books, art, culture, and other things I love

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read.
Recently I was in a writing workshop where a classmate offered his take on writer Joan Didion: too white, too insulated, too rich, too elite. Since all of these are subjective observations, I would like to add my own: too talented. Novelist and essayist Didion has always had a way of getting to the heart of the matter, as she did in her 2004 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote in 88 days following the death of her husband—while her daughter was also battling a case of septic pneumonia.

There is Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, Blue Nights, and many others—all which exhibit her trademark syntactical style. She has said, “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed…The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

Director Griffin Dunne and filmmaker Susanne Rostock are currently making a documentary about Didion titled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live using the author’s own words and her own voice. The pair has organized a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film and although the goal has already been reached, visitors can still donate (and there are some interesting incentives to encourage donor participation—including book recommendations and recipes from the author herself) and read more about the project.
didion To Listen.
As a fellow Cape Codder, I have to give a shout out to singer Meghan Trainor. At only twenty-years-old, Trainor has written songs for some notable artists (Rascal Flatts, among them) and has a number one Billboard song with “All About That Bass” (you’ve probably heard it by now). The message of the song—being happy with who you are at any size—is a positive one, and is definitely the antidote to the Photoshop-trimmed images that are marketed to young girls as the physical ideal. And it has certainly spurred a lot of discussion—like this piece in The Atlantic and this one in The New York Times. What do you think?

To Make.
Seven days until Halloween! If you have little ones, check out Absent Librarian’s blog for some inspiration on literary costumes for kids. Here are a few images from her site. So cute!
Book-Kids enhanced-buzz-16173-1380754477-9

To Do.
Aretha Franklin does not have time for that. Watch this compilation of morning show interviews that Franklin did over the last week in support for her latest album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.

There are a series of mishaps—poor earpieces, loud background music, gushing interviewers, and the like. And the Great Diva herself does not seem amused. Also, after that, read this Vulture piece by Rich Juzwiak on the changing tenor of Franklin’s voice that asks the question if whether Franklin’s latest album “will do for aging what “Respect” did for Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement.”

Have a wonderful weekend! xo

Culture Watch: The Enduring Presence of Billy Joel.

Do you like Billy Joel? Odds are, if your answer is yes or no, you have strong feelings about your position. I don’t have any empirical data to back up this supposition—just anecdotal observations. People like me—who are fairly neutral on the artist—seem pretty rare.

Some dismiss Joel’s music as sentimental shlock (or “shlock-and-roll”), and I’ll admit, the same thought crossed my mind when I sat through a rendition of “Piano Man” at a fifth grade talent show last year. The young lad who sang the tune was talented, for sure. But the song went on and on and on (and on and on…).

But then there are songs that I do like—like “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” or “You May Be Right” from Glass Houses. Though the appeal of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” or “Only The Good Die Young” is lost on me (I think Bruce Springsteen covers the same theme as the latter with “Thunder Road” in a far superior way!) there are some tunes (“An Innocent Man” or “Leave a Tender Moment Alone”) that evoke nostalgia.

In 2009, Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum proclaimed Joel the “worst pop singer ever.” He writes, “I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.”

This week, Nick Paumgarten has a fantastic profile of Joel in The New Yorker titled “The Thirty-Three Hit Wonder.” I love how the author weaves his own experience with his subject into the piece in a way that is entirely engaging and authentic—and never intrusive. He writes, “For better or worse, my childhood had a lot of Billy Joel in it. When I was in fifth grade—late seventies, Manhattan—a friend who had five older brothers played “Captain Jack” for me, and it was the first time I’d heard about such things as junkies, closet queens, and masturbation. It was probably the allure of such wickedness that caused me, not long afterward, to choose, as my first-ever LP purchase, Joel’s new album, “52nd Street.” From this one, I learned about some other things, such as Halston, Elaine’s, Dom Pérignon, and the fact that one may snort cocaine from a spoon. All this came from “Big Shot”; I memorized, and can probably still recite, the lyrics.”

Despite a catalogue of recognizable hits, Joel has not released a new album of popular music since 1993. These days, his songwriting is strictly instrumental—he has no interest in writing lyrics anymore—as he tells Paumgarten, “I don’t wanna.”

Now ten months into a year-long residency at Madison Square Garden, Joel shows no signs of slowing down—even if he is focused on playing old hits rather than creating new ones. Yet he is still writing music, albeit of a different bent. The song cycle that he has been working on for the last ten years is called “The Scrimshaw Pieces.” Paumgarten, after listening to Joel play selections from this series notes, “In between pieces, he began to explain that these were variations on a motif and that they were telling the story of the history of Long Island, from its pastoral beginnings to the arrival of the Europeans — “I’m imagining the prow of a ship, and a Puritan hymn” — and then the bustle of the nineteenth century. Farming, fishing, the railroad. “Getting busy on Long Island,” he said. “This one’s almost Coplandesque, with big open fifths.” Certainly many would love to hear what he has been working on, but whether we will get the chance is anyone’s guess. As Joel says, “”If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it … I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore.”

What do you think about Billy Joel? Are you a fan? Not a fan? Somewhere in between?

A Clear Vision: Warby Parker and 826 Collaborate.

For those that haven’t heard of it, 826 is a fabulous non profit founded by writer Dave Eggers (he of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and The Circle) to get kids to write and to receive general academic support.

There are seven 826 locations across the country, and there is one in Boston. My son has taken writing workshops there, I have volunteered there, and we are so grateful that it is part of our community.

Now 826 has partnered with Warby Parker (where hubs and I got our latest specs) and in addition to issuing a limited-edition frame (The Kidd), WP is also sponsoring two books–The Review from 826NYC featuring poems, short stories, and essays contributed by their program students. And 826LA’s Activity Book, a collection of prompts and projects for kids to fill in. Proceeds from the books (sold at the NYC and LA WP retail locations) will benefit 826. Isn’t that great? So…check them out if you haven’t already and support literacy initiatives like this!

Photo via

Photo via

Overdue Books!

Today I pulled up to the front door of my local library on a mission. To return the stack of overdue books that were piled up on my front seat. Truth be told, I kept one of them (Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me) because I am in the middle of it and I refuse to return it until I finish.

In the past year, I have probably paid about $80 in overdue fines. This sounds completely crazy unless you have done something like me, which is to leave for a week’s vacation without returning four videos (that cost $2/day in overdue fines). My overdue fines drive my husband crazy–this was probably due to the fact that he once was unable to check out a museum pass until he came back and paid the $14 in fines that I had racked up.

Add to that his discomfort on seeing the word “delinquent” next to his name when he pulls up his library account if I have a fine!

I confessed to Sally, my favorite librarian, that my library fines were causing marital discord and she kindly reminded me that fines actually help support the library. (So there is that.)

Some libraries have amnesty days, others still (like the NYPL) have interesting programs to make fines go away (see its 2011 summer reading campaign).

But I *would* like to get better! I think the problem is that my library always has the New Releases on my reading list and when I see them, I will grab them all. But the New Releases are only 14-day loans, which can be tricky depending on the time of year. During the summer, I can easily zoom through a book every day or two, but during the teaching semesters, I am not as quick. So maybe what I need to do is practice restraint. (And avoid those $2 videos!)

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards has me beat, though. He revealed to The Mirror that more than 50 years ago, he failed to return some books to his local library in Dartford, England which, if returned today would probably have compounded fines anywhere from  £3,000 to £20,000 (about $4,500 to $30,000). :)
Cartoon of day-library


Memoir Monday: Anne Sexton’s Confessional Poetry.

Though Anne Sexton (1928-1974) never wrote a memoir in its conventional sense, the confessional nature of her collected works constructs a sharply drawn portrait of a multifaceted woman who experienced a range of emotions that hit each end of the spectrum. Sexton, who studied with Robert Lowell at Boston University, had the gift of lyric expression. But her battles with depression and lingering sadness (not unlike her contemporary Sylvia Plath) imbued her work.

This weekend, I reread some of her poems from The Complete Poems. In particular, one—“The Double Image”—stayed with me. Written for her daughter Joyce after their separation following Sexton’s suicide attempt, the lines are heavy and redolent of regret. The poem, in seven movements, begins with clear contextualization:

I am thirty this November.
You are still small, in your fourth year.
We stand watching the yellow leaves go queer,
flapping in the winter rain,
falling flat and washed. And I remember
mostly the three autumns you did not live here.

And after taking the subject through a catalogue of explanations of her absence, her final movement opens this way:

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good…

Another poem, “Young,” captures girlhood (on the precipice of adolescence) perfectly, I think:

A thousand doors ago
when I was a lonely kid
in a big house with four
garages and it was summer
as long as I could remember,
I lay on the lawn at night,
clover wrinkling under me,
the wise stars bedding over me,
my mother’s window a funnel
of yellow heat running out,
my father’s window, half shut,
an eye where sleepers pass,
and the boards of the house
were smooth and white as wax
and probably a million leaves
sailed on their strange stalks
as the crickets ticked together
and I, in my brand new body,
which was not a woman’s yet,
told the stars my questions
and thought God could really see
the heat and the painted light,
elbows, knees, dreams, goodnight.


The Weekender: Are You A ‘Music Person’?

Though some get a thrill listening to the harmonies of Motown, still others prefer the twang of a country tune. And the opera that puts some to sleep causes others to swoon. But what does it mean to be a ‘music person’? To me, a ‘music person’ is one with a genuine appreciation of and affinity for music of all genres. While I came of age in the era of synthesizers and soundtrack hits (and ‘bands’ like Milli Vanilli), I developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Beatles’ catalogue, l loved classical music and soul, fancied Tracy Chapman and Billie Holliday—in short, I was an equal opportunity music enthusiast. I can still remember where I was the first time I heard Bad Company or Steve Miller or Journey. Where this interest came from, I do not know. My own parents didn’t buy music or go to see concerts of their own volition—though my good natured father did take me to many shows in my adolescence: the Violent Femmes, INXS, James Taylor, to name a few.

In college, listening to music was an activity. During that time, I had a friend who might have been my musical twin in that his tastes were also all over the map. In those days, there were bands like Pearl Jam, Toad the Wet Sprocket and the Spin Doctors all over the charts; we liked them too. But there were also old Stevie Wonder albums to enjoy. And Jeffrey Gaines (his 1992 self-titled album is still wonderful after all these years–if you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor and download it today) or Jackson Browne. In college I also discovered Steely Dan and Mary J. Blige—both remain favorites to this day.

Given that, I always find it curious when I meet someone who is entirely neutral on music—as in, they might listen to it as background noise, but they don’t actually seek it out. This weekend’s All Songs Considered has a piece by Stephen Thompson responding to one such listener who writes in for advice on how to become a ‘music person.’ Not sure if I agree with Thompson’s advice (basically to try out song recommendation engines and ask others what they like), but it is an interesting point to consider—how do you build an appreciation of a subject area from scratch?

Are you a ‘music person’? Do you think this is something intuitive? Or something that can really be learned later in life?



The Weekender: Boston’s Head Of The Charles.

This weekend is the 50th annual Head of the Charles Regatta—the largest two-day rowing competition in the world. Teams of all ages and from all over compete in the events and it is a lot of fun to watch. When I was a college student, this was one of the best weekends to be in Boston. Friends from other schools would come to visit and we would trek over the Fiedler footbridge to the Charles River to find a spectator perch.
The complete schedule of this year’s events and participants can be found here. As an added bonus, the weather looks to be good, so if you are in town, it is a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


And…to get inspired, read Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Friday Culture Watch: To Read, To Listen, To Make, To Do.

To Read.
Last week’s Economist had a fantastic (5000 word!) essay, “From Papyrus to Pixels” about the future of the book. Though this is a topic that has been considered in academic circles for some time—and in the popular sphere (primarily by focusing on the e-book revolution)—this piece does a good job of establishing the historical context of the book and offering a vision for the future (which does not look too different from the present). “Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand; the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. People may no longer try to pass on wisdom to their sons and daughters through slave-written scrolls, as Cicero did in de Officiis, or even in print. It may even be that Voltaire was right, and that none of them will ever write anything more wise than what was set down 2,000 years ago. But it will not be for want effort, or of opportunity, or of an audience of future readers ready to seek out wisdom in the books that they leave behind.”

To Listen.
Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR, produces the show On Point with Tom Ashbrook that is broadcast nationally. On Fridays, the program hosts a news roundtable, which serves as a great recap of the big stories that are grabbing headlines each week. Now, the program is introducing “The Explicast,” a podcast that goes in depth on “questions the headlines forgot to ask.” This week’s inaugural episode is titled “How Do You Win A Nobel Prize in Literature.” Listen to the link below. 

To Make.
The weather is getting cooler around these parts and with that comes soup weather. I am a big soup fan—it is one-pot dining at its best. Thankfully, my family enjoys soup served with a salad and a little bread for dinner, so sometimes it is a great weeknight dinner. My all-time favorite soup is Potato Leek, made with a recipe from The Joy of Cooking. My friend LK once made me a batch of this soup, and I couldn’t get enough. Now I make it all the time!

French Vichyssoise (Leek and Potato Soup) from The Joy of Cooking

Yield: About 8 cups of soup

Total Cooking Time: about 1 hour


3 medium leeks; white part only, minced

1 medium onion, minced

2 tablespoons butter

4 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced very thin

4 cups chicken broth (or 1 large can of College Inn Chicken Broth)

1 to 2 cups of milk or cream (the recipe says it is optional—but I think it is essential!)

salt to taste

ground white pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped chives or scallion for garnish


Saute leeks and onions in butter for 3 minutes. Add potatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Blend in a blender (I actually just use an immersion blender in the pot), a small amount at a time. Add cream, salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot or cold.


To Do.
Start thinking about that novel you have been wanting to write. Next month is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Yes you can write a draft of a novel in a month, and the NaNoWriMo website and local events will keep you on track as you move toward your goal. Think about it: there’s no time like the present! And speaking of presents, come December, you could be gifting your loved ones with your version of the Great American Novel. But first, you need to get started.


Have a great weekend!


Current Events: Hanna Rosin on sexting in The Atlantic.

This week, a number of gender-related issues grabbed my attention. In this week’s Atlantic Hanna Rosin writes about the teen-sexting phenomenon. This topic is one that merits consideration for many reasons—not the least of which being because I have children and think a lot about how to raise a son that is respectful of women in a culture that often objectifies them and how to raise a daughter that is confident and self-aware, despite messages that offer another script.

Don’t even get me started on the perils of this (even for consenting adults: e.g. see Anthony Weiner) and the reality of the digital trail we leave behind, but Rosin’s piece seeks to explain why teens are sexting in the first place. Many of the observations Rosin offers make sense: particularly her point that for teens, sexting is not a gateway sexual activity—rather, it is the activity. But the reasons behind it aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect. “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told [Rosin], referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

That is the thing that troubles me the most, I think—the desensitization to the images themselves and the dehumanizing of the female subjects. Rosin’s interviews reveal the repeated badgering girls endure via text by male classmates who are seeking to add images to their collection. Once upon a time the currency of hypermale culture were the proverbial notches in one’s belt and/or on one’s bedpost were: now texted images serve the same purpose. Obviously, I don’t advocate for either; however, I wonder if the latter is even more dangerous—as there can be innumerable witnesses, since the internet knows no bounds.

Scary stuff. For a fictional account of how sexting can wreak havoc on the lives of teens and their families, read Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life (2012). It is a thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing look at technology and its ability to change one’s present—and future—in an instant.

National Book Award Finalists for 2014 Announced!

This morning, the finalists for the 2014 National Book Award were announced. Included on the fiction list is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beautiful novel about Werner, young German boy and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who each try to survive the devastation wrought by the Nazis during WWII. I have written about Doerr’s work before—both his memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, and his story collection Memory Wall are wonderful.

I was also pleased to see that Roz Chast’s fantastic graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which I wrote about here is also on the list.

Have you read any of the books on this year’s list? Any suggestions?



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