Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Live at Boston’s Paramount Theater: Cheryl Strayed in Conversation with Tom Ashbrook.

Last night my friend D. and I sat in the balcony of a packed Paramount Theater in Boston to see On Point Live: an evening of NPR radio host Tom Ashbrook in conversation with Cheryl Strayed, author of the fabulous memoir Wild as well as Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar columns from The Rumpus.  Now, along with writer Steve Almond, Strayed hosts the podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which provides advice (of the practical and philosophical sort) to letter writers.

Preshow: we had to take a selfie. Me: "This would be a better photo if we had one of those sticks." D.: "Um, we're too old for selfie sticks."

Preshow: we had to take a selfie. Me: “This would be a better photo if we had one of those sticks.”                                                  D.: “Um, we’re too old for selfie sticks.”

When host Tom Ashbook took the stage, there was thunderous applause. Once things quieted down and he spoke, there were even some tears as he paused for a moment to thank his audience and his listeners for the kindness that they showed to him in the months since the loss of his wife to cancer at the end of November. There was another point in the evening when Ashbrook solemnly asked Strayed a question for his own twentysomething daughter–how does one at that age deal with loss of someone so significant as one’s mother. Strayed’s response was heartfelt and touching–emphasizing the importance of accepting the fact that grief is ongoing, but the reason for this is that it is recalling the love that was there. That is, the origin of grief is beauty and love–not ugliness. This insight was very meaningful, and the audience sat rapt as Strayed discussed the loss of her own mother.

Our view from the balcony.

Our view from the balcony.

Their conversation touched on topics (drawn largely from audience questions) that ranged from Strayed’s writing habits to her definitions of feminism in the 21st century–the latter in light of Elinor Burkett’s opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times that questions the authenticity of transgender women (previously male) defining what it means to be a woman. Though Ashbrook pushed her a bit on this point, Strayed maintained that there was room for anyone in the feminist movement, and suggesting that as times change, so do boundaries and definitions.

Toward the end of the evening, Steve Almond took the stage and revealed that he and Strayed had just wrapped up three days in the studio, recording 20 (!) hours of Dear Sugar material–I can’t wait for that! The show closed with news analyst Jack Beatty commenting on the impact and growth of On Point, which began as a radio program in the days after 9/11 and has emerged as a forum for a national conversation.

All in all, a delightful and inspiring evening!

Another public radio tote bag. (I have quite the collection going!)

Another public radio tote bag. (I have quite the collection going!)

Summer Reading: A (fabulous) fictional foray into the life of The Royals.

File this under ‘Books That Are Nearly Impossible To Put Down’: The latest novel from blogging duo Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, The Royal We, is an absolute delight from start to finish. It is the kind of ‘dessert read’ for which you need not feel guilty—as its prose is fast-moving and breezy, yet smart and clever—in short, what you *wish * US Weekly would be (Except. It. Is. Not.). 

The Royal We is a contemporary Roman à clef of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge that manages to create its own world that is original and wholly entertaining, even as its story is imbued with some details inspired by the courtship of Wills and Kate.

Instead of St. Andrews, readers are given the backdrop of Oxford as the setting wherein American exchange student Rebecca (Bex) Porter and Nicholas (Nick) Wales, future King of England, meet for the first time. Bex has come to the UK from Cornell to further her study of art and history in the idyllic setting, and also to find her own identity apart from that of her twin (Lacey, also a student at Cornell). Over time, Bex’s good nature and friendliness earns her the acceptance of Nick’s inner circle—and eventually she and Nick realize that they are drawn to each other apart from the group. Once they confess their mutual attraction, they embark on a relationship that spans two continents once Bex returns to the U.S. to complete her degree until she returns to London to work and reunite with Nick.

There is one problem, however, and it’s a big one. The looming shadow of the monarchy and its expectations and obligations.

Bex and Nick carry out their relationship in private for several years, until they finally receive the (reluctant) permission of the Queen to be seen together (platonically) in public. This newfound public visibility is not, as it turns out, a good thing—and it leads to the couple’s split. The British press mocks this ‘yankee’ who lacks aristocratic bloodlines—and suggests that she is a climber with designs on the heir to England’s throne.

Will they reunite? Will true love win? Will they each manage to keep some of themselves, even though forces (the Queen, Royals watchers, turncoat friends, and jealous siblings) conspire against them?

You must read it to find out! So, so good—the most fun literary indulgence I have had in a long time.

Happy Friday.

And if the start to the weekend weren’t reason enough to cheer, here’s another: peony season is here!

I definitely do not have a green thumb, but these beauties were cut from my garden.

 

Bookminded Recommends: Clark Beckham

Years ago, when American Idol appeared on the scene, I wasn’t terribly interested. Most of the ‘talent’ was subpar, and the format of the program (e.g. remember the results shows?!) was not a big draw. But once Harry Connick Jr. joined the program as a judge, I knew that the musical hopefuls would improve in quality. I am happy to report that my hunch was correct.

Though my top pick for this year’s win, Clark Beckham, did not take the title–I predict that he has a bright future ahead of him in the music business. An incredibly talented musician and songwriter, he also has an AMAZING vocal range and beautiful tone. His voice has both the gravel of a Joe Cocker and the tonality of a James Morrison or Eric Hutchinson. Trust me–he is worth a listen. I have downloaded his EPs on iTunes and have been playing them nonstop. My spring/summer soundtrack for 2015!

Check him out here, holding his own with Michael McDonald.

The Unmoored: Two haunting books about strangers living in strange lands.

In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, readers meet Anna Benz, an American expat living in Switzerland with her husband and three young children. Despite having spent nearly a decade in the country, her grasp of the German language has yet to advance past a rudimentary level. With her husband Bruno and mother-in-law taking care of many of life’s quotidian tasks, however, she is able to exist in an insulated bubble—speaking only when needed to those outside of the home. And her lack of a driver’s license leaves her entirely reliant on the local train that allows her to find a life outside of her small Zurich suburb. While her language fluency may be limited, there are, of course, other more primitive forms of communication to which Anna does have access—and her nameless malaise impels her to search for connection through a series of ill-considered affairs (even as she goes through the motions of learning in a daily language intensive course designed for foreigners).

And in Family Life, Akhil Sharma presents narrator Ajay Mishra, who suffers from a similar cultural and personal disorientation when his family moves from Delhi to New York City in the late 1970s. America holds the promise of success and upward mobility for the Mishra family—but after a tragic accident renders Ajay’s older brother Birju incapable of realizing the dreams his parents have for him, the family’s screeches to a halt, leaving Ajay to exist as a virtual orphan.

Though both Anna and Ajay are surrounded by family and would-be friends, each is alone, bearing the burden of decisions and happenstance that would seek to define them. We see each event play out in (dreadful) slow motion, as if watching a Greek tragedy with the knowledge of what lies ahead. By societal standards, Anna is a “good wife, mostly” and Ajay is a good brother and a good son–on the outside. But what others don’t see is the internal struggle that each character experiences. They only see the missteps and mistakes that play out in public.

As Tolstoy famously observes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and in Hausfrau and Family Life readers see the veracity of this statement. The precise prose of Essbaum and Sharma impresses us with the ability to delicately create worlds that we may inhabit temporarily—if only to convince us that we are happy that we do not reside there permanently.
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From the desk of…

Dear Bookminded Friends,

It has been a long while since I have posted, due to a variety of factors, which include the following:

  1. A rather busy semester at work (This is reverse hyperbole, fyi.)
  2. An (over) ambitious extracurricular schedule for the children (Never again.)
  3. A very naughty puppy who has hit adolescence and thus requires constant surveillance (Today my dog walker asked me if he could use her as an example of a willful puppy on his cable access show. Um, okay?)
  4. A big writing deadline (More on that to come.)
  5. A smallish, but disruptive house renovation project (NB: Never, ever try to have all of your floors refinished after you have moved into a house. It creates all of the chaos of moving, except you don’t move. And it takes weeks and weeks to get the house back together. And don’t get me started on the dust.)

As you can see from my extended commentary on #5, that was probably the one thing that wreaked havoc on my schedule because nothing was in its place for weeks. Seriously, while the end result is worth all the hassle, it was no fun to live through. But I am back up and running (in a metaphorical sense as well as the actual—ran a half marathon last week!) and perhaps more importantly, WRITING!

I hope you all survived the winter. Still every morning when I wake up to sunshine and chirping birds, I think I am dreaming. At long last…summer!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on two books that you will want to make sure you get your hands on before the weekend.

xo
AC

My messy desk. Note the bottle of Bitter Apple spray to the left of my laptop to deter puppy chewing...

My messy desk. Note the bottle of Bitter Apple spray to the left of my laptop to deter puppy chewing…

Writers and Impostor Syndrome

One of the many afflictions that writers endure is “imposter syndrome”–which is just as it sounds–the feeling that one is playing a part, rather than inhabiting an authentic persona. Last week, on a (lovely) weekend jaunt to NYC with an old friend, she made an offhanded comment about the fact that the two of us were writers.

I’ll admit that I had a moment of internal pause–me, a writer? Sure, my friend, who writes for a living qualified. But me? I had my doubts. When I considered it further, though, I realized that she was right. I write for work, I write to create, and I write to share my work with others. Which is what a writer does, right?

Interestingly enough, I first met the above-mentioned friend when we were both writers for our college newspaper. It is funny how I didn’t have a problem calling myself a writer then, but as time went on, it has become more difficult. (The irony being that my writing has likely improved and certainly progressed from writing polemic fraternity house exposés for my college paper!)

Writer Jazmine Hughes describes this phenomenon in her piece, “Do You Have Imposter Syndrome?” Hughes notes that even upon having a series of well-received publication credits under her belt (including one at The New Yorker!) she felt ill-equipped for her job editing The Hairpin.

The struggle is real.

So why do we have such a hard time adopting the descriptor? Is it that we feel we need to have a certain number of publications to our credit–or publication in a particular outlet to own the identity?

Last weekend, I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who was working as a waitress while she aspired to grow a career as a writer. Despite her ambitions, she struggled to produce any significant writing output. It wasn’t until a regular customer at her restaurant asked her what she “really did” that she mustered the courage to call herself a writer. And even though at that point she had only produced ten pages of continuous text, she took the step forward to inhabit that identity of WRITER. And you know what, it worked. Once she started calling herself a writer, she started thinking of herself that way. And soon after, another customer (himself a writer) put her on a writing schedule and she started working on what would be her first script. Which was eventually optioned by Columbia at the behest of Nora Ephron. Really. And changing her mindset in this way helped Diane Ruggiero-Wright (writer of the cult favorite Veronica Mars and the forthcoming iZombie) reach her dreams. Such an inspiring story! Listen to the podcast or read the transcript here.

There is no secret to success except hard work and getting something indefinable which we call ‘the breaks.’ In order for a writer to succeed, I suggest three things – read and write – and wait.
-Countee Cullen
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Bookminded Recommends: Harry Connick Jr.

The first time I was introduced to Harry Connick Jr., I was a teenager. My friend S. had cassette tapes of the albums 20 (1987), the When Harry Met Sally (1989) soundtrack, and We Are In Love (1990), which she brought back after a trip to her father’s house in Pennsylvania. This was during our high-school self study of the ‘Great American Songbook’—inspired, no doubt by our choir director’s predilection for Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and Bernstein.

We favored female vocalists like Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. We listened for hours to Mahalia Jackson—and even performed our own rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” one sleepy Sunday morning in our small Cape Cod town.

But Harry Connick Jr. also made the cut—fitting into our preference for vocal delivery that was never forced—i.e. not the overworked vibrato that punctuated the performances of many of our teenaged choir peers—and always original.

Over the years, my admiration for Connick’s talent and musicality never waned—and in fact, given his prodigious output of albums, I can chart the course of my adult life thus far alongside his musical soundtrack. Some albums hold a special place in my heart—like 1994’s She, Connick’s exploration of New Orleans funk music—which I played on my Discman walking back and forth to class. Or Songs I Heard (2001), a wonderful collection of classic songs from film and stage, that was on repeat during the first two years of my son’s life and is an album that we still listen to often as a family. When I was writing my dissertation, I loved to listen to Oh, My NOLA (2007) as I pecked away at my laptop. (In retrospect, it could have been the metaphor provided by “Working in the Coalmine” that I identified with!)

So given all of this, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see Connick perform at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall earlier this month. What a show he put on! In addition to his mastery of the piano, he also jammed on the trumpet—holding his own alongside Lucien Barbarin on the trombone. Though he covered many standards, like the Cole Porter classic “I Concentrate On You” popularized by Frank Sinatra, he also threw in some originals—like “City Beneath the Sea” from Star Turtle (1996) and even serenaded wife Jill (seated in the front row) with “One Fine Thing” from Every Man Should Know (2013). But perhaps my favorite moment of the evening was when Connick offered a joyful and nuanced rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”
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What a talent and what a night! Although there is now a new generation of fans introduced to Connick through his success as a judge on American Idol, this is a musician and performer with a rich and varied archive of work that proves he has staying power—for sure.

Photos/videos were prohibited (and honestly, it made for a much more enjoyable concert experience, not having people waving their phones around obscuring the view) but I did sneak just this one toward the end. Note: HC is in the far left of the frame.

Photos/videos were prohibited (and honestly, it made for a much more enjoyable concert experience, not having people waving their phones around obscuring the view) but I did sneak just this one toward the end. Note: HC is in the far left of the frame. ;)

Culture Watch: The Intersection of Two Modern Masters.

“We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”

W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety is not an easy read. As a cultural artifact (published in 1947, as the modernist moment is fading), it is fascinating as it exhibits the underpinnings of all modern literature: the competing sensibilities of loss and liberation. The very form of the poem, an eclogue, gestures toward this sense of loss as it holds on to this classical convention as if to center its subject–how to find meaning in a changing and increasingly industrialized world. That said, the choice of the eclogue, the domain of Virgil and all that is pastoral, is deliberate and disrupts and dislocates the images of metropolitan life we see in the text.  Set in a NYC bar and told through the conversations between four characters, Auden’s poem considers man’s quest for understanding at the dawn of a new era. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and inspired a musical composition by Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2.

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a concert performance of Bernstein’s piece by Boston’s New Philharmonia Orchestra. In the first moments of the score, I was so moved by the plaintive sounds of the woodwind instruments, I felt my eyes well up. And that emotional connection continued throughout the whole piece. Just lovely. And the performance inspired me to reread the poem this week, which is a good thing. 

Here is the gorgeous concert stage in Newton’s First Baptist Church…as you might imagine, the acoustics are fantastic.



And here is my seven-year-old concert date, who gave the music two thumbs up!



It’s been a long week.

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