books, art, culture, and other things I love

The Weekender: Meet Hildy.

So this weekend, I haven’t had much time for reading. Unless you count the puppy-related websites I have been consulting!

Yesterday we brought home this chocolate lab puppy and named her Hildy. She is an absolute love. We have been waiting months for her and during that time, there has been lots of “discussion” in the house over a suitable name. I even kept a list on my iPhone of potential names. And until the eleventh hour, no one liked any of them! This was my list:

In the end, everyone agreed to Hildy. I’m so glad.

Now we’re on to the hard part: house training. Wish me luck!

Readers, what are your favorite dog training books or resources? I’d love to know.



The Weekender: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Boston’s Huntington Theater.

Last month, I bought the first four seasons of the 80s classic sitcom The Cosby Show on DVD. In fact, did you know that today actually marks the show’s 30-year anniversary? My husband and I have been watching a few episodes each weekend with our kids, and I have to tell you, the show is even funnier than I remembered. Who can forget the episode when Denise volunteers to sew Theo a replica of a Gordon Gartrell shirt for his big date. Or when Vanessa struggles through clarinet lessons with guest star Dizzy Gillespie. Such a great show–and I would argue, funnier than a lot of what passes as comedy today. (I feel 100 years old saying that, but it’s true!)

One of the biggest reasons that the show was such a hit was the acting of Malcolm Jamal-Warner in his portrayal of Theo Huxtable. Now Jamal-Warner is in town starring in a stage adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The show runs through October 5 and tickets may be purchased online here. Student tickets are $15 and if you are under 35, they are only $25! I am looking forward to seeing the show in its final week and I will report back with my review.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Friday Culture Watch: Lena Dunham and Meghan Daum.

For this week, two writers to watch:
So, in case you haven’t heard, Lena Dunham’s new book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” is out on September 30. And Meghan Daum’s latest, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion is out on November 18.


Lena Dunham, at home in NYC.

Dunham’s show Girls may have given her mainstream recognition, but it was her 2010 film Tiny Furniture that first caught my attention. Since then, she has written for the likes of The New Yorker (“Difficult Girl” and “Seeing Nora Everywhere”—about friend Nora Ephron) and Rolling Stone (interviewing Mindy Kaling). Last year, Gawker published her entire book proposal and the interwebs were buzzing with the news that she received a $3.5 million advance for her forthcoming book. Now tickets to her upcoming 11-stop book tour are sold out. One was even posted on Craigslist earlier this week for $900 and Dunham herself tried to buy it back in order to give it away (face value of tickets was $38), to no avail. But as a sidenote, I am looking forward to seeing her in conversation with Mary Karr next month at her event in Boston.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran writer Meghan Daum’s interview of the actress, writer, producer, and director. The interview itself was revealing—even for those that might think that all of Dunham’s experiences and anxieties are reflected in her Girls character of Hannah Horvath. In addition, Daum’s gifts as a writer and critic are in full force as she analyzes the reception to Dunham’s work. She writes, “Articles about her entrance onto the literary stage tend to be followed by comment boards where words like “talentless,” “overrated” and “hack” are in heavy rotation. The problem with this is that Dunham, though she might not be to everyone’s taste, is anything but a hack.” She goes on to argue that Dunham is thoughtful in her vision—ensuring that her work is shaped by her own persona—in a similar vein to another notable New Yorker, Woody Allen.

I have mentioned Meghan Daum’s 2001 essay collection My Misspent Youth before on the blog (I have been teaching the title essay in my classes since 2002 and it still resonates as fully with students now as it did more than a decade ago), and I am beyond excited that her latest,Daum is now a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a New Yorker contributor. She is also the author of The Quality of Life Report (2004), a novel set in the rural midwest—likely drawn from the author’s own experiences there following a move to Lincoln from Manhattan and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (2010), a funny look at her lifelong fixation on real estate for personal fulfillment.

Both women offer original and insightful commentary on everything from the quotidian to broader global issues and to paraphrase Hannah Horvath, they just might be voices of their generations. ;)

Writer Meghan Daum.

Writer Meghan Daum.

Bookminded Recommends: A Celebrity Roman à Clef.

Bookminded Recommends: The Actress by Amy Sohn (2014).

Sohn’s latest novel offers readers a roman à clef said to be based on the celebrity couple that is no more–that of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Certainly readers will not have to look too far to see the connections.

Steven Weller is a Hollywood legend. He is also a subject of constant watch by the tabloids, who follow his dating patterns and daily habits with telephoto lenses focused on his every move. His decisions are tightly choreographed and monitored by his longtime manager Bridget Ostrow.

But even Bridget isn’t prepared for what happens when he lays eyes on Maddie Freed, an actress and part-time NYC restaurant hostess who is at the Mile High Independent Film festival for the first time. Maddie has a freshly minted MFA from The New School and is full of ambition. But she has also just lost her beloved father, and she is feeling not quite herself.

Steven and Maddie lock eyes across the room at a studio party and something passes between them, Maddie thinks, but before she knows it, the star is gone. Afterward, she doubts herself. Why would Steven Weller be looking at her?

But the next evening they meet close up, at a party hosted by Bridget the manager. After seeing Maddie’s performance in the indie film that she cowrote with her boyfriend Dan, Bridget is determined to sign the young actress as a client. Steven has his own agenda: he has also set his sights on Maddie, as a costar in his upcoming film, and perhaps as something more.

After a whirlwind romance that shocks everyone, Maddie and Steven marry. But all is not well in paradise. Steven is jealous and possessive. At first, Maddie chalks this up to his interest in her and her career. But Steven is also elusive and secretive. After a while, Maddie she starts to wonder if all the rumors she’s heard about him for years are true. Is her life real? Or is she living a Hollywood lie?

At times the situations in the book seemed overdrawn like when Maddie finds a gift from a former lover named “Alex” (a man or a woman?)–a Henry James book and this causes her to wonder further about her husbands’ sexuality. Or when she hears him talking on the phone late at night (purportedly to the caretaker of his Venetian palazzo) and sees him slip something in a locked desk drawer. But there are moments of complex interaction between characters that are engaging. As this NYT review suggests, this may not be Sohn’s best work (I loved Motherland and Prospect Park West), but is is entertaining nonetheless. All in all, worth a read.



How to get your kids to love reading.

People often ask me how I get my children to read on their own–happily–and truth be told, I don’t have an easy answer. Part of it is likely due to the limited options around here (!), but I would like to think that some of it is also modeling what they see around them at home. Apparently reading to your child, as wonderful as that is, doesn’t translate into a love of language or advanced linguistic aptitude. Nor do fancy apps and programs.

Rather, according to Freakanomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner the thing that contributes most toward developing engagement with reading material is modeling–watching others in the home do the same. (Even simply having books in the home correlates positively with high literacy achievement.)

Child #1's bookcase. Books are several rows deep, but he seems to have a mental cataloguing system that works. ;)

Child #1’s bookcase. Books are several rows deep, but he seems to have a mental cataloguing system that works. ;)

This makes sense, no? If our kids always see us staring at a screen or pecking out texts, telling them to go read for the recommended 30 minutes/day would be a tough sell. They might think, if it’s so great, why aren’t you doing it?

I do consider myself lucky that my kids love to read (seriously, the phrase “Can you just stop reading for one minute!” is a common refrain in our house), but it is not because they are geniuses or because I have come up with some revolutionary method. Rather, I think that there are five main reasons that they have developed into happy readers, so for what it is worth, here are my suggestions:

Limit distractions.
By this, I am largely talking about electronic distractions. I love technology as much as the next person–obviously I am typing this on my computer, which I will then upload to the Internet–but for kids, it can be difficult to prioritize doing something low-tech (reading) when a device or a program or an app is buzzing or blinking or flashing, “LOOK AT ME!” We don’t have a video game system or cable TV, however, we do have an iPad and computers in the house. But unless my son is doing something school-related (like typing an assignment in Word, for example), he is limited to 30-minutes of screen time/day. Most of which he uses to play a soccer game on the iPad or watch videos on wiffle ball technique on YouTube! I have heard people complain that they bought their kids tablets (iPads or a Kindle Fire) for reading, but all their kids want to do is use the device to play games or download apps (or take photos, or watch movies, etc.). Um, really? No disrespect intended, but obviously that is what most kids will do. But with a physical book, you can only do one thing with it. (Even a basic Kindle or Nook, which offers very limited options for online engagement and can be another option.)

Allow them to choose reading material that connects with their interests.
I will be forever grateful for my hometown librarian, Mrs. V., who would not bat an eye when I came to the circulation desk with a hodgepodge of titles that were all over the map as I defined my interests over the years. When I was in Junior High, I was reading everything from Jane Austen, to Danielle Steel, to books about Transcendental Meditation, and home decorating (Laura Ashley’s Guide to Home Decorating). There was no common theme at all, but that was okay! This freedom to explore genres and subjects kept me excited about writing–and, I like to think, helped me develop a diverse knowledge base.

Right now, my children like graphic novels, non-fiction, and the classics. Again, it is not because I have developed my own “Great Books” master list for them, but because they have the freedom to make their own choices. For example, my daughter is currently fixated on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants series. But last year, it was the Little House on the Prairie books.

If I had my English professor hat on, I would say some books are “better” than others. But instead, I let them choose what interests them. It keeps reading fun and personal, which is so important. Though I *do* confess to buying my son the Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf and Odyssey when he was on a graphic novels kick. (Is that the literary equivalent of hiding vegetables in smoothies?)

Provide frequent opportunities for engagement with books.
When they were little, I kept a basket of board books in the living room. Even before they were walking, they would crawl over and grab books out and flip pages and point at things with their chubby little fingers. Now, they will grab a book off the bookcases in the living room or pick up a newspaper that is on the coffee table. There are bookcases in their rooms too, where they are able to store and rediscover old favorites.

Connecting with books at bookstores or better yet, your public library is also a great way to encourage a regular reading practice. We have a set “library day” every week where we will load up on new titles. At any given time, we might have a couple dozen titles (or more!) checked out as a family, but that means there is always something new to read. Get to know your local librarians–they are such terrific resources for information on books and other literacy resources. And most are librarians because they LOVE to read themselves. So take advantage of their enthusiasm! :)

Present reading as a fun activity, not a placeholder or requirement.
Reading IS an activity. So often, though, it can be viewed as something that kids have to do, rather than something that they choose to do. For instance, beginning in third grade, my son came home every month with reading logs that he was supposed to complete daily (to show that he had read for the allotted 30 minutes). I thought this was silly because it turned free reading into an assignment. After telling my son not to worry about these logs (after all, I argued, how could we reasonable quantify the time he spent reading), I revised my position. Which may have had something to do with my husband suggesting that I was sending the wrong message by refusing to comply. (Ahem.)

Talk about books that you like, ask them about their favorites. Start a family book club or one with classmates. Check out these suggestions for some ideas.

Let them see you enjoy reading.
This is a good one–settle into a comfy chair or recline on your couch with a good book in hand. I have some title suggestions here and here. Enjoy!

Two happy readers.

Two happy readers.


Out on a school night: Four Stories at Cambridge’s Middlesex Lounge.

Let me set the scene for you: last night I threw together a dinner for my kids and when I spotted my husband pull up to the house from work, I skipped out to jump in my car. On the way, after I tripped over a scooter and two bikes, I was stopped by S., my daughter’s classmate and our neighbor.

“Are you going out, Mrs. M?” he asked, wide-eyed.

I explained that I was going to hear four authors (Robin Black, Julia Fierro, Jennifer Haigh, and Joanna Rakoff) read from their work. “But it’s a school night!” he exclaimed. He thought about it for a moment. “Do they write books? Because my grandfather met a writer from The Boston Globe who writes about the Pats,” he said. When I confirmed that yes, these four authors that I was going to hear did write books, he seemed unimpressed. “Well, maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get an autograph,” he said, as he scooted away.

I arrived at the Middlesex Lounge shortly before the scheduled start time of Four Stories, which is a regular series (founded by writer Tracy Slater) that features notable authors reading together under a common theme. Last night’s theme was “Girls Night Out” and it was a lot of fun to listen to the authors read from their latest work–Black read from her novel Life Drawing, Fierro read from her novel Cutting Teeth (recently recognized by The New Yorker), Haigh read from a novel in-progress, and Rakoff read from her acclaimed memoir, My Salinger Year. I was already familiar with the work of three of the presenters (Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is terrific, Haigh’s Baker Towers is a favorite, and Rakoff’s memoir and her novel A Fortunate Age are not to be missed) but I haven’t yet read Fierro’s book–a work about four Brooklyn couples that rent a beach house together. After hearing her read a hilarious chapter from the perspective of character “Tiffany,” however, I can’t wait to start!

Four Stories is described as “like a 19th-century salon, only 150 years later–same socializing, same witty banter, corsets optional.”  So much fun! I can’t wait to go to another. I met some other writers, an opera singer, and even had the chance to chat with the delightful and charming Julia Fierro and Joanna Rakoff–the latter being gracious enough to sign my book and kindly listen to me gush about her work. :)

All in all, it was the perfect way to spend a Monday evening. Even if it was a school night. (And I am a bit tired this morning.)

I have no idea why I am in a weird rabbit pose here--maybe I am just full of glee?

Thank you to my friend R. for capturing this interchange. I have no idea why I am in a weird rabbit pose here–maybe I am just full of glee to be chatting to Joanna Rakoff?


Memoir Monday: Two tales of addiction.

A lot can go wrong with the literary memoir. Even more of a risk is the subgenre of addiction or recovery memoir. They can come off as too rosy (laden with 12-step hyperbole) or as too eager and overdone (think James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and his subsequent dust-up with Oprah Winfrey). But Bill Clegg manages to walk the tightrope and stay on center—not just once, but twice. Which is no small feat.

Clegg was a well-known and successful literary agent in New York (representing the likes of Nicole Krauss and Nick Flynn) who had a boutique literary agency with partner Sarah Burnes when he crashed and burned from his addiction of crack cocaine. His downward spiral is documented in the first of two memoirs: The Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (2010) and his ascent to sobriety is relayed in its follow up, Ninety Days (2012).

The author’s story is not a new one. Young man makes it to the big city. Feels that everyone is smarter, richer, better connected, more educated, so he works harder, and achieves success beyond his imagining. With that success, however, comes money and access to excess of all kinds. Some acquire luxury properties or lavish niceties that their increased spending power will afford—but in Clegg’s case, his nagging insecurity moved him toward less socially-acceptable means of escape. Of New York, he writes, “This is a place for a sleeker, smarter, better-educated, and altogether finer grade of person.” And: “I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.”

Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man is raw and ugly—the harsh truth of addiction that touches even the well-heeled and well-coiffed. Clegg leaves broken relationships in his wake (his business partner Burnes and his loyal boyfriend, Noah) and loses everything when he trades it for quick hits and anonymous couplings with strangers. Despite the fact that the book closes with Clegg’s journey to rehab, it is only half of the whole.

Ninety Days picks up where the first volume leaves the reader—the first three months after rehab. It is not easy—and Clegg relapses at day 87 and again after five and a half years with a sip of wine—but as he notes toward the close of the book, “there are no finish lines. No recovered, just recovering.”

These are not easy reads. They are brutally honest and do not pull back from the ugly truths of addiction and all of its accompanying behavior. But there is value in reading Clegg’s experience. An understanding, perhaps, of the real struggles one faces in staying sober–and a deepened empathy for those struggling with these demons.

Photo Credit: New York Times.

Photo Credit: New York Times.

The Weekender: Eating healthy on the go.

It used to be that fast food and healthy would only cooexist in a sentence if there were a big “NOT” between the two. But little by little, options have emerged to fill that void and one of my favorites is sweetgreen.I first heard of this company after listening to this NPR piece last fall. But I forgot about it–and didn’t realize that they were even in Boston until a student told me about it this spring.

Sweetgreen was founded in 2007 by three friends (Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman) that wondered why there weren’t more options for healthy, sustainable eating in their city of Washington, D.C., where they were students at Georgetown University. So they decided to do something about it.

Sweetgreen’s specialty is salad—but not boring salads. And definitely not calorie-laden salads drowning in dressing. Instead, organic offerings feature farm-fresh produce and hormone-free protein. There are several specialties on the menu (my favorite is the Santorini, which features shrimp, feta cheese, red grapes, and chickpeas) and visitors can also build a custom creation. There are also daily soups on the menu too (like a delicious lentil soup, as I found on a recent visit).

Salads are hand tossed and made-to-order, which makes all the difference. Sweetgreen offers a wonderful product and upholds a really great mission to connect with its providers (local farmers and growers) and patrons in a positive way.

Watch the sweetgreen story and put a visit on your to-do list soon. There are three locations in the Boston area (Fort Point, Back Bay, and Chestnut Hill) but stores are in 11 other cities and thanks to a recent $200 million investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case, chances are sweetgreen will be coming soon to a city near you.

The Weekender: Daily Habits of Highly Creative People.

I am always interested in hearing about the routines of creative people. How do they work? When do they work? What do they do in their “off hours”? Last year I read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and got some answers. For example, did you know that Anthony Trollope wrote three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) every morning before going off to his job at the postal service? He also kept this up for thirty-three years while he wrote more than two dozen books.

The folks over at Info We Trust turned the data from Currey’s book into a pretty cool infographic. Check it out below…
CreativeRoutinesInfographic-850x1275-1Remember, we all have the same 24 hours in each day–it’s how you use it that counts. Happy Weekend!

Friday Culture Watch: Women in the Media.

This week, three stories in the media captured my attention. The common denominator is that women were at the center of these stories–and not in a positive way. As a woman myself (and just human, really!) and the mother of a young girl, I find these stories troubling for many reasons–not the least of which is the lack of cultural agency women’s voices still suffer. I share these issues here with the intent of simply raising awareness so that the broader public might think more critically about the way we consider the role of women in modern society.

The Oscar Pistorius trial.
Yesterday Oscar Pistorius was acquitted of formal murder changes, a verdict that stunned the parents of Reeva Steenkamp, his former girlfriend that he fatally shot in February of 2013. Today, however, he was found guilty of culpable homicide (a lesser charge) and awaits sentencing. Messages from Steenkamp to Pistorius introduced during the proceedings suggest that there may have been signs of trouble before her tragic death. In one message she wrote to Pistorius that she was “scared [of you] sometimes and how u snap at me and of how you will react to me.” And former girlfriends testified of a jealous boyfriend that had a fascination with firearms. No one knows what truly happened here, but one hopes that this story of a women’s rights activist (who was scheduled to give an inspirational talk to girls in Johannesburg on the day of her death) is not forgotten, and that her family and friends might find some peace.

Photo credit: Gallo Images/Rex Features.

Photo credit: Gallo Images/Rex Features.

Ray Rice.
So once again TMZ is in the news for sharing video footage of yet another controversial situation (see “Elevator-gate“), and this time it is serious. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has now been suspended indefinitely from the NFL after this video, of him punching wife (then fiancee) Janay Rice in the face. There are lots of issues here to consider, not the least of which is why the NFL (who had seen the video months ago) initially allowed Rice to begin the season with only a slap on the wrist. Janay Rice has come out in full support of her husband, blaming the media for the “nightmare.” On her personal Instagram account, she wrote: “To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get,” she wrote. “If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!”
Janay Rice
I would never blame the victim–or pretend to understand the pain of domestic violence–but I do question a culture (American professional sports) where these stories are all too common. Though back in August, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced new policies regarding domestic violence cases involving players (including an automatic 6 game suspension for a first offense and indefinite suspension for a second), I have to wonder if this is enough?

Fashion Photography and Violence.
“It is not based on Nirbhaya,” the victim in the 2012 New Delhi bus gang rape, said Mumbai-based fashion photographer Raj Shetye of his photo series The Wrong Turn. “This is in no way meant to glamorize the act, which was very bad,” Shetye said. “It’s just a way of throwing light on it.” The series of images, however, do not offer a corrective to the visual narrative, however–instead they seem to document the story–with the addition of designer clothing and models.
enhanced-buzz-wide-27346-1407225609-7More images can be found here. Am I alone in finding this a bit troubling?

And the September issue of Italian Vogue offers a spread called “Cinematic” (photos by Steven Meisel) that pairs couture clad models with recreated violent scenes from horror movies. Editor Franca Sozzani defends the pictorial as one that is intended to raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence that is a horror not simply relegated to the movies. Might more affirming images be a better way to draw attention to this issue?

What do you think about these examples of women in the media? In the case of the photographs, is this the best way to raise awareness about the issue of sexual violence towards women, or does it further desensitize viewers toward images of violence? 


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