on the road with Stephen Fried

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

At the Pennsylvania Library Association Convention on Monday, Stephen Fried and I talked, with considerable conviction and some debate, about nonfiction and its various permutations. We talked about research—why and how we do it, why we love it, how we wouldn't exist without our libraries and primary sources. As always, Stephen was impressive—his deep need to know, his great defense of nonfiction, his glorious insistence on getting to the root of the matter. To read the document through. To hold the thing in one's hand. To locate, for each fact, a context.

But perhaps it was the drive to and from Lancaster that I treasured most—the winding way through farm country, the roadside attractions of Bird-in-Hand, the horses on the roads before us, and the talk, the always talk, about what we do and what we yearn to do, the students we've taught, the questions about what yet lies ahead.

A long-time friend. Treasured.

Thank you, Karl and PaLA, for inviting us.


One Thing Stolen: the cover reveal

Monday, September 29, 2014

So much love and thought and artistry has gone into the cover for the Florence novel that will be released next April from Chronicle Books. My deep thanks to everyone who read this story, who cared about its characters, who thought out loud about every option, and who put their art and magical way of seeing on the page. Particular thanks to Kristine Brogno of Chronicle Books, whose work is so wholly representative of the story itself, described below. And thanks, as ever, to Tamra Tuller, my editor, who saw this project through with conviction and heart. Thanks, finally, to my Penn students—Katie Goldrath and Maggie Ercolani—who inspired two primary characters in this novel, and who inspire me, still, and to Gregory Djanikian, who is in these pages, too.

Something is not right with Nadia Cara.

She’s become a thief. She has secrets. And when she tries to speak, the words seem far away. After her professor father brings her family to live in Florence, Italy, Nadia finds herself trapped by her own obsessions and following the trail of an elusive Italian boy whom no one but herself has seen. While her father researches a 1966 flood that nearly destroyed Florence, Nadia wonders if she herself can be rescued—or if she will disappear.

Set against the backdrop of a glimmering city, One Thing Stolen is an exploration of obsession, art, and a rare neurological disorder. It is about language and beauty, imagining and knowing, and the deep salvation of love.

One Thing Stolen was born of Beth Kephart’s obsession with birds, nests, rivers, and floods, as well as her deep curiosity about the mysteries of the human mind. It was in Florence, Italy, among winding streets and fearless artisans, that she learned the truth about the devastating flood of 1966, met a few of the Mud Angels who helped restore the city fifty years ago, and began to follow the trail of a story about tragedy and hope.

Beth is the award-winning author of nineteen books for readers of all ages, including You Are My Only, Small Damages, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, and Going Over. She also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania.


Lena Dunham on the Ick of Authorial Self Promotion

Ask anyone who has the distinct un-pleasure of taking about book promotions with me: I have a hard time with the whole affair. I love joining fellow writers in conversation. I like thinking out loud about the stuff of books, how they are made. But launching books is difficult territory for me, and the universe, I'm convinced, senses my ambiguity. Either it storms mightily on my book launch day (so much rain, the roads are flooded). Or there aren't enough books to go around. Or something really unsavory is written the Big Day Of. Or all things happen at once. Book upon book.

I should take that as a sign, should I not? Or should I just grin and bear it and stop writing blog posts like this one, which got me into a little trouble back in June.

Not surprisingly, I have been following Lena Dunham's book tour with great interest. What she says stacked up against what she'll do. Here is the latest, as reported by Alexandra Alter, in The New York Times:

In an era when author tours and splashy book parties have grown increasingly rare, Ms. Dunham has organized a traveling circus of sorts that seems more like a roving Burning Man festival than a sober, meet-the-author literary event. Prominent comedians and writers, such as the “Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein and the novelist Zadie Smith, have thrown their weight behind Ms. Dunham and will appear on her tour as part of a carefully curated cast of artists, along with live music, poetry readings and, naturally, food trucks.

“I found the idea of a traditional author tour, where you go and stand behind the lectern and talk about yourself, I found it a little bit embarrassing, a little blatantly self-promotional and a little boring,” Ms. Dunham said. “I wanted it to have an arts festival feel, which is why we now have all these remarkable, special weirdos who I found on the Internet.”

... The tour is also a way for Ms. Dunham to shed her TV persona and rebrand herself as an author. By putting her onstage alongside seasoned writers like the memoirist Mary Karr and the novelist Vendela Vida, Random House hopes to cast Ms. Dunham as a major new literary talent, not just a celebrity who leveraged her fame for a big book deal.
The question then is—Does a cast of characters and a performance schedule negate the self promotional aspects of a book launch? Can the nature of any event rebrand a celebrity as an author? I'm thinking (small thought) that what matters most in the end is the book itself. And that Lena Dunham has probably written a very good one—a book that would sell and please, regardless.


Naming the truth: Bracing honesty from Meghan Daum, in The New Yorker

Sunday, September 28, 2014

You want to know what honesty is? It's the ability to stare straight into the heart of something and speak the truth. Not the comfortable distortions. Not the way you wish it were—it or you. Meghan Daum piercingly and hauntingly writes the truth in this new piece in The New Yorker.

From an essay in the September 29 edition, entitled "Difference Maker." Spare, searching, riveting, deep, this essay that took my breath away.

There was a grassy lawn where the dog rolled around scratching its back, and a big table on the deck where friends sat on weekends eating grilled salmon and drinking wine and complaining about things they knew were a privilege to complain about (the cost of real estate, the noise of leaf blowers, the overratedness of the work of more successful peers). And as I lay on that bed it occurred to me, terrifyingly, that all of it might not be enough. Maybe such pleasures, while pleasurable enough, were merely trimmings on a nonexistent tree. Maybe nothing—not a baby or the lack of a baby, not a beautiful house, not rewarding work—was ever going to make us anything other than the chronically dissatisfied, perpetually second-guessers we already were.

An interview with Meghan on The New Yorker blog is essential reading for anyone contemplating a memoir or memoiristic essay. Among other things, Meghan speaks of the difference between having material and having something to say.

Yes. And absolutely.


PA Forward: Authors & Illustrators Speak Up for PA Libraries

Saturday, September 27, 2014

On November 6th (or thereabouts) writers and illustrators from across the great state of Pennsylvania will be stepping inside libraries to celebrate the impact libraries have on our lives and to remind our communities of the importance of safeguarding these essential institutions going forward. I have been paired with Downingtown High School (West) and librarian Michelle Nass, and what a day we are cooking up—four presentations on the Berlin Wall and the library research that led to that book's creation, and an afternoon among high school book clubbers who are reading Going Over.

I'm delighted and honored to be involved. It's a huge program, thoughtfully developed and executed by a team of librarians—including Margie Stern, the Coordinator of Youth Services in the Delaware County Library System—and eagerly participated in by those many of us who have relied on libraries throughout our careers (and long before "career" was a word we even entertained).

This weekend, the 2014 Pennsylvania Library Association Conference gets underway at the Lancaster County Convention Center. I'm grateful to have been joined with writer/teacher/editor/friend Stephen Fried (Thing of Beauty, Bitter Pills, The New Rabbi, Husbandry, Appetite for America) and Neal Bascomb (The Nazi Hunters, The Perfect Mile, Red Mutiny) for a Monday, 2:00 panel on nonfiction. I'm grateful, too, for the chance to hang out with the guardians of books, otherwise known as librarians. Thank you to Karl R. for the invitation.

If you are at the event, I hope you'll find us.


a few upcoming events

Friday, September 26, 2014

This coming Monday, at the Pennsylvania Library Association Convention, I'll be sitting with Stephen Fried and Neal Bascomb on a panel devoted to nonfiction, an event I've been looking forward to for quite awhile.

Other events at a variety of venues—Rosemont College, Montgomery County Community College, Trinity Urban Life Center, University of Pennsylvania, Downingtown High School West, Musehouse/Schuylkill Writing Center, Montgomery County Historical Center, and the National Harbor Convention Center—are upcoming, and I share them here, on the off chance that our paths might cross. Nonfiction, memoir, promotions, the Schuylkill River, the fate of young adult fiction, the Berlin Wall, the importance of libraries, and my new April 2015 novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books) will all be discussed.

In between, I'll be dancing the cha-cha for DanceSport Academy on the Bryn Mawr College campus to the song "Blurred Lines." Which is exactly how I'm feeling.

September 29, 2014, 2:00 PM 
Nonfiction Panel with Stephen Fried and Neal Bascomb
PaLA Convention
Lancaster County Convention Center
Lancaster County, PA

October 11, 2014
Memoir and Creative Nonfiction Panel (1:15), with Karen Rile and Julia Chang
Marketing for Published Authors Panel (2:30), with Kelly Simmons and Donna Galanti
Push to Publish Conference
Rosemont College
Rosemont, PA

Details here.

October 14, 7 PM
River of the Year Keynote
Schuylkill River Heritage Area
Montgomery County Community College West Campus
Community Room
Details here.

October 16, 7 PM
River of the Year Keynote
Schuylkill River Heritage Area
Trinity Urban Life Center
Philadelphia, PA
Details here.

November 1, 2014, 4:00 PM
University of Pennsylvania Homecoming Panel

LORENE CARY (C'78), BETH KEPHART (C'82), JORDAN SONNENBLICK (C'91), and KATHY DEMARCO VAN CLEVE (C'88) — and moderated by children's book editor LIZ VAN DOREN 
Young Adult Fiction Panel
Kelly Writers House
Philadelphia, PA

November 6, 2014, All Day
Downingtown High School West
PA Forward Speak Up!
Presentations on GOING OVER and Book Club Chat
Downingtown, PA 

November 8, 2014, 10:00 AM
Musehouse Writing Retreat in the Woods
The Schuylkill Center
Philadelphia, PA

November 15, 2014
Luncheon Keynote
Montgomery County Historical Society
(private function)

November 21, 2014, 3:00 PM
National Harbor Convention Center
Washington, DC


What bungles some YA tales, and why A.S. King rises above (and the launch of Glory O'Brien)

Here are some of the ways that young adult authors can get themselves in trouble. There's the endless repetition of tropes—the clever line on repeat. There's the fuzzy hey-I-can't-really-explain-this-implausible-plot-so-I'll smudge-the-language-into-lazy-ambiguity-and-hope-it-all-looks-like-part-of-an-actual-master-plan. There's the Valley Girl/Guy voice and the untrusting over explaining and the shying away from big themes with the hope that a familiar plot—or a cinematic a-ha ending—will be enough.

As the category becomes ever more popular, as it sells increasing numbers of books (according to Shelf Awareness, "children's/YA continued to soar this year, with sales up 30.5%, to $695.9 million (while) sales of adult fiction and nonfiction fell 3.6%, to $1.726 billion), as it permeates the culture in dissings and debates, it is, I think, increasingly important to look at and learn from those who do YA well.

A.S. King is one such author. Her Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, launching on October 14, is, once again, a brave and elastic plot that gives King room to ruminate on big themes and agitations. Yesterday afternoon, I read the first 67 pages, and discovered, again, just how particular King's language is, how capable of building characters, stretching worlds, and conversing with mechanical and natural phenomena.

For example: King, a photographer herself, has made her narrator a photographer. It's not a casual choice. It's both plot and metaphor. And it's instruction of the sort that is real and meaningful. Read the passage below. Check out its specificity and its ease (not at all simple to achieve both at once, I assure you). Then look at the words "max black." King, being King, will not leave that alone. She'll soon capitalize the M and the B and make Max Black a character. It is of a whole. It is considered. This is how fine YA gets done.

A light meter could tell you what zone everything in a scene fell into. Bright spots—waterfall foam, reflections, a polar bear—were high numbers. Shadows—holes, dark still water, eels beneath the surface—were low numbers. You had to let the light into the camera in just the right way. You had to meter: find the dark and light spots in your subject. You had to bracket: manually change your shutter speed or aperture to adjust the amount of light hitting the film—or, in my case, for the yearbook, the microchip. You didn't want to blow out the highlights, and you had to give the shadows all the detail you could by finding the darkest max black areas and then shooting them three zones lighter.
You can download the first 67 pages of Glory O'Brien for free here. In two weeks, you can buy the book itself. I hope you'll do both. In the meantime, congratulations to A.S. King.


I don't know what it says, but I like it (Undercover, in the Netherlands)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It is possible to feel affection to people far away, in other countries—never met, never seen. This morning I am grateful to Callenbach, the Dutch publishing house that beautifully reproduced Small Damages not long ago and today shares Undercover, the first young adult novel I ever dared to write (1997), seems like centuries ago.

And get a load of that pink!

Thank you, Callenbach.


The Lore Kephart '86 Distinguished Historians Lecture Series Introduces Dr. Isabel Hull and Thoughts on the First World War

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It has been my privilege, through the years, to share word of the annual lecture series created by my father and Villanova University in memory of my mother, Lore Kephart. My mother was, herself, a distinguished woman—not just a graduate of Villanova and a writer, but a woman of great intelligence and grace who also (with enviable ease) served dinners no one who ever ate them will forget.

My mother would have deeply appreciated the time that the Villanova team, together with my father, put into selecting Dr. Isabel V. Hull, Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University, as this year's honored guest. Dr. Hull has two degrees from Yale University in History, as well as an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan. At Cornell she teaches courses with titles like "The International Laws of War," "The First World War: Causes, Conduct, Consequences," and "History of Liberalism." She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a John Guggenheim Fellow, and an Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Research Fellow.

This year Dr. Hull published her new book, A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law in the First World War, which Samuel Moyn, writing in the Wall Street Journal, wrote: "is a strong demonstration of the worth of international law and the laws of war in particular, and vindicates Ms. Hull's standing as one of our greatest historians of modern European politics."

It is this book that will form the basis of Dr. Hull's talk at Villanova University on October 9, starting at 7 o'clock. The event is free and open to the public. The Kephart family and Villanova University extend a warm invitation.


she was chasing a bubble;

she was making a wish.

These days, I'm wishing, too.

For all of you out there who are working toward dreams, I give this day over to a celebration of your courage.


the best part of writing is

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The other day, as part of the Tour de Blog, I reflected on my writing process—the fits and starts, the horror of first drafts, the ratatouille of useless tangents, the chocolate that is weighing me down. 

Perhaps I didn't say enough about my passion for this lit gig, or how great a gift any snatch of writing time actually is. 

I'm particularly enamored of beginnings—those first glorious 25 pages when everything still seems possible, when you haven't yet run yourself to the ground, or blocked off your options, or forced yourself into an irresolvable scenario, or cried.

But I also flat-out love that part of the project when the book is in good shape, the characters are known, the plot has been worked through, and the mood and tone are widely established. Fear no longer drives you. Curiosity does. What else might that character say? What else could that yellow wreathe mean? Who else does he find along the shore? And why the obsession with a fawn at dawn?

I'm right there right now with my 2016 book. Close to done, but not wanting to be done.

I am stealing part of today to slink away and find out more.


he had a dream. we heard him sing it. season 8 (the Voice)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Saturday, at the Reading Market, this young man serenaded the lunchtime crowds. "I'm going to LA to sing for Usher," he told us. "Season 8. The Voice." He was best at Adele. He loved Marvin Gaye. He gave us some Beatles.

I don't know the facts. I just know the moment. He beguiled us with the possibility. He said he had a dream. We fed his open suitcase. We took his picture. We wished him well.

I was besotted with the romance of it all.


honoring the river, at the Flow Festival

We let the flowers fall gently down (bless our Schuylkill River). We watched the children chase the bubbles, sparkle their fish, play the music of the drip drum, watch the mechanical flotilla, choose a history question to answer: Do you remember a flood? Do you have an umbrella story? We watched them build a sculpture out of water drops and silkscreen a poster. And that was beautiful.

But this was beautiful, too: the way we adults quietly took it in—the thrumming of the river, the pavilion of flowers, the old-world mechanics of water power, the simple rising of the tide against a fiber texture. There we were, in a city, and what we felt was a quieting down, a simplifying, a moment for prayer.

Congratulations to Fairmount Water Works, Karen Young, Victoria Prizzia, all the artists, and the many people who came to the Flow Festival. The city at its finest. I'm stepping back from the words right now. The pictures tell the story.


getting real, with friends

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Today was full of many things—an early morning with my dad, time with a manuscript, a fantastic (even raucous) baby shower crowded with such dear friends, a trip to the Schuylkill River to experience the Flow Festival, and almost (not quite) finding A.S. King in my own 30th Street Station (we missed each other by minutes; we will not miss each other again). Tonight, day's end, I am thinking of the souls who gathered, the baby who is waiting, the joy that convened. I am thinking, too, about a conversation—the kind that makes me stop and appreciate its sheer rarity.

"We need to talk about Savas," the conversation began. The speaker was a dance friend, a tech genius, someone I hadn't seen in many months. I was so startled that at first I couldn't imagine what he meant. It was Going Over, the Berlin novel, he was speaking of. It was a decision I'd made about a character, a young Turkish boy, that he was questioning. How? he asked me. Why? Should it not have been impossible to write what I wrote down?

My friend had questions, too, about Ada and Stefan, what my west Berlin graffiti girl saw, at first, in her East Berlin lover. He wanted to know about point of view, how I decided what was to be left on stage, and off. And where did the graffiti come from, he wanted to know. Were you (in a distant past) some kind of graffiti delinquent?

I kept shaking my head. I kept smiling inside. I kept reminding myself—Wait. He took the time. He read your book. He thought about it. He wondered. I thought later how unusual this was. To be asked, with real interest, about something I'd written. To be invited to talk—not about all that superficial stuff that interests me less and less, but about the story itself. It's a rare friend who makes room for this—who presses you, who listens, who may not agree with some of the choices you made, but whose interest, nonetheless, is genuine.

I have been dancing, on and off, for a few good years now. I'm no better at it than when I began. But I dance, like I do clay, for the conversations and the friends. Of this, today—among so much laughter, within such warmth—I was reminded again.

Congratulations, in the meantime, to Aideen, Mike, and Mercy, who brought us altogether. What a family you have. And many thanks to Ms. Tirsa Rivas. One of the best party-throwers in the land.


The city from above, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer

I had planned to title this post "Two Weddings, One Singer, and a Tower," but things got rearranged this morning when it became clear that all the photos I took during my yesterday-long city jaunt are stuck on a malfunctioning photo stick. Imagine, then, that you are glancing at images of newly married happiness, Old City art, a Reading Market singer, and Philadelphia's now-famous pop-up beach. If I can rescue the photos from oblivion. I will share such things in time.

In the meantime, I moved from writing about sidewalks and nearly subterranean Philadelphia last month in the Inquirer to writing about Philadelphia from on high (City Hall) this time around. That story can be found here.

Today, following morning worship with my dad and a happy-making baby shower with dear friends, I'll be back in the city, on the banks of the Schuylkill, for the FLOW Festival with Fairmount Water Works, where a variety of artists are gathering in celebration of the river. Drip Drums, Sonic States, Splash Organ, and Fishway River Net Flood Stories will all be on display, and the day will end with a Grand Finale Light Show that will include, in multimedia fashion, words from Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. Look for my neon green walking shoes, end of spectacular day.


the inside scoop on Tour de Blog—via Bill Wolfe and Caroline Leavitt and over to Kelly Simmons

Friday, September 19, 2014

Well, here we go. Mr. Bill Wolfe, that cool dude who reads only women's fiction and lives to tell the tale on Read Her Like an Open Book, tagged me (oh, the secrets, the secrets) on the My Writing Process Tour Blog. Bill, who keeps us guest bloggers honest, reviews incredibly interesting books, teaches for a living, and opines, but always kindly, is a tough act to follow. Equally tough is his tagger, Caroline Leavitt, whose inspirational story and stories (and blog) have been integral to the lay of my land for years.

(I've previously written about Bill here and Caroline here and many elsewheres.)

And now, here I stand, with questions to answer, pondering my capability.

I begin:

1. What are you working on? 
I am currently doing a final round of edits to a young adult novel that will launch from Chronicle Books in 2016. When that is done later this weekend, I'll return to two new projects—an adult novel and a book of nonfiction. Both are in the early 4,000-word stage, so inchoate, strange, and internal that I suspect I won't be able to describe them even after (if) they are done. They are projects designed to keep my mind whole, more than anything else, or as whole as this cracked vessel will ever get. In between, when feigning greater sanity, I'm writing white papers and news stories for clients and reviews and essays for the Chicago Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Oh, and a lot of student recommendation letters.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I always think this is a question best left to the critics—though I hate to presume that any critic anywhere will have time for such a Beth Kephart conundrum. I guess the answer, for me, has something to do with that old cliche of staying true to myself (hey, if Tim Gunn can say it on national TV, I can say it in Beth land). I'm not interested in bending my work to meet the expectations of our time (whatever they are) or to fall in line with trends. I write what is urgent, what intrigues me. I write to find out what might happen next, a small and increasingly daring enterprise.

3. Why do you write what you do?
Because I can't help it. Because I get obsessed with some historical event (the Berlin wall, the Spanish Civil War, Florence after the flood), some force of nature, some sound in my head, something someone said, some trouble. Because the only excuse I have to think about it longer is to begin to write a book. Otherwise, in my dim and insufficiently capacious brain, all is fleeting. And because I think that what we write has to matter in a broader way. We live in perilous times. I want to understand them. I want my stories and my work to lead others down inquiring paths. I also want my readers to think about language in new ways, and so I write what I hear in my twisted head.

4. How does your writing process work?
It rarely does work. Most of the time I'm doing my day job. But when I find patches of time I hunch my shoulders, draw out a pen (literally), sit on the couch where the depressed cushion suggests I should each less chocolate, and get going. When I'm writing I am living inside a fortress of books and newspapers (on some days the research is my favorite part). When I'm writing there's a happy buzz inside my head, except when the writing isn't working, which is an astonishingly large chunk of the time. Boy, I can write some really bad stuff. Boy, I can go off on tangents. But, hey. Nobody sees that, at least in the beginning. Nobody but me and my chocolate bars.

For the next stop on the blog tour, I nominate Kelly Simmons,who is not just a terrific, funny, compassionate, hardworking writer, but a starred writer, too, and a dear friend. (Kelly also knows where the best V-necked turquoise T-shirts live in the local shop, and she will join you in the consumption of six-ounce shrimp at the drop of a dime; she also forgives (I think) your poorly typed text messages; finally, I wish to add that, when you are walking together down Sugartown Road, the boys in the cars all stop for her, the Kelly Phenom.) Kelly's third novel (for adults, people!), One More Day, was PW announced days ago. It will be published by Sourcebooks next fall. I've read a few pages here and there. Ladies and gents, get ready for Wow.


Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed/Dava Guerin and Kevin Ferris

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Just the other day, in a coffee shop not far from home, I was talking with one of those wise women who know nearly everything and everyone in our dear city. When we got around to Kevin Ferris, assistant editor with the Editorial Board of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the conversation stopped. "Really kind," we both said, at nearly the same time. "And really smart."

Ferris's compassion and integrity are on keen display in his first book, co-authored with Dava Guerin and soon to be released by Skyhorse Publishing. Called Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed (with forewords by President George H.W. Bush and Connie Morella), the book brings to life ten mothers who received the terrifying news of a child's war-related injuries. Limbs have been lost, lives rearranged, families restructured. Suddenly home is a room in a hospital called Walter Reed. Suddenly community is the other mothers who must be stronger than the grief that rushes in. Suddenly dinner is the candy bar left by someone who cares, and hope is the pair of eyes that finally open.

"Mothers' bonds with their children are undeniable," the authors remind us, continuing:
They feel their pain, relish their accomplishments, and look forward to them having young ones of their own. They are the first line of defense against bullies, recalcitrant teachers, colds and sore throats, and a myriad of real and perceived enemies during childhood. They share their lives with other moms on the soccer field, at PTA meetings, and during lunch breaks at work. But as they arrive at Walter Reed to support sons and daughters who have lost limbs, or suffered traumatic brain injuries, or burns and internal wounds, these moms join an exclusive club, a members-only organization that exists simply to assuage the horrors of war.
The nurses, the physicians—they are doing what they can. But being there, seeing the recovery through, helping a reconfigured child love and feel loved again—that is mother's work, and like so much of what mothers do, it is uncompensated and invisible and wholly essential.

These ten stories are specific and true. They are also representational, reminding readers of those who have gone to fight on our behalf—and of the endless costs of battles, minefields, inhumane technologies.

And so, congratulations to Kevin and Dava on the release of their new book. And thank you, Wounded Warriors and the moms who are there for you.


we must dance until we can't

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"You look beautiful against the sunset," I said. "Do you mind if I take your picture?"

(I asked her mother, too, don't worry.)

She said, "Picture?" and then began to dance to whatever music was inside her head. Her arms out then close, her little shoes turning, her hair twirling, her red sweater further brightening the sky. She was ebullience and red pepper, a spice of something fine at the end of an unusually fine day.

Yesterday, working through a giant client puzzle and a rapid-fire succession of disappointments, I thought of this child dancing. I stood when I could take it no more. Set out on a walk. Called my father, said hello to neighbors, made my way to Whole Foods, where I conceived of a modest culinary plan.

We are in charge, I remembered again, of our own moods. We must dance until we can't.


"culinary circus": our trip to bountiful

Monday, September 15, 2014

We have the enormous generosity of the Halloran Family and the ingenuity of Kathy Coffey to thank for one of the most exquisite evenings of our entire lives. For creating a book we loved creating, for working with people from whom we learned and with whom we laughed, we were (there is irony here) given a gift—an afternoon at an Outstanding in the Field event, a back-to-the-earth meal orchestrated by the artist Jim Denevan.

The idea, quoting Devevan, involves "setting a long table on a farm and inviting the public to an open-air feast in celebration of the farmer and the gifts of the land."

The execution—and the weather—were perfection.

Our farm was Blooming Glen, in Perkasie, PA, bursting to eggplant/fennel/heirloom tomato/cabbage/tap-rooted clover/popcorn corn/passion flowers life under the care of the recently organic-certified Tricia Boneman and Tom Murtha. Our chef was Lee Chizmar, of Bolete, in Bethlehem, a much-raved about restaurant (and every rave you've heard has been earned). Our vintner (and, lucky for us, near tablemate) was Richard Blair, of Blair Vineyards, a family enterprise that produces incredibly delicious wines. (Richard also has the great distinction of being another Radnor High alum.) Our friends were and are and will always be John and Andra.

Heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella. Lamb and watermelon and feta. Pork and potatoes/foraged mushrooms/kale. A dessert inside a mason jar that had something to do with squash and cheesecake and everything to do with heaven. Indelible skies. Theatrical sun.

It was as if we'd been transported to a country far away.

I'm back now, but only reluctantly, to tell the tale.


Greater Gratitudes and Farm to Table, at Blooming Glen, with Chef Lee Chizmar

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sometimes you work for a client who sees beyond the schedule and the deliverables and cares, outright, about you. This afternoon we'll travel to Blooming Glen Farm to experience a Farm to Table extravaganza—a gift from a dear client for whom we created a commemorative book. We'll spend the afternoon with our foodie/dancing/cultural arts/New Year's Eve Every Eve friends, John and Andra. We'll see what it is to take a leaf of lettuce (and other things) directly from the earth to a plate.

(and we'll wear straw hats)

In this, I am blessed.

I feel blessed, too, by the glory of last evening's celebration of a certain 21-year-old Emma, whose family has taught so many of us about love, resilience, and grace. When the Yasicks call us together, the clouds subside, the sun locks in, and sometimes, even, a rainbow blooms. They may not understand just how much they mean to us, or how dearly we hold them in our hearts, or how they cast their minor spells of wonder. We have only this to say:

In the way that you live your lives—in your integrity, kindness, and dignified exuberance, in your bequeathing search for joy, in the ways that you remember (with wonder, without regret)—we learn a greater gratitude.


Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking by Christian Rudder/Reflections

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My son is a trendspotter, a quiet strategist, a Child of the Social Media World. I knew I had to buy him a copy of Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking, Christian Rudder's new book, as soon as I started reading about it two months ago.

Rudder is one of the founders of the online dating site OKCupid—a Harvard grad with a popular blog. He has access to massive personal data and he has insights about (and now I am jacket copy quoting): "... how Facebook 'likes' can predict, with surprising accuracy, a person's sexual orientation and even intelligence; how attractive women receive exponentially more interview requests; and why you must have haters to be hot. He charts the rise and fall of America's most reviled word through Google Search and examines the new dynamics of collaborative rage on Twitter. He shows how people express themselves, both privately and publicly...."

You get the point. Innately interesting stuff.

The book now in hand and my son briefly at home, I've proven myself an Indian giver—bandying the book about, reading interesting bits out loud, and saying, "Wait until you read this chapter," while the poor guy sits there, waiting to read that chapter. Rudder isn't just smart, insightful, and data-possessed. He proves himself to be a charming, engaging writer, even as he fills his book with red and black scattergrams, word charts, and x/y axes. He's not brash, he's not impressed with himself, he would never himself submit to online dating. He's just curious. And he has the facts.

Haters above all else confuse me; I see little point in spending one's time engaged in ruthless take downs, unprompted negativity, public/private screeds, and all those other e-facilitated things (which is one of the reasons I will never Google my own name or check my Amazon stats; life is too short to worry through the unkindness of strangers). I'd much rather listen to someone who has something to say or who has created something dazzling than to someone merely blessed with the right cheekbones. I don't feel a personal need to be "hot"—below the radar suits me just fine (just ask Kelly Simmons and Donna Galanti, who have the distinctly unpleasant task of planning a self-promotion panel with me at the upcoming Push to Publish conference; they have had to politely encourage me to stay on task more than once, bless them, these dear and task-appropriate souls).  Nonetheless, I'm fascinated by Rudder's facts—and by his musings. I find them distinctly relevant and helpful. Here he is, for example, reflecting on "the data generated from outrage.":

It embodies (and therefore lets us study) the contradictions inherent in us all. It shows we fight against those who can least fight back. And, above all, it runs to ground our age-old desire to raise ourselves up by putting other people down. Scientists have established that the drive is as old as time, but that doesn't mean they understand it yet. As Gandhi put it, "It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings."


It's the uncertainty that bungles us—

Thursday, September 11, 2014

that strikes us down, a paralysis.

Think it through, make the decision, pursue the dream, part the mountains, leave the mist behind.

Action is the cure.


Belzhar: Meg Wolitzer/Reflections

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Meg Wolitzer began The Interestings, her acclaimed 2013 novel "for adults" (my quotation marks, because I so dislike/unlike categories) with this convocation of the teenaged young:
On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time. They were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony. Julie Jacobson, an outsider and possibly even a freak, had been invited in for obscure reasons, and now she sat in a corner on the unswept floor and attempted to position herself so she would appear unobtrusive yet not pathetic, which was a difficult balance. The teepee, designed ingeniously though built cheaply, was airless on nights like this one, when there was no wind to push in through the screens. Julie Jacobson longed to unfold a leg or do the side-to-side motion with her jaw that sometimes set off a gratifying series of tiny percussive sounds inside her skull. But if she called attention to herself in any way now, someone might start to wonder why she was here; and really, she knew, she had no reason to be here at all....
In Belzhar, Woltizer's new book "for teens," it is not a camp teepee toward which the characters are drawn, but a school for emotionally fragile children called The Wooden Barn. Unknown to each other in the school's early days, the students have arrived bearing secrets. Soon enough the core protagonists will forge camp-like bonds in a miniature English class focused on Sylvia Plath and facilitated by journal writing. They will learn, unlearn, and learn themselves. They will enter a mystical world called Belzhar, a condition or place that Wolitzer explains like this:
Belzhar lets you be with the person you've lost, or in Casey's case, with the thing she's lost, but it keeps you where you were before the loss. So if you desperately want what you once had, you can write it in your red leather journal and go to Belzhar and find it. But apparently you won't find anything new there. Time stops in Belzhar; it hangs suspended.
Wolitzer's theme, in Belzhar, is second chances, and in order to have a second chance, you have to be honest with yourself, you have to know what really happened. Through Belzhar, Wolitzer transports these student-friends to the past. She builds a reckoning mirror and holds it steady.

Whereas The Interestings (which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune here) was rich with detail and character asides, full of the messy, tangential sprawl of messy life, Belzhar is lean, plot-focused and plot-purposeful. Like We Were Liars, E. Lockhart's summer sensation, it harbors a secret within a secret that will keep readers turning pages.

But perhaps what I liked best was this simple and essential thing: Wolitzer has written a novel that reminds teens how much words matter. A message that must burn eternal.


take one photo, make it a story

Monday, September 8, 2014

this, today, is where my story begins.


Spend time alone, and do not look away

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Time spent alone writing the novel provided a different kind of instruction. “I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention,” he said. “The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I’d look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don’t want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It’s much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you’re writing to do so, kills it instantly.”

—Matthew Thomas, author of WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, in an email interview with the New York Times


Reviewing Diane Ackerman's "The Human Age," in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal

Friday, September 5, 2014

My thoughts on Diane Ackerman's new book, "The Human Age," appear in this weekend's Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal. 

The review begins like this:
Mental caravan.
It is the phrase that appears on the penultimate page of Diane Ackerman's new book, "The Human Age." The two words bracket all that has come before in this wide-ranging exploration of our world right now. This mini-history of our slurry epoch. This summary of human plunder and residual wonder. This panoramic investigation of vertical ocean gardening, geo-friendly architecture, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, the "bounty" that grows on planted urban walls, the coming age of regenerative medicine. This poetic treatise on microbes and the medicinal power of human touch.
And continues here.


Anthony Lane on Young Adult Fiction: a generalized and generally disturbing definition of the form

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Generalized definitions of anything—or anyone—are provocative, sure. They get the readers' ire up. Which is to say they attract more readers. I am sure that Anthony Lane of The New Yorker (a terrific if mostly acerbic reviewer) knows that YA fiction comes in many hues and forms and flavors, and that it is fed by many ideals and many wild imaginations, many time periods, many themes, and a full array of characters and landscapes.

But here, in Lane's review of the movie "If I Stay," based on the Gayle Forman novel, he issues a standardizing decree.
Young-adult fiction: what a peculiar product it is, sold and consumed as avidly as the misery memoir and the self-help book, and borrowing sneakily from both. One can see the gap in the market. What are literate kids meant to do with themselves, or with their itchy brains, as they wander the no man's land between Narnia and Philip Roth? The ideal protagonist of the genre is at once victimized and possessed of decisive power—someone like Mia, the heroine of Gayle Forman's "If I Stay," which has clung grimly to the Times best-seller list, on and off, for twenty weeks. And the ideal subject is death, or, as we should probably call it, the big sleepover.
Oh, the blogs/articles/talks that will erupt from this. Oh. Or? Perhaps we who write young adult fiction that is not part misery memoir and not self-help book, not, indeed, any single one thing, grow weary of the castigating, the easy sarcasm, the sneak and overt attacks?

Let others stomp their feet and say what they will. We've got work to do.


Garden Ghosts and River Voices, this evening at Radnor Library

One of my incurable obsessions is imagining Then. The yesterday years. The years before those. The land before it was cultivated. The earth before the glaciers peeled off. The mountains before they were sprung loose from the seas. The birds when they were the size of dinosaurs.

Give me an afternoon off, keep me on hold for a conference call, put me in the car alone for a long drive, and I’m thinking about Then. We live in a transitory and transitional time. We have entered, say some, the Epoch of the Anthropocene. We have reconstructed and redirected our planet to suit our own needs. Nothing that is here right now was here eons ago. And none of it will be here in the long future.

— excerpted from "Garden Ghosts and River Voices," the talk I'll be giving this evening as the Community Garden Club at Wayne kicks off its season. The event is free and open to the public. Copies of Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River (the affordable paperback edition), my Chanticleer memoir Ghosts in the Garden (some of the final copies in existence), and my Chanticleer young adult novel Nothing but Ghosts will be available.

The details:

September 4, 2014, 6:30 PM
 Community Garden Club at Wayne
"Garden Ghosts and River Voices"
Nothing but Ghosts/Ghosts in the Garden/Flow
Open to the public
Winsor Room
Radnor Memorial Library
Radnor, PA


What if we spent September re-reading our favorite books, like "Housekeeping"?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Readers of this blog (and of Handling the Truth) know how much a certain Alyson Hagy means to me—the quality of her work, her character, her mind. Not long ago she mentioned that she was re-reading Housekeeping, one of my very favorite novels of all time. Oh, I thought. And lifted my copy of the book from its shelf.

The extraordinary thing about re-reading a much-loved novel is realizing how brand new the novel can feel, even the fourth time around. For here I am this morning, turning the early pages of Marilynne Robinson's exquisite story, and thinking: How could I have forgotten this? Or this? And this? Yes, I remember the train and the lake, Sylvie and her flowers, the laundry being hung on the line. But I did not remember how swiftly and gracefully Nelson moves through genealogy and across landscape. There's that impeccable first line, "My name is Ruth." Then an indication of grandmother, sisters-in-law, a daughter, and Edmund Foster—all in seven lines. Then a sudden shift to place and to Edmund Foster's childhood home, described in great detail, "no more a human stronghold than a grave."

All this, and we haven't turned a page.


It's almost as if the novel has broken into tangents before it has even begun, and this (among so much) is what I didn't think about before (or maybe I forgot thinking about it before so that I read it as brand new)—how Housekeeping declares itself by means of a branching interiority right from the start.

Do I see that now because of something Alyson said in a note to me, or would I have seen it anyway, and is it because of the number of books that I have read between my third read of Housekeeping years ago and now, or because of my age, or because I am looking for something new in the stories I read?

I don't know, but I do wonder this: What if I decided to re-read my favorite two dozen books? What would I learn—about stories and about me?

What if we did?

A project to ponder, as September unfolds.


Geometric September

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The bold geometries of baled hay. 
The beginning of September.


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