books, art, culture, and other things I love

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?


Newsflash: Kids Will Eat What You Put in Front of Them and Are Not Programmed to Eat Junk.

But if they are offered a bunch of junk, then that is what they will eat. I will never forget when my son was in second grade and one of his classmates said that the food I had made for dinner was “so disgusting.” It wasn’t—just a simple meal of homemade chicken tenders, a green salad, and a fruit plate—but it wasn’t from a box or a bag, or something that was cooked in the microwave. The same child also told me that I had “the worst snacks ever” at my house, so there’s that too. But as my son soon came to realize, he was eating differently than many of his peers. While others brought snack bags with Doritos, juice boxes, and cookies, his bag contained water, some fruit, yogurt, and maybe some Goldfish if he was lucky. I am not an extremist by any means—we enjoy treats here and there, but by and large, that happens outside of our home. Here at home, there is plenty of real food, but little (if any) junk food.

I suppose I have my pediatrician to thank for the early advice when it came to feeding my children. Milk and water only, she advised. Introduce vegetables before fruits. Whole grains bread over white. In short, feed them real food.

Back in July, I saw the film, Fed Up, which offers a critical look at the food industry in America—by zeroing in on the additive that is most harmful to our health: sugar. It was eye opening to say the least—particularly when you consider that more than 80% of food items in the United States have added sugar. By 2050, one out of every three Americans will have diabetes.

The biggest offender in sugar delivery may with drinks—I routinely see young kids guzzling down sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, etc.) like they are going out of style—this, despite the fact that the World Health Organization’s maximum recommended refined sugar intake for children is no more than 3 teaspoons (approximately 12 grams) and most 20-oz sports drinks contain a whopping 9 teaspoons (more than 40 grams) of sugar.

This article from Sunday’s NYT from food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman on how to influence your kids’ eating habits—and ultimately, preserve their health—is a must read. It all comes back to the basics: offer real food and cook when you can. Meals need not be elaborate affairs either: in my house sometimes eggs, yogurt, and fruit are as creative as I can get after a long day. Bittman writes, “Parents should purge their cabinets and shopping lists of junk, and they should set and enforce rules on what their children are allowed to eat. I can be even more specific: Teach your kids to snack on carrots and celery and fruit and hummus and guacamole — things made from fruits and vegetables and beans and grains. Offer these things all the time. Make sure breakfast and lunch are made up of items you would eat when you’re feeling good about your diet. Make a real dinner from scratch as often as you can. Worry less about labels like “G.M.O.” and “organic” and “local” and more about whether the food you’re giving your children is real.”

After all, kids will eat what you put in front of them—and they don’t need Happy Meals to be happy. :)

Fed Up is now available for purchase and online streaming. I highly recommend it! Watch the trailer here:

Memoir Monday: Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable.

“New England can be as stingy with its welcome as it is with its weather. But catch a New England town on a good day and there is a cozy uplift to the scene that takes the breath away. The sight of schoolchildren running through the town green on a perfect September afternoon will draw even the most confirmed West Coaster to the window of a local real-estate agent. Still, New England is an unforgiving place. Like a disapproving mother, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.” So writes Sarah Payne Stuart in The New Yorker as she considers her decision to relocate to her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts with her husband and two young children. For born and bred New Englanders, the landscape that Stuart paints in her new memoir, Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, is a familiar scene.

Though mores and customs inform the geographic culture of every US region, it may be true that those behaviors are more implicit (and as such, ingrained) in New England more than anywhere else. As Stuart suggests, this is no doubt due in part to the Puritan history that casts shadows (and limits) on the bounds of “acceptable” behavior—including just how much one is permitted to upgrade one’s living quarters—especially if one lives in a historical district. And as the author’s mother points out, it is in poor form to do too much—one might insult the previous owners, after all. Talk about Anxiety of Influence to contend with! There are the Puritan forebears, the Yankee savers, the DAR, and, of course, the ultimate: the watchful eye of one’s own mother. (Note: this book is just as much about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters as much as it is about contemporaries and ancestral forebears.)

I enjoyed this book, as I could relate to its context—though for those outside of these Northeast parts, it might not be as resonant. Also, the allusions to Alcott’s Little Women throughout work better in some places and not others. Further, for non-NE-natives, Stuart’s pieces in The New Yorker, “Pilgrim’s Progress: On God and Real Estate” and “Pilgrim Mothers: The Ladies Four O’Clock Club,” might serve as good preliminary reading.

The Weekender: On Minnie Driver’s Album, Ask Me to Dance.

Though the height of Academy Award nominated actress Minnie Driver’s fame might have been in the mid-to-late nineties, when she starred in films like Circle of Friends, Good Will Hunting, and Return to Me, but in the intervening years, she has worked steadily on multiple projects (including the television show About a Boy, now in its second season).

This month, Driver released her third studio album, Ask Me to Dance. The collection is comprised of new arrangements of familiar songs—including a slowed-down version of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster” and a haunting rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which has been stripped of all of its swing. The Cure’s “Close to You” also makes an appearance on the record—in a format as pleasing as its original. Driver’s voice is husky and mellow, recalling vocalists such as Norah Jones or Corrine Bailey Rae. As Driver tells NPR’s Scott Simon, her acting career happened almost by accident—as she was on the path of becoming a singer when she was offered a part in the film Circle of Friends with Chris O’Donnell. “I don’t know if I actually did the whole Malcolm Gladwell thing of playing for 10,000 hours, but I felt like I did,” Driver notes on her website.  “I had planned to make music my primary thing, but then I got offered a film and it all went off in a different direction.  At the time, I thought that I was ready to take on the music industry, but I don’t think that I really was.  I had to grow up enough to have something to say.”

The album offers an interesting mix of familiar covers, yet Driver injects them with originality of sound and arrangement that makes them into something new. Worth a listen.

The Weekender: Framing Boston’s Public Garden.

Students of John Berger will likely have thoughts about how frames affect what we see—that is, our decision what to include in a frame (when taking a photo, for example) and what to leave out is a deliberate choice that affects what we see as the end product. For example, if there is a beautiful flowering plant blooming alongside an abandoned shed that has fallen into disrepair, I have multiple choices for how to frame a photo of my subjects. Do I zero in on the beauty of the flowers and ignore the building? Or do I try to fit everything in? Whatever my framing choice, it will affect what I (or others) ultimately see.

That’s why I find the current installation in Boston’s Public Garden so great. The Friends of the Public Garden installed multiple frames around the park for people to frame their own views (or themselves) in the park. The frames swivel to allow for multiple views and subjects to be framed and will be on display for the next two months. Check them out! People are encouraged to post their photos on Twitter and Instagram using #FOPG. For more information on the project, read this piece from Boston Magazine.


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