GOING OVER: On the Amazon 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime

Friday, August 1, 2014

It feels awkward to ask for your help, but today I do.

Going Over (my agent, Amy Rennert, learned) is currently listed as an Amazon 100 Children's Books to Read in a Lifetime, along with the Harry Potters, Goodnight Moon, and so many great classics.

The list is active, updated through voting. You can do that, easily, here.


Your vote would mean the world.

Read more...

Me and Louisa May Alcott at the Philadelphia International Airport

A little over a year ago I had the tremendous honor of being included in the Philadelphia Literary Legacy at the Philadelphia International Airport, a year-long exhibition featuring 50 writers who had passed through or grown up in my region since the Constitutional Convention.

A highlight of my life. (For images from that day, go here.)

Not long ago, that exhibit was replaced with a fantastic portfolio of images about Philadelphia and its history of civil rights.

I had no idea, until moments ago, that portions of the Literary exhibition are still in tact at the airport. I know this because my good friend K.M. Walton took the time to snap this photo and to share it with me.

Thank you, Kate.

Read more...

Kevin Powers on faith in finely tuned language

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A few days ago I wrote of my urgent need, this summer, for urgent books. I'm inside of one of those right now—Kevin Powers' war novel, The Yellow Birds, which earns both its literary accolades and its bestseller status. In an interview with Jonathan Ruppin included in the paperback edition, Powers says this about language:
You're also a poet and this comes across in the deeply lyrical quality of your prose. Was this intended in counterpoint to the rawness of the dialogue?

I intended it as a counterpoint not just to the rawness of the dialogue, but also to the rawness of the experience. In that respect it is more point than counterpoint. In trying to demonstrate Bartle's mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads. If I have faith that those noises and signs can be received and understood by another person, then I should also have faith that they can be made more finely tuned.


Read more...

I'm adopting the artist Meera Lee Patel

I'll tell you all the reasons soon.

For now: Is she gorgeous, or what?

Read a Free People interview here.

Enjoy her art here.

Celebrate her spirit.

Read more...

Nesting: an early poem from years ago

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Late last night, a beloved former neighbor, digging around in her attic, finds a poem I'd written for her daughter years ago and take the time to type it for me.


"Nesting," I'd called it. This long-time obsession with birds.

Nesting
(For Hae Linn)

In high summer
A Christmas cactus
Awkwardly hung
And nested
With finch.

I believe you were seven
When they
Broke into life,
And blind-eyed,
Panicked for the light.

At dusk,
When the air cooled,
We would pull their roosting down
To find the fur and murmurs
Redefined.

Though still too young,
They yearned to fly
And in the last
They, in a tremble,
Bent wings between the sky.

We spent the night
In search of
Cactus-sown finch:
You certain they would survive;
I, silently, not...

Though, perhaps, in another form,
They did,
If once more redefined
And mindless
Or the fragments left behind.
 

Today is the last day that Nest. Flight. Sky.: On Love and Loss One Wing at a Time, my Shebooks memoir, can be downloaded for free, the details here.

(It goes without saying that that is no finch in the photo, but a miniature owl I encountered in southeast Alaska.)

Read more...

Astonish Me/Maggie Shipstead: Reflections

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I ache this summer for stories that move me. I have a nearly insatiable need. Prove yourself to me, I dare each book that I encounter. Prove to me that fiction, literature, this whole business matter.

Maybe it's the news. Maybe it's my age. I am looking for something particular in books. Urgency, not casual entertainment.

I went in and out with Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead's second novel about dancers, love, entanglements, second generations. In because Shipstead's command of the ballet seems pressing and real. Out because the story itself seemed perhaps too small, too familiar, too readily anticipated. In because Shipstead can write so beautifully. Out because of my own selfish need, just now, for more. In and out, for the writer in me knows how terribly difficult it is to craft a book, to finish one.

I choose, on this blog, to celebrate the good. To whisper back, over these silent airwaves, the sentences or emotions that appealed to me. Here, then, is Shipstead writing of a young woman, Joan, who is an incomplete ballerina—good enough, but not great. It is early in her life. She has discovered, on a stage, a young man who dances like she never will. She leans across the aerie and thinks:
The choreography is old-fashioned, but as Rusakov circles the stage doing high, perfect coupes jetes en tournant, his technique is not fusty but pure. His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere, without any apparent effort or preparation. But the beauty of Arslan's dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself, she leans out over the railing, wanting to get closer. Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.
I feel that chase. I understand it.

Read more...

Free today: Nest. Flight. Sky., my Shebooks memoir (or any Shebook, for that matter)

Today and tomorrow, my friends, you can download one Shebook for free.

Go to the site. 

Use FREEBOOK as the promo code.

Find a shady spot.

Read.

I'd be so honored if you chose my memoir, Nest. Flight. Sky. But any Shebooks book will do

Read more...

On writerly risk taking: M.T. Anderson and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto talk

I stole upstairs with Clockhouse in hand and read the conversation between my friend Rahna and the ever-interesting M.T. Anderson (Octavian Nothing, Feed, etc.). It's the sort of interview the whole world should read—two very smart people talking, unexpected tangents and revelations, deep questions, unvarnished (which is to say actively honest) responses.

I share just a snippet here, but oh my. The whole is New York Times quality stuff.

RRR: What is the biggest risk you ever took as a person and as a writer?

MTA: Every big work is a risk. One thing I found is easy enough to tell my students, but now I am having to tell myself is: every time you write a new book, you should try to write something that is impossible for you. You should try to write something at which you think you are going to fail. Because it's only then that you actually realize that you've succeeded in new ways you've never dreamed of before. Now that obviously a nice adage to tell students when they are facing trouble, to say, look, you just need to lean into this, and trust that you can do it and seek solutions because if you don't feel like it's impossible for you then you aren't re-envisioning yourself as much as you need to be. On the other hand, it's very difficult to do that for yourself....
The photo above is of too long ago—my husband, my son, Reiko's Ming and her boys, then Reiko herself at Hawk Mountain. Reiko sees things others don't. This interview (and her books) are proof of that.

Read more...

Clockhouse arrives, wrapped like a gift

Monday, July 28, 2014

Last week I wrote about my gratitude for Clockhouse, which published my first long piece of adult fiction in many years. I'd found a snippet of my story on the Clockhouse web site.

Today the magazine itself arrives—wrapped like a gift, endlessly cared for, across its many pages.

I celebrate again. Because when a team of editors takes this much time to do things so right, two words bear repeating:

Thank you.


Read more...

Give yourself time

We saw the brown bear from the boat's prow. We saw it watching us. It seemed in need of a good grooming (weren't we all, at that point?) and hungry (we were not).

I think of that bear now, these few weeks past our Alaska excursion. All alone on a rocky shore, turning the stones with its nose, looking for sustenance, finding only us at an unavailable distance.

At the close of one project and another chapter, I will soon be turning stones, too. In the meantime, I am happy to feel the breeze, to think without hurry, to explore quietly.

Give yourself time, Beth, my father says.

Three simple words.

The right ones.

Read more...

My Life's Work, My Actual Calling: Project FLOW at the Water Works and in the Inquirer

Saturday, July 26, 2014

We reach a certain juncture in life and we realize that there's only so much time left to us now. We look back and ask, Have we done enough, loved enough, been enough? We look ahead and ask, What now?

I have always been real with myself; I have known the me within. What are my passions? Children and stories. What have I done? Raised a son I love more than any story can tell and written books that a handful of kind souls have read. I've been flat-out lucky to publish as many books as I have, given the sales that I've had. I've been unimaginably blessed to be given the chance to take my stories into classrooms and into the open hearts of the young. I learn from them, again and again. Frankly, I love them.

Two Tuesdays ago I taught at a multi-week camp for young scientists and activists at the Fairmount Water Works. The camp is called Project FLOW. My privilege is to get the children thinking and writing about the soul of the river, akin to my own work in Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River (Temple University Press). Kevin Ferris and the Inquirer team made the moment even brighter when agreeing to publish my photo essay (which includes the work of the young people) about that morning.

The link to the story is now live and can be found here. A few more photos from last week's post are here.

In the meantime, below, all of the children of the 2014 Project FLOW. Here they are listening to Sashoya read from her brilliant river creation myth.
Finally, thanks to my friend, the poet Kate Northrop, whose poem "Things Are Disappearing Here" got us all started.

Read more...

hummingbird visitations

Friday, July 25, 2014

What a privilege, today, to work beneath the canopy of hummingbirds.
My husband and father keep threatening to remove this overgrown trumpet vine.
But then there are moments like these.

Read more...

For good and for bad, I am still me.

My love affair with Philadelphia began long before I settled on the University of Pennsylvania as my undergraduate home. I was my mother's daughter, already convinced. I believed in that city.

As a student at Penn, I left the campus alone, prowled the streets of West Philadelphia, wrote poems upon my return. As a new graduate I took a job as a marketing coordinator for an architecture firm, where I, in part, researched and wrote history-rich installation placards for projects at Penn's Landing and elsewhere.

But it wasn't until I was selected, in the mid-1980s, by the team at Center City District to write a series of "permanent" installations about Philadelphia's history that I felt fully fledged and entrenched as a Philly girl. Those permanent installations, created with the graphic designer Lynda Cloud Weber, hung block by block, east by west on Walnut Street until they were not visible any longer.

The permanent installations had disappeared permanently.

Yesterday, however, while researching a series of new stories for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I discovered one of the long-lost  panels—came upon it quite unexpectedly. It was as if a story I'd written had been lost and then returned to me. I waited to be alone with the panel. Read it while no one was watching. Shook my head.

I haven't changed much, all these years later. Not in what I write about, nor in how I write it.

For good and for bad, I am still me.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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?

Naaahhhhhhhh.

(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.)

Read more...

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
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.

Read more...

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.


Read more...

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.





Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

what the inside of my brain looked like, earlier today

Friday, July 18, 2014

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

Read more...

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.

Read more...

GOING OVER: The PW Review

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.)

Read more...

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



Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.)

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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?




 

Read more...

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.

Read more...

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. 


Read more...

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP