Pulling back the curtains on my city

Monday, January 31, 2011

City Hall, the mayor's home, as viewed from the 22nd floor of the former PSFS Building, now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.


In which I go on the perfect date with my husband

This year my husband surprised me at Christmas with plans he'd made for an entire evening out.  Philadelphia would be our destination—an upper room with views in the impeccable Loews Philadelphia Hotel, located in the former PSFS building; a matinee showing of Tango Fire; and a dinner at Amada, the Jose Garces (you might have seen him on the TV show, Iron Chef) tapas restaurant.  A night like this would be special by any accounting; it was and is especially wonderful for me—an evening like no other in my married life.

I love Philadelphia; you know that I do.  I loved our lunch at the Reading Terminal Market before the show, loved walking, in anticipation, up Broad Street, loved stepping inside the melting pot that Philadelphia has always been—so many different voices and languages in the sold-out audience of the Merriam Theater.  And of course, I love tango—fell at once for the passion and talent and acrobatics and commitment of the Fire dancers—and tapas are my favorite meal at any time; no one does them better than Jose Garces.

But if you look here, at these photos, you will find, between a picture from the Reading Market lunch and the view outside our hotel window, that something utterly unexpected happened during this already perfect afternoon and evening; the dancers from Tango Fire had come as well to Amada.  I had my little camera with me.  They acquiesced to a photograph.  So that there I am, happier than I can say, among the things and places and man I love.


Mockingbird/Kathryn Erskine: Reflections

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The question sometimes is:  What divides us, one from the other?  Is it our ability to see, or listen? Does it come down to empathy, or empathy's archenemy, preconception?

With her National Book Award winning young adult novel, Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine brings us into the heart and mind of a fifth-grader named Caitlin, whose mom is deceased, whose brother has been killed by an act of school violence, and whose dad is nearly paralyzed with sadness.  This would be too much for any of us, but it's particularly overwhelming for a little girl who has Asperger's syndrome—a girl who is bound to a most literal understanding of words, a girl who must study a book of expressions to understand the meaning of faces, a girl for whom making friends is not only difficult but not, at least a first, a top priority.  Caitlin's older brother, Devon, meant the world to her; he was, in fact, the one who best understood how to crack open the world on her behalf.  With Devon gone, all the tricky negotiations are now Caitlin's responsibility—Caitlin and the school counselor and a boy named Michael who help untangle some of life's knottiest threads.

Readers look for momentum in plot, the what-is-going-to-happen-next?. Erskine's great literary achievement with this beautifully written book is how deeply she invests her readers in caring whether or not Caitlin will make a true friend, or agree to lend color to her immaculate black and white drawings, or, mostly, help her dad finish an Eagle Scout project that her brother had started before his death. Perhaps that might not seem like much to those who line up at midnight to find out whether Katniss Everdeen will survive the battering of District 12 in the year's other major Mocking book (Mockingjay), but I would argue that what Erskine creates here is bigger, more essential—a powerful look at one who is "special" and a loving portrait of a community reeling in the aftermath of a terrible act of violence.    

Mockingbird can be read in one sitting.  It absolutely should be.


Spend the day where you should spend the day

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I thought I would spend this afternoon writing, or reading.  I did something far more important instead—went in search of orchids and carried them, with a broken heart, to the home of one of my mother's best friends.  Mrs. K. had lost her husband, lost him suddenly.  Her five beautiful daughters were near.  Still, I wanted to carry the essence of my mom to this dear and original and loving Mrs. K., and that essence would be orchids of not the ordinary kind.

So that I sat there, in that generous house, and listened to stories, and told stories, and suggested the power of stories written down.  Mr. K. stories.  We all have them.  Let's begin with the smile of that man.  Let's begin with the beauty of his daughters.

And then I drove home through the white of this winter and prayed for solace for a woman I've always loved.  A woman who, even in the midst of her great grief, insisted on grapes for her guests, on chocolate.


W.I.P. (black cow by fence)

She didn’t bother with a shower, just got in the car and drove.  Yesterday’s rain was gone, and in its place was a cataclysmic green.  When she got to the long ribbon of road, she eased her foot off the pedal and looked for the black cows that had moved from one hill to another, most of them nosed into a herd, only a handful come down to the thick picket fence to watch for the cars burning through.  It was Sunday, and the traffic was light.  For as far as she could see there were cows and corn, the fence holding things in, the green of the trees on the ridge beyond. 


My Newest Batch of Books Is In!

Friday, January 28, 2011

And here they are—the books I've been craving—all arrived at once.  Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace, Robb Forman Dew's Being Polite to Hitler, Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird, and Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

Christmas, all over again.


In which I appreciate the early enthusiasm for YAMO

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I have been anticipating the release of YOU ARE MY ONLY for what seems like a very long time (only because I was writing and rewriting the book for what felt like a long but deeply wonderful time).  But I did not anticipate having two of my favorite bloggers take such early notice of it.  Has anyone figured out how to send hugs long distance, yet?

For being there for me, and for my books, I am today thanking 1st Daughter at There's a Book and Amy, at My Friend Amy.  I would love to have you both to a party of cherished readers someday.

Oh, and may I just add a note of appreciation here for my dear cousin (we are going to call ourselves cousin, even if some second something is involved) Kelsey Coons for letting me know about There's a Book?  If you saw or met Kelsey, you'd want to claim first-blood relation status, too.


Morning after snow

the mini stone fortress in the woods (I have coveted this)

the geese looping high above a blue-tinged morning



Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Every now and then I feel the need to shout out an apology, on this blog, to those who so kindly stop by, even when I am managing such torrents of work that I cannot always return the favor.  I do eventually get kept caught up; I do so deeply appreciate you all; I do want to be there, more than I am.

But sometimes.  Some.  Times.....


Celebrating the National Book Critics Circle Award Nominees

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I never read nearly as much as I'd like to read—my multiple worlds are perpetually colliding, fracturing time. But I was so gratified to learn that, on this year's list of NBCC nominees, many of the books I'd loved best and celebrated here, on my blog, are being equally celebrated by the judges.  In Autobiography, there's Patti Smith's remarkable Just Kids, Darin Strauss's deeply moving Half a Life, and the thoughtful, provocative Hiroshima in the Morning, by my much-loved friend, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.  In Criticism, there's Elif Batuman's The Possessed and Ander Monson's Vanishing Point.  I'd put all five books on my Penn syllabus months ago, and here they are—proven, lifted, upheld.

A huge congratulations to them all, and, especially, to my dear friend, Reiko.  I've linked to my own reflections about these books here, should you be interested in how they affected me early on.


I could use a little of this ...

Monday, January 24, 2011

but since it's not the beach I'll be walking tomorrow, I will find happiness instead on the University of Pennsylvania campus, where my students and I will be talking about Joan Didion's essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," and taking a stroll with our cameras.  Maybe one or the other of us will catch the sun.  Maybe we'll fall in love with a detail.  Maybe something we see will bring us back to ourselves.  It's all worth hoping for.


It's happening here


When we are left behind, we cannot leave ourselves behind

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In the chill of this morning I drove to church and sat among people whom I consider to be dear and good friends—people whose lives and children I admire, people who make me laugh.  I had been thinking, quietly, about the people who walk away from our lives, who no longer need what we have offered, who have found themselves moving past us toward something bigger, more enticing.  I had been thinking, too, about the work I do for others, and how it can sometimes leave me feeling small, and I was sitting in the pews, my thoughts moving in and out, when Victor Wilson, our minister, began his sermon.

There, within his narrative about trust, were words I'd written years ago for a story in Science and Spirit magazine. He'd mentioned, months ago, that he had found the piece, but I had no firm recollection of it, and so was surprised to sit within this echo of myself—the young me talking to the now me, saying these words:

It is so primal, this thing called trust.  So basic to our survival.  Without trust could we attach to one another, could we love?  Could we forge societies and build institutions?  Speak and believe that we’ve been heard?  Would we set up housekeeping?  Trade one thing for another?  Lie in another person’s arms?  Dare to procreate?  Freely slip away to conjecture, to be curious, to dream? We’d be at war every day of our lives if we didn’t trust.  We’d be anxious, jumpy people.   We’d be on-guard, fenced-in solitaires — withered souls with narrowed eyes.

I don't want to live, I realized again today, without trust.  I don't want the behavior of others to take it from me.  I want, still, to believe in what is good, and I will, still, pursue that good, and if going forward some find me just a bit more guarded, a bit less eager to lavishly help, all it means is that I'm waiting for them to earn my trust.



"Later, when the rain stopped, she saw, from her window, a spider’s web within the branches of a tree—the rapid glisten of its architecture.  She could not fathom why he had let out his thread and bound and dangled and trusted that any bracing would ever hold him."


When real life intersects with fiction

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I had been at work on versions of YOU ARE MY ONLY for several years.  It was, at first, a book that emerged from my fascination with a certain abandoned mental hospital in Philadelphia and the urban explorers who had inhabited that place.  It was, also from the very start, a book about the ramifications of abduction. Long ago, I'd watched a woman leave an infant unattended in a back yard.  That image had always stayed with me; in time, it became fiction.

Yesterday, I was at a client office when, on the TV screen, I saw the muted news about Carlina White, who was 19 days old when she was abducted from a hospital and who, 23 years later, solved her own case.  She reports being moved from home to home, city to city, much as my character, Sophie is.  She speaks of the paranoia of the woman who abducted her, and of the faith her biological family always had that she was still alive.

I had planned to post the cover of YOU ARE MY ONLY yesterday afternoon.  This convergence of real life and fiction is, I find, eerie and haunting.  I am exuberant that Carlina White has found her home.  I am heartbroken that she had been taken from it for 23 long years.


YOU ARE MY ONLY: the cover reveal

Friday, January 21, 2011

I have been waiting—oh, I have been waiting—to post the cover of YOU ARE MY ONLY, which is due out from Laura Geringer Books/Egmont USA this fall.  Neil Swaab, who set me dancing with his DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS cover, was brought on board once again.  This is the magnificent result of his fine eye and heart.

And I am so grateful, too, to editors Greg Ferguson and Laura Geringer, for putting together the description of the book, which I include below.  (For more about the book, please go here.)

YOU ARE MY ONLY will appear in bookstores in October of this year.

A missing child. A devastated young mom. Two girls—one traumatic event. 

Emmy Rane is married at nineteen , a mother by twenty. Trapped in a life with a husband she no longer loves, Baby is her only joy. Then one sunny day in September, Emmy takes a few fateful steps away from her baby and returns to find her missing. All that is left behind is a yellow sock. Fourteen years later, Sophie, a homeschooled, reclusive teenage girl is forced to move frequently and abruptly from place to place, perpetually running from what her mother calls the “No Good.” One afternoon, Sophie breaks the rules, ventures out, and meets Joey and his two aunts. It is this loving family that opens Sophie's eyes, giving her the courage to look into her past. What she discovers changes her world forever. . .
The riveting stories of Emmy and Sophiealternating narratives of loss, imprisonment, and freedom regained—escalate with breathless suspense toward an unforgettable climax.


View from a morning Amtrak train


A Photo Tour of Egmont USA

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I made my way up from a client meeting on Wall Street to Park Avenue yesterday, where the always-wonderful Egmont USA troupe welcomed me in, bling and all.  You throw your arms around these people when you see them.  You talk travels, sun, book jackets, dreams, classes taught and classes taken, Mickey Mouse, impersonations, architecture, radical movie flops, the delicate matter of the comma.  You go home feeling warmed, alive, like books still matter, after all.  That's Lawsy and me, in the final picture, aligning our bedazzling silver trim.


The World Trade Center Site, Yesterday Afternoon


Writing as to where it takes me

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Do you know the whole story already, or are you writing it as to where it takes you? a friend reading pages of the new novel asks.

Writing as to where it takes me, I answer. 

And it takes me, and it takes me.


Let's talk about voice

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the midst of ice and snow, one finds an inverted lime, and beneath that lime, we, the students and one teacher of a certain University of Pennsylvania creative nonfiction class, shall bravely and hopefully brightly but of course I mean metaphorically meet, beginning our conversation about (among other things) voice.  Here's what Joyce Carol Oates has to say about that:

Where in life we sometimes (allegedly infrequently) fall in love at first sight, in reading we may fall in love with the special, singular qualities of another's voice; we may become mesmerized, haunted; we may be provoked, shocked, illuminated; we may be galvanized into action; we may be enraged, revulsed, and yet!—drawn irresistibly to experience this voice again, and again. It's a writer's unique employment of language to which we, as readers, are drawn, though we assume we admire the writer primarily for what he or she "has to say."


Moon over mom (and dad) returning their boy to college

Monday, January 17, 2011


Where does the short story take you?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The New York Times Book Review has been doing a lot of things right lately—like, for example, giving my friend Robb Forman Dew's Being Polite to Hitler a stellar review—and I'm intrigued this weekend by the trio of short-story collection reviews that have been grouped under the heading "Small Moments."  Here the new collections by Colm Toibin, Charles Baxter, and Edith Pearlman all get their due in essays penned by Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roxana Robinson, respectively.  I particularly love the juxtaposition of these two opening grafs, the first by Prose and the second by Oates:
Why does the short story lend itself so naturally to the muted but still shattering sentiments of yearning, nostalgia and regret? How many William Trevor tales focus on the moment when a heart is broken or at least badly chipped? Though Mavis Gallant’s work bristles with barbed wit and trenchant social observation, her most moving stories often pivot on romantic ruptures and repressed attraction. (This is Prose, who then goes on to note the exceptions to the rule while returning to her theme that the "short story has the power to summon, like a genie from a bottle, the ghost of lost happiness and missed chances.")
Reflecting our dazzlingly diverse culture, the contemporary American short story is virtually impossible to define. Where once the “well crafted” short story in the revered tradition of Henry James, Anton Chekhov and James Joyce was the predominant literary model — an essentially realist tradition, subtle in construction and inward rather than dramatic — now the more typical story is likely to be a first-person narration, or monologue: more akin to nonliterary sources like stand-up comedy, performance art, movies and rap music and blogs. Such prose pieces showcase distinctive “voices” as if fictional characters, long restrained by the highly polished language of their creators, have broken free to speak directly and sometimes aggressively to the reader — as in boldly vernacular stories by Junot Díaz, Chuck Palahniuk, Edwidge Danticat, George Saunders, John Edgar Wideman, Denis Johnson and T. C. Boyle, among others. (Yet Edgar Allan Poe, as long ago as 1843, brilliantly gave voice to the manic and utterly convincing murderer of “The Tell-Tale Heart” — perhaps genius is always our contemporary.) (This would be Oates)
What, I wonder, do you expect when you read a contemporary short story?  Where do you expect it to take you, and by what means?  Where do you hope it will leave you? Who is, in your opinion, the best practitioner of the short story today?



Saturday, January 15, 2011

Your temporary madness, Kate would call it.  Your solitary confinement.  Becca lived, and then she wrote it down.  She listened for music inside silence.  She had made a commitment to the unalloyed, the unveering line, the raw wound, the relentless grab at authenticity, and now she was two poems away from a new collection.  “I’m calling it Heart Blue,” she’d told Vin, a few nights before.  “Or that’s what it will be, when it’s finished.” 


Winter light at Valley Forge

It's 20 degrees outside at this hour in this day, and as I sit here working, reading, writing, contemplating, I am blessed that 233 years ago, in cabins such as these, the soldiers of General George Washington's Continental Army hunkered down, withstood the weather, and summoned all they'd need to go back up against the Brit's Sir William Howe and his army, which had taken over Philadelphia and was threatening to win the whole war.  Look at the planks upon which these soldiers slept.  Look at the earthen floor.  Imagine going day in and out in winter weather on subsistence meals, waiting for the thaw.

There are threats without and threats within.  My prayer for this country is that it will rise again to decency.  That it will honor not just those fallen in Arizona last weekend, as our president so eloquently encouraged, but those who withstood a long winter long ago so that we could have what we now claim as ours.


Dora Explorer Never Loses Her Head

Friday, January 14, 2011

We went to a Dora Explorer birthday party a week or so ago, and we had ourselves a brilliant time (so, as you can see, did this cat).  But part-way through the festivities, this version (we had many versions) of Dora lost her head.  It could have been calamitous, save for the ministrations of a certain man (my husband) who self-designated himself as Mr. Arts and Crafts.

I could use a little glue myself these days, running about as I am, losing my pace and face.  The trick, I think, is to find a cave of silence every day. Something like the near sleep of yesterday.  Somewhere in which my own thoughts can be tested, drawn out, heard.


The Half Place

Thursday, January 13, 2011

There is that half place between dream and story, where the mind, the creating mind, must hover.  I hovered there today in a room that isn't this one, with an aqua-colored pen and a pad of paper stolen from a corporate exercise.

I wrote 2,000 words. 

I did not want to open my eyes.


The most beautiful thank you I have ever received

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Today was, as I have written, one of those days—a chase of a day, only-a-few-minutes-out-beneath-the sky day—and it wasn't until dinner was over that I opened the white envelope that had been addressed to me by a certain extraordinary seventh grade teacher at a nearby middle school.  I'd made a presentation at this school not long ago—invited the students to write poems, invited them to see themselves newly.

The white envelope contained the most precious thank you letters I've ever received.  I stood and read them and cried.  Clearly the students had been asked to write what they'd learned from me, or how my presentation had changed their view of poetry or writing, and with stunning precision and generosity these students dedicated themselves to that task.  "My poetry has changed because I write about real life events because I can connect with them."  "I learned that you don't have to write about something amazing."  "I was the one in the audience that you called on that only had 4 words on his paper, but with your help, I now have many words that I made into a poem."  "I used to think poetry was kind of dull and a boring type of writing, but now I think it is really fun."  "I liked when you talked about how being a writer can be free and have no rules except for grammar to put down our feelings and emotions."  ".. and now I know how to write poems from the perspective of nature.  It's given me a new way of writing and I even want to write one for my mom to give to her at Christmas!"

Letter after letter, and then, beyond those letters, the poems that these students had finished after I'd left the room. The poetry of young hearts set free.

Remarkable teachers—those in the classroom day in and day out—instill the remarkable in their students, and were it not for two teachers' urgings, I'm not sure I'd ever have known just what these students heard that day.  This is a gift I will always keep, and will, no doubt, always return to.


Snow sky through screened window

It was supposed to be a snow day, but it really wasn't.  There was work to do, a big pot of soup to make, bills to write, a house to clean, a special dinner to prepare for my father.  But all day long I was watching the sky—watching it change, watching it drift—through my window. 

In the end, I went outside to breathe. 


Snow Day


You Are My Only: in the afterglow of the copyedits

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

You know how it is:  You write a book because it is furied up inside you—molten and untouchable but ineluctable, too.  You are the huntress.  You're after something you don't quite understand, and you're going to win; you're going to conquer; in the process, you're going to get burned.  You're going to make up words and fury nouns and add commas where you shouldn't. You're going to mix metaphors.

(It's like writing a blog, sort of, without the back-up support.)

Thankfully, then, there are agents like Amy Rennert who calm you down, and editors like Laura Geringer who ask questions, and a team like Egmont USA, which stands behind you, relieves you of you.  One of the great gifts, in this process, is the gift of copyediting, which Egmont's Greg Ferguson and Nico Medina handle so well.  This time, additionally, Egmont engaged a certain Hannah to read the pages of YOU ARE MY ONLY (due out next fall), and Hannah made sure, among other things, that I didn't have a certain character deciding to take the day off on the day that was already her day off, and that I didn't have the moon wane too quickly.

I've just now finished reading the book through, and can I say (would it be boasting?) how excited I am?  I can't wait for this one to be on the shelves.  I am so grateful to all of those who are helping it come to pass.


Astonished by 1st Daughter's year-end wrap up

These waters are blue rearranged by pink, the colors of sea and sky, and I thought of this image when I learned this morning of all the very kind things book blogger 1st Daughter has done and said about my books this year.  She is one very special and cherished reader.

In her year-end wrap-up of her blog, There's a Book, 1st Daughter named Dangerous Neighbors one of the top four books of the year as well as the most beautifully written book of the year, named me her favorite newly discovered author, and listed The Heart Is Not a Size as the book that had the greatest impact on her in the year. This is high, high praise from a blogger named Best KidLit Book Blogger by the BBAW of 2010 (congratulations to 1st Daughter for that!!).

I am deeply privileged, and very blessed.  Thank you.


Sometimes it snows and suns at the exact same moment

Monday, January 10, 2011

and when that happens I want to be out there, inside the weather.


You will be reading about her.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

You will be following her song to the ends of this earth.  You will scour every store for the single unclaimed Dora doll or Monkeyboots balloon or bag of chocolate-encrusted pretzels.  You will watch her little fingers work, and they will evoke for you a long ago, an urgent present tense. 

And you will feel her arms around you long after you have driven away; you will hear her in your dreams that night:  Cheese.  Cheese.  Cheese.  Thank you.


Brain training through ballroom dance

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I've been a big Sharon Begley fan for years now, and so when I saw that she had written a feature Newsweek story titled "Can You Build a Better Brain?" (January 10 and 17, 2011) I flipped the pages and settled in.

After reviewing all the things that don't have any proven tie to enhanced brain intelligence (those vitamins, the Mediterranean diet, statins, ibuprofen), Begley begins to center in on things that are known to help—exercise, meditation, and complex videogames.  You have to read the whole article to get the complete and utter gist, but I'm going to quote from the paragraph that made me happiest of all:
... taking up a new, cognitively demanding activity—ballroom dancing, a foreign language—is more likely to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functioning networks.
Ballroom dancing—did you see that folks?  It ain't just about the glitter and the gloves.

Speaking, however, of glitter and gloves, that gorgeous woman in the photograph here is our own Cristina, of DanceSport Academy, whose little Eva is turning two this month.  If learning the rumba doesn't keep us young, this wondrous sprite of a child is bound to do the trick.


Author of Florinda's Year

I took this photograph from the fourteenth floor of an Atlantic City hotel two nights ago and said to myself, You won't be using this one until something really special happens.

This morning I woke to a note about something that is, to me, so very touching and special:  Florinda of The 3 R's Blog has named me her author of the year and cited The Heart is Not a Size as one of her two top young adult reads of 2010. 

Hearts are not, in the end, a size.  But mine is very full.  Thank you.


Jane/April Lindner: Reflections

Friday, January 7, 2011

This time, I begin at the back, with the featured book's final pages.  I begin, in other words, with the author's note and acknowledgments folded into April Lindner's debut novel, Jane, her modern-day retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. 

It's in the author's note that Lindner writes of being on Team Charlotte (Bronte, as opposed to Team Jane Austen)—of her love for Jane, the "freethinker," and for Mr. Rochester, "the sexiest guy in literature."  It's in the acknowledgments that Lindner explains that her 21st century Mr. Rochester, a rock star named Nico Rathburn, was inspired by none other than Bruce Springsteen, the "rocker who has given me so much inspiration, solace, and joy, and who has served as a model of how an artist giving his all can truly work magic in the night.  Without the soul-transporting music and electrifying stage presence of Bruce Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band, this book would not have been written.  It's that simple."

I don't know why I tend to read the back of books first, but I do, and in this case, it was just what I needed to put Lindner's novel into context.  Lindner's passion for Jane Eyre is transparent in these pages.  She is utterly true to the arc of the original—presenting us with a sensible young woman who finds herself taking a nanny job in the estate of a brooding, wealthy rocker.  Strange things occur in this Rathburn estate (called Thornfield), and Jane's not the kind of girl any one would peg as the would-be girlfriend of a troubled-past rocker.  But things unfold as they must, and soon Jane and Nico are deeply in love with each other—engaged to be married and just about to tie the knot when the terrible secret at the heart of Thornfield is revealed.

Those who have read the original Jane Eyre will know what happens next, but it's fun to see just how Lindner pulls this all off—where she takes 19-year-old Jane, how she evolves the rocker, and how she gives this romance its final hopeful breaths.  I read the book in a single sitting, intrigued by the premise and wishing that Lindner and I had together gone to a Springsteen concert, or two.  I suspect she'd be a delightful, joyous companion.


Atlantic City, Five P.M.

(after this, it snowed.)


The exquisite Teen Reads Too review of Dangerous Neighbors

Thursday, January 6, 2011

If you are wondering why I am posting images of flowers today, in the midst of winter, it's because flowers have been sent to me by way of two utterly unexpected reviews—the first by the utterly original and gracious Bookalicio.us and now this, by the eloquent Melanie Foust of Teen Reads Too, who has granted Dangerous Neighbors a gold star.  She writes, among other things:
National book award finalist Beth Kephart has written another gorgeous novel full of characters that are slowly brought to life.  By the time the end of the novel came around, I found myself fully invested in the life of Katherine and those closest to her.  This book held my attention from beginning to end, first because of its suspenseful opening and then its enlightening flashbacks, showing what has brought Katherine to such a dark time in her life.

Thank you, Teen Reads Too and Melanie Foust.


Reading as a contact sport: The Bookalicio.us review of Dangerous Neighbors

Ever since I published my first book I dreamed of finding a stranger somewhere—anywhere—curled up with one of my stories.  It has happened only once; I was walking the path by the Schuylkill River and found a woman paging through Flow.  And once, of course, dear James Lecesne could be spotted reading Dangerous Neighbors on an Amtrak train, but that doesn't really count, in the oh-my-gosh-what-a-surprise way of things, for I'd handed him the book hours before at the BEA.

Because, as you all know, I never google my own name or check Amazon ratings, I don't operate with any sense of who might be reading which of my books right now (nor do I ever presume that people are).  And so, when, quite accidentally, I came upon this Bookalicio.us review of Dangerous Neighbors today, I felt that happy thing that happens inside when I know that a reader has been out there in the midst (and mist), and that a reader has read with such generosity and grace. 

I will, however, confess to feeling badly for our reviewer, Pam, from whom I learned, in this paragraph, that reading can be a contact sport:

Beth Kephart is such a fantastic writer that I am always in awe of her prose and story telling ability, so much so that reviewing any piece of literature from Kepharts small but growing canon is always hard for me to accomplish. Kephart is astonishingly capable of making her characters come to life in such a way that putting down the book to do menial tasks such as walking the hound become impossible. Which is why August of 2010 will always be known to me as the month that I learned walking the dog while reading results in severe coordination disability, causing walking into a pole, nose bleeds, and incredible embarrassment to all who try. This life lesson is just one of the things Kephart has taught me while reading her books.
 Thank you so much, Pam.


Kit Armstrong, the original prodigy

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I have taught in many places, and been educated by many children.  Chanticleer garden has been the backdrop of some of my most treasured teaching memories.  If we lose some of the children we meet along the way, we never forget them.

Tonight, at dinner, apropos of nothing, my son asked whatever happened to Kit Armstrong, one of the students I had the privilege of getting to know six summers ago.  He'd come to us (via Betty Jean) as a young composer—a 12-year-old (at the time) who already had seven years of composition and piano studies under his belt, who had enrolled as a full-time undergraduate student in music and science by the age of nine, and who was known for his bowtie stints on the David Letterman Show.  He'd not had the chance to explore creative writing when I first met him, but he emerged at once as a talent.  More than that, always more importantly than that, he was this kid that we all quickly grew to love.  No snobbery in him.  No better-than-ism.  Just this kid who loved music and science and language, and whose laugh made us laugh, whenever we heard it in the garden.

"I don't know what happened to Kit," I told my son, who sensed my sadness at once.  "Google him," my son said.  And, of course, I just did.

How happy does it make me to find Kit here, on his web site, as beautiful as he was six years ago.  How delighted am I to learn that just this summer he was awarded the "Leonard Bernstein Award" and that his piano repertoire (and I quote) "includes the 48 Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach, all Mozart Piano Sonatas, 15 Beethoven Piano Sonatas, as well as works by Haydn, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and Ligeti. His concerto repertoire comprises works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Bartok."  If that doesn't impress you, then how about this:  He was awarded the Morton Gould Young Composer Award for five consecutive years, and he now performs all over the world with major orchestras.

People like Kit don't come around too often.  I am waving to him now, across the internet.


Kamchatka/Marcelo Figueras: Reflections

Because I can't find the right photograph, because maybe this is the right photograph—these birds leaving but also going toward.  Because "time," Marcelo Figueras writes in his masterful Kamchatka, "is weird."  Because time bends, and when we are reading novels like this one—so rich with knowing, and yet so vulnerable—time doesn't exist at all.

The year is 1976, the place is Buenos Aires, and there is a family on the run from the military now in power.  A ten-year-old boy is telling this story, but not really—it is the ten-year-old remembered by a later self looking back, by a man who writes, early in these pages:
Every day, life gives us an intimation of this.  We sense that, inside us, every 'we' we once were (and will be?) coexists:  the innocent self-absorbed child, the sensual young man generous to a fault, the adult, feet planted firmly on the ground yet still clinging to his illusions, and finally we are the old man who knows that gold is just another metal; as his eyesight fails he has acquired vision
So that we meet the family as the boy recalls his family—the sensationally imperfect and wholly loving mother who abruptly pulls her children from school; the father who joins them at a safe house outside the city; the brother Midget; the comrade Lucas; the surviving grandparents.  It's just a family and they're just living—trying to keep the toads from committing suicide in the pool, playing killer games of Risk at night, mixing up their chocolate milk, watching nostalgic movies, and staying, always, one step ahead of those who hope to disappear them.  You know how this story ends within the very first line of the book:  "The last thing papa said to me, the last word from his lips, was 'Kamchatka.'"  But Figueras writes with such excellent authority that we are soon hoping against hope (as a ten year old boy hopes against hope) that fate will spare this family, that Houdini magic will keep them safe.

How can I share, in this small space, the brilliant texture of this book—the biology, history, and language lessons that Figueras weaves in through devastatingly beautiful domestic scenes, the big riffs on life, the insistence on love?  I felt as if I were watching some of my favorite movies of all time, "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle."  I wanted to stop time, but I can't stop time, and even so, it took me several days to read to the end.

Kamchatka was first published in 2003; its author is both a screenwriter and a novelist, and indeed this book appeared on the silver screen some nine years ago.  Black Cat is bringing the book out sometime this spring for American audiences.

You're going to thank them for that.


I have been writing about


and this

and this

and this.
One scene.
Seven pages.


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