hair appointment, Friday writing group and the entire weekend. I knew I couldn't go to dinner before the reading with Mr. Rodriguez and the Butler group -- who would want to sit next to me? Besides, I was afraid of infecting our visiting author. But the reading? My physician husband looked at me and shook his head. " Do whatever you want," he said. This really meant 'I know you're going to do what you want so I'm washing my hands of the entire matter.' My physician friend tsk-tsked, said oh, no. But, when pressed, she acquiesced and said that if I sat alone, suppressed my cough, and didn't touch anything, I could probably live without the gnawing guilt that comes with infecting a crowd of undergraduates with pneumonia.

So Monday night I slugged back an antibiotic, two Tylenol, half a dose of cough syrup and headed off. (I know this isn't SOP. I certainly don't recommend anyone else ever do this. Because I know how my body reacts to all these medication, though, I knew I could pull it off.) Purposefully waiting until the crowd was seated, I slid into Butler's Reilly room and sat on the floor, slumped against the back wall. No matter, I was there. Rodriguez didn't disappoint.

Richard Rodriguez is an intriguing man: an academic who, because he felt affirmative action gave him an unfair advantage, eschewed an academic career. A Hispanic who is outspoken about his belief that immigrants should learn their new country's language. A homosexual who doesn't want to be labeled gay. A nonfiction writer with three memoirs, who writes essays for some of the countries most prestigious publications.

Rodriguez focused on "Brown," his most recent memoir. Despite that he's now working on a book about the Abrahamic religions and their connection to the desert, he still has plenty of fire for "Brown," and its thesis, that increasingly, few of us can claim pure heritage, and that's a good thing. He began by telling us that he wants us to feel that "Brown" is about us, and not him. Then he raised his hands to his head, smoothed back his silver hair and demanded, "I want to know, what is brown? Once I decided to write about 'brown,' it was everywhere I looked."

Mr. Rodriguez spoke in measured, precise words. Following his thoughts was a little like watching a paint-by-numbers canvas fill in magically. Here are some on Rodriguez's thoughts about 'brown': Hispanic is not a racial category, but an ethnic one; Mexico came about as a result of the love story between Indians and Spaniards; some day our kids will all look mixed, like Keanu Reeves; Many people have blood that is so mixed they no longer know what to call themselves.

Rodriguez shared a story: He corresponded for a long time with a prisoner, incarcerated for bank robbery. The man described his road away from the law. He wrote that he had a brother, and their mother died when they were young. Their father despised them, and once held the head of one underwater while the other slashed at the father's neck with a kitchen knife, trying to free the other. The prisoner wrote that the reason he never became completely evil is that he was taken to Chinese restaurants and saw chopsticks. The chopsticks showed him there was another world, one that extended beyond the confines of the horrible one in which he was stuck.

One fascinating question posed by the audience: If all people are blending, won't we lose our specific, rich cultures? Rodriguez answered Yes. Maybe. But then he added that there is a biological notion that will keep reinventing separateness. And then he added a touching statement, saying that he wants to know that others are part of him.

I'm sure my husband, who I know had only my best interests at heart, thought I'd regret going out Monday night. But I don't. Four days later and, yes, I'm still sick, but I don't think Monday night's outing impacted the length of my illness one bit. Look, how many times am I going to get the chance to hear a speaker as unique, insightful and articulate as Richard Rodriguez? And it was better than being at the dinner, where I would have been trying to figure out how to politely suck up Pad Thai noodles without making slurping sounds. Not that I'm bitter.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Indy's author scene: Hass and McElmurray

This season's Butler's Visiting Writers series began with a reading from poet and essayist, Robert Hass. It's not that Hass and I have nothing in common --both of us from the Bay Area, from childhoods spotlit by emotionally friable mothers. Still, I had a hard time connecting to his work. I'll be the first to admit it: I know nothing about poetry. Sure, Hass was genial, but I don't think anyone in the auditorium that night left invigorated.

Next on the docket was novelist and memoirist Karen McElmurray. McElmurray's memoir, "Surrendered Child," was haunting. Lyrical. 'Dark Memoir,' with a capital 'D.' McElmurray grew up with a punishing, mentally ill mother. When the mother leaves home McElmurray, finally free, rebels, gets pregnant and married at 16 -- in that order -- and then gives her baby up for adoption.

There were whispers. Some thought McElmurray should have employed a more traditional structure for her memoir. Me? I think stories can be many things, can be told many ways. They don't have to follow the standard 'start at point A, end at point B, add conflict along the way' recipe. (Thanks, Michael Martone.) Can't valid writing include mosaics, portraits, or even slices of life? Words strung together illuminate. The light may have different qualities, but the prose still shines.

You might write "potato" and I might write "potahto," They're both spuds. Maybe there's space in the literary potato bin for every type of writing. As long as it's done well.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova

The brain is mysterious, endlessly fascinating. Oliver Sacks enthralled us with "Awakening" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Lisa Genova first entered the neuroscientist-as-author arena in 2009 with "Still Alice," the story of a woman who succumbs to early onset Alzheimer's disease. With "Left Neglected," Genova tells the story of Sarah Nickerson, a high powered VP, wife of Bob, and mother of three young children.

As she did in "Still Alice," Genova picked a great story to tell. The neurological disorder, in this case Left Neglect, serves as the novel's foundation. Around this foundation Genova crafted a narrative that's compelling and relatable. Sarah's conflicts -- efforts to balance children and career, worries about keeping up with the Joneses -- although ratcheted up from the level many of us experience, are universal. So when Sarah looks away for a moment, crashes her car and ends up in the hospital with a brain injury, we're right there with her. She's forced out of the hamster wheel of every day life -- she couldn't move quickly if she tried. Her superwoman cape gone, Sarah has no choice but to accept help --from her mother, no less.

The lessons Sarah learns in her new life, which has been transformed and is ostensibly less-than, are ones we could all benefit from: Slow down. Appreciate small gifts. Live in the present. "Left Neglected" paints a picture of acceptance and gratitude. My wish for the New Year is that --without any tragedy involved -- we'll all hear these lessons.

Shana Tova, U'Metukah!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Do yourself a favor. Get behind the wheel and pop in Fey's audiotape, "Bossypants," which she narrates herself. Whether recalling childhood memories of her father, the always formidable and sometimes frightening Don Fey, her climb up the ranks in the world of comedy, or her stumbles when trying to combine motherhood and career, her prose gleams. She's hysterical.
My favorites: new-mother-Fey's encounters with "lactation nazis," and the chaos surrounding her impersonation of Sarah Palin.
The disappointment: Fey deftly avoids stepping on the toes of her colleagues. Even as she relays the chaos surrounding the Palin affair, her word choice skirts the bottom line, her phrasing keeps us at a distance. Oh, Tina, I know there has to be dirt! Tell us! We want to know! Give us the real scoop on how Lorne Michaels screwed you. Tell us how Alec Baldwin bullied his way through scenes. Spill the beans on Palin's bumbleheadedness.
Still, a minor quibble amidst major hilarity.
My kids claim I don't think anything is funny. And they're not entirely off the mark. I'm not often moved to laughter. It's not that I never find amusement, I just prefer to think I'm discriminating. "Family Guy?" Not for me.
Take my advice. Go for a drive and turn on Fey's "Bossypants." I dare you not to laugh.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Found, by Jennifer Lauck

Jennifer Lauck comes full circle in this latest -- and self-proclaimed last -- memoir offering. Lauck's first book, "Blackbird," rightfully included on many must-read memoir lists, tells how, through a cascade of tragic childhood events, she was left to raise herself. In "Blackbird" Lauck's prose beams as she unsentimentally recounts the gruesome illness that took her adoptive mother's life, and the out-of-nowhere heart attack that killed her adoptive father. All this, and she was only ten. Left in the care of an unstable, uncaring woman, she was ultimately abandoned at a commune, where she worked while attending school.

Lauck's subsequent memoirs tell of further struggles, and how, as an adult, her life was impacted by earlier events. Lauck was separated from her brother when her adoptive parents died. As a young adult her brother commits suicide, and Lauck, then an investigative reporter, delves into her brother's story, searching for answers to the riddle of his life. She struggles in her relationships, but ultimately marries, and has two children.

"Found" is made up of small slices-of-life chapters, and speaks to Lauck's journey to address her simmering unhappiness. In first part of the book she takes us back through her complicated history -- necessary for readers new to Lauck, and nicely wrought reminders for those of us already familiar. Lauck goes on to tells us of forays into Buddhism and a niggling urge to know her birth mother. To her credit, Lauck relays the birth mother reunion part of the story unflinchingly; it's not a running-across-a-grassy-meadow coming together; it's fraught.

"Finding yourself" stories are a risky proposition. They're inherently heartfelt, but because they shine a spotlight on emotion, they can be pedantic and self-involved. Commendably, Lauck's honesty is brazen. Occasionally her passion overshadows the plot, as she casts judgment on uncaring caretakers, and describes her beliefs about a baby's biological need for his/her birth mother -- her stance, basically anti-adoption, is extreme and is sure to ruffle feathers -- but these are understandable, if minor, infractions. Mary Karr, a beloved memoirist, is so dispassionate in her stories that, at times, I feel a disconnect, held back from knowing what she went through. Not so in "Found," a magnetic chronicle of Lauck's struggle to shed her past and find her way back to herself.

Check out Jennifer Lauck's blog, Prolifically Raw, a great resource for memoir writers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, by Reyna Simnegar

My ancestors' old country is Eastern-Europe -- Poland and Ukraine. Nevertheless, the synagogue I belong to is Sephardic, representing Jews from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Arabic and African countries. The ladies at my shul are no shrinking violets; they're a force to be reckoned with. I'm pretty sure that if they had been around to help during the first days of creation, G-d wouldn't have needed to rest that seventh day.
I ponder this now, getting ready for the shul's big fundraiser: The Annual Bake Sale. Trying to get the ladies a little publicity for their herculean baking efforts, I've written a few pieces advertising the sale. A researcher by nature, I ordered seven Sephardic cookbooks from the library -- just to get in the mood. Let me be clear, though. I'm not a cookbook afficionado. Following recipes is too much trouble and fuss. Despite my family's complaints I've stuck with a few tried and true dishes. Perusing cookbooks, I see pages of impractical, complicated recipes, chock full of ingredients my family, whose tastes run to the pedestrian, wouldn't touch. Still, once in a great while a cookbook reaches out and grabs, not my stomach, but my heart. "Persian Food" is one of those. Like "The Gefilte Variations," the only other cookbook I've reviewed, this one is a work of art -- heavy paper bordered with Indian-style designs, gorgeous photos of the recipes and nicely voiced stories. Simnegar, herself a Sephardic Jew from Venezuela who grew up loving shmaltzy, Ashkenazic cuisine, tells of moving with her Persian-Jewish husband to Irangeles. (Los Angeles is home to a large and prosperous community of Iranian Jews.) Persian Jews are proud of their culture, and Reyna found that cooking non-Persian food was no longer an option in her new household. Throughout the cookbook, with an honest and engaging voice, Simnegar sprinkles fun anecdotes and lots of great cooking tips. As a testament to her undying love for the Ashkenazi dishes she grew up with, she slips in a few classics, like Hamantashen, noting with irony, that all the events that led to our celebration of Purim, the holiday of Hamantashen eating, took place in Persia.
"Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride" would be a great birthday gift for your favorite foodie, and a lovely addition to any Jewish household, whether Sephardic or Ashkenzi.
P.S. For those jonesing for a taste, the bake sale is Sunday, September 18th, from 11am-1pm at the Jewish Community Center's Laikin Auditorium. Bring your checkbook and get there early. Bourekas sell out fast.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

My husband doesn't care for travel, so early in the summer when he suggested we take a family vacation, he caught my attention.
"What?" I asked.
"I know, you're surprised to hear this from me," he answered. "It's just that Rachel will be going off to college in two years and I realize we may not have many more opportunities to travel together as a family. What about the Outer Banks?"

Although I have fond memories of each of our family trips, they've all been low budget affairs, with three young kids in tow. The thought of another labor intensive vacation exhausted me.
"What's the matter?" asked Charles. "Don't you want to go?"
The truth of the matter was that No, I didn't. I didn't want to spend a week in a rented beach condo shopping, cooking and cleaning. Marital negotiations ensued. Despite my misgivings, I acquiesced. Rental agreements were signed.

Turns out all my misgivings were unfounded. The kids, now teenagers, carried their own gear and picked up after themselves. Charles shopped and cooked. Now that we're back, and have shaken out the sand from our suitcases, all that's left are our memories of boogey boarding, nighttime games of Scattergories and luminous red beach sunsets.

Unfounded misgivings almost cost me precious vacation time with my family, and are also the reason I'm probably the last person around to read Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone." All my reading friends insisted this novel is a must-read, but I couldn't. Not another African story, I thought. They're just so heart wrenching. Inevitably I'm left feeling so powerless. Months passed, with "Cutting for Stone" shuffling, time and time again, to the bottom of my reading pile.

Finally, last month, I held Verghese's book and, not having the heart to bury it one more time, cracked open the spine. It wasn't long before I a goner, my mouth set in an O shape that didn't release until the last page. The lyrical prose, engaging characters and complex, compelling narrative sucked me in. "Cutting for Stone" is an elegant, winding story of twin brothers, Shiva and Marion, born to a nun and the surgeon she has nursed back to health. Verghese, a physician, uses his medical knowledge to add verisimilitude and texture, without overwhelming the story with technical jargon. This is a big scope story, expertly set in time and place, so perfectly rendered that it's hard to find adjectives that do it justice. If you have misgivings, set them aside. You won't be sorry. Like a week at the beach with your family, Verghese's novel will stay with you a long time.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dark Memoir: Darkroom, by Jill Christman

Behind on reviews (and why the heck is this text coming out underlined?) so I'm pulling one out of hopper. I wrote this at the end of winter, when it seemed like the sun would never come out again. Right now it's overcast in Indy, which eases the 90-plus degree temps, and it's funny to remember my blue, winter self looking onto a parking lot from the front window of a Starbucks, writing this.

It has been raining for more days than I can count. Gray. Wet. I must admit I've been in a bit of a funk lately. Sometimes the 1970s motors forward, the past leaving the realm of memory and entering the realm of the present-day. For those of us who have "significant" pasts -- and really, who among is survived childhood unscathed -- there are triggers -- sights, sounds, smells -- that can take us back us back to a time where our emotional palettes were as gloomy as the Indianapolis sky.

Sometimes, well often really, I like to read the stories of others who have lived through horrific times. Why? Mostly, it's knowing I'm not alone. It's feeling a connection to others who understand. And it's fascinating so see what we humans do to one another, even when we treat each other abominably. It's heartening to take notice of what can be endured, and how we make it through.

Jill Christman, the author of Darkroom, is a local author, and I was lucky enough to take a memoir workshop with her last fall. Jill's memoir illustrates the "trash in, trash out" concept -- a shabbily labeled idea of mine, based on personal experience, that when your early life is characterized by basic needs unmet, neglect and abuse, you can pretty much count on fallout showing up in your adult life like an unwelcome house guest. As a child Christman suffered horrifying abuse, and the consequences surfaced in her teens and early adult years. What a beautiful, shocking, stunningly honest account of a life. If you're a lover of dark memoir, wait for a gray day and open Christman's memoir.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Remember Nothing, by Nora Ephron

Months ago I listened to an audiotape of "I Remember Nothing" and because my memory is, like Ephron's, shall we say, porous, I remember almost nothing about her newest offering.

Here's what I do remember: This collection of essays sparkles. Ephron, as always, is funny, self-effacing, erudite and opinionated. Whether bemoaning her sagging turkey-skin in "I Feel Bad About My Neck," her previous book of essays, or lamenting senior moments in this offering, she does so with humor, grace and flair.

If you're a nonfiction lover like me, you've noticed two things: bookstores don't devote a lot of shelf space to essay collections, and not many of the essayists published are women. So read (or listen to) "I Remember Nothing." If, like me, you're a woman of a certain age, you may not retain the particulars of Ephron's essays, but you'll never forget the enjoyment that comes with reading the work of a master of the form.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The False Friend, by Myla Goldberg, and The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman

Readers, your summer reading list: Myla Goldberg's "The False Friend," and Elinor Lipman's "The Family Man."

Goldberg's newest offering is the story of Celia Durst's rediscovery. The False Friend explores the vagaries of memory, and the phenomenon of how, if events are recalled over and over, over a long period of time, they become fact -- whether or not they actually happened. Celia Durst, after twenty years, is finally ready to admit and explore what she now believes is the truth: that when, as a 10-year-old, she told the police she saw her friend disappear into a stranger's car, she was lying, and that her friend actually fell into a deep hole along a forest path. As Celia returns to her childhood home and tries to set the record straight, she discovers surprising and unsavory truths about her ten-year-old self. Beautiful, haunting language, intriguing, nuanced story. Another great Myla Goldberg offering.

My most recent literary mistake: because the "The Family Man's" author's name, Elinor Lipman, brought to mind an older woman, I figured the novel would be a snoozer. It doesn't escape me that I'm an older woman. Embarrassing and ironic. Lipman's book sat on my shelf for months, as I pushed it back down to the bottom of my to-read pile again and again.

Luckily, I opened it just in time to enjoy one of the most delicious summer reads ever. Lipman's work brings to mind the novels of another master storyteller: Jonathan Tropper. Like Tropper, Lipman paints quirky, deeply flawed families and then backs them into corners, which prompts them to do and say the funniest things. In "The Family Man," Attorney Henry Archer is a gay, ex-husband who, after 25-years, is reunited with the non-biological daughter of his brief marriage. And that's all I'm going to tell you, because the twists and turns of the plot, the authentic, smart dialogue and fast pacing all make this a great summer read.


Summer's Book Fails

Oh, Booklerner, I've missed you so. Truly. Even as I've unsuccessfully tried to ward off my annual case of chlorinated straw-hair, even as summer days melt into one big blur of heat shimmers off the tar, I've pined away, longing to get back to you, get bossy and opinionated, and tell unsuspecting readers what they should read.

Books: beware! Summer's heat wilts my neurons, leaving me with the attention span of an unmedicated, hyperactive 10-year-old boy. Books, if you want to be lovingly dog-eared, smeared with drips of blueberry frozen yogurt, and pruned by splashes of pool water, you'd better be up to the task. Enough of this "if you get past the first 30 pages, it gets really good" bulls#@t. What kind of malarkey is that? Books, if you want me, if you really want me, don't be coy; engage me from the start. Fill page one with funny, empathetic characters who quickly find themselves in ridiculous, conflict-ridden messes.

Two examples of the multitudes of popular books that didn't cut the muster for me: Jennifer Haigh's "The Condition," and Anita Shreve's "Rescue." Verdict? Snoozers!

But enough of the negative. Stay tuned for the must-reads of summer in my next post.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers

If you're a memoir fan you'll love this offering by Heather Sellers. Sellers' account of her upbringing -- psychotic mother and alcoholic, cross-dressing father -- makes my own crazy childhood sound like "Leave it to Beaver." But the meat of Sellers story isn't the chaos of her childhood, but a neurological condition, one she didn't realize she suffered from until she was an adult, called prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

This intriguing condition leaves Sellers unable to recognize faces, and the anecdotes she shares -- one, for instance, about walking right past her boyfriend -- are in turns bizarre, funny and sad.

Seller's memoir is really two overlapping stories: one of a child growing up with crazy parents, and the other of an adult with a strange disorder, and this structure gave YDLMA a fragmented feel. Although there is no known cause for face blindness, Sellers interweaves the stories as if there is a connection between her crazy childhood and her face blindness. Sellers also tosses around the idea that her prosopagnosia might have resulted from the concussion she suffered when her father hit her on the head with a frying pan.

All this drama and trauma had to cause her distress, but Sellers takes an even hand to the telling; she's not vying for sympathy. Sellers' don't-cry-for-me tone, though, kept me from being able to fully sympathize with her. Her steady, this-is-just-the-way-it-was voice kept me at arm's length. Still, if you're anything like me, you'll be riveted by Sellers' unusual, compelling story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Parenting. What other subject triggers such anxiety? Chua's memoir describes her type A parenting philosophy, as she tells the story of raising her two daughters.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a rollicking summer read. Chua writes a lively, compelling story. Half the fun was comparing my mothering to Chua's. I labeled Chua a "Nazi Mother" when she described how harsh she was with her daughters. I held myself up as poster child for slacker mothers when she described the astonishing accomplishments her intense parenting produced.

Look. I'm the mother of three teenagers. I get my fair share of eye-rolling and looks that drip with disdain. But reading how Chua sometimes shamed her daughters to get them to perform at such high levels made me feel like mother of the year.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale, Part Three.

Devora Mack, my great-grandmother, was one of the many faces from the past featured on a large poster board I displayed in the front of the synagogue the morning of my son's bar mitzvah. Devora, who passed in 1939, was known to my father as Babalompola (his child version of baba from Yompola). Thanks to my dad's stories, Babalompola has reigned supreme throughout the years when I dream of my ancestors, so imagine my thrill at getting my hands on her photograph! This pic came courtesy of one of Babalompola's granddaughters, Lorraine Raskin. Lorraine told me how scared she was as a child when she did her granddaughterly duty and bent over the ever supine Babalompola, to kiss her. Dad, on the other hand, tells of a kind, gentle, and not-at-all-scary Baba, one unable to get up off the couch as the result of the watermelon-sized tumor in her gut, supposedly of the "female variety."

Life and stories are like this: there's never one answer, one point of view, or one way of telling the tale. For instance, those uber-observant cousins who came to celebrate my son's bar mitzvah, the ones I mentioned in Part Two. I wrote you how crazy complicated it was to arrange walking-distance accommodations for them because, well, I'm a glass half-empty kind of girl. Sure, it was discombobulating to figure out how to make their visit possible, but if I was a glass half-full kind of girl, my story would have told how happy I was that my cousins made this trip to celebrate with me. After decades of estrangement we've reconciled, and this was a show of their love and support. So what's my point? I guess my point is this: when you peel back a story, there are always more layers.

Russo's multi-layered visit at Butler ended with a Q&A especially for Butler's English students. Here Russo shared more thoughts on writing.

He explained that in the beginning of his writing career he envisioned his readers as average, working people -- just like the characters in his books. It wasn't until much later that he realized the average, working person doesn't want to be reminded of the sadness and limits in his world; he or she reads -- if he or she even has time to read -- to escape. Russo said he now knows that he is writing for an educated and urban reader, one that may have a small town in his/her background.

Russo spoke about writing about women. He said that because women are in the forefront of his life, he finds himself writing about women more and more. This was scary at first, though, because he was afraid of being told he doesn't understand women.

In speaking about his nonfiction work Russo said he initially shaped his pieces as fiction even though they were factual. The thought of calling the work nonfiction was unnerving. In discussing the tangled boundaries between fiction and fact, Russo said that the question isn't Did you invent this? but How is this shaped? He mentioned Jenny Boyle, a memoirist he admires, a transsexual who transitioned from man to woman. In speaking about Jenny, Russo mentioned this quote: Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it's not true. Now that's a line to remember! Russo said his recent writing has made him realize that the distinctions between fact and fiction are blurred.

Russo said that a writer can't create fictional characters without first learning empathy, and that fiction in general is a complicated business, and many attempting it fail. Every artistic decision the author makes takes other options off the table, and further limits every other choice the author makes down the line. He noted that in the journey to becoming an accomplished writer, the last things to come are voice, and a sense of the author's identity and style.

Russo ended his Q&A by discussing the genesis of his novels, saying that each new novel is born out of the dissatisfaction of the novel that came before.

Russo's visit was richer than I could ever imagine, as was my son's bar mitzvah. My uber-observant cousins came, as did my brother, who I've only seen a few times in the past decade. After so many years of living in the land of family-hunger, everyone who has ever staked a claim to my heart found a way to come to Indy and join in my family's celebration. We shared Shabbos dinner the night before the ceremony, listened while my son read from the Torah during his bar mitzvah, and danced to raucous music way later that night, staying up way past our bedtimes. We laughed and reminisced. We bickered and disagreed. We are family -- the best device ever for introducing drama and conflict into a story. The weekend passed like a dream. Even though it's true that, as Russo said, something doesn't have to actually happen for it to be true, I think a version of the flip side also holds: When what you want most in life finally comes true, it may take awhile for it to feel true.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale. Part Two.

Richard Russo's visit to Butler was the grand finale of the year's Visiting Writers' Series. In my last post I wrote of part one of hits grand finale: Russo's jaw-droppingly instructive roundtable discussion of the five finalists in Booth's First Chapter Contest. I also mentioned a recent personal grand finale in the form of my son's bar mitzvah, the culmination of more months of planning than I care to admit. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah began with this photo of my husband's ancestors.

Can't even remember where I got this gem; might have come from one of the piles of old photos my mother-in-law had squirreled away in her attic; might have been sent by dear Uncle Beryl. What matters more than its provenance, though, is the image itself, so textured and complex. This is what enchanted me: the multitudes of stories, all mysterious, held within this single frame. The landscape is barren, but each one of the faces superimposed on it hints at worlds of hardships, sorrow, and love. Part one of Sam's bar mitzvah concluded with stacks of vellum and a mess of satiny, sepia-colored ribbon, which dressed up the photo, transforming it into the invitation to my son's big day.

Part Two of Russo's visit was the reading he gave to the packed crowd at Atherton Union. The reading was as multi-faceted as the picture of Charles's ancestors. Russo began by telling us that he had never understood why readers want to know about the personal lives of authors. Recently, though, he said he has come to understand that people bring a curiosity to the relationship between the author and his work. It was this notion, Russo said, that informed the pieces he chose to read that night. Trying something new, he picked a few nonfiction pieces, so he could share a bit about his life, and then followed those up with some fiction, so we could see the relationship between Russo and the stories he writes.

It was a well thought out plan that made for a fascinating reading. Russo's nonfiction was every bit as compelling as his fiction, and it was astounding to see the myriad points of connection between the two.

When Russo finished reading he made some general comments that addressed this connection. He noted that every author uses similar imagery and phraseology within his/her work. For the author these repetitions exist at the molecular level, and are about as close to the author's soul as one can get. Just as Dickens writes about orphans, Russo said, his own work speaks to the despair of small towns past their prime, and the price paid by the men and women who work to sustain them.

Here are a few comments from the Q&A that followed the reading:

When asked about a passage from "Bridge of Sighs" that inferred that men are needier than women, Russo replied that in order to go beyond a surface, intellectual understanding, and reach a bone-level understanding, men may need to experience the same thing multiple times. And in addressing the differences between the sexes from another angle, Russo said that literature doesn't exist as men's writing or women's writing, and that writers must be able to transcend the deep boundaries so as to not be trapped in their own experiences. In Russo's most quotable quote of the evening, said that what he believes in first and foremost is imagination.

When speaking about his short story collection, "The Whore's Child," Russo remarked that his protagonist needed to overcome seemingly insurmountable conflict, and that this is required for all great writing. Dramatic urgency. Russo reinforced that the necessary ingredient for a successful story is a conflict he can't figure out how to solve. Writers investigate territory where there are no answers, he said.

Russo spoke about his writing process, saying he begins by reading, to get words in his head. Then he writes for 2-3 hours, longhand, which produces about 2-3 pages. Then he revises. And then he repeats the sequence over and over.

Russo's reading was epic, I wouldn't have missed it for the world, but it couldn't hold a candle to part two of Sam's bar mitzvah. Russo spoke about creating insurmountable problems in his work. One of the practically insurmountable problems in bar mitzvah planning is that Indianapolis has no hotels within walking distance of the synagogues. Try figuring out how and where to house the good-hearted and generous uber-observant cousins who can't drive on the Sabbath seemed like a hopeless task.

Family and conflict; they go hand in hand, don't they? Looking back, everyone -- including myself -- behaved reasonably well, but that doesn't mean the event passed without a few great stories.

I'll save those for part three.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Richard Russo, the Grand Finale. Part One.

Still weeks behind on posting book reviews and recaps of author visits, it seems only fitting to put together the two grand finales that have recently marked my literary and personal life: Richard Russo's visit to Butler last April, and my youngest child's bar mitzvah, last weekend.

Each finale was comprised of several smaller events, and each of these were peppered with so many heart-touching moments, that a quick recap wouldn't do either justice.

Like any Jewish mother I started planning my son's bar mitzvah from the moment of his bris. Also, this was the last of my children to come of age. We were lucky enough to have family and friends come in for our celebration from all over the country. All these notions lent the bar mitzvah the feel of a grand finale.

Richard Russo was the last and biggest name on this year's Butler's Visiting Writers' Series's roster. Along with the prerequisite reading, Russo agreed to be the judge for a "First Chapter" writing competition staged by the editors at Booth, the literary journal at Butler (a genius idea, may I add). The afternoon before his reading, Russo gathered with us to go over the five finalists.

A little OCD about being late, I was the first one in the room. When the door opened, it was Russo! He entered, extended his hand, and with eyes smiling said, "Hi, call me Rick." I was floating. I think it's true that it can be a mistake to judge by first impressions, but sometimes first impressions say it all: Russo, a highly accomplished writer of considerable fame, came to Butler with a gracious, open heart.

What happened next was the stuff of dreams. No really, even I couldn't have dreamed this. Three of the editors of Booth, me, my classmate Maggie, and Russo, all sitting around a boardroom table. I have to admit I was pretty nervous; I had no idea how this meeting would play out. I figured Russo would announce the winning chapter, and then give us a brief rundown of the faults of the other four finalists. What actually happened was nothing like that. Russo introduced each of the final entries, one by one, and, while addressing us by name, asked each of us for our opinions. What ensued was a discussion on the merits and pitfalls of each piece. When we had all weighed in -- and, jeez, how intimidating is that? -- he added his own final thoughts. The meeting turned out to be a master class in novel writing, as he pointed us towards the hallmarks of what makes a winning first chapter.

One chapter, although by far the most polished and professional, lacked a sense of building drama; each of its scenes had the same weight, which led Russo to believe that not all of its aspects were fully imagined. He questioned whether the chapter's crystalline sentences were enough to sustain the novel, saying that they should serve the momentum of the story.

When evaluating another chapter he noted the lack of character development, saying that by the end of the first chapter the reader needed to know more about the protagonist.

The chapter written in epistolary style was a favorite among us, but Russo pointed out that although this unique style make a splash, he was doubtful it could sustain a novel. Russo's point was that although this style lends itself to rapid pacing, it doesn't allow the author to slow scenes down, or to immerse in the physical world of its characters.

Analyzing another chapter, he remarked that the author broke from scene before the action of the scene ended, and went into narration. It's important for an author to know, Russo said, what s(he) wants a scene to accomplish. Scene and narration ground a story over time, and the author of this chapter showed he wasn't comfortable writing either.

Russo then revealed the winning chapter, noting that although it was not the most polished entry, it wowed him with its strong characters, humor and wild imagination. During our discussion of this work he left us with these literary words of wisdom: an easy editing fix consists of marking stuff out with a pencil; what's more worrisome are gaps.

And with that, and a recommendation to read Russo's epic novel "Empire Falls" and his short story collection "The Whore's Child," I'll sign off. Stay tuned for part two of Russo's visit, and more on the epic Lerner bar mitzvah.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Marilyn Chin

Wow, am I behind on these posts. Pleading bar mitzvah preparation overwhelm. And yes, in response to the question I've been asked over and over, it IS easier the third time! (But it's still not EASY.)

Okay. Enough of all that. I'm better now. Poet Marilyn Chin came to Butler several weeks ago, and I couldn't attend her reading -- had class. I was lucky, though, that someone on the English department faculty took pity on me and allowed me to sit in on a class Marilyn was visiting. So I spent an hour with Chin, the instructor (Thanks, Rob!) and 15 undergrads. It was a blast. Marilyn didn't pack an attitude. She was happy to sit back and have a casual literary chat with anyone who showed an interest. The shade of pink that washed over the faces of the boys (men?) in class when she tossed out the words "vagina and pussy" made me wish I could take her out for a pitcher of margaritas that night. Alas, I never knew if she would be game, she was leaving town that afternoon.

Chin spoke of Asian-American literature, saying that all roads lead back to Maxine Hong Kingston. She also spoke of poets, saying that although it is natural for poets to transition into nonfiction, she likes the freedom of fiction, making stuff up. She has enjoyed how Vixen has expanded her readership, and bemoaned that poetry in America has become institutionalized, and has a narrow audience. Chin told us she grew up in a stereotypical Asian family, one that pushed for excellence, despite her grandmother's illiteracy. Her grandmother, who demanded top performance, couldn't read Chin's report card!

She spoke about her book, "The Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen," a genre-bending novel that might be more appropriately described as a collection of linked stories. This was, she said, her first attempt at prose, rather than the poetry she is famous for. She told us that in Vixen, she "cross-dressed" into a different genre, the stories arising from an autobiographical truth, which is not the same as fact. (A point I have recently smacked my head against -- a story for another day.) In Vixen Chin messed with the facts, but wrote basic truths. This book was ten years in the making, stemming from several isolated short stories based on translations of old Zen tales. Her editor liked these so much she asked for more. After 100 pages Chin realized she had no idea how to finish the book. She wanted something that could be called a story cycle, or composite novel, but had to see how the parts contributed to the whole.

In "cross-dressing" into the world of fiction Chin had to stretch. She told us her mind works like a poet: line by line. Thinking in paragraphs was painful. She did a lot of homework to see what a story cycle would look like. She had to teach herself how to read a novel, and read Hemingway to learn structure.

One final pearl from Chin on poetry: It's what you leave out of a poem that gives it its mystery.

Til next time,

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Sunset Limited, by Cormac McCarthy

I've always wanted to read McCarthy's "The Road," but never felt emotionally ready to immerse myself in "bleak." On a recent stroll through Carmel's library, though, I spotted another McCarthy title: The Sunset Limited. And this one on audiotape!

In "The Sunset Limited" McCarthy pares the world down to the bare minimum -- two men, one room. That's it. The premise is simple enough: one of the men has just saved the other from throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited train. The men, one white and one black, go by the names "White" and "Black." (Can't get more pared down than that!) The men are opposites in every way -- education, means and outlook on life. McCarthy gives his characters the perfect setup, a room that forcing these two men, embodiments of two diametrically opposed ideologies, to interact.

Just so we're clear here: "The Sunset Limited" really is a book in which two men sit in a room and discuss the meaning of life. How bleak is that? But don't sell it short, on those two slim discs, the story kept me intrigued until the very end. McCarthy wrote sparkling, compelling dialog that kept me riveted throughout, and left me pondering long after, and the actors displayed incredible skill at bringing the characters to life.

"The Sunset Limited" is the perfect "listen" for a two-hour road trip. Unfortunately, it's too nihilistic for the kids, so don't pop it in our CD player unless you're road tripping with adults.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taylor Mali

"I didn't come here to entertain you, I came to read a poem." Mali's bon mot summed up the controversy around his visit to Butler last month. Some in the English Department bristled at the notion behind this remark. "Poets ARE entertaining," they said. Knowing nothing about poetry, I've made a concerted effort to attend Butler's poetry readings. I have to admit that, for someone like me, with no understanding of the form, they're a mixed bag. Judging from the laughter Mali's remark engendered, I'd venture to say I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Mali delighted the crowd with performances of some of his most famous poems like "The The Impotence of Proofreading," "What Teachers Make," and "Like Lilly Like Wilson," along with lesser known works such as "Naked Gardener" and "Benediction." Mali also read "Lanyard," a poem by one of his favorite poets, Billy Collins. He relayed that Collins said his best poems come from giving himself permission to tell what he never thought he'd tell.

Mali began as a teacher and now is a slam poet. His poetry is fun and accessible. I imagine he's had people question whether or not his work actually qualifies as poetry. The moment from the reading that stayed with me was when he spoke to this unvoiced question. Mali said that poetry evolves, and that poems from one time period differ from those written in another. In fact, the definition of what poetry is is always changing.

When you pull out the thin silver bar on the side of Mali's souvenir pen a banner unfurls. One of Mali's poems is printed on one side of the banner. On the other side, around the jumbo letters that spell "SHUT UP," is an array of Scrabble-ready, two-letter words. Are poets boring? There may never be a consensus, but there's no argument that Taylor Mali's visit was unique and entertaining.

Check out Mali's hysterical poem on the youtube link below.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, by Patton Oswald

Patton Oswald, stand-up comic and King of Queens sidekick, put out a book and, who would have guessed, it's smart, and really funny. The title is a based on Oswald's observation that people's mindsets generally fall into one of three nerdy teenage categories: Zombie; Spaceship, or Wasteland. Appropriately, Patton voices the audiobook version. Here he mentions that there are illustrated sections on one of the discs, and that these can be accessed via computer (have I revealed my pathetic lack of tech savvy?). Even if I could have figured out how to access these I wouldn't have wanted to disrupt the flow of his delivery. I wanted to listen, and stay in that experience. A few of the chapters (bits?) fell short of the mark, but not enough to ruin the fun. Oswald is smart, funny and opinionated, and Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland is the perfect disc to slip in your CD player for your next road trip. Given the ribald nature of Oswald's material, though, save it for the drive WITHOUT the kids!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Starbucks Saved My Life, by Michael Gill, and Poser, by Clare Dederer

I'm a Starbucks junkie. My need for a regular latte fix reminds me of the way my mom needed her Marlboros -- as a pick me up, a stress releaser, a way to channel nervous energy by giving hands something to hold, and a way to indulge. (And now, even though I've gone decaf, I continue to glory in Starbucks' warm, milky creations.) In the way that our patterns and addictive habits help us deal with life's vicissitudes, one might make the argument that, in small ways, Starbucks saves my life every day. So I was eager to read Michael Gill's account of how Starbucks saved his life! Alas, this memoir was so bad it was almost offensive. "How Starbucks Saved My Life" is really nothing but an empty, vapid telling of Gill's story. Gill, a 60-plus-year-old victim of downsizing, could have written a book about his late-in-life stint as barista, and the insights this dramatic change in employment brought him. Instead he wrote a paean to the corporate giant that is Starbucks. Gill's account of his new life in retail lacks verisimilitude. Certainly, dealing with the public can be rewarding, but there's no denying that large slices of the multitudes are cranky and difficult. Gill's experience on the retail front lines is nothing like my memories of working with the public, where my demanding customers occasionally left me in tears! In "How Starbucks Saved My Life" all the customers are understanding, helpful and supportive, Gill's boss is the ideal mentor and his coworkers, with one minor exception, are all openhearted, top performers, without personal agendas and attitudes. Message to Howard Schultz: is Gill's book one of your marketing ploys?

Yoga and the mind-body connection fascinate me, are topics ripe for exploration. "Poser" was recently reviewed by Dani Shapiro for the New York Times, and it caught my eye. I love Shapiro. She writes earth shaking, heart-and-soul memoir and it was because she wrote up Dederer's book that I was eager to read "Poser." I wanted to see what Dederer learned about herself through the practice of yoga. The title led me to believe "Poser" would consist of separate accounts, each one focused on a single yoga pose -- like pigeon, downward facing dog, or tree pose -- and then take us to the insights Dederer found by practicing this pose. This was the book I wanted to read, but it's not the book Dederer wrote. The book I wanted to read would have given Dederer's account of how she suffered from perfectionism and the need to fit into the mothering culture in Seattle, (where co-sleeping, organic. locally-grown food, cloth diapers, breast-feeding for a minimum of a full year and coop nursery schools are de rigueur), and how her practice of certain yoga poses eased this anguish. Although Dederer writes about specific yoga poses, she doesn't necessarily link them in an easy to follow, I've done a pose,"point A" and this brought me to a different place in my life, "point B," fashion. Instead, "Poser" is a jumbled assemblage -- part memoir and part lesson on the history of yoga. For my taste, the memoirish part rambled, often not digging deep enough to touch me. And as for the history lessons, well, I just didn't care.

Til the next book,

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tom Chiarella

There's been a steady stream of writers at Butler recently. Tom Chiarella held an intimate talk with us MFA's a few weeks ago. Chiarella's penned a few books but is probably most famous for his magazine writing: Esquire, The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine and more. He's done a lot of golf writing, and was sited by Sports as "the best golf writer you never heard of."
Chiarella's talk was titled something like "MFA Stands for Mother F@cking Artist," which provocative enough to pull me out of my house on a Wednesday night in February. Chiarella's funny, honest, forthright, stream of consciousness speaking took us on a wild ride, as he recounted the path he took to become a writer, and the role of MFA programs in the newly upturned writing world. There was the gem of a story about how Anne Beattie advised him to submit to The New Yorker. He did, although it took him 23 tries to get a piece accepted there. And how Margaret Atwood put down all writing efforts but fiction. Still, Chiarella continued writing essays and publishing in magazines.
Chiarella, nothing if not earnest, ended with a semi-question, wondering out loud if his words gave us something of value. The message I walked away with was that today's writing world blurs boundaries and genres and eschews labels. And that if one wants to have his or her work read, and have others respond to it -- which was what Chiarella decided he wanted many years ago -- one must be dogged, be prepared to struggle, persevere and do whatever it takes.
There's something to be learned by anyone willing to share their own experiences. Tom's talk could be summed up as "write what you love, get your work out in the world any way you can, and never give up," and that's a valuable lesson, if ever there was one. But I'd never want to condense Tom's talk to those few points. The sweet and hilarious journey that Tom took us on to get to this advise stays with me still.