The Flamethrowers/Rachel Kushner: Reflections

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

With every book I read, I learn not just more about the world but more about my mind and how it receives or won't receive language. Some books rushing through me like a wind, some pooling in my soul, some remembered not at all for plot but for their mood. Some saying, Stay awake, stay awake, there's so much here.

Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers challenged me. I was in awe of how deeply Kushner had imbibed her material—motorcycle racing, 1970s art, rubber trees, Italian gangs, ennui, Nevada salt flats. I was perpetually aware of a story happening at some distance, beyond me, beyond my full capabilities as a reader. Long passages of extreme brilliance. Some interludes with their own internal logic. A study of a time and a place and a certain kind of people. A triumph, in many ways, this book. But perhaps I more fully admired its parts than its whole.

I would like to share here a block, a favorite part. Kushner can write magnificently about almost anything. Here she is writing about the process of becoming. Her acuity is breathtaking. This passage, and many others, reads like notes to a novelist. I study it. I value it. I share it.

... he also drew from me, that night in the Italian restaurant, things I hadn't spoken about to anyone before. What I thought about as a child, the nature of my solitude, the person I was before I went through puberty and became more readably "girl." The person I was before I became more readably "person." We seemed to share certain ideas about what happens in childhood, when you have to place yourself under the sign of your own name, your face, your voice, your outward reality. When you become a fixed position, a thing to others and to yourself. There were times, I told him, at the age of five, six, seven, when it was a shock to me that I was trapped in my own body. Suddenly I would feel locked into an identity, trapped inside myself, as if the container of my person were some kind of terrible mistake. My own voice and arms, my name, seemed wrong. As if I were a dispersed set of nodes that had been falsely organized into a form, and I was living in a nightmare, forced to see from out of this limited and unreal "me." I wasn't so sure I occupied one place, one person, and Sandro said this made sense, this instinct of a child, to question the artificial confines of personhood.


on holding our own tongues, and the movie "Chef"

Maybe I am one of the last people in America to see that delicious movie, "Chef," but maybe that's okay: I saw it when I most needed to. It's a Jon Favreau concoction (he wrote it, directed it, stars in it, produced it). It's Roy Choi influenced, cubano-sandwich powered, infiltrated by actors I love—Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Cannavale, John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt, Sofia Vergara. It yields wide patches of time to the fabulous young actor Emjay Anthony. It explores what happens when one's safe world implodes and there is nothing left to lose. You have a job as a chef in a fine restaurant? You have a beautiful girlfriend, an ex-wife who loves you, a little boy who thinks the world of you, security? It all blows up after a bad restaurant critic's review, and you fought back over Twitter? Boom. What are you going to do? Maybe you'll go small. You'll start a food truck.

Affection, humor, tenderness, food you can practically eat off the screen—it is abiding in "Chef." But resiliency is the film's primary theme. Getting back up after someone's been unkind to you, after the unfair thing has happened, after you lose your decorum, your reputation, your holdings in the blink of a Twitter eye. What is the trajectory of second chances? That is what "Chef" is about.

We're out here as writers, and some critics will be unkind. We're out here doing our service jobs, and the person on the other end of the phone has demeaning attitude, that power that comes from being the one in charge, that edge in the curl of their words. We're out here letting the lady at the ATM yell at us because she's having a bad day. We're endlessly holding our own tongues, being the better guy, stepping aside, or stepping up. But, who knows? Someday we may just blow. We may just speak our equalizing minds.

"Chef" is about the guy who blew and the guy who got it back.

It's about hope of another kind. Hope that we can be our best selves again. Hope that the world will make room.


publishing my first adult fiction in many years, in Clockhouse

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Years ago, when I was a young mother desperate to find more hours in each day, all there was for me was fiction. Short fiction. Published in journals like Sonora Review and Alaska Quarterly Review and International Quarterly and Rosebud. Publishing was my conversation with the world. I had yet to meet an actual writer. I'd taken no classes. I was naive. My critiques came in the form of letters from the editors.

Later there would be attempts at "adult" novels, but always something intervened. The El Salvador novel became the El Salvador memoir (Still Love in Strange Places). The adult novel about southern Spain became, after nearly a decade, Small Damages, a novel for young adults. And so on.

In the meantime, through other projects, panels, moments, rides on subway trains, I met so many special people, including Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, who remains my dear friend today; indeed, I recently spent a blissful Brooklyn afternoon in her company and missed her for days afterward. It was Reiko, a beloved faculty member at Goddard College, who suggested to the Clockhouse team that I might be a right contributor for the second issue of this new and beautiful magazine. An essay, they suggested. How about a poem? I suggested back. But in the end, we went with fiction.

I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see this first sliver of adult fiction, an excerpt from a novel in progress, appear in a magazine produced by such an incredibly kind team, including Julie Parent, Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, and Stacy Clark. I am equally happy that Reiko is the angel on all our shoulders. And I was touched to learn, a few weeks ago, that Heather Leah had been asked to read my story aloud to a gathered few as the printed journal emerged from the press. I wish I could have been here.

There are excerpts from a number of pieces here.

The list of contributors can be found here.

Thank you, Clockhouse.

from Beth Kephart’s The Velocity of Wings:

“Oh, Love,” Becca said. “Oh, God. Kate.” And she couldn’t lift her, couldn’t hold her, had to keep herself back, no harm, she kept thinking, no harm, and she ran her finger just as gently as she could up and down Kate’s one whole arm, singing a song she remembered from long ago, some idle tune from Prague that Kate had loved, that Kate remembered, she could tell that Kate remembered it now; it was the right thing to sing, it was all Becca could do—no questions, don’t make Kate talk, no harm—and now, at last, from around and above, from a place far away but growing near, there was the sound of sirens.

Blue, Becca thought. The sound of blue. A hard scream into a spring day until the macadam crackled and a van door slammed, and there were two pairs of boots coming, a stretcher between them, Becca calling them around to the rear.


Weird Al Yankovic explains my job. Somebody had to do it.

Those of you who wonder what I do all day, I present you with this explanation, courtesy of Weird Al Yankovic, also courtesy of Charlene McGrady.

I know. Right? You thought I was special?


(Kidding, my dear, necessary clients! Kidding! I need you, and, I hope, you need me to help you monetize your assets and operationalize your strategy.)


One Thing Stolen, the Florence novel, has a PW moment

Monday, July 21, 2014

So grateful to have ONE THING STOLEN included in this Spring 2015 Children's Sneak Previews from Publishers Weekly:

Chronicle channels the Force for Star Wars Short and Sweet: A New Hope by Jack and Holman Wang, a 12-word retelling; I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld, celebrating everyday moments of abundance; The Water and the Wild by Kathryn Elise Ormsbee, a fantasy debut featuring a portal in a bejeweled tree; One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart, about a girl who develops strange behaviors when she moves with her professor father to Italy for six months; and Vanishing Girl by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle, a mother-daughter memoir featuring daughter Elena’s struggle with anorexia.


the next books are the books I've wanted to read forever, and couldn't

I am focusing hard on the corporate work these days—doing the projects that arrive, finding the projects that don't even know they need me yet. Beth the Marketeer. Beth (yes, some of them call me this) the Machine.

We do what we must.

There'll be little time for my own literary work during these days, and so I look forward to easing my mind away from work pressures with books I bought or acquired long ago and never had the time to read. Books like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, Louis Greenstein's Mr. Boardwalk, Jayne Anne Phillips' Quiet Dell, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Violet Kupersmith's The Frangipani Hotel, Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.

I owe these writers my time. I feel like less than me because it has taken so long. If it still takes me a terrible (not beautiful) forever to report back on these books, know that I am doing all I can.

So far, I can tell you this: 50 pages into Kushner and I'm in awe.


Life Drawing/Robin Black: Reflections

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Think of the artist at work—the fits and starts, the long, unhappy spells, the sudden epiphanies that shrink pitiably with the light of the next day, the not knowing, the not ever actually knowing, the blind and buoying faith, the fissures of faith.

Think of a partnership of many years—the slow or sudden love, the deep and necessary trust, the private needs that are not spoken, the small infractions that are, perhaps, lies and isn't any lie a betrayal, and doesn't every betrayal hover afterward, shift the scene and change the light? Doesn't every betrayal threaten a cascade of betrayals? Where will they come from? Will we be ready?

Think of friendship—the tricky, sticky slopes, the little envies, the perfect hours, the grave misjudgments, the accusations, the cowering aftermaths, the ones left wounded on the path. Think of how easy friendship seems, and how utterly fraught, and how nearly impossible to heal when it shatters.

Think of the spooling away of memories—of a mind lost to a disease, of a man and his memories remade, of conversations that have little footing in reality, even though, of course, they are reality, they are what is happening right then. The Alzheimer's father talks. The daughter listens. Nothing is irrefutable, except for how it feels in present time.

In her penetrating and perfectly calibrated first novel, Life Drawing, Robin Black plumbs the depths of art, love, friendship, and memory and surfaces with a book of transcendent clarity. Life Drawing is a book about consequences—the consequences of an affair, the consequences of instinctive but perhaps not well-placed trust, the consequences of honesty, and anger.

Gus, the artist, and Owen, her writer husband, have retreated to a quiet country home in a land of spectral greens; the pond before them is perfectly round. The two are at work on their respective canvases. They abide by conversational rules laid down to protect each other from the things that must not be said or discussed in the aftermath of the affair Gus had several years before. They are interrupted by a neighbor who has escaped a violent husband and whose daughter, Nina, will show up before too long. Gus has a father with Alzheimer's, whom she frequently visits. She has a student, a young woman, with whom she has formed a meaningful connection.

The book is taut, smart, a closed and inexorable world, a stunning page turner. We know from the outset that Owen is dead, and so we want to know why Owen is dead, but even more compelling, at least to this reader, are the questions: Does anyone survive the wounds they have inflicted? Is love bigger than the past?

We turn the pages because we trust Black to know. Because we believe that she has something to say—inside the novel but also outside of it—about how we live our lives. Black is an intensely intelligent writer—nothing superfluous here, every thread that rises needled back down to the open-weave cloth, every color in the tapestry checked for what it tells us about lived entanglements. Her book, deeply emotional and resonantly rendered, is, remarkably, complete. No stone unturned.

We who write, we who create, we who live—we know how elusive, how difficult, how nearly unattainable completion is. A completed conversation. A completed work of art. A completed story, told.

Life Drawing is complete.

I loved it as much as I loved Black's collection of short stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, which I read while I was in Berlin several years ago and reviewed here.


we were then: happy birthday to my husband

Thirty-plus hours into labor twenty-five years ago, the hour ticking slowly toward midnight, I had a choice—deliver this baby of ours on July 19th, so that his special day would always stand alone, or deliver him a few minutes later, on July 20th, so that he and his father would celebrate the big day on the same day each year.

We opted for separate birthdays.

The baby was born, and then, minutes later, just after midnight, I said happy birthday to my husband.

A baby now 25 years old. A marriage 29 years old. An ageless husband.

Happy birthday to the artist I love.


my baby turns 25

Saturday, July 19, 2014

and love is never a big-enough word.

To the handsome young man who has taught me everything about what it means to live right, to be kind, to forgive, to go on—thank you, and a very happy birthday.


what the inside of my brain looked like, earlier today

Friday, July 18, 2014

How cruel, the migraine.
How glorious, southeastern Alaska.


every story we write is a gigantic leap of faith

Thursday, July 17, 2014

It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due.

I know that. I'm living proof.

There this character has been all along, a mystery to the others in the story, too, but, hey—she's not supposed to be a mystery to you. You created her, after all. You put her down on the page. You fell in love with her, just a little bit.

Shouldn't you know who she is?

Late last night, which was really early this morning, which is to say 3:30 AM, however you'd like to classify that, the final piece of the novel I've been writing came into view, and I seized it. I said, Yes. I let a small tear fall, maybe another tear, what did it matter? No one was watching.

Every story we write is a gigantic leap of faith. Every sentence is up for rearrangement. But you know a book, even a novel, is true when it surprises you, when the surprise makes you cry, when you think that, at last, you've earned a night of sleep again.

Maybe you can stop obsessing because you know something now. Something new. You know it, and it belongs to you.

Tamra Tuller.

Tamra Tuller.

Thank you for reading so quickly.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Among the things that happen when you don't Google yourself is that you can sometimes overlook very kind words for which you should have long ago given thanks.

Publishers Weekly, I apologize for not knowing of your generous review of Going Over sooner. I share it here now, utterly grateful.

Kephart (Small Damages) crafts an absorbing story of young love and conflicting ideologies set in 1983 Berlin. Ada, 15, lives an impoverished life in West Berlin with her mother and grandmother, while 18-year-old Stefan—who Ada has loved for years—lives with his grandmother in dull Friedrichshain on the other side of the wall. The plot shifts between Ada's life, which includes "graffing" scenes of heroic escapes on the Wall itself and visiting Stefan when she can, and Stefan's dissatisfied days spent working as a plumber's apprentice while developing tentative plans to attempt to overcome the wall, despite the potentially fatal consequences. Kephart alternates between the two teenagers' voices, with Stefan's voice written in second-person; deeply held desires for freedom and escape, both physical and artistic, radiate from each narrative. A subplot involving a Turkish boy in need of help gives the novel additional depth, and the sharpness of the lovers' separation is as deeply felt as the worry that they will never reunite. Ages 14–up. Agent: Amy Rennert, the Amy Rennert Agency. (Apr.)


Project Flow at the Water Works: Did I love them? Oh yes, I loved them. But more on all that soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


when it is time again to teach I turn to the poets

and, always, there, I find what I didn't know I was searching for.

In the dark hours of this cloudy day, just ahead of the morning I will spend with the seventh graders of Project Flow at Philadelphia's Water Works, I turned to Kate Northrop, Stanley Kunitz, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, and Greg Djanikian and found:

* a title that leads me toward a game
* a scene that leads me toward a prompt
* a pair of divine metaphors
* a myth that will inspire myths

Whoever thinks poetry is superfluous has not spent a morning with children.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History/Elizabeth Kolbert (thoughts)

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Alaska you see not just the glaciers, but where the glaciers so recently were—the stones scraped back as the ice retreated, the rocks barren and unsure.

You are told stories about the ravages left behind by ocean-scraping shrimping technology, about the muck of salmon farms, about the flowers that haven't bloomed yet, perhaps won't.

You see brilliant sunflower starfish, and you are told they are dying.

You see a sea lion choking on a fisherman's net, and you groan, and you are told, "Do you eat fish? If you do, you are partly responsible."

You see children loving the world as the boat glides by, and you want this world for those children.

You see your own face reflected up from the 38-degree sea. You, photographing the blues and purples, the otters and the whales, the mist. You, seeing.

You love this earth. You love it fiercely. And your heart is breaking.

Among the many brilliant writers who have been exhorting us to care more deeply for the world is Elizabeth Kolbert, whose work calls out to us from the pages of The New Yorker, and whose books, Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, are brutally honest and devastatingly clear.

Humans have marched themselves up to the precipice. We are standing on the cliff. We are still not doing what needs doing. Despite the fact that the glaciers are dying, the seas are rising, and nations are disappearing. Despite the fact that super storms blow in now with terrible regularity—proof of all the acid we've dropped into the sea, proof of the power of sea inches.

I don't mean to lecture. I'm not a scientist. I read. I urge you to read Elizabeth Kolbert. I give you this, the final paragraph, of The Sixth Extinction.

There are choices, still, to be made:

Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human—some of my best friends are humans!—I will say that it is not, in the end, what's most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.


My Chicago Tribune Review of Jennifer, Gwyneth, & Me (Rachel Bertsche)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Readers of this blog know that I take no pleasure from reviewing books that dodn't turn out to be quite my kind of book. I know how hard writing is. I know how big the hopes of writers are. I am the last person in the world who wants to disappoint, or hurt.

But when reviewing for the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row and elsewhere, my first responsibility is to the readers. And so I admit that I was challenged by this new immersion memoir by Rachel Bertsche, despite the fact that I suspect that the author herself is kind and openhearted.

My whole review can be found here.


the many moods of Alaska: a pictorial

Saturday, July 12, 2014

It was the color. It was the conversation. It was the children. 
Yes, Elly P. 
Life is good.

And all thanks to my father, whose gift this trip was.

(A few additional scenes here.)


Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves/James Nestor: Reflections

Friday, July 11, 2014

I carried James Nestor's DEEP to Alaska so that I might learn more about the seas. The oceans that gave birth to us, the darkness where strange life hovers, the gigantic brain of the elusive sperm whale, the unbelievable feats of divers who compete against themselves and their own bodies to dive thirty stories or more on a single lungful of air. (They dive; they must return; they cannot breathe until they do; they bleed; they lose consciousness; they dive again.)

I had been drawn to the book by the New York Times review. I found myself wavering as I read. Intrigued by the content and by our mighty oceans. Feeling boxed in or boxed out by the format. Nestor is a journalist. His book is a first-person exploration organized around sea-level depths. What is discovered 60 feet down, 300 feet, 650 feet, 800 feet down, say. The researchers who are trying to understand. The divers addicted to compression.

There's much to be gained, imagined, felt from a book like this. And Nestor certainly has done his research, is sincere in his desire to meld with his subject matter, is enthusiastically participative. But by organizing this discussion of the ocean around Nestor's own experiences, by writing, mostly, in a clipped present tense, Nestor at times delivers fragments where they might be wholes, more about himself than we might, in this case, need, details that seem out of place.

The book, for example, begins like this:
I'm a guest here, a journalist covering a sporting event that few people have heard of: the world freediving championship. I'm sitting at a cramped desk in a seaside hotel room that overlooks a boardwalk in the resort town of Kalamata, Greece. The hotel is old and shows it in the cobweb cracks along the walls, threadbare carpet, and dirt shadows of framed pictures that once hung in dim hallways.
Later, this:
It takes fifteen hours, three meals, four small bottles of wine, seven films, and five trips to the bathroom to fly from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. Next, there is a four-hour layover in Sydney International Airport (one bagel, a twenty-minute nap on the floor, one bag of cashews, forty-five minutes at the newsstand reading Rolling Stone) before the connecting flight to Saint-Denis, the capital of Reunion.....
There is more of this sort of thing—a lot of it, in fact—woven in between the interesting histories of oceanic research and the images of the wily creatures of the deepest depths. As a reader interested in oceans, I learned. As a teacher of memoir who celebrates the first-person voice, I wondered, often, whether a book like this was a proper use of the first-person present. Would a different tense have allowed the ocean to take center stage? Would a close-over-the-shoulder third person have given Nestor more room to make this an even greater, more sweeping study of the seas?

So much, always, to ponder.


Dept. of Speculation: Jenny Offill/Reflections

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Among the writer friends whose recommendations I instantly trust is Katrina Kenison, whose memoirs have inspired countless readers and whose many years as both an editor of books and the series editor of Best American Short Stories refined, or perhaps announced, her exquisite readerly sensitivities.

One day before I left for Alaska, Katrina wrote me a note including this line:  Have you read Dept. of Speculation?  That's my latest favorite.  Also very short, but oh, piercing.  

So of course I ordered Jenny Offill's newest novel at once. I read it before the plane left the ground.

Forty-six chapters in 175 pages. A Carole Maso, Kathryn Harrison, or Cynthia Reeves like intensity. A woman broken and her story broken and each brief paragraph like a scream from the deep dark of a well. Help me. A late-in-the-game inversion of point of view that knocks the reader around and carries the story to an even higher plane.

Our narrator is a woman who half loved, then loved, then married, then had a baby with swirls of hair on the back of her head, then watched that marriage fall apart. Our narrator is a woman who is trying, before our very eyes, to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well. Our woman is so stunned by the cruel possibilities of life that she can barely speak more than a few sentences at once.

Example of a single paragraph, cordoned off by white space:

A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

Example of another single paragraph:

Sometimes she will come in complaining about seeing things when she closes her eyes at night. Streaks of light, she says. Stars.
It's like this, in Dept. of Speculation. It's harrowing and brave and (to my way of seeing) deliciously odd. It feels uncalculated (though of course it isn't) and raw (though a book like this takes extraordinary refinement and planning). It feels alive and desperate and worried through, and don't we all have times like these, and doesn't that make this fiction true?

Yesterday I wrote of a long book of many chapters—the fantastic Anthony Doerr. Today I wrote of a short book of many chapters—the brave and talented Jenny Offill. Tomorrow, here, I will write of a more ordinary book, one that I didn't read breathlessly during my time away. 

What do we have as readers? We have choices. Is there anything sweeter than that?



All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr (Reflections)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Alaska, a new friend asks me what I am reading and I say Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. I show her the book's first page, and she says, "Read it to me. Out loud." I demur. She insists. I read. In the belly of the boat while the glacial mountains float by. "Leaflets," I say, reading the chapter title. Then:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
I hear my own breath catch. I look up into Kristi's face. She isn't sure, quite, about the passage I've read, wants to know why it has enchanted me. I read phrases out loud again, verbs, that word incendiary webbed into the lush lyric of the cartwheels, the flutter. How can you speak about what you love? How can you convey the genius of Anthony Doerr, who has never been more genius than this new novel of his—541 pages long, ten years in the making, and it reads too fast, you could read it in a day, you cannot read it in a day, for there will be nothing like it again or soon. Doerr is like Ondaatje, Doerr is like McCann, Doerr is like McDermott, Doerr is like Hagy, Doerr is a writer, pure.

And this new book—about a blind girl in France and a smart boy in Germany and the war that brings them together but only after terrible journeys and terrible losses and only for a moment—this new book is wrenching and glorious. Wrenching first. Glorious because of its deep and tender soul. Because Doerr embraces life even in the midst of dying. Because Doerr inclines toward science as he writes his art, which is to say that he inclines toward the curious mysteries of our world. Snails. A massive diamond. Electromagnetic waves. The cell that divides and divides again, until it is a human, howling.

I love this book. I believe in it, wholeheartedly. I believe in Doerr. Why do books still wear labels—YA or A, historical or contemporary, literary or not? Banish them. Now. Anyone who loved The Book Thief will be astonished and grateful for this book. Anyone who swoons over an Ondaatje sentence will recognize the power here. Anyone who wishes to return to France or Germany at the time of a devastating war will be returned in a fresh way, an eyes wide-open way.

Anyone who reads will emerge brokenhearted but also grateful that Doerr doesn't just break our hearts. In surprising and redeeming ways, he heals them, too.


In Alaska: the moral of the story is don't smoke cigars (listening to what our readers want)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On a trip to Alaska: the brighter blues and ceding purples of dawn, the calving of ice (like a dynamite blast), the candy twist of fog between the breaks in hills, the lugubrious faces of seals, the fins and tails of whales, the naturalists and crew we won't soon forget, the Great Young Elly P and her brother Owen (oh, my!), the loving Abi and Ziqin, the people it was easy to adore (grandparents, a pair of brothers, a pair of sisters like sisters to me), and a song that traveled through the green rain of a spruce and hemlock forest, carried forward by blonde cousins.

Gillian and Sarah. Sarah and Gillian. On our boat, on our trails, in our hearts.

"We want to be in one of your novels," they said to me, at the very end, their two faces glowing beneath glow-golden hair.

"What sort of novel would that be?" I wanted to know, and they laughed (for they were capable of such laughter) and explained:  A story in which big things happened. Unexpected things. Wow-worthy things. Secret powers lost and found. Adventures spinning forward. Not (most definitely not) one of those dreary novels in which description stands in for plot, character, and everything else.

Something has to happen, they said, they repeated.

They were emphatic. They were two smart girls with big, expressive eyes, and they were hopeful, insistent, ready for the next great book, a Sarah and Gillian book, a story about two girls caught in a fabulous whirl, or, perhaps, in one of their sweet-soprano songs (He sat by her window and smoked his cigar... He told her he loved her, but my how he lied... They were to get married but somehow she died... The tombstone fell over and squish-squash he died... The moral of this story is don't smoke cigars, don't smoke cigar ar ar ars.)

"You can even make me evil," Sarah offered, intuiting, perhaps, that my imagination might not be big enough, my skills not sufficiently wide ranging, my details too soggy for their high-adventure taste.

"Make you evil?" I said. "Impossible."

She laughed her Sarah laugh. Gilly laughed her cousin laugh. These two girls with adventure tastes offering everything they felt a writer might need—inspiration, encouragement, latitude.

Make something happen, they said.

Write the story, they said.

Put us in the heart of it.

They are out there now, and they are waiting. But if, someday, you see a story of mine with a Sarah and Gillian twist, you'll know this: I will have captured only a fraction of the gold that each of these cousins is. 


the book promotion circus: even Stephen Crane went a little nuts (and goodbye for now)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Confession: There are a lot of us who die many small deaths during the act of promoting our books. We wish we didn't have to. We wish we were Michael Ondaatje or Alice McDermott or Colum McCann or any of the greats for whom the world both spins and waits, and not us, ourselves and ourselves only, who are easily forgotten, or never actually known.

Book promotion. It can involve embarrassing displays of self-involvement (for the next sixty minutes I will be doing all the talking, thank you very much), nasty tricks (remember the writer who recently shipped her dead husband's ashes around with the galleys?), indulgent wardrobing (you will remember me,  you must remember me, won't you remember me?), and bold pronouncements about one's own talent (eeewww). We are asked to do many things. We do what we can. We close our eyes, we (maybe) grin and (barely) bear it, and then, mercifully, the promotion season has passed. We can be ourselves again.

We can buy and celebrate the books of others.

I'm not a touring writer. I'm not a famous one. This here blog, which is dedicated primarily to writerly musings and the works of others during the bulk of the year and to the news it seems right to share following the release of the small books I write (forgive me, I beg you, forgive me my books), is my home base, my foundation, my brand, my world, my virtual me. There is also, for the record, a flesh and blood me—a somewhat innocuous middle-aged woman who has little to say in real life and surprises people who meet her for the first time.

Just ask dear Debbie who could not, on Tuesday night, at Books of Wonder, get over how short I actually am.

(You might have thought I was tall? You might have thought I was glamorous? Ha! Wrong on both counts. Plus, I don't have a memorable wardrobe.)

I think about this promotion thing sometimes. Indeed, not long ago, musing out loud, I told my agent that I had begun to feel pressure not to speak of myself anymore on my blog. That, if only I had much more time to read than I do, I'd spend all the blog language on others.

"But it's your own blog," she said, "and you have responsibilities to your books."

"I know," I said. "But. Still. People are talking."

I'm talking about all of this right now because I just read Caleb Crain's piece on Stephen Crane in this week's The New Yorker, "The Red and the Scarlet." It's a fine piece of biography and it doesn't need much of a preface; it stands, wildly, on its own.

But here's the part I'd like to excerpt for you. It's the late 1800s. We're looking at self publishing and self-promotion. Seriously. Has anything changed?

Unable to find a publisher, Crane scraped together the money for "Maggie" to be printed. He chose yellow covers and the pseudonym Johnston Smith, and his friends threw him a raucous party....

To advertise the book, Crane hired four men to read it as conspicuously as possible on the elevated train, which, unfortunately, had little effect on sales. "It fell flat," he later admitted."

Self promotion. It's a terrifying term.

I'm going to be taking a small respite from the blog for the next few days, for I have several books I've bought and am planning to read. I need a little reading time and space. And then I'm going to report back here, as my short and unglamorous self. I hope you'll return when I do.


choose happiness

On the topic of happiness, two recent essays give us up.

The first is "Rhapsody in Realism," in which David Brooks reflects on Lydia Netzer's "15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years." The theory has to do with imperfection. Fessing up to it. Facing it. Living with it. I quote:

But Netzer’s piece is nicely based on the premise that we are crooked timber. We are, to varying degrees, foolish, weak, and often just plain inexplicable — and always will be. As Kant put it: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

People with a crooked timber mentality tend to see life as full of ironies. Intellectual life is ironic because really smart people often do the dumbest things precisely because they are carried away by their own brilliance. Politics is ironic because powerful people make themselves vulnerable because they think they can achieve more than they can. Marriage is ironic because you are trying to build a pure relationship out of people who are ramshackle and messy. There’s an awesome incongruity between the purity you glimpse in the love and the fact that he leaves used tissues around the house and it drives you crazy.
The second piece was part of my daily Linked-In feed, a story by Bernard Marr about happiness and how it might be found. Marr has five tips for us: Live a life true to yourself, don't work so hard, have the courage to express your feelings, stay in touch with your friends, let yourself be happier.

Let yourself be happier.

He explains:

Happiness, it turns out, doesn’t have that much to do with the car you drive or the job you have or even the person you spend your life with. Happiness is actually a choice.

It’s the difference between seeing an unexpected event as a setback or an adventure; the difference between being frustrated by a delay or relishing the time alone; the difference between resenting someone for who they aren’t and loving them for who they are.

We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of those who have gone before us. Our happiness, our success, nearly every detail of our lives comes down to choice, and we can choose to live the way we truly want to live, or spend our final days regretting the choices we didn’t make.
 We are all flawed people, that's a fact. But we still, thank goodness, have choices we can make. 


the story is what got you here: Gail Caldwell and other books of summer

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I have a dream, and it is this: to make this, the summer of friendship, also the summer of books. Both things at the same time. My idea of heaven.

(Throw a few good meals in, and it would be exponential heaven.)

Recently, with readerly hopes, I went out and bought some new books. To add to the piles of books not yet read. I don't know. I could not help it. On my list:

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us (James Nestor)

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

The Frangipangi Hotel (Violet Kupersmith)

Hungry (Heather Swain)

Sekret (Lindsay Smith)

I also bought Gail Caldwell's new memoir, because of course I had to; anyone who loves memoir must. Caldwell's truth talk is exemplary, which is to say that her stories are always bigger than herself. Caldwell never talks at us, as some memorists do. She draws us up at her table, gives us some tea, and makes room for conversation.

New Life, No Instructions is a slender volume—a story about a woman who has never married, who has no children, who has recently lost her best friend and her beloved parents, whose hip is finally giving way. What will send her living forward? What lessons are there in the intimacies of friendships that are built out of years and proximity?

Caldwell doesn't have all the answers; she doesn't pretend to. But she searches with such tremendous authenticity, she yields such simple and lovely vignettes, she honors those who have passed on, she is alive, she is on her river.

And she talks to us about telling the truth about the stories that have made us who we are. Words for all of us:

I've also been asked if I was resentful about getting a new diagnosis as late as I did, at least a decade beyond the initial symptoms that indicated my hip was failing. The answer is no, and not because I'm trying to be valiant. I think it's because of all the years I've spent in AA meetings, listening to people's stories. They can be terrible stories, full of anguish and fear and disrepair. But the point is not to spin the narrative; that defeats purpose, in some way, of story itself. You can't change the tale so that you turned left one day instead of right, or didn't make the mistake that might have saved your life a day later. We don't get those choices. The story is what got you here, and embracing its truth is what makes the outcome bearable.


the summer of friendship

This is the summer, it seems, of friendship. Of deeply meaningful lunches with friends whose stories have evolved, so magnificently, through the years. Of an afternoon spent in the glorious Brooklyn home of a very dearest friend. Of long conversations with neighbors—conversations that began a long time ago and that pick up right where they ended, as if many seasons and much weather had not intervened. How have you been? How do your seeds grow? How is your daughter, your husband, your mom? Of reunions with high school friends. Of saving grace phone calls and long walks. Of conversations with poets. Of former students who write or who appear in bookstores; they are growing up, they are growing up so beautifully. Of new friends, too, who kiss me on the cheek as if I have known them forever, or present me with a beaded lei and an ALOHA. Of emails that make me laugh out loud or astonish me or leave me with that happy something that erupts, naturally, when another's dream has been fulfilled.

They have waited, it has happened, it is good—and I am soaring with them. I am glad to be their friend.

The summer of friendship.

I've been thinking about that. Grateful for that. And, today (and for a long time, for our friendship is a long one, too) I am also grateful to a certain Nathaniel Popkin, who writes more beautifully about this city and about books than anyone I know. The man knows things, and he is a poet. Last evening, driving home from a perfect New York City day, I found these Hidden City words that had been Tweeted out to the world, and to me. I don't know what to do about words like these but to say, again, thank you. Thank you, Nathaniel, for your generosity.


The back and forth of life. The deep listening.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Today's early morning hours bring a note from the ineffable Paul Hankins, who had found a book I'd written long ago in a pile at the Goodwill. Who picked it up. Who read. Most writers would not count a remaindered Goodwill book as a happy event. But I do. I do. A quiet book, after so many years, finds its way out of the near trash into the hands of a distant friend. That seems to me far more sweet than any bestsellerdom might have been.

Today, morning, a note from a student soon returning from a Fulbright year. What it means to me to hear her stories. How lucky, knowing her, I have been.

Today, in the mail, notes from two bright young souls. Boys I've known forever now. Boys I'll soon be calling men. I've said this before. I'll say it again. I'll sit and listen any time to what this next generation says.

Today, late afternoon, a long conversation with a dear friend. Someone who knows me. Someone of whom I can say Tell me the truth, and she will. We're not perfect people. We have to, now and then, ask another to adjust the mirror so that we might look, again, at ourselves.

The back and forth. The deep listening. A fluid life. A day in summer.


Let us be honest: A New Directions in Writing Workshop, Pentagon City, VA

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Because the program intrigues me, because I believe good things can happen when like-minded people gather around a table to think about the past and what it means, I said yes to Kerry Malawista when she kindly invited me to conduct a full-day workshop on behalf of New Directions next spring.

We'll focus on senses—not just what we see, taste hear, smell, touch, but the power of heat and its absence, the causeways of pain, the prerequisites of balance and bodily awareness. I'll share the works of favorite poets and memoirists, launch small exercises, listen carefully to the emergent memories, help shape them.

Each participant will move, throughout the day, toward a single, honest, well-rendered moment—a memory that lives rightly on the page. We will, together, build a community. We'll reflect on some of the memoirs I discuss in Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, and why they are essential to a writing life; we'll reflect on some brand-new titles, too.

A handful of personal critique sessions on manuscripts-in-progress will be offered during breaks. 

If any of you are interested in participating, please leave a comment or send a note. I'll have more information shortly. For now:

Let us be honest: A Memoir Workshop
New Directions in Writing
Residence Inn, Pentagon City, VA
April 23, 2014
 More on New Directions in Writing:
 . . . an innovative three-year postgraduate training program for writers, clinicians, and academics who want to develop their skill in writing with a psychological perspective.  We have been of help to  students who were novice writers and to others who were well-published authors, and to all those in-between.  While most of our students have been psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapists, our student bodies have also included journalists, authors, and university faculty, among others.

In seasonal weekend conferences and optional summer and winter retreats, our community of students, alumni, teachers, and guest faculty come together to explore topics of psychological interest which stimulate our minds and enrich our writing.  Each weekend has a specific topic focus, such as memory, play, trauma, gender, writers block, mourning, revenge and forgiveness, religion, boundary, children’s literature, evil, the body, music, neuroscience, projection, and imagining a life.

Writing helps us to think. Thinking helps us to write. But writing is the focus of the program.


What, in the end, is enough? Reflections in the Philadelphia Inquirer

All week long I am thinking about ambition. The things we want and why we want them. The adjuration of enough.

I sit in the home of a poet and listen to him speak about choosing family over notoriety, quiet meals over the blustery pursuit of being widely known. I count the consequences of yearning for more - more opportunity, more visibility, more success, whatever success actually is. I think about how much more honest and unthwarted friendship means than a you-are-the-winner life.

Blustery pursuits. More and more. It can be dangerous stuff.

I'm still pondering Saturday morning, when I set out for the Bryn Mawr Farmers' Market, one of a number of marketplaces in the Farm to City network that celebrates local farmers and food artisans. (Farm to City markets can also be found in Rittenhouse Square, University Square, on East Passyunk, Girard, and Moyamensing, and in Havertown, Chestnut Hill, Swarthmore, among other places.) The temperature is a rare 70 degrees. The skies are blue. The air is breezy. The white tents in Bryn Mawr's Municipal Lot 7 have about them a carnival mood.

Read the whole story here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Upcoming FLOW events, and a chance to win a copy of the new paperback

Friday, June 20, 2014

Yesterday the Temple University Press fall catalog arrived and Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, now released as a paperback all these years after it first appeared in hardback form, is featured among the pages.

Later this year, on July 15th, I'll be with my dear friends at the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, leading a river-oriented writing workshop. On September 29, I'll be joining Stephen Fried and Neal Bascomb at the Pennsylvania Library Convention, for a nonfiction panel; Flow will be part of that story. On October 14 and 16,  I'll be giving two keynote addresses in honor of the Schuylkill's place as 2014 River of the Year, at Montgomery County Community College and Trinity Urban Life Center, thanks to my friends at Schuylkill River Heritage Area. Next year, in April, I'll be traveling to Washington DC, to meet the 7th and 8th graders of St. Albans Lower School, where Flow is the required summer read, and, later, to Pentagon City, VA, to conduct a writing workshop (Flow and Handling the Truth inspired) for New Directions in Writing (more here). Other events are in the making.

In celebration of this paperback dream fulfilled, I would like to extend an invitation to you. Write, in the comment box here, a favorite memory of a river—any river, any state. Your comment doesn't have to be long. It just has to mean something. Three of you who comment here (and who live in the United States) will win a paperback copy of Flow. The contest ends June 27th.

The Temple University catalog page, in full:


The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River

Beth Kephart
Listen to a podcast, of Beth Kephart's keynote address at the Bank Street College of Education, 9 November 2013.
"Beth Kephart's Flow is just a sumptuous book — haunting, poetic, lit up with gems of beauty and history. We engorge ourselves on materialism. The legacy of our generation will be our consumerism. But Flow and its exquisite evocation of the Schuylkill River reminds us that nature still trumps everything. Which makes the book all the more beautiful and all the more rare."
—Buzz Bissinger, author of A Prayer for the City and Friday Night Lights
The Schuylkill River — the name in Dutch means "hidden creek" — courses many miles, turning through Philadelphia before it yields to the Delaware. "I am this wide. I am this deep. A tad voluptuous, but only in places," writes Beth Kephart, capturing the voice of this natural resource in Flow.
An award-winning author, Kephart's elegant, impressionistic story of the Schuylkill navigates the beating heart of this magnificent water source. Readers are invited to flow through time-from the colonial era and Ben Franklin's death through episodes of Yellow Fever and the Winter of 1872, when the river froze over-to the present day. Readers will feel the silt of the Schuylkill's banks, swim with its perch and catfish, and cruise-or scull-downstream, from Reading to Valley Forge to the Water Works outside center city.
Flow's lush narrative is peppered with lovely, black and white photographs and illustrations depicting the river's history, its people, and its gorgeous vistas. Written with wisdom and with awe for one of the oldest friends of all Philadelphians, Flow is a perfect book for reading while the ice melts, and for slipping in your bag for your own visit to the Schuylkill.


"Only a poet and writer of Beth Kephart's lyric talent could give us a voice worthy of the great Schuylkill River. We have waited eons to hear the story she (and the river is a 'she') tells us, and Flow is worth the wait: Here is a song enriched with falling leaves and ascending souls; a poem composed of time and wind, fish and flotsam; and a riveting narrative of some of America's greatest heroes as well as some of our history's worst mistakes. Flow is seductive, thrilling, irresistible, life-changing. You cannot help but be swept away."
—Sy Montgomery, author of The Journey of the Pink Dolphins and The Good, Good Pig
"Kephart...provides an intimate meditation on the Schuylkill’s story."
Philadelphia Style
"In this autobiographical treatment, Kephart uses short lyrical essays and black-and-white photographs to let the Schuylkill River recount its life, it’s origin in creation and geography, its place in history, the famous personalities who graced its shores and crossed its water and its place in the hearts of Philadelphians who rely on it for water, recreation and solace."
The Patriot-News
"Flow is a poetic meditation on the Schuylkill River’s place in Philadelphia’s history, transporting you back in time."
"In her new book, Devon’s Beth Kephart poeticizes Philadelphia through the keen observations of its eldest resident, the Schuylkill River, which has long served as the city’s source of water, power, industry, and beauty. Flow adapts the river’s motion, winding past local events and retelling them with an imaginative and poignant voice."
Main Line Today
"Kephart's well-researched essays provide historical nuance...a prescient contemporary account of the city's history. But it is the narrative poetry, in the taut female voice of the river, which makes this a book to descend into, slowly, with all senses at the ready....Kephart is a master not only of descriptive memory, but of constructing an existential vocabulary."
The Philadelphia City Paper
"[I]t goes proudly on your coffee table to advertise your intelligent indie reading."
"I’ll see the Schuylkill differently on my ride home tonight, and maybe it’ll be a closer friend now."
"From the first footsteps of Native Americans, to wars, progress, industrialization, and beyond, the river serves up commentary with a mix of plain-spoken facts, dramatic embellishments and historical illustrations. The result is an engrossing and unusual take on the area."
"An admirer transforms her glimpses of the life of the Schuylkill — once wild then pressed into human service, and now rediscovered for its remnant beauty— into spare prose that is often moving, whether or not you live in Philly."
"In this autobiographical treatment, Kephart uses short lyrical essays and black-and-white photographs to let the Schuylkill River recount its life, its origin in creation and geography, it’s place in history, the famous personalities who graced its shores and crossed its water and its place in the hearts of Philadelphians who rely on it for water, recreation and solace."
The Patriot-News
"I can’t imagine a more beautiful book about a river than Flow."
University City Review
“Kephart gives the Schuylkill a voice, a memory, a melancholic sensibility. She has given us a finely-tuned and moving work of art, an exquisite book of loss and wanting. In 76 narrative poems and nearly as many short historical essays, Kephart returns the ‘hidden river’ to its place in our hearts.”
"What a gem!... I could not have asked for a more beautifully written, poetic and personal story of the Schuylkill River.... You may want to read this during the summer, when you can relax and absorb its powerful tale."
St. Albans Lower School blog


The end of noise: how Feldenkrais (which is to say Valerie) saved the day

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Readers of this blog know that, beginning in early March, a drummer took up residence inside my right ear and rarely ever left. Sometimes I called it a jackhammer. Doctors called it a geiger counter (they could hear it, apparently, with ease). It was loud. It was mean. It was endless, save for the four or five hours each month when it miraculously stopped, only to gear up and start again. Sleep was a challenge. Thinking, writing, reading—the tools of my trade—required enormous I'm-not-listening focus. And it was exhausting.

A week ago I mentioned, on Facebook, that I'd been granted a few sweet hours of silence. A friend—Valerie Grant—commented quickly that I should come and see her. Valerie Grant, the award-winning posture coach of the Philadelphia area, a pilates instructor, the mother of two sons who went to school with my own. Valerie Grant, neighbor and friend, who traveled to Nepal not long ago to help peasants straighten their spines and ease away from their pain.

"Come see me," she said, and I—who rarely make time for those parts of me—said yes. I was desperate. I couldn't think. I had used up all the noise on the white-noise machine. And I know Val. I know her. If anyone could help me, it was her.

In addition to her many skills, Valerie is a practitioner of Feldenkrais, a method of somatic education. From the web site: 

The Feldenkrais Method is for anyone who wants to reconnect with their natural abilities to move, think and feel. Whether you want to be more comfortable sitting at your computer, playing with your children and grandchildren, or performing a favorite pastime, these gentle lessons can improve your overall well being.

Learning to move with less effort makes daily life easier. Because the Feldenkrais Method focuses on the relationship between movement and thought, increased mental awareness and creativity accompany physical improvements. Everyone, from athletes and artists to administrators and attorneys, can benefit from the Feldenkrais Method.
I deliberately read nothing about the Method before I arrived at Val's. I wanted to hear from her about it. I would submit. I will tell you now that this method involves quiet touch. Unobtrusive touch. Fingertips that speak to muscles that speak to the central nervous system.

Five hours later, the noise inside my head was gone. Gone. It threatened to return a day later, but soon it was off again. On this third day post-Method, there is still silence in my head—unbelievable silence—so much so that I just called the third specialist who was to see me Friday and said, I'm not sure I need to come; the noise is gone. I told that specialist about Valerie. Please, I said. Tell others who might be suffering.

As I am telling you. If the noise returns, Val will be there. Even without the noise, I will be returning to Val. There are plenty of ways that my body is out of sorts (let's begin with my posture). Val is going to give this vessel of mine a gentle talking to.


a robust and thoughtful tween list from Sarah Laurence; some nice news for GOING OVER

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I got behind on this day—a book to read and review, some client care, a trip to the dentist, some forever inadequate taming of the jungle of my garden (oh my), and lunch with a friend whose capacious mind is thrilling, frankly, to be near. What he knows. What he thinks. I sit back and listen.

It is not until just now, then, that I have a moment to thank Sarah Lamport Laurence for a list of tween books that has a lot of people talking. People are looking for Sarah's kind of thinking about books all the time, and today she put together a most valued collection of recommended reads for tween readers. I am honored to find both Dangerous Neighbors and Undercover included.

Additionally I am grateful to Junior Library Guild for making today its Going Over day. And I am thankful to Indigo for placing my Berlin novel on its Best Teen Books of 2014 So Far list.


Great Teen Reads. June 24. Books of Wonder. New York City. I'll be there. Will you?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How entirely psyched am I to visit the Big Apple next week?

Entirely psyched.

It will be a day away among people I love in a city I've got a thing for.

It will be a privilege.

I'll spend the day in Brooklyn, with my dear friend Rahna Reiko Rizzuto and her pottery-brilliant Ming. I'll see my son (love. that. young. man.). And I will spend the evening hours among wonderful YA talents, in the Great Teen Reads event at Books of Wonder.

I'll be there with gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, I have this photo in my possession because of one Dahlia Adler, who so incredibly kindly wrote of Small Damages and Going Over here, and who, rumor has it, I will meet at the store! Speaking of gratitude (again), might I also mention that I will meet, at Books of Wonder, a certain copy editor, Debbie DeFord Minerva, who wrote to me after she worked on One Thing Stolen, the Florence novel—words I will never forget.

Join us?

Books of Wonder
Tuesday, June 24
6 - 8 PM
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011


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