Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

“How do you read a book of poems?”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That’s what my friend Michael asked in an e-mail he sent me today. Michael is a major reader, devouring books in astonishing numbers, across genres and centuries, and he is a thoughtful reader whose note asked important questions about reading poetry.

So he asked how I read a book of poems. “Do you read it straight through or dip into it now and then? Do you read it with pencil and paper, taking notes, or just immerse yourself in it? Do you go back and read specific poems or the whole volume? My dilemma is how to retain something of the language, beauty, images, sounds, etc. that make poetry so wonderful.”

My first response was, “aaaah.” What poet is not heartened, cheered, thrilled, by the thought of readers out there who want to know how best to approach our work? Who want to bring themselves to it with their most careful attention?

How do you read poetry? I can answer only for myself. As a poet I have been gratified to have many people tell me they read my first collection, “Afterwords,” straight through. Unlike many poetry collections, “Afterwords” has a strongly narrative line, and I have been glad to know that it has so often been read start to finish. I think that a reader gets it in a different, maybe better, way reading that way because it is very specifically “about” something, the illness and death of my husband and the reimagining of my life in the shadow of that loss which has the element of time.

My second book, “Container Gardening,” is a more typical collection, with thematic sections, but with an overall relatedness among the poems that may be subtle enough to be apparent only to me. I can picture it being read piecemeal, though again, I hope it is sometimes read cover to cover.

I obsessed over the selection of poems to go into my books and their order. I think that’s almost always the case, with choices being made carefully, often in consultation with editors, fellow poets, and trusted readers. Which poems group together most cohesively? And then, which one builds on the mood of the one before? Which gives the reader a breath? Which complements or varies the length, the sound, the shape? The results of those decisions can be seen only by the reader who takes in the book as it was put together to be read.

As a reader, though, I have to confess that, though I ultimately end up reading front to back, I often start with the box of chocolates approach, paging through for a favorite I’ve heard or scanning the table of contents to see if there is a poem calling out to be looked at first.

I don’t read poetry--or fiction either, for that matter--with pen and paper in hand, although I often leave little bookmarks in both at pages I know I’ll want to revisit, maybe read to someone else. I think Michael’s word is the perfect one here: “immerse.” Poetry is as much about sound as it is about content. In order to really get it, you do need to immerse yourself in it, free yourself from distraction and give yourself up to the words.

Most of all, as a reader, I want to be alone with the sound of the poem. Immersed.

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"Mazel tov!"

Friday, January 29, 2010

I’ve just finished reading a strange, exhilarating, and fascinating book, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” a novel by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

It is the story of Cass Seltzer, who is drifting in the academic still waters of his specialty, the psychology of religion, when he is struck by zeitgeist lightning. He writes a book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” that makes a case for reason over faith. With religion on everyone’s mind, in art as in life, the book becomes a bestseller, bringing its author fame, fortune, a teaching offer from Harvard, and a challenge to debate the existence of God.

Around Cass revolve a constellation of academic types, including his unbearably beautiful, unbearably brilliant lover; his mentor who is just plain unbearable; a vibrant earth-mother character; and a remarkable child caught in an impossible situation. The book is filled with theological philosophy and send-ups of same. It is a delicious read, veering between thesis-friendly dialogue and chick-lit pacing, existential ponderings and egomaniacal panderings. It is curious, original, and ultimately makes a strong case for our complicated, flawed, and endlessly interesting species.

The book’s abundant Jewish references, coupled with Goldstein’s odd tendency to mention the upper lip of nearly every character, reminded me of an old Jewish legend about the philtrum, that little cleft below the nose. According to the story, in the months before a child is born the angel Gabriel visits the child and teaches him or her everything about the world. But just before birth, Gabriel touches the child on the upper lip and all the knowledge is instantly forgotten. The cleft remains as a sign of everything we spend our lives relearning. This probably has nothing to do with the book, but I love the legend. And the book is, at its heart, about what we believe, what we know, and how we make sense of the world. And maybe about how we try to relearn those lessons from the angel.

In the book’s final scene (this is not a spoiler) people are joyously greeting each other with cries of “Mazel tov!” Although, in Hebrew and Yiddish, this translates into “good luck,” it is actually used, as Goldstein notes, to congratulate someone on whom fortune has already smiled. And so “mazel tov” to me and to those among you who have already had the pleasure of reading this book. To those who have not, “mazel tov” to you for getting this recommendation!

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Reading the Sunday papers

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some days the news gives you news in unintended ways. In today’s New York Times I read the obituary of a poet named Abraham Sutzkever, whose beautiful, haunting, and heart-breaking work I discovered only recently. He wrote in Yiddish about the Holocaust and the lost world of Eastern European Jewry.

Here is one of his poems, translated by Jacqueline Osherow:

Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life's own path until it's gone
somewhere in a fog and can't be seen —

If someone should find these pearls
let him know how — cool, aloof — they lit up
the eighteen-year-old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland —
I'm throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they're found by a young man —
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they're found by a girl —
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they're found by an old man —
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.

From Epitaphs 1943-44

When I turned from the Times’ news section to “News of the Week in Review,” I saw its lead story about political anger. It was illustrated with some of the most disturbing photographs I’ve seen in a long time. The front page photo is from a Tea Party rally. Pictured front and center are three women not far off my age cohort. One holds a sign that reads, “Gun Control is being able to hit your target.” The jump has a photo, too, this one from the 1964 presidential campaign. A woman identified as a Barry Goldwater supporter holds a “USA Love It or Leave It” poster. Her face is so contorted with anger that she looks more animal than human. (For some reason, the editors have selected women’s faces here. Food for thought. No comment.)

Left me thinking about hate in its various historical moments and incarnations and what it does to us.

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Books given and stolen

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I always make sure to have plenty of books when I’m going on a trip--ones I know I’ll like and ones I take in case I don’t like others and ones I take in case I’m not in the mood to read even the ones I know I’ll like. So when I left on our family vacation, I had a good supply. I didn’t need another book. But...

...we passed a bookstore and Jenny and Nate ran in because they wanted to buy me a book. It was “The Book Thief.” They said it was a YA, but that they thought I’d like it. Jenny, Nate’s mother, was listening to an audio version. Nate, who is 14, read it a couple of years ago and considers it one of his favorites. He is currently reading ”To Kill a Mockingbird” and that’s already another favorite. Because of who he is, I know he has a lifetime ahead of him of reading books he will love.

I started it as soon as we got back to the house. A little strange at the beginning. The narrator was Death. There were some graphic elements, which I am never charmed by. But once the story really got going, I couldn’t put it down. The book is over 500 pages and when I finished it the next afternoon I cried. A lot.

The author, Markus Zusak, includes a lot of visual imagery in his unusual use of language. And I liked that the book’s familiar subject, the Holocaust, was viewed from a much less familiar perspective: the main character is a young German girl living with her German foster parents among their neighbors in a small town not far from the concentration camp at Dachau. The girl is the “book thief” who has a passion for books even before she can read and collects them whenever and however she can. As you might expect in a book narrated by Death--or, I guess, any decent book--the people run the basic human gamut, monsters to heroes, with most occupying the flawed and complicated middle ground.

And what a fascinating character Death is as Zusak has imagined him. He’s not an enemy. He’s pretty much just following orders, too. He goes where he needs to be and even seems to have a heart that breaks occasionally at what he’s called on to do. The souls he must carry away he bears softly, often tenderly, even sadly. He is nothing to be afraid of. He is just the natural consequence of what happens.

A gift carefully chosen is always a treat. But when someone gives you a book they have read and loved, it carries an extra dimension. The giving of a treasure from one book-lover to another is a gift of time well-spent and ideas lovingly offered. What could be better?

Thank you, Jenny and Nate.

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A tale of two endings

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First of all, I had a “Wuthering Heights” problem just because I had never read it. No, really, never read it, I have to confess, though I had read and reread its cousin, "Jane Eyre," many times. My friend Susan and I had coincidentally just finished rereading “Middlemarch” and were thinking about reading something else together.

“’Wuthering Heights’,” I said. “I hate “’Wuthering Heights’,” she said. But, being the person she is, she agreed to go along with me. Now I know what she meant.

I had not gone far into the fresh hell that is Emily Bronte’s great work when I noticed that I hated, if not the book itself, then every character. Ok, not Lockwood. Lockwood’s not really a hate-able character.

So for the past week my bookmark has remained at a page just short of the end. I’m not sure why I am so reluctant to be done with it. That’s more like the way I sometimes am with books I love. Like the one I galloped through while avoiding Heathcliff, et. al.--“Persuasion,” Jane Austen’s final and posthumously-published novel.

It is a particular triumph, don’t you think, to have written a novel that is still a page-turner 193 years later. I recently saw an exhibit of Jane’s letters at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and was charmed by how closely her snarky comments to her correspondents echoed the ever-so-gently snarky observations of her heroines. Reminded me of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s comment, “If you have nothing nice to say, then come sit by me!”

I couldn’t put it down. Until I got close enough to the end so that I knew Anne would be reunited with her love (it’s not a spoiler if the book is almost 200 years old, is it?) and her silly sisters would grow a little wiser and all manner of things would be well. Though not so much for Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay, whom we despise, right?

But at that point I stopped for a while, trying to stave off the wrenching moment of parting from the wonderful world of Jane. I even considered going back to Heathcliff. But it felt impossible to veer from “Persuasion’s” privately guarded emotional turmoils to the heavy lifting of sturm und drang on the moors. So I finished it and loved every delicious sentence.

In the intro to the edition I read, Margaret Drabble calls “Persuasion” a “novel of second chances” and what’s not to love about that? Especially at this time of year, when we look forward to January’s illusion of a clean slate.

Now I know what’s waiting for me. A hot and cold dose of human flaws and passions. I’ll read it and I’ll be glad I did. I know, I know. I’ll finish “Wuthering Heights” tomorrow.

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New on the Bookshelf: "Americans in Space" by Mary E. Mitchell

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mary E. Mitchell is one of my unseen online friends. We’ve never met in person, although I’m hoping we will, since we are both in the Boston area. But what I know of Mary is her generosity and good humor in taking on the “herding cats” job of organizing a lovely retreat for women writers each spring in Duxbury, and her accomplishments as a writer of well-reviewed novels, including this latest one.

Mary’s new book is “Americans in Space.” Her style has been described as “one party poignancy, one part humor” and, in choosing “Americans in Space” as an Indie Next selection, the reviewer said, " ‘Americans in Space’ will speak to all readers, especially to parents of teens."

Mary’s first novel is “Starting Out Sideways,” a 2007 Thomas Dunne Book from St. Martin's Press. For years she has taught writing at the Joan Brack Adult Learning Center and at Bethany Hill School, a living and learning community, both in Framingham, Massachusetts.

In describing “Americans in Space,” Mary says:

“For months I have been telling readers that “Americans in Space” is about loss, and about the long, excruciating road back from loss for a young widow and her unmoored family. The novel’s main character, Kate Cavanaugh, struggles mightily two years after the death of her beloved husband. She cannot reach Charlotte, her angry teenage daughter, who acts out in cyberspace and in tattoo parlors. She cannot get Hunter, her four year old son, to speak in full sentences, or relinquish the ketchup bottle he carries clutched to his heart. She cannot find happiness, despite the best efforts of resourceful friends, an eager love interest or colleagues at work. Kate is a guidance counselor at the Alan B. Shepard (first American in space!) High School, and runs a weekly counseling group for mixed-up, troubled students. Her group is called New Frontiers. My misfits, Kate lovingly calls them.

“It is the one area of Kate’s life that seems to work, her weekly efforts with these deeply troubled children. Unlike with her own daughter, Kate feels she can bring comfort and meaning to these young people’s lives. They look up to her and trust her and try not to curse when they’re around her. She has a way of making them believe in themselves, even when they’re feeling most self-loathing or unsure. One girl in her group, Phoenix, especially captures Kate’s interest.

‘She looks nothing like my Charlotte,” Kate muses, “yet I often imagine Phoenix to be my daughter’s psychic twin. She is sensitive, intelligent, volatile. If my own daughter were blonde instead of dark, and named for a city instead of for Kyle’s grandmother, Charlotte might be this lovely waif in my office. Except that Charlotte didn’t swallow a whole bottle of ibuprofen last year.’

I think what I realize, only after writing this novel and then seeing it in print, is that Kate has been healing herself all along, through her work with other people’s children. It is the giving of herself to others that finally touches the iceberg within her heart. The warmth and forgiveness she feels for these children begins to allow her to forgive herself and love her children just the way they are. A truth, then, emerges from fiction.

It’s a funny thing to find a lesson in one’s own work. Maybe we are our own best teachers, if only we listen closely enough.”

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You've Gotta Read This!

Friday, October 16, 2009

How do readers and books find each other? Here are all these new books coming out every day....old ones you never got the chance to read...eye-catching displays at the bookstore...reviews by reviewers you respect...reviews by people you’ve never heard of.....Decisions, decisions.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: no matter how many interesting reviews you read or how many ads you see, what most often gets a book into my hands is a real person telling me, “You’ve just got to read this.”

That’s exactly the premise behind the Flashlight Worthy book recommendations web site, which has as its mission recommendations of “books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime.” The site’s creators are Peter Steinberg (who handles the books part) and Eric Mueller (the tech part) I love the name, with its image of when staying up to read a good book was a daring act. (Just one more chapter. Pleeeeze.)

Peter explains that he started Flashlight Worthy because finding quick, concise online book recommendations was hard. 

“Amazon reviews are massively long. Google is too robotic, and while I love book bloggers, it's hard to find one who shares your reading tastes. And if you do, they usually don't read much faster than you do so you don't have a whole lot of choice in what they recommend.”

At Flashlight Worthy, readers can add their own “recommended” lists, that are categorized so that it’s easy to find just what you’re looking for, from “testing the waters of sci-fi” to “baseball by the numbers: the best books on baseball stats” to “great books for strong girls in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade.”

Peter and Eric invite you to visit and add a list of your own. Oh, and one more thing: they have a little problem they’re looking for help with. Seems that the blog’s name tends to confuse Google into grouping them with suppliers of flashlights. So they're hoping book-lovers will add the site to their own blogrolls to keep the recommendations coming.

Another group of book recommendations--these are for children's books--comes from my friend Deborah Sloan at her site, The Picnic Basket. Her readers are teachers, librarians, and just plain lovers of children’s literature who post reviews of new books. When I read it, I always find myself making lists of books to give as gifts. One that’s on my list right now is “Buying, Training & Caring for Your Dinosaur” by Laura Rennert, which sounds like fun for my favorite young dinosaur-lovers.

Picnic Basket readers were probably among the first to know about “Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith,” by Deborah Heiligman, a book that’s just been nominated for a National Book Award.

Deborah’s decision to set up a blog for book recommendations underscores my impression that our favorite book choices often come from other readers. Deborah quotes Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, saying, “Nothing influences a person more than a recommendation from a trusted friend.”

What books would you recommend?

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Confessions of a poetry contest judge

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I’ve just picked the winner of a poetry book contest. My first time as a judge. And I am feeling good about my choices (yes, choices--there were also honorable mentions) but sad, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that I could not choose more and be one contest judge.

I felt honored to be asked to make this selection. And I felt the loss for the non-winners (let’s not call them losers). True, there were a few books that went pretty quickly into the “not” pile. But the largest stack was “maybe” and here lay the hopes and dreams I felt most keenly. It was hard work and I had more than a few nights of dreams prompted by anxiety about the task and the responsibility.

There’s the worry about objectivity, first of all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s primarily in the eye of the beholder and the conscience of the judge. I knew many of the authors of these books, and I’m sure that’s often the case in contests. Since these entries were not anonymous, you could easily make a case for some kind of favoritism. But you’d be wrong. I tried scrupulously to make sure I was not giving unfair advantage to poets I knew. Or unfair disadvantage either, for that matter.

And of course, it’s all apples and oranges. The books were all over the place in terms of theme, style, and intent. But I tried to figure out how well each book succeeded in being itself. I wasn’t trying to equate, say a spiritual descendant of “The Bell Jar” with one more in the X. J. Kennedy mode. I was just trying to see which seemed to be most successfully the book it was meant to be.

What I came away with after I was finished was a sense of huge affection and respect for the poets who entered the contest. All poets are putting so much at risk when they put themselves on the page. I once heard a singer and songwriter say, “All my songs are autobiographical; they’re just not about me.” With a poet, it’s just the other way around. Whether or not they’re autobiographical, the writer always shows through.

One of riskiest maneuvers of all is entering a poetry contest because you have to declare to yourself and the person who will read your work that you care very much about this. And that you are trusting the reader to treat your work with respect. You do that with any reader, but with a contest judge the stakes are higher.

So here, finally, is my confession to you authors of the stack of books now just off to the side of my desk. My feelings for you are tender and grateful, respectful of your efforts, admiring of your resolve. You are the ones who follow your dreams, who honor your words, who notice the world and offer it for us to share. Thank you.

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What do you think?

Monday, October 5, 2009

I couldn’t wait to see “Bright Star.” I expected to love it.  After all--Keats, Fanny Brawne, Jane Campion--all the right credentials are in place.  Adoring reviews from everyone from A.O. Scott and David Denby to all my poetry pals.  What’s not to like?

Much to my surprise, I didn’t like it.  I found it leaden and charmless, springing to life only in the brief moments when poetry was discussed, when the little sister spoke, and when the Hampstead Heathens sang in the drawing room. 

So I expressed my opinion. And then I was sorry I did.  So many friends liked it.  They were disappointed that I didn't. I felt uneasy.  How could I not love such a beautiful, sensitive, artistic depiction of these beautiful, sensitive, artistic characters?  And then I felt a little guilty. Did  my friends think I was rejecting them or their taste?  They didn’t think I was rejecting Keats, did they?  I was simply expressing my thoughts, but my thoughts differed from theirs:  was that a problem?
 
Horse races aside, I guess it’s only human to want others to like what we like.  When we find a book that transports us, it feels like a gift to say to someone, “Here--you must read this.”  If they don’t like it, it does feel like rejection. Of our book, of our taste. Of our...well, not let’s not go there.  Or if it’s not rejection, then at least it’s the small loss of something we might have shared.  

It feels risky, too, when you’re the one voicing the opinion. 

“What did you think?”  

“Well, I thought...(oh, now I have to expose my thinking, my taste, discernment, intelligence, sense of humor--maybe I could just chicken out)  Um...I thought it was ok.”  

(But maybe they’d like to hear what I think, have a discussion, see my point, or try to convince me that I missed something in it.)  

“Well, actually, I didn’t like it so much.”  

“What? How could you not like it?”

Does that mean, how could you not like it when you’re a friend of mine?  Or when you’re an intelligent person?  Vanilla/chocolate, po-tay-to/po-tah-to.  Should we just keep our opinions to ourselves?

I wonder, when we ask, “what did you think,” what is it we really want to know? 

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“Starting here, what do you want to remember?”

Monday, September 14, 2009

I thought this morning of that opening line from William Stafford’s beautiful poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready.” I was listening to an NPR interview with two Microsoft researchers, one of them the first user of “MyLifeBits” which essentially makes a record of his entire life--where he goes, what he does, the phone conversations he has, the tv programs he watches, the meals he eats. Every moment of his life is being archived for...well, for whatever--anything from convenient recall to resource for distant posterity. At last, a way to remedy the famously flawed human memory: just record everything.

And I thought how making every minute of every day one to remember means that no minute and no day is memorable.

If, as we used to say in the ‘60s, “everything is beautiful” or, as Garrison Keillor (good health to him!) says now, “the children are all above average,” then what is good? What is excellent? What is memorable?

The Jewish prayers that accompany the beginning and ending of the sabbath speak of separation and distinction, one day marked as different from others. I thought of my recent wedding ceremony where, again, mention was made of separation--in this case two people set aside for each other. Who would we be without making some kind of order among those moments and people and things in our lives, without making distinctions, assigning values?

We can respect the minutes and the minute details that add up to our days and years. Time is, of course, our only real possession. And forgetting can be inconvenient or worse. But don’t some things deserve to be forgotten? Can we truly honor our time without making a distinction between the minutes of driving to the dentist or paying bills and those of seeing a friend or reading a book or one of the other small fortunate events that add up to what our lives are?

I think what we should be concentrating on is not recording but noticing. Every day things happen that would amaze us if we took the time to notice them. Not everything, but some things.

Every day people are in our lives in ways that sustain us. Not every person, but some people.

Starting here, what can you live with forgetting?

What do you want to notice?

What do you want to remember?

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Lessons from Julia's book

Monday, August 24, 2009

I’ve just returned home from the neighborhood farmers’ market with a bulging bag of what August does best--corn and tomatoes and melons. Also pea tendrils from a stall of Asian vegetables where I was discussing recipes with two Haitian women. And long lavender Chinese eggplants I need to find a recipe for.

It’s the bountiful season, no doubt, that’s put me in the mood to cook the fruits of my hunting and gathering. But according to this morning’s New York Times, we’re also all under the spell of Julia and The Book. (And if you haven’t yet seen the movie, have you got a treat waiting for you!

My copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” has a slightly ripped binding. It’s old (first edition, 14th printing) and spattered and has notes penciled in beside many of the recipes (“next time make the brown-braised onions FIRST”). I was a new bride and Julia taught me to cook. She also taught me to be ambitious and adventurous in the kitchen. Maybe even outside the kitchen. And maybe that was her most enduring lesson, the reason a new generation of cooks is making her book a best-seller today. Yes, we know what is healthy to eat, but maybe eating shouldn’t be only about what sustains our bodies.

People in other countries seem to know it better than we do here in America, the idea that eating just may be also about sustaining our souls with food that we take the time to prepare with careful attention and eat not standing up or driving, but sitting at a table with people to whom we also give careful attention.

Julia’s ‘60s ultimately gave way to the excessive ‘80s and we started paying more attention to amounts on our plates--enormous or minceur--and her lessons started slipping away from us. But Nora Ephron and Julie Powell have given us a chance to relearn them. A little butter isn’t a terrible thing. Good food rarely comes in a box with listed ingredients. Cooking is an art, but it can be mastered. And savoring good food in the company of friends and family is one of the great pleasures we are given in this life.

Bon appetit to you, Julia. And to Nora, Julie, Meryl, Amy. And to us.

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New on the bookshelf: "The Cure for Grief" by Nellie Hermann

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My friend Susan Ebert, always a source of great reading suggestions and important ideas, introduced me to the work of Nellie Hermann. Nellie grew up in Newton, Massachusetts and earned an M.F.A. from Columbia and has a first novel out, “The Cure for Grief.” It tells a story of unimaginable sadness and creates what Kirkus Review terms, “a gorgeously readable meditation on mourning and survival.” It is newly out in paperback and has just been selected by Target as one of their “breakout books” for the summer. I asked Nellie to tell us about the book and here is what she said:

“’The Cure for Grief’ was not my title, originally, and I had some hesitation about its finality. Would people pick up my book expecting a true “cure,” and then be disappointed? As time has passed, though, I have grown to like it more and more, if for no other reason than the recognition that writing the book was as close to a cure as I will ever get.

“When I was in high school, I lost both my father and the youngest of my three brothers within a year, to brain tumors. A few years before that, when I was in fifth grade, my oldest brother was diagnosed with a severe mental illness. My father, who died when he was 58, was a Holocaust survivor, whose story had always been fascinating to me, as well as out of reach.

“The ramifications of all of this tragedy, the tendrils of which went back a long way, were deep and long and inappropriate for a blog post, but suffice it to say that it took me many years to be able to tell people about my story (and even now it’s still hard). Writing was where I felt comfortable letting out even a little of what I felt, and even there I wrote around my own story for a long time. It was when I was in graduate school, and a teacher diagnosed my stories as always having “damaged males on the side,” that it dawned on me that it was time to confront the story head on.

“’The Cure for Grief’’ is a work of fiction, and for me this is a lot of where the “cure” part comes in. Processing what I had been through was a necessary act—revisiting scenes that were painful for me, confronting images that I had been carrying around for years and that were beginning to fester—but just as necessary was the act of creation around what had really happened, the act of transforming my own story into one that could be given away. There was no way I could do justice to my actual family—I could not bring them back—and accepting this was crucial to being able to write the book and create Ruby, my main character, and her family, that resembles mine and yet is not mine. Giving coherence and shape to something that in real life did not (and does not) necessarily have such qualities was a truly powerful act, and one that transformed my life. Creating a new family, and watching them go through the pain and come out the other side; giving the story a home that was outside of my own body, was not a cure, but was as close as I can come.

“And the title, which I approve of more and more, came about in a way that could not be denied: many titles were being thrown about, none of which were quite right, and my editor typed the word “ruby” into an internet search engine and came up with the fact that in ancient times, rubies were thought to be cures for grief. I had not known this when I named my main character, but it seemed too significant a coincidence to be ignored.

“It is my hope that the book can be of help or interest to people who have or are experiencing grief, or can help those who haven’t to perhaps understand better the people in their lives who have. Being in touch with a few readers who have reached out to me to tell me their stories has been a great joy and an unintended consequence. I believe deeply in the power of narrative to transform the most terrible moments of our lives, in the act of reading as well as writing, and getting to share my story in this way is a gift that only continues to grow.”

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New media, old media, and the public interest

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Just as I’ve finished my post about the likely sad demise of the Bay State Banner here in Boston, something has erupted that’s essentially a food fight between old and new media. Long story short, Ted Diadiun, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reacted to a blogger reacting to a Plain Dealer column by calling bloggers, “a bunch of pipsqueaks out there talking about what the real journalists do.” Predictably, the comment ignited blazing online reaction and won another embattled newspaper no new friends.

Here’s my take, for what it’s worth. Yes, there are plenty of self-serving bloggers with no idea what journalistic ethics are. Or rules of grammar, for that matter. Hacks exist in every field. If you count on the wisdom of the marketplace, you figure--some evidence to the contrary--that the cream will rise to the top and the sludge will eventually sink without a trace.

Meanwhile there are bloggers who are, like me, former print journalists who did not suddenly lose their professional standards when their newspapers downsized out from under them. And there are bloggers (maybe we should dignify them with the name online journalists) who are serious about finding and reporting news in this new forum.

Bottom line is a sense of responsibility to the public. A hissy fit, whether thrown by a blogger or a print journalist may make for fun reading, but it is of no use to readers of anything. Just looks like a bunch of pipsqueaks saying, “the public be damned.”

Meanwhile, consider switching from reading news to reading poetry:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams

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Another one bites the dust?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Here in Boston another newspaper voice seems about to go silent. Right now the Bay State Banner has just “suspended” publication, but unless a savior is found soon, that suspension will be permanent. The Banner has, since 1965, been a voice for Boston’s black community, which has often been city marginalized in the city's newspapers and broadcast media.

The Banner spoke to a community and community is one more thing lost, or at least irreparably altered, with the death of a paper. Picture the morning commute with a train full of newspaper readers, as opposed to a train filled with people glued to their Blackberrys (Blackberries? Sure wish my blog had a copy editor.) One is a communal experience, while the other is solitary. The internet’s paradox is that while we’re connected, we’re also detached. What’s the answer? If we’re linked to a thousand different news sources, isn’t that a good and healthy thing? But then we’re missing what we have in common when we’re all reading and listening to just a few outlets.

The internet gives us immediacy. On Friday night when Sarah Palin gave her less-than-articulate resignation speech, who would have thought for an instant of waiting for the next day’s paper to find out about it? And the protests around the Iranian election results, beamed around the world by bloggers and anyone with a cell phone camera make an indisputable case for the online news. Who would want to be without that?

But newspapers give us depth. I recently saw an HBO documentary called, “Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech.” One segment concerned the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the documentation of the U.S.’s deeply flawed and manipulated conduct of the Vietnam War. I was reminded again of that with yesterday’s astoundingly worded New York Times headline about the death of Robert McNamara, “Architect of a Futile War.” The credentialed reporting, the extended following of a story, the publication of lengthy documents, even the publication of important stories on non-sexy topics--all things newspapers have done year after year, all things that online news sources have yet to prove themselves in, all vital to keeping us informed. No one imagines that newspapers will--or even should--continue unchanged and new media has a long way to go before it’s an adequate replacement.

I’m thinking that each of us has a role to play in how this story unfolds. Every time we choose to read a paper or not and every time we choose which online news sources we read, we are affecting it. And, in case we’re tempted to avoid the whole question, we need to remember that nothing of consequence rides on the answer but democracy, which requires a well-informed citizenry to function.

We live in interesting times. Stay tuned for breaking news.

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In praise of slow

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I am reading “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.” It’s a big, fat, wonderful book, but it’s not a page turner. That is, I don’t feel I want to hurry through it. It feels more like a leisurely read that unfolds in an unhurried way. And it’s making me realize how satisfying slow can be.

We get so used to thinking that fast is good and faster is better, to multitasking, to doing it all. But I’d like to make a case for doing one thing at a time. Just one. Just one simple thing without distraction. Without the hum at the edge, without the static telling you to move on, hurry, don’t miss anything--not the news that never stops coming, not the music that is constant background, not the everything that is pulling at us. Without the shallow breathing and the tongue tight on the roof of your mouth.

Here’s a radical thought--uni-tasking. Doing just one thing, like taking a big, fat, wonderful book and just reading.

So now...in this moment...take a breath...and know that of all the booksandpapersandblogsandmagazines...only a few will be read...know that you will miss much...and that all the time you have...is simply that...and you...can stop...the rush.

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New on the bookshelf: "The Other Half of Life "

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Here’s a new book by Kim Ablon Whitney, “The Other Half of Life” a novel based on the tragic story of the ship the St. Louis, which left Germany in 1939 carrying Jewish refugees escaping to Cuba. It’s historical fiction, but, as always, the reality of history remains with us. When I first asked Kim to write for my blog about how this book came to be written, the Holocaust Museum had not yet been catapulted into the news and Stephen Tyrone Johns, the 39-year-old security guard who worked the museum’s front door, was still alive.

This book, like Kim’s others, is a young adult novel, but if you don’t have any young adults in your house, you can buy it for yourself. I asked Kim to talk a little about the book and this is what she said:

“Writing “The Other Half of Life” was a bit of a journey. I was conducting research for another novel set in Europe before World War II when I came upon the story of the motor ship, the St. Louis. The St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany in 1939 carrying 937 Jewish refugees escaping Hitler and bound for Cuba. Most of the passengers had immigration numbers to the U.S. and planned to wait in Cuba until they were allowed in to the U.S. Tragically, at the last moment Cuba rescinded the passengers’ landing permits and the ship was forced to return to Europe. 254 of the passengers ended up perishing in the Holocaust.

“I was immediately captivated by this heartbreaking story and also amazed I had never heard of it. I began asking family and friends whether they knew of the St. Louis and I was surprised that many hadn’t either. Only a few remembered something about a 1970’s film, "The Voyage of the Damned." I knew that I wanted to try to bring to life this lesser known, yet important chapter of the Holocaust for younger generations.

“One of the many fascinating things about the ship was that it was a luxury liner with comfortable cabins, a cinema, and even a swimming pool. All of a sudden passengers who had been through horrible suffering were living like kings.

“My main character is a boy—the first male protagonist in my books (which probably has something to do with having two young boys). But Thomas’s voice came to me and I knew the story would be through his point-of-view. Thomas is 15 years-old and his father has been sent away to Dachau. His mother could only afford one ticket aboard the St. Louis, so Thomas is traveling alone. He is planning to meet his older half-brother in Cuba and there they will wait, hoping Thomas’s mother, and maybe his father too, will be able to join them. Thomas is heartbroken to leave his mother behind, and to leave without knowing his father’s fate.

“Aboard the ship, Thomas soon meets 14 year-old Priska, a seemingly carefree and bubbly beauty. She’s traveling with her parents and younger sister and is excited about the luxurious voyage, and starting a new life free from persecution.

“Over the course of the voyage, Thomas and Priska forge a close friendship, encounter a spy mystery, and together face the devastating news that Cuba, and ultimately the U.S. too, will not admit the passengers.

“I hope I’ve made the book accessible to both young adult and adult readers. With the number of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans dwindling—the people who lived through these times firsthand—it’s more important than ever for the older generations to share their stories with younger generations. My biggest wish for this book is that grandparents read it along with their grandchildren and discuss it with them, and that parents read it with their children. Perhaps it will spark a conversation where the older generations can find a way to share things with the younger generations that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to share.

“In addition to helping the generations talk about the Holocaust, I also hope my book might encourage a dialogue about immigration. The St. Louis left an indelible legacy in helping to shape our country’s humanitarian treatment of refugees, and influenced legislation such as the 1948 Displaced Persons Act and the 1980 Refugee Act. Because of the United States’ history as a safe haven for people seeking freedom from persecution, we (especially the teenagers who are the future leaders of our country) need to continue to explore the complex and controversial issue of immigration.”

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The words we choose to use

Monday, June 8, 2009

I’ve written frequently about the power of words. It's something I feel strongly about. I’ve talked about how we teach little children to “use your words” to make themselves understood instead of fighting or biting or throwing tantrums. I’ve written about being vigilant not to let our words lose their meaning. The most mundane and silly example of that is when we ask for a “tall” coffee at Starbucks when what we really want is their smallest size. And, of course, more insidious recent examples include legislative naming rights like “Defense of Marriage Act” and “Patriot Act.”

I thought about words and their power again the other day when I read Ellen Goodman’s outstanding op-ed piece, The Myth of the Lone Shooter, about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. She makes the point that, again and again, the person supposedly acting alone to commit a appalling act like Scott Roeder’s has been aided and abetted by a universe of people shooting hateful words from the hip.

The pen, as we’ve all been taught, is mightier than the sword and the two together are an unbeatable combination, for good or ill. In the case of Roeder, the word, written and spoken, sharpened the sword, morphed its use into a righteous act, and whispered self-deception into his ear. The words came from Bill O’Reilly et al. ranting onscreen, from the Operation Rescue people shouting at women entering abortion clinics, from opportunistic public figures glomming onto an issue, and from private citizens who are kind to their dogs and buy Girl Scout cookies and generally think of themselves as good people. And from any one of us who plays fast and loose with the power of what we say.

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Blogs 101, part 2

Friday, May 29, 2009

In my last post I made a case for venturing into the world of blogs. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some of my favorites. No official list of anything, just a personal group.

First of all, two basics Slate and Huffington Post. Slate is a daily magazine and HuffPo--and, yes, that is Arianna Huffington in one more incarnation--is a collection of blogs that changes day to day depending on who’s saying what of interest.

A new favorite of mine for news is Talking Points Memo. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know about it until Maureen Dowd’s recent did-she-or-didn’t-she plagiarize moment. Dowd’s May 17 New York Times column included a 42-word paragraph that, except for two words, was exactly the same as a paragraph posted on May 14 on TPM. Hmmm. Anyhow, TPM has way too many updates during the day for me to keep track of, but I take a quick look and always find something to make me glad I did.

Here in Boston I like Media Nation by Dan Kennedy, who is good at covering what goes on here in the media, especially the ongoing cliff-hanger that is The Boston Globe. And Running a Hospital is a fascinating blog in which Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center talks about everything from choreography to the prevention of central line infections and includes much more of non-medical interest than you would expect.

And there are blogs about books. The Picnic Basket, written by my friend Deborah Sloan, focuses on children’s literature. The Boston Bibliophile is a lively conversation about books, favorite and non and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast usually discusses children’s lit, but often looks at other books as well, including poetry (including Container Gardening!). And I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin is a wide-ranging blog in which Dustin Brookshire, a poet who lives in Atlanta, focuses on poetry and politics. This is the blog for which I wrote that “Why do I write” essay.

All good reading. And you might even be tempted to leave a comment from time to time--who knows?

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“I don’t like blogs....”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I heard someone say that recently. And since it was someone who is unfailingly current on the news, it seemed odd. It was as if he had said, “I don’t like newspapers” when what he might have meant was “I don’t like the Herald.” And, since he added that he would never want to leave a comment on a blog post, it was like saying he’d never write a letter to the editor. Okay.

I never expected to be a poster child for blogs. I am not naturally part of the blog demographic, if there is such a thing, and I can’t imagine my morning coffee without a newspaper spread out on the table in front of me. But when my Boston Globe section closed and I wasn’t ready to stop the conversations I had been having in my column, I became a blogger. And somehow in the process I also became a blog advocate.

Not that I don’t see shortcomings in blogospace: there is no end to the online equivalents of the shoddiest of print journalism. And not that I think blogs should replace newspapers: I hope with all my heart that that won’t happen. I believe that each has important strengths along with significant weaknesses and that the ideal information system for a democracy would be an energetic combination of the two.

But for us newspaper readers, getting at least some the news from blogs will take some getting used to for three reasons.

1. It doesn’t come neatly packaged. When you bring The New York Times or The Boston Globe in from the doorstep (or the flower bed) you can feel you’ve got the news in hand. It’s there--international to local, arts to science, insightful commentary to celeb gossip. Add the snatches of NPR you get in the car and you’re at least marginally current.

Blogs are a sprawling mass, sometimes herded by a few sites like The Huffington Post or Slate or The Daily Beast, but for the most part staking out their own territory. To read them, you first have to find them. And their numbers are so huge that,even as you read, you’re out of breath from the feeling that there’s no possible catching up.

2. It doesn’t come vetted. The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times doesn’t stand behind most blogs. Not even a copy editor does. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t well-researched and well-written blogs. It just means that you, as a reader, have to be an active participant, an assesser of information as well as a consumer.

3. Blogs invite comment, just as newspapers invite letters to the editor. They can carry the sender’s name or, unlike in most papers, be published anonymously. But the comments on blogs, for better or worse, are generally unedited. Commenters can cover themselves with glory or set themselves up for ridicule with the touch of a “send” icon. Of course you can just be a reader, not a responder. But it’s precisely the possibility of communal conversation that is the medium’s unique feature.

So I understand the feeling of my friend who doesn’t like blogs and all those like him. Taking the first small step into this rowdy world can feel like throwing yourself into an ocean wave. But face it, you’re going to do this sooner or later. You know that no matter how much you protest. After all, you probably already have a tv, right? An e-mail account?

The fact is it’s not a question of one or the other. Newspapers and blogs each are better at some things. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to have both.

Watch for my next post in which I’ll offer an intro to some of the blogs I’ve come to count on for the news that, in addition to newspapers, keeps me connected to the world.

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New on the bookshelf: “Lady of the Snakes” now in paperback

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Is there more time to read in the summer? A lot of things lure us outside to garden, to play tennis, to go walking, canoeing, whatever. But there are those lazy beach days, back yard days, rainy days that seem made for curling up with a good book. As if there is ever a day that wouldn’t be improved by doing that. Well, here is a book to put on your list. I loved reading it last year when it was first out. Now “Lady of the Snakes,” by Rachel Pastan, has just been reissued in paperback. It’s a terrific read, with engaging characters and the interweavings of fascinating story lines.

I asked Rachel to talk a little about the book. And, yes, the name Pastan has appeared here before. A few posts back I wrote about Rachel’s mother, Linda, who is a lovely poet and friend. You might be interested in seeing what Rachel has written about being a writer who is the daughter of a writer.

Here is what Rachel said about “Lady of the Snakes.”

“When I was expecting my first child I knew life was going to change, but after she was born I was astonished by how hard it could be to get through a day, even though I adored her. How could I make dinner, or take a shower, let alone get any writing done? When would I use my mind again, or do the work I loved?

“So I did what I always do when life surprises me: I looked around for novels that would reflect my experience back to me, to help me comprehend my life and feel less alone. To my dismay, I couldn’t find any. I decided that, when I could find some time, I would write the novel I had so much wanted to read.

“’Lady of the Snakes’ is the story of a young Russian literature professor, Jane Levitsky, with a young child. Jane is trying to find out the truth about the life and death of the wife of a famous 19th-century Russian novelist, while at the same time negotiating child care, outwitting a sly competitor, caring for a sick kid, and dealing with a Python-wearing graduate student. There’s a mystery here, and academic sleuthing, but at heart the book is about how you live when you’re torn between your passion for your work and your love for your family. Jane’s story isn’t my story, but her sense of being racked is mine.

“Many things have changed in the years since I began to write this book, and more novels featuring mothers of young children have appeared, but I’m amazed by how fraught the conversation about work and family can still be. I hope that, by telling one woman’s story, ‘Lady of the Snakes’ will offer both entertainment and solace.”

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The human voice--the Little Mermaid, Russalka, and Susan Boyle

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Since it’s almost the end of National Poetry Month, I’ve heard a lot of poetry lately. I’ve been reading it, too, but it’s the hearing I’m thinking about. I’m struck by how delightful it is to listen to someone read poetry aloud. To hear the sound--the voice, the way the words work together, the breath, the rhythm.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about voice in a different context. I saw the opera “Russalka.” It’s based on a folk legend that appears in one incarnation or another across cultures. It may be best known in the version translated into the Disney movie, “The Little Mermaid.” Basic story: mermaid falls in love with human man, trades away part of herself--usually her voice--to be with him. In most versions--except Disney’s of course--things end badly. And even in the Disney version, charming as the music is, it's pretty horrifying if you think about it. Especially if you picture theaters full of little girls getting the idea that it’s reasonable to chose silence when a handsome prince might be involved. The message is just be quiet.

So this month I was glad to listen to the enormous variety of voices raised in poetry. As a poet, I am grateful for each one of those voices and all the ones that came before, for those who laid down a long tradition and for those who add their voices in the hope of creating something of meaning and beauty.

And I was thinking about how we use our voices when someone sent me the now-famous Susan Boyle YouTube link. Amazing, yes, but one of the most amazing aspects was the reaction, from the cynical Simon and his skeptical audience to the thousands of posted comments elicited by this one woman simply standing up and using her voice.

One little note to anyone reading this who’s in Texas. Jim Photoglo, a terrific singer and songwriter whom I met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, will be on a concert tour to Austin, Chappell Hill, and Fredericksburg. Go hear him if you can.

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Introducing the book: “Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Authors want to find readers and readers want a good book. It’s a two-way street, but there are often roadblocks, most notably right now the precarious position of newspaper book sections. One bright spot is the presence of so many excellent book review and discussion blogs. (You can see some of my favorites on my links page.) One of the things I wanted to do in my blog, which I also did in my Boston Globe column, was to help writers and readers find each other by occasionally turning this space over to an author to talk about his or her new book. It’s not an interview or a review, just an author introducing the book.

This time it’s a re-issue by Beacon Press of a book originally published by Penguin Books, “Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue.” The author, Danielle Ofri, is a physician, writer, and editor in New York. She is editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review and author of two collections of essays about life in medicine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, LA Times, Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, and on National Public Radio.

In describing her book, Danielle says:

“’Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue’ grew out of my ten years of medical school and residency. All during my medical training, these stories were percolating in my mind and soul. It was only after I took an 18-month hiatus from medicine, however, that I could finally start to write them down. More than just describing the chaos of internship, I wanted to trace the emotional development of a doctor, how the inner being grows into the white coat. The book is about the “singular intimacy” of the doctor-patient relationship, one that has little parallel in other walks of life.

Bellevue Hospital is a crazy and wonderful place to practice medicine. It’s been my medical (and literary) home for 20 years now, and I suspect they’ll be carrying me out on a stretcher. People tend to think of Bellevue as a psychiatric hospital, but it’s just a regular city hospital. I’m an internist in the medical clinic and I see patients from every country in the world, with every sort of medical condition. There is a never a dull day at Bellevue Hospital.

Medicine is so fast-paced that there’s rarely time for contemplation. Writing, by contrast is slow and deliberative; it’s often only when I write about something that I have a chance to truly consider its impact. It is the special honor of medicine to be plunged into so many people’s lives. Writing offers the gift of being able to step back and contemplate these stories and their meanings.”

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Print shmint, or should we care if newspapers die

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

If a newspaper falls in a forest, should anyone care? People seem to think, with all the online news sources, including blogs, newspapers are obsolete.  Well, I used to be a newspaper columnist and now I’m a blogger and I’m here to offer this paraphrase: I know newspapers. Newspapers are a friend of mine and blogs are no newspapers.

In the short weeks since I started my blog, I’ve been doing a lot of online reading. I’ve found plenty of good blogs. Really impressive ones, well written and well intentioned. Plenty of bad ones, too. But there’s no blog, no collection of blogs--much as I like the Huffington Post--that takes the place of a newspaper. Even a newspaper online is barely up to the job. Boston.com, the Globe’s web incarnation, is so user-unfriendly that it does the paper no favors. I hate to carp, but when they generously added a link to my blog, I had to contact the editor for directions on how to find it!

There’s a scope of articles a newspaper tackles that’s hard to find anywhere else. There are knowledgeable writers who write great blogs about national politics, toxic banks, and health care. But no one’s digging into your town’s solid waste management problem. Local investigative reporting is something newspapers could afford; most blogs can’t.

Newspapers also land on the doorstep with a certain level of credibility. Facts have to be checked to make their way into a newspaper and if they aren’t the result is a printed “correction.” With a blog it’s hard to know if the “facts” are factual. It can be hard to figure out who among the zillions of bloggers has something of value to say and who is simply grinding an ax.

Here in Boston, where the Globe is teetering on the brink of possible nonexistence, Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has used his blog to call for a “blog rally” in support of the Globe. Mine is among the outpouring of comments. People are arguing in favor of print or in favor of online sources. But the fact is it can’t be either or. Each has something unique to offer in giving us the information we need to remain participants in a functioning democracy. The question is how are newspapers going to survive to fulfill their responsibility. They may be dinosaurs that have yet to find sure footing in this new reality. But blogs are the not-ready-for-prime-time players, with an important role to fill, certainly, but without the ability to do it all.  Until or unless they are, newspapers in some form need and deserve our support.

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Reading the “Rabbits”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I had promised myself I wouldn’t start my first post with “welcome to my new blog.” So here are those words, in my second. I picture that sentence being written a hundred, maybe a thousand, times every day, often by people in exactly my situation: I’m an outcast from old media.

For seven years I wrote a literary column for The Boston Globe. But now that my section of the paper has been shut down, here I am, jumping into the deep end of new media. Ready to see if I sink or swim or simply tread water. What I want to do here is what I did in my newspaper column, have a conversation about reading and writing. But the exciting thing here is that it can be an actual conversation. You jump in, too!

Have you read the Updike “Rabbit” books? I hadn’t and, after Updike died in January, I decided it was time I did. So I set myself to reading all four.

I have to confess, I didn’t love the first, “Rabbit, Run.” It is beautifully written, yes, but it seemed so, well, male. All those sports images, that casual male sexuality, that clueless aimlessness. With the second, too, “Rabbit Redux,” I felt I was slogging through a lit course assignment. I took a little break. But now I’m reading “Rabbit Is Rich” and that’s really grabbed me. In fact, I can’t wait to stop writing this and get back to it.

Still more male than I can easily relate to. But there’s that tenderness, those poignant descriptions of flawed human beings stumbling through the mundane dailiness of a flawed world. Updike seems to feel love not only for his characters, but for the millions of people in the real world whose lives are no more exciting or ennobled than those he’s writing about. He observes our daily lives in all their smallness and forgives the countless ways in which we fall short.

I’m sad to think that, after I finish this, what is ahead is “Rabbit at Rest.”

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Natasha and Liam and the rest of us

Friday, March 20, 2009

I don’t remember thinking about Natasha Richardson before this week. Or Liam Neeson either, beyond, of course, the hunkiness and maybe Schindler’s List. But now I am finding myself thinking about and reading about about the tragedy... those little boys...how, maybe, if the first ambulance hadn’t driven away...

As I look at those photographs of two of them looking impossibly beautiful and adoring, it occurs to me that beyond our sympathy is an expectation that these two actors are still telling us a story that we need to know about. A character on screen, stage, or page has something to tell us about ourselves. Whether it’s a real or a fictional character, there is somehow a lesson or a revelation about the way we live in the world. Madame Bovary, Holden Caufield, Elizabeth Bennett, and, yes Oskar Schindler, have important things to tell us about ourselves and those around us. When Hamlet tells his players to “hold, as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” what is on view is, as he later tells his mother, “the inmost part of you.”

We’ve seen this before and felt it, the inexplicable sadness on hearing of the death of a public figure. Someone we didn’t know, never saw in person, maybe didn’t even think about. And yet, the public keening, somehow strangely genuine. Maybe it comes from a recognition of our common experiences and what we learn from what we read about and see.

And so what I’m thinking is how Liam Neeson is now, in his real and private grief, continuing to be an actor for us in a way, showing us what grief is, giving us the chance to think about how we might be in that circumstance. We have almost certainly, each of us, witnessed grief close up even if we have not felt it ourselves. But this more distant grief may be easier for us to see.

We are unlikely ever to have a loss that makes international headlines and dims the theater lights on Broadway. But we will, each of us, face loss. We will be the ones “shocked and devastated.” We know this. And even as we ache for what we recognize in the pale face in the photographs, we search it for clues to our own humanness.

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