A page from FLOW whisks across the face of the Water Works

Friday, October 31, 2014

FLOW Festival 2014 / Architectural Projection Model from Greenhouse Media on Vimeo.

When the good people of the Fairmount Water Works asked if they might borrow the first prose page from Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River for a festival finale, I said yes, of course. This movie (rendered here) was projected onto the entrance house facades of the Water Works building as night fell a few weeks ago. The words come from the prose poem, "Rising."

Habithèque Inc.— Creative Direction
Greenhouse Media— Video and Editing
refreshtech and LUCE Group— Lighting
Blair Brothers Music— Original Soundscape
Beth Kephart—The poem "Rising" from her book Flow


Cicero's peeps throw a book party (or, authorial self-promotion is hardly new)

In Cicero's day authors ready to launch their newest work would gather their friends at home or in a public hall for a spirited recitatio, or reading. Audiences would cry out when they liked a particular passage. Nervous authors enlisted their friends to lend support, and sometimes even filled seats with hired "clappers." They were keenly aware of the importance of networking to get influential acquaintances to recommend their works to others. The creation of books started off as something both personal and social; the connection embodied in that dual nature is at the heart of what makes books so good at refining and advancing thought. It was just that the practicalities of publishing in the printing-press age made the personal connections a bit harder to see.

"From papyrus to pixels: The digital transformation of the way books are written, published, and sold had only just begun" — The Economist, October 11, 2014 

(This fascinating in-depth reporting on self-publishing, book formats, and sales figures can be read here.)


you know that super smart brother of mine?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

He's helping to lead the IBM team now at work on this revolutionary technology in the Cognitive Environments Laboratory. When Jeff describes this to me, he asks me if I remember the film Minority Report, the technologies for which were conjured a decade ago by fifteen scientific researchers during a three-day, Spielberg-assembled think tank.

From the Yahoo Finance article where the video above appears:

Using the capabilities of IBM's pioneering Cognitive Environments Laboratory (CEL), Repsol and IBM researchers will work together to jointly develop and apply new prototype cognitive tools for real-world use cases in the oil and gas industry. Cognitive computing software agents and technologies will be designed to collaborate with human experts in more natural ways, learn through interaction, and enable individuals and teams to make better decisions by overcoming cognitive limitations posed by big data.

Scientists in the CEL will also be able to experiment with a combination of traditional and new interfaces based upon spoken dialog, gesture, robotics and advanced visualization and navigation techniques. Through these modalities, they will be able to learn and leverage sophisticated models of human characteristics, preferences and biases that may be present in the decision-making process.
Jeff, who was inducted into the IEEE two years ago (and whose children respectively dance and race the Rubik's Cube clock), possesses a mind that seems capable of the impossible. He has to dial his intellect down several notches so that he can communicate with ordinary people like me. He has spent many years at IBM doing various fascinating things—and many nights working until 3 AM or later (on concepts, on coding, on new ideas, on computer screens) to be ready for his team the next day.

If you watch this video, you'll see my brother beginning at minute 2:20 in a blue shirt at a long table, thinking. He has blue eyes, light hair, and a brain that is also seemingly unrelated to me.

Thanks to Donna, Jeff's wife, for sharing the article and video, and to my father who was on this news early today.


on book dedications (and One Thing Stolen)

There comes that quiet time, in the life of a book, when we must make a decision or two about dedications. My son, my family, two editors, my agent, my students. I have had my reasons.

Yesterday, home from Hilton Head and binge-watching "Breaking Bad" in the late dark after a long work day, I stood, went to my office, and retrieved a galley copy of One Thing Stolen. I opened it to an early page, turned on the light, called to my husband.

I keep meaning to tell you, I said.


South Carolina light, in late October

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

... with all gratitude to my generous father, who shared his Hilton Head Island home with me for a few brief glittering days.


Language Arts/Stephanie Kallos: Reflections

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I took a single novel with me to Hilton Head Island—the third novel by Seattle-based Stephanie Kallos, who brought us TODAY Book Club selection Broken for You as well as Sing Them Home, which was named by Entertainment Weekly as one Ten Best Novels of the year.

I was expecting very, very good, for I'd read those books and I know a little about Stephanie. I know how hard she has worked over the past four years toward this story she's called Language Arts. I know that she has broken it apart so that she might stitch it back together. That fortitude was required. And faith.

I'll enjoy this, I thought, as I packed my tiny red roller bag.

I had no idea what I was in for and here's the reason: I had no idea that a book like this was possible.

I spent nearly two hours on the plane this afternoon trying to summarize this book. I cannot. Yes, it's about a high school English teacher with a severely challenged (and now institutionalized) son. It's about the teacher's past, his regrets, a best friendship he once betrayed, the wife who left him, the daughter he loves. A family story, a deeply involving family story. It is absolutely that.

But it is also about the Palmer Method of handwriting, a brutalized Italian nun, Janet Leigh, Life magazine, thalidomide babies, and a young student who wears a camera for a necklace and has some ideas about art. Absolutely none of that is decoration, distraction, or tangent; it all counts. How and why it counts is a great part of the genius of this book.

And why you have to read it.

Structurally significant, philosophically whole, unbelievably well written, and please forgive me, Stephanie's best book yet. I could deconstruct this book for days. I could hang the sections by clothespins to a line and lie beneath the fluttering pages, pondering, but I would never be able to figure out just how this book got made. How Stephanie summoned the patience. How she held its many parts together in her head, then put them down for us.

Talk about fluid.

Talk about transporting.

Talk about clever in places and deeply sad in others.

Talk about a stab in the heart, and then a healing.

Language Arts is blurbed by Maria Semple, and anyone who loves Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) will love this book. It is edited by the very great Lauren Wein of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and anyone who loves Lauren's books (I love Lauren's books) will love this book.

For the rest of you, if there are any rest of you, I give you one small passage about language from Language Arts.
Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order—the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off by the needle—but that was not the case.
Look for it next June.


temporarily closed for business, but then: Alumni Authors at Penn

Friday, October 24, 2014

I leave in an hour for five days away with my father—a trip we've been looking forward to for quite some time. I thought that maybe I'd try to write while gone. I won't. I'll be riding my bike through the pine paths of Hilton Head Island instead. Walking the beach. Reading a book or two.

I need not to work for awhile.

I will return in time for the Alumni Authors Panel for Homecoming Weekend—with Lorene Carey, Jordan Sonnenblick, Kathy DeMarco Van Cleve, and Liz Van Doren—at the University of Pennsylvania. I hope to see some of you, perhaps some of my former students, there.

Happiness and peace to you in the meantime. I'm signing off of the blog for a spell.


The glorious Dracula as presented by the Brandywine Ballet, and co-starring the stunning Emma Yasick

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We drove through the rain to West Chester University—just the right mood, just the right weather—where we were granted the very special privilege of watching the dress rehearsal of "Dracula," a ballet for which the Brandywine Ballet has become rightly well-known.

This "Dracula" belongs to Nancy Page, a former dancer, a beloved Brandywine teacher, and the choreographer who brilliantly fit the essence of the Bram Stoker story upon the light limbs of delicate dancers, into the mauves and peaches and creams of fluid fabrics, and beneath the spackled lights of the Asplundh stage. It is a mesmerizing spectacle, perfectly steeped in visual and aural seductions. It makes room for dancers of many ages, asks the young to carry flames, bends into itself without repeating itself. The dancers wear masks, but we in the audience do not. We are open to this story, vulnerable to the talent, looking for the light inside the moody backdrop blues and purples and grays.

Among the dancers floats and lifts and reaches one Emma Yasick, the daughter of friends. She has been dancing much of her life. She is, even in a pair of jeans, a ballerina, pure. On a slender frame she carries her intelligence. With extraordinary poise she lengthens the distance between her chin and shoulderblades. She is integral to the dancing and she is very much herself, and when I sat there, beside her mother in the dark, I asked (a whisper):

Do you always see her at once when she enters the stage?

I always do, she said.

I am grateful that my husband was with us last evening. That he took his camera down to the edge of the stage and caught some moments on film. This is Emma Yasick dancing in "Dracula," with a company—the Brandywine Ballet—that is her second home.

I'm not sure if this extraordinary production is already sold out. It absolutely should be. But if tickets remain, and if you have time, I strongly encourage you to find out more here.


The Epic Reads Timeline of Young Adult Historical Fiction (yay for GOING OVER!)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Can I say how happy this makes me? I know that the graphic reads little small on my blog. But if you go over to the fabulous Epic Reads you'll find rocking good stuff, at the right size, for readers, teachers, and librarians.

I am grateful—to Epic Reads and to Ilene Wong, who Twittered me the news.


who needs another dead novel?

Yesterday, a day of challenges and breakthroughs, I read just two things, briefly. The first was the James Wood essay in the October 20 New Yorker, "No time for lies," about the Australian novelist, Elizabeth Harrower.

I feel the need to share the entire first paragraph. If you are skimming, please read, at least, the last line.

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, "In Certain Circles" (Text), some months prior to its publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely "frozen" by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—"That sounds quite interesting, but I don't think I'll read it"—and adds that she has been "very good at closing doors and ending things.... What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I've forgotten." Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel's quality: "It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don't need to be written."

I don't know what these words do to you, but I am filled with melancholy as I read them. I am thinking about all the times we writers question our own work and purpose. How often we wonder if we are done in, or perhaps diluted. How greatly we fear this fate, of producing well-written dead novels. Bully for Elizabeth Harrower for being brave enough to name the fear. To care about the quality of the work she yields. To recognize that merely well written isn't good enough.

The second article I read yesterday was written by Alexandra Alter for The New York Timesan update on Anna Todd, the twenty-five-year-old erotica writer who "found inspiration in Harry Styles, the tousle-haired heartthrob from the British boy band One Direction." Todd shared her tale on Wattpad. Simon & Schuster has paid her a sweet six figures for the right to rebroadcast the Styles erotica under its Gallery imprint. The whole will be coming soon to a theater near you, thanks to Paramount Pictures.

Here is Todd, as reported by Alter, describing her process:

Then she found her calling — in the unlikely form of a baby-faced pop star. Ms. Todd started out as a reader on Wattpad in 2012, and quickly found herself spending several hours a day reading serialized fictional stories about One Direction. Last spring, she started writing her own story. “It took over my life,” she said.

With her husband’s support, Ms. Todd quit her job working at a makeup store counter to write full time. She updated “After” with a new chapter every day to meet readers’ demands and tapped out much of the book on her cellphone. She wrote for five hours a day and spent three hours trading messages with readers on Wattpad, Twitter and Instagram and drew on those comments to help her shape the story.

“The only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone,” she said.
One established, well-respected novelist pondering whether a book is alive enough, choosing to live quietly, without fanfare. A debut novelist tapping out a book on a phone based on a band, building a story according to Wattpad comments.

The bookends of my yesterday.

The ironies of publishing.


if you want to know what Philadelphia school teachers do, meet Elaine Roseman, English Teacher

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I am one of many writers who answered the call to spend some time getting to know a Philadelphia school teacher, so as to share that light and living.

The storytelling initiative—"WE Are Keeping the Contract"—is not a form of vitriol. It is not a negative campaign. It is an honoring of people who get up each morning and, under increasingly difficult conditions, listen to and for young people.

I met Elaine Roseman by phone. She told me her remarkable stories. I wrote about some of them here. I invite you to scroll through the poetry and prose already written, and to return in days to come for more.

These teachers, I think you'll agree, matter.


ONE THING STOLEN: a single copy available to a U.S. reader

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I have a single copy of ONE THING STOLEN, my novel about an impossible obsession set against the backdrop of Florence, Italy, available to a U.S. reader.

I invite those who are interested to leave a comment indicating one thing you most associate with Florence—a building, a landscape feature, an icon, a dish, a way of walking, a kind of weather, anything. I will then attempt to write a blog post referencing every single comment.

(I anticipate a mean mind twister.)

The winner will be randomly chosen on November 15th.

Perhaps you wonder why I have just one copy to give away? The answer is that I've been busy creating packages for the many people who helped make this book a reality.

Dr. Bruce Miller, for example, of the University of California-San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, who shed light on the disease that my young Nadia faces.

Emily Rosner and Maurizio Panichi, whom I met in the Florence bookstore, Paperback Exchange, and who helped me understand the 1966 flooding of the Arno and the Mud Angels who came to the rescue; Maurizio's own experiences are woven through this story.

Laura Gori, who directs the Scuola del Cuoio, and where I learned the art of leather working from a master.

Mike Cola, a dear friend and Renaissance man, who talked to me about birds.

Kathy Coffey, who sent, through the mail, the book that I needed, following her own trip to Florence.

My brother-in-law, Mario, who helped me with translations.

Wendy Robards, who read early on and kept me grounded.

My students Katie Goldrath and Maggie Ercolani, who deeply inspired me.

And a few others.

Leaving me with one galley for posterity's sake and one for one of you.

I hope you'll let me know of your interest.


Christopher Yasick: a son leaves the world too soon, a father reaches out from his distance

Remembering an extraordinary young man, lost too soon, a year ago today.

With deepest love and affection for his family.

Sometimes I'd be sitting in Mike Yasick's office at Shire, a client company, and he'd get to talking about his family.

The phone would ring, and he'd lift one finger, check the number, and discover his son, Chris, on the line.

"Hold on," Mike would say to me.

"Hey," he'd say to his son, his face lighting up two additional degrees of bright, which was really something for a man already so fully illuminated. Maybe Chris had some news. Maybe Chris was hoping Mike would pick up some ingredient on the way home to complete the meal Chris was cooking. Whatever it was, Mike glowed. Whatever it was, afterward, Mike would sit, talking about Chris and the rest of his family. It was a favorite topic for a famous raconteur, because Mike may have been a super star in the pharma world, but more to the point, and through and through, he was a purely devoted family man.

The world lost Mike Yasick eight months ago to a rare genetic condition. He was with us, laughing one day, parading his bright red pants, and then—suddenly—he was gone. Imagine the largest Catholic church you've ever seen. Then imagine it filled, wall to wall, with friends and family—mourners—most of them wearing Mike's trademark red. Imagine a small blog tribute—mine—read by 15,000 people. That's how loved Mike was.

Yesterday, Chris, just twenty-five years old, was taken by the same terrible disease that took his father. Another sudden passing. Another terrible loss in the world, an unimaginable heartbreak for a beautiful family. I got the news in the dark hours of the morning that Chris was in the hospital. I got the news several hours later that he was gone. In between, I prayed—so many of us prayed—for some kind of miracle.

Chris was a civil engineer, a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. He was a young man on his way up in a job with Skyline Steel. At his father's funeral he was dignified, one of those people you really hoped you'd get a chance to personally know—his face so much like his dad's, that Yasick sparkle in his eyes. So this is Chris, I kept thinking. This is Chris.

Miracles are so hard to come by. Miracles aren't every day. The disease took Chris. But here are two things that all of us who loved Mike, who mourn with and for his family, will always see as miraculous. On the day that Chris grew so suddenly and terribly ill, Mike's best friends were in town. They had come to town specifically to see Chris, to take him out to dinner, to tell him some stories about his dad. They were there when it happened. They were there for Chris—all night in that hospital, they were there for Chris. They were present.

Just as another friend just so happened to land in Chicago, on his way to somewhere else. He checked his phone. He saw a text from Chris's sister, Katy, he changed his plans, he hurried to the hospital, he was there, too. There.

"I haven't connected on a flight in years," this friend, Matt Pauls, wrote to me. "Why last night? In Chicago? Why were his buddies in town? Because Mike made sure Chris was covered."

Mike made sure his son was covered. As other family rushed to town, as Chris's mom got there as fast as the plane could fly, as the doctors did all they could do, Mike, through his friends, was there for his son. A beautiful thing in a most tragic time, and the thing we will hold onto as we honor Chris.


too much of too much: the end of an era

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We returned from a day in New Hope with friends to discover that the trumpetvine my father had planted for me years ago, after my mother passed away, had finally twisted away from the house and fallen still. This was my hummingbird bush, the cover I took on summer days. This was the heart of my memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky. This was where the world could not find me. The world couldn't. The birds did.

The bush wrenched away from itself, urged by either wind or squirrel.

It was depleted, and I understand, for I am depleted, too. Too much of too much and so much more to go, and this must be how my trumpetvine felt—it had survived enough storms. It can give cover no more.

But how I will miss my hummingbirds.


Schuylkill Banks: remarkably effective and far from done

Friday, October 17, 2014

I walked the new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk before my river talk last evening. The skies were expressive, pewter and blue, and from this 15-foot-wide float of walkway over the river herself, I saw the city as I had not seen her before. One of the many exhilarating advantages of this new and elevating space.

Another advantage? The joy of it. The Philadelphians who are coming to know, and to better see, their river. The sense that they don't take this for granted, and why should they? It wasn't all that long ago that the Schuylkill was sludge and noxious fumes, dead water, a place to be hurried past. Now, thanks to the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, Fairmount Water Works, Schuylkill River Heritage Area, the William Penn Foundation, the people I have met this week at the 2014 Pennsylvania River of the Year events, and many others, the Schuylkill is the place to be.

I've written here about the Heritage Area. I've written here about Fairmount Water Works. Today, my spotlight is on the SRDC.

Already offering kayaking and river tours, skateboard parks and overlooks, this brand-new boardwalk, and the idea of the bucolic in an urbanscape, the SRDC is hardly done with its quest to build "trails and greenway running along both banks of the Schuylkill River wherever possible between the Fairmount Dam and the Delaware River." Now planned or in play are the Bartram's Mile, destined to run along the west bank between Grays Ferry Avenue and 58th Street (and one-day connecting to the Grays Ferry Crescent by an abandoned railroad bridge); a pedestrian/biking west bank trail; and an east-side trail between the South Street Bridge and Christian.

All I know is words. The SRDC, the organizations mentioned above, the river advocates who work on behalf of tributaries, against run-off, for the future—they are the ones making the physical, even quantifiable difference to our city.

Find a way to thank them the next time you head off toward the river. You wouldn't be there without them.


at 120 pages, we turn and look back over our own shoulders

Thursday, October 16, 2014

At one point, our own partial manuscripts become our chief instructors and guides. The hidden symbols are there. The patterns. The characters who have more to say. Here, our early pages tell us, is the more that must be said.

We print. We retreat. We find a dark and alone hour. We look back over our own shoulders.

It is, for me, the only way to carry a story forward.

In the first twenty pages, I find prose that is working too hard, prose that is too much about language, because it doesn't know the full outlines of the story yet; the prose is guessing. I find gimmickry that no longer dazzles me, that won't let me get away with murder.

Adjustments needed. Made.

Pages 20 to 50, I find a story in better concordance with itself, but also: contradicting or sometimes repeating lines, a few bold experiments that go awry, some tangents that are no longer necessary.

Adjustments needed. Made.

Pages 50 on, the story seems to be in better control, and perhaps the real start is here, perhaps (I put the manuscript down, consider), the imagined heart of the story is not the true heart of the story. Perhaps a different structure, a new chapter break, will tell me more.

I need to further explore.

At 120 pages, we turn, look back, begin again.


The Schuylkill River Trail, in Pottstown

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Last evening, the sun setting, I sat by the river trail in Pottstown. No paper in hand. No book. No pen. Just sat and watched the sun change the color of the trees, the ducks disturb the water, the cyclists stream by in fluorescent shirts.

Later I walked down the road to Montgomery Community College West and spoke of river history and river dreams with those who know the river best—trail blazers, volunteers, bikers, historians, people with stories to tell about Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, teachers, artists, a minister, a former physician who has brought his exacting eye to river trails and maps.

It takes a village to rescue rivers. What river rescuers we're blessed with.

With thanks to Kurt Zwikl and Laura Catalano of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, who created the evening. With thanks to everyone who came—such warmth, such very good questions. And looking forward to Thursday evening, when I travel to the city to meet with another cadre of river souls as part of our celebration of the river.

Anyone who loves our river is welcome. Join us.


River Dreams: tonight is the night (and so is Thursday)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We invite you to our celebration of the Schuylkill River, 2014 Pennsylvania River of the Year. This evening I'll be at Montgomery County Community College West Campus, in the Community Room in South Hall at 7 p.m. A second presentation will be held on Thursday Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Trinity Center for Urban Life in Philadelphia. Both events are free.

I'm deeply grateful to the good people at Schuylkill River Heritage Area, Fairmount Water Waters, Schuylkill Banks, and Temple University Press, who have so generously spread the word. My talk, titled "River Dreams: History, Hope, and the Imagination," begins like this:

Neither oil nor borders. Not religion. Not historical hurts or misremembered sleights. None of these. The next world wars, the experts say, will be fought over water. Over the three percent of the earth’s liquid total that pools in ponds and lakes, careens down channels, overruns crevasses, oozes from retreating glaciers, is barricaded up inside man-made reservoirs, is yanked up from the bottom of the well, is carried, jug to jug and bottle to hand toward cupped palms. Seeds, omnivores, carnivores, herbivores, feathered things—they need it. So do the pink dolphins and the mighty mollusks and the bulge-eyed toads and the little girl with the cascade of curls who has come to the banks with her heart set on adventure.

More can be found here.


On metaphor: "Thinking is a kind of simulated interaction with the world"

From I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World, by James Geary

The upshot of all this research is: thinking is a kind of simulated interaction with the world, a metaphorical engagement that makes what we imagine more realistic. Mental images can have the same effect on the body and the mind as actual physical things. And metaphors are mental image makers par excellence.... Metaphors are experience's body doubles, standing in for actual objects and events.


My Mistake/Daniel Menaker: Reflections

Monday, October 13, 2014

Daniel Menaker's memoir My Mistake fills me with a desire for confession.

I'll keep this unnaturally brief: Once, aged twenty-five, attempting to strike out on my own as a writing consultant, I misspelled the word "renown" in my proposal. I did not get the job. Once, after the publication of one of those Kephart memoirs, I discovered a mistake or maybe even two; I barely left the house for the next three months, afraid that any perceived movement on my part would lead to the discovery of my crime. Once, dead tired after a transatlantic flight, I picked up the wrong suitcase from the Heathrow carousel (see, even here, I am giving myself an excuse). Once, a few posts ago, on this very blog, I misspelled the last name of Eula Biss. I have been wrong and failed to apologize. I have apologized for mistakes I never made, also typically a mistake, for the gesture rarely silences the accuser. I have forgotten the lady's name at church. I have intuited incorrectly. I have supposed and I have suspected. I have given bad advice. I have been impatient. I fell on the double axle in my last skating competition while floating to a West Side Story number.

My Mistake. Singular. What a brilliant title for a brilliant book by a former fact checker and fiction editor for The New Yorker, former Random House executive editor in chief (he worked with Colum McCann, people), and still and always author. I have dog-earred one thousand of its 234 pages. I have felt a certain bliss just sitting and reading this personal and publishing history, gossip and innuendo. These stories about William Maxwell and Michael Cunningham, Alice Munro and Tina Brown, Anonymous and an MRI nurse with a ripe sense of humor. These explications of New Yorker style. These truths about the a death of a brother, the terror of anxiety, the budding of a new spring.

My Mistake is musical and funny, heartbreaking and consoling. It is insanely readable. It is the sort of thing I would have read aloud, except that I was on the SEPTA Quiet Car while turning many of its pages, and the rules were being strictly enforced.

Let me read out loud, then, on this blog.

On the cult of The New Yorker:
However consciously or un-, The New Yorker, a kind of Jonestown of the literary/journalistic realm, encourages in its employees an ethos of superiority, essentialness, and disregard for fad and fashion. Shawn himself, in his words and demeanor, appears to disavow any self-importance. He wants to be taken as a quiet, modest man who puts the greatness of the institution he runs above all else. This faux-modest version of occupational vanity, in combination with native timidity, keeps very intelligent people in the same, often dead-end, jobs for years, simply because they can say, in this modestly quiet voice, that they work for The New Yorker. Great institutions, so long as they are small, will often (a) eventually take themselves too seriously and (b) try to camouflage their pride with self-effacement.
On panic, a condition with which I am much too intimately familiar:
But for pity's sake don't dismiss this affliction as a chimera or a ruse or a plea for attention or any of the other at least implicitly condemnatory assessments that so many so often make of it. It is all too real, itself and nothing else, and it can be disabling. It came close to disabling me for life. The prospect of lunch with a colleague was torture. Flying was a sentence. Social life an ordeal. It's no wonder that with Valium always on my person and the need to lose myself in something that would take my mind off this dread, I throw my energy into fact-checking so violently. I start psychoanalysis and keep the Valium in the shirt pocket over my heart. This goes on, gradually abating, for many years.
On publishing:
It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list—"surprise" big hits bought with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet—even sturdy vessels—founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems.
Okay, obviously, I am a fan. Such a fan that I decided, mid-course or maybe sooner, to assign My Mistake to my Penn students in the spring. I can't think of a more complete introduction to life and forgiveness, facts and foibles, literary thinking.


New York City skyline, the week ahead, and Menaker's "My Mistake"

It was a weekend of many friends and many faces. Talking memoir, then book marketing at the annual Push to Publish conference. Performing a "Blurred Lines" cha-cha with my husband at the gorgeous Goodhart Hall on the Bryn Mawr College campus (we're still standing). Setting off for a perfect Sunday with our son, a day that ended with this glimpse of New York City magic.

In the week ahead I'll be at Montgomery County Community College (Tuesday evening) and at Trinity Center for Urban Life (Thursday evening) to give a talk I've titled "RIVER DREAMS: History, Hope and the Imagination," a keynote on behalf of the Schuylkill River's designation as the 2014 Pennsylvania River of the Year. The events are free and open to the public, and we hope you'll consider joining us. More information can be found here.

I also hope to be able to finish reading (and subsequently blogging) Daniel Menaker's My Mistake, a terrific memoir about the life of this former editor. We make mistakes (I've not yet met a perfect person). Some deeply change the course of our lives, or the lives of others. Some are cheek-blushing, oh-damn foibles from which we learn. Menaker's book (I'm halfway through) yields, above all else, perspective. I look forward to sharing more of it here in days to come.


On what one Mural Arts installation helped me see, in today's Inquirer

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Today, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, some thoughts about "Psychylustro," the Mural Arts installation that has redefined how SEPTA and AMTRAK passengers see—and perhaps think about—Philadelphia's industrial past.

The entire story can be found here.


less than solitary: reconnecting with an old friend for a new project

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Years ago, when I was young—wait. Was I ever young? Not that I can remember. I'll start again.


Books ago, I had the pleasure of working on a corporate fairy tale with my friend Matt Emmens, a book we called Zenobia: The Curious Book of Business. Zenobia, an Alice in Wonderland-like adventure through a dying (but then rejuvenated) corporation, ended up selling to a dozen foreign publishers. It broadened my collaboration with my husband, who created the book's fabulous illustrations. And it deepened my friendship with Matt, who had CEO'd many of the companies I've worked for through the years, but who I respect even more for his many passions and pursuits.

This past week, I had an excuse to again spend time talking with Matt as I continued work on a strange and percolating project. I asked Matt questions, and he summoned details. I asked for the sound of talk, and he recreated conversations. I sent him the chapter his knowledge had helped me write, and he sent back notes. You should consider. Drop the octagon. That would singular, not plural. If you're considering a night scene, consider this.

There's a lot of just plain hardship that goes along with writing. There's a lot of solitary. But when there's the chance to ask questions, go ask the questions. Your book will be better off. And so will you.

Speaking of less than solitary, in a few hours I'll be at Rosemont College for the annual Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference. First up for me (1:15), a memoir/nonfiction panel with my long-time friend Karen Rile and Anne Kaier. Second up (2:30), a marketing for published authors panel with another dear friend (Kelly Simmons) and Donna Galanti. From there, I'm rushing back home for a quick change and a nervous drive to a local stage, where I'll be dancing the cha cha with my husband.

I'm sleeping in tomorrow morning. Then I'll get up and work with a few new details dear Mr. Emmens just sent me.


On Immunity by Eula Biss, in the Chicago Tribune

Friday, October 10, 2014

Earlier this week I spoke of Eula Biss's first book, The Balloonists, and how it made me think. This weekend, in the Chicago Tribune, I'm reflecting on Biss's new book, On Immunity, a book that has been generating much press for its artful exploration of the social ramifications of personal health decisions. My review begins like this, below, and continues here.

You read Eula Biss' new book slowly, with care. You are not sure, at first, where it is going. The topic is immunity, also inoculation, also vaccination, epidemics, social responsibility, vampirism and the impossibility of completely knowing. There are episodes of bright, emboldened insight. There are incidents — sometimes still and sometimes cinematic — of personal story. There are playground questions and interviews with scientists, Achilles and Dracula, myths and birth and a child sleeping. There are others, and there is us. There are the invisible airborne germs and the visible, struck down dying.


FLOW to be incorporated in a William Penn Foundation-sponsored teaching program, at the Water Works

Thursday, October 9, 2014

My collaboration with the Fairmount Water Works is long and rich, and today I'm pleased to share the news that that relationship has now been extended through a fantastic new program funded by the William Penn Foundation.

The program, designed to "improve environmental education in Philadelphia middle schools and to engage new audiences in art," is fully described below. Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, a book I've taught to the children of Project FLOW, will be an integral part of this program—a copy given to each participating student and teacher. I'll also be meeting with the teachers to conduct a writing workshop based on the book.

I am, of course, delighted.

The release about the broad program, as it appears in today's Philly.com:

Fairmount Water Works Receives More Than $500,000 from William Penn Foundation

Grants Open Up Opportunities for Watershed Education, Art and Engagement
PHILADELPHIA--(BUSINESS WIRE)--A pair of grants from the William Penn Foundation will allow the Fairmount Water Works to improve environmental education in Philadelphia middle schools and engage new audiences through art.

The Foundation awarded the Fairmount Water Works $506,000 to launch a three-year Middle School Teacher Fellowship Program to develop a curriculum that integrates urban watershed education with core science and English standards for sixth through eighth grade students. It also awarded an $82,500 planning grant for the Fairmount Water Works to prototype an interactive and kinetic sculpture near the river and the Water Works’ historic building.

Middle School Fellowship Program
Fifty-four Philadelphia School District teachers will create and test lessons in their classrooms and receive monthly training, classroom support from environmental educators, curriculum specialists and experts from the Philadelphia Water Department, and funds for supplies, staff development and bus transportation for field trips. The program is based on the Fairmount Water Works’ existing program, Understanding the Urban Watershed Curriculum Guide, a framework for lessons on watershed, and water use in the context of an urban environment. More than 1,500 students will be reached in the program’s first three years.

“We’re developing this curriculum at a time when the need for high-quality environmental education is critical so students can understand the issues we face in Philadelphia, and across the United States,” said Karen Young, Director of the Fairmount Water Works. “Our goal is to help teachers increase engagement and academic achievement by integrating real-world environmental experiences, hands-on exploration and project-based learning into the classroom.”

Student teacher volunteers from Temple University’s TU Teach program, University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Bryn Mawr College’s Community Praxis program will also support the teachers.


Honored to be included in Whatever Doesn't Kill You: The Shebooks Print Anthology

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I am deeply honored to have my memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky., selected as one of six memoirs for the first Shebooks print anthology. I stand in glorious good company. I am grateful to Laura Fraser, Peggy Northrop, and the entire Shebooks family, and I cannot wait to hold this book in my hands.

Shebooks, a new media company devoted to women’s storytelling, presents its best short memoirs in this print anthology, Whatever Doesn’t Kill You: Six Memoirs of Resilience, Strength, and Forgiveness.

In “Ricochet: Two women war reporters and a friendship under fire,” award-winning journalist Mary Jo McConahay explores the personal toll of war reporting in Central America.

Playwright and author Barbara Graham’s delicate “Camp Paradox: A memoir of stolen innocence” takes on the taboo topic of women abusing younger girls.

Susan Ito’s “The Mouse Room” is the quirky tale of a young woman working in a genetics lab while trying to find her own birth mother.

Faith Adiele’s “ The Nordic-Nigerian Girls’ Guide to Lady Problems” makes a trip to the gynecologist’s office funny, while exposing racial disparities in women’s health care.

Award-winning short story writer Ethel Rohan’s “Out of Dublin” is an exquisite tale of emotional survival.

In the gorgeous “Nest. Flight. Sky.” memoirist Beth Kephart muses on her mother’s death and her new-found obsession with birds.
All these true life stories are brave and beautifully written. The authors use the power of writing to understand and transcend challenges– their memoirs  are an inspiration for all of us.

Edited by Laura Fraser. 

“Shebooks are essential for a well-read life”-- Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You


on history sanitized and simplified for younger readers: let's think about this

In today's New York Times, Alexander Alter writes of the increasing number of "adult" authors who are reconfiguring their history books for the younger, still-book-buying crowd (or for those who buy books for them). She writes:

Inspired by the booming market for young adult novels, a growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers. Prominent nonfiction writers like Ms. Hillenbrand, Jon Meacham and Rick Atkinson are now grappling with how to handle unsettling or controversial material in their books as they try to win over this impressionable new audience.

And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.
I wonder about the wisdom of this—about the felt need to take well-written and absorbing histories and make them less than (for sanitized and simplified sound like less than to me) for younger readers. Let's first acknowledge what many young readers are capable of, which is to say, books rich with moral dilemma and emboldened by ideas. Let's next acknowledge what young readers need, which is to say the facts of then and now. 

You can already get that sort of thing in novels written for younger readers. Certainly Patricia McCormick is not writing down, making it easy, simplifying when she writes about the sex trade or the Cambodian war. Certainly Ruta Sepetys didn't make Siberia comfortable in Between Shades of Gray. Certainly M. T. Anderson didn't set out to make Octavian Nothing easy, simple, sterile. Certainly, Marilyn Nelson, publishing Carver, a life in verse for young adults, didn't think to herself, let me make this easy. She wrote each page smart, each page full of innuendo and terms to look up and mysteries, like this:

A Charmed Life

Here breathes a solitary pilgrim sustained by dew
and the kindness of strangers. An astonished Midas
surrounded by the exponentially multiplying miracles: my
Yucca and Cactus in the Chicago World Exposition;
friends of the spirit; teachers. Ah, the bleak horizons of joy.
Light every morning dawns through the trees. Surely
this is worth more than one life.
And certainly I, writing novels for young adults, am not setting history down in burnished, skip-over-it slices. Not when I write about the Spanish Civil War (Small Damages) or the shadowy blockade of the Berlin Wall (Going Over) or Centennial Philadelphia (Dangerous Neighbors) or 1871 Philadelphia (Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent) or Florence during the 1966 flood (One Thing Stolen). I am working to put a younger reader into the heart of it all. And sometimes that's not pretty. Sometimes that hurts. But that is history for you.

That's life.

YA writers have been writing sophisticated historical novels for a long time now. Why, then, suggest that those same YA readers need to be written down to when it comes to pure nonfiction? To the big stories. The telling moments. The individual against the state, the home versus the political, the science versus the dream, the big stuff that shapes who we became. Nonfiction for young adults, like novels for young adults, should be alive and deep and somehow true. It should respect the capabilities of younger readers.


One Thing Stolen ARCs arrive; Going Over is kindly reviewed

Monday, October 6, 2014

and in some ways, one photograph captures it all. With huge thanks to the Chronicle team, to my friend Ruta Sepetys (whose Going Over quote is here, on the back of One Thing Stolen), and to Patricia Hruby Powell, who so beautifully reviewed Going Over for The News-Gazette; her review can be found here.


not a liar, not accurate either (Eula Biss)

As Eula Biss makes headlines with her new examination of vaccines and social inoculation, On Immunity, I have been reading her first book, an exquisite inversion of the memoir form. Released in 2002 by Hanging Loose Press, The Balloonists is a patchwork of impressions and inquiries about marriage. The kind of marriage the author's parents had. The kind the author contemplates on her own. In between, declarations of impossibility.

For example:
"At some point," my mother tells me, "you realize that your parents are not who you thought they were. You realize that they are something separate from what you have made out of them." She tells me this because she knows that I have been writing about her. It is what she says instead of saying, "You don't know me."

"For example," she says, "my sister always felt that our father didn't like her. Of course he liked her, he just didn't understand how to show that he liked her. She didn't really have a father that didn't like her, but that doesn't change the fact that she had the experience of having a father who didn't like her." My mother is telling me that I am not a liar, but that she is not what I write about her.
I took these photos yesterday while walking Valley Forge National Historical Park with my friend, the amazing writer (Badlands) and teacher, Cyndi Reeves. Over four point five miles (Cyndi tells me), the conversation ranged from Krakow to Siena to the architectural form of stories to the autobiographical possibilities of fairy tales, and, in the final uphill climb, to Eula Bliss, whose The Balloonists Cyndi had also read years before I discovered it.

I was out of breath on the hill. I was grateful beyond measure to have a friend like Cyndi to talk The Balloonists with.


at work on something new, sixty pages in, I

Sunday, October 5, 2014

feel my body ease, my mind knock back the anxiety that is too much of who I naturally am. We writers can't know if our work will be of interest to one other soul. We can know if it is of interest to us. If it wakes us up in the morning, teasing: Choose me. Come near. See what happens next.

I'm a mere sixty pages into a novel for adults.

I want to see what happens next.

I realize just how much this new, strange, possibly impossible project means to me when friends ask (in our living room Friday, over an amazing dinner, last night) what I'm working on, and I feel suddenly electric in the telling.

(And glad for their forgiveness, if suddenly I talk too much.)

Added later in the day: Miss Kelly very intelligently asks why I, never a fan of labels, stuck a label into this post. Here are the facts: This new book is only partly true and so it is definitely more fiction than nonfiction. Its protagonist begins as a teen but grows into a woman, and so the book would never be bought by a publishing house focused on young adult books. I was thinking more about how this book might ultimately be published than by whom it might ultimately be read when I used the term "novel for adults." But darn, it's true, I don't like labels, and since I don't, I should probably not use them.


Fear less, love more: wise words from Marilynne Robinson, in conversation with Wyatt Mason

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Our greatest writers do not merely assuage, entertain, delight, and challenge us. They teach us something about humanity, something about how art gets done.

Marilynne Robinson is one of our greatest writers, and while I have not yet read her new novel, Lila (I will), I have been taking great pleasure from the reviews and conversations surrounding its release.

Take the magnificent conversation Robinson has with New York Times Magazine writer Wyatt Mason, which can be found here. The profile goes far beyond the bounds of the writer's work and ways. It dives straight into the heart of us. Here, for example, the two are musing over fear—the control it has over our lives:
“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.


“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”

‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”
Later, Mason returns to the topic:
And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.
Fear less. Love more. An urging I needed desperately this weekend.


Some Luck by Jane Smiley (in Chicago Tribune)

Friday, October 3, 2014

I was privileged to review this National Book Award long list selection for Printers Row Journal. The piece begins like this, below, and continues here.

Life is one thing and then another, one day and soon the next, ambition superseded by surprise, desire thwarted by the reality we didn't forecast. Sometimes we get out in front of life. Oftentimes, we don't.

So here's the question: Where, in all of this, is the plot? The conflict and the climax? The sure cause and the clear effect? The resounding resolution? Life is successive and iterative; it is not inherently themed or arced.
How audaciously delicious, then, that Jane Smiley has turned her considerable talents to a trilogy called "The Last Hundred Years" — and that she means it. One hundred years, one hundred chapters, the first 34 of which can be found in Book 1, titled "Some Luck." It's the Langdon family saga, the story of an Iowa farm and the people who inhabit it, the fences that stitch, the horizons that beckon, the love that lives in plain sight and inside a child's biscuits.

"Some Luck," simply and impossibly enough, is the story of what happens next.


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