100 Candles for Cleary

Beverly Cleary celebrated a centennial today.

Ramona with Guts, by Louis Darling

Ramona with Guts, by Louis Darling

If, like me, you grew up devouring her books and secretly believing you were one of her more misunderstood characters, then I suggest you read this tribute; but first prepare to pine for your lost youth. (The very next thing I wanted to do was track down a complete volume of Beverly Cleary classics and let good ol’ Beezus and Ramona put me to sleep for the rest of the week.)

Cleary is, of course, known best for her tender, amusing and true-to-life children’s books. But reading a bit more about her, I was pleased to discover that she also wrote two memoirs, which will soon be added to the stack of books that looms precariously on my nightstand, threatening to bury me in my own bed of neglected commitments.

Still, I’m particularly interested in her autobiographical study of the forgotten art of laissez-faire parenting, of which it appears both Cleary and her father came out on the other side smiling.

…her father, laissez-faire parented to the extreme, was sent to the butcher shop for beefsteak at age fifteen. “Instead of buying the meat, he continued, by what means I do not know, to eastern Oregon, where he worked on ranches all summer,” she writes. When Cleary asked her grandmother if she had worried about his disappearance, she said, “Oh, my, no.” They knew he’d be back, and he was, three months later. “All his father said was, ‘Did you bring the beefsteak?’ ”

Lately I can’t help but think, God forbid I raise a kid without guts like this

So, after 100 years, I have one thing to say to Beverly Cleary: Go get ’em, kid.


Original art: by Louis Darling.

Excerpt above: from Sarah Larson’s Beverly Cleary, Age 100 in The New Yorker.


The Art of Jim


Jim Harrison, photographed by Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson Photography

The great loss of Jim Harrison this past Saturday has had me rooting for words. I dug through his old interviews and pored over passages from The Raw and the Cooked and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, whetting my appetite to write often and write well.

But more than that, reading Jim aroused in me what lately feels like my most primal need — to find fulfillment in a good day’s labor. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a manager, producer, coordinator for the corporate machine, some days it seems impossible to find meaning.

Not for Jim. He wrote every word, performed every task with pure purpose. You can’t mistake the career goals of a fisherman, a well-digger or a slow-cooked goose cassoulet, is all I’m saying.

This interview from The Paris Review in 1986 had me transfixed. Captured over five intoxicating days at Jim’s lush farm in Leelanau County, Michigan, the lengthy exchange touches playfully yet purposefully on Jim’s technique, philosophy and history.

It’s a long but worthwhile read. If you can’t sit down to the whole thing, here are a few choice bits that spoke to me. Continue reading

Cat in the Rain

I adore Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table writing while at his campsite in Kenya.

Hemingway writing at his camp in Kenya, circa 1953. (NARA)

Nevermind that the man’s work helped define an entire sub-category of prose that still gets asininely ascribed to his gender, and nevermind the quality of his character in life and death.

Papa had style.

His writing is clean. It’s one true thing.

One of my favorite shorts by Hemingway is “Cat in the Rain” – a story about a young married couple’s emotional isolation both from the world around them and each other.

A piece I’m currently working on, “Dog in the Snow,” is partially in tribute to this story and the narcissism of youth.

And so, I give you “Cat in the Rain.”

Link to the full text above. Below, an excerpt. Below that, a cat.

“‘I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,’ she said. ‘I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.’

‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed.

‘And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.’

‘Oh, shut up and get something to read,’ George said. He was reading again.

His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees.

‘Anyway, I want a cat,’ she said, ‘I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.’”

Coco, circa 2009

Coco, circa 2009

How to Tell if You’re in Love

If you’re a writer and you think you could be in love, E.B. White has a test that might help you find out for certain.

“Let us say you have sat down to write a letter to your lady. There has been a normal amount of preparation for the ordeal, such as clearing a space on the desk … and the normal amount of false alarms, such as sitting down and discovering that you have no cigarettes. (Note: if you think you can write the letter without cigarettes, it is not love, it is passion.) Finally you get settled and you write the words; “Anne darling.” If you like commas, you put a comma after “darling”; if you like colons, a colon; if dashes, a dash. If you don’t care what punctuation mark you put after “darling,” the chances are you are in love — although you may just be uneducated, who knows?”

via: How to Tell Love From Lust on Brain Pickings

Reading Aloud

This past Friday G and I set aside our excuses and went for a lovely little date night out. We were yearning to do something out of the ordinary, seeing as we spend quite a bit of our free time at home, working alongside each other and taking periodic breaks to eat cheese and watch HGTV reruns.

We decided to see if we could get last-minute tickets to Radiolovefest’s Selected Shorts, which was playing nearby us at BAM. After snagging the best available seats at the box office, we purchased two sippy cups of white wine and settled in to be read to by the likes of Cynthia Nixon, John Cameron Mitchell, Anika Noni Rose and Amy Ryan.

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

If you’re not familiar with the series, Selected Shorts is a weekly public radio broadcast of short fiction, as performed live by a rotating cast of actors. Our evening’s theme, “Dangers and Discoveries,” is not currently available on their podcast, but they do offer an excellent selection of readings for free.

This was truly a show made for both of us. For Gregg, who is a sound editor by trade and who also happens to be working on John Cameron Mitchell’s next film, the rhythms of the live performances and the echoing soundscape of the theater were a pleasant departure from his carefully controlled post-production cocoon.

For me, of course, there was the writing. Hearing the intonation of the words and the natural flow of the sentences reminded me how strongly dialogue informs storytelling.

My favorite short was, “Pie Dance” by Molly Giles, which I could only locate a digital copy of in this excerpt from The Flannery O’Connor Award: Selected Stories. A memorable passage follows:

… “I know I am boring. I am growing dull as Mrs. Dixon, Konrad’s mother, who goes on and on about her poodle and who, for a time, actually sent us birthday cards and Christmas presents signed with a poodle paw print. I clasp the broom with both hands and gaze fondly at Stray. I am too young to love a dog; at the same time I am beginning to realize there isn’t that much to love in this world. So when Pauline says, “Can it do tricks?” I try to keep the rush of passion from my eyes; I try to keep my voice down.

“He can dance,” I admit. 

“How great,” she says, swaying on the railing. “Truly great.”

“Yes,” I agree. I do not elaborate. I do not tell Pauline that at night, when the children are asleep, I often dance with him. Nor do I confess that the two of us, Stray and I, have outgrown the waltz and are deep into reggae. Stray is a gay and affable partner, willing to learn, delighted to lead. I could boast about him forever, but Pauline, I see, already looks tired.”

Delivered beautifully by Cynthia Nixon, the story burst alive with the line “I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife,” and continued to carefully peel open, layer by layer, until it revealed its delightful, twisting core. Do read it. Read it aloud, even.

John Cameron Mitchell, reading “Joplin and Dickens” by Padgett Powell, was animated and uproarious. But to me, the standout performance of the night was Anika Noni Rose’s soulful portrayal of Ruby in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Hell-Diving Women” — an unnerving tale of love and violence in America’s first integrated all-girl swing band.

I don’t manage to fit much live radio into my schedule, and in the past I haven’t committed fully to any particular podcast, but I think I may have just found my newest addiction.

We ended the evening deliriously happy and, as usual, deliriously hungry, so we polished it off with pulled pork and cornbread at Smoke Joint, as you do when you’re craving highbrow comfort food.

Feeling sated and staring at Gregg over our empty plates, I suddenly remembered how early in our relationship, I would read stories aloud to him on a car trip or in bed on a lazy, sunny morning. I’d break my book spine backward and begin, shakily at first, and then slowly my voice would give way to the words, which flowed sure and true, ready at last to tell their story to someone new.

Every Damn Day

It’s 9pm* here in Brooklyn but there’s still time for me to celebrate women before I have my dinner (pizza, in case you were wondering). I’m not sure what exactly to do with International Women’s Day, seeing as I tend to think I celebrate women every day, but at least we ladies have six continents on National Cold Cuts Day (March 3) and National Mail Order Catalog Day (August 18). Set your calendars, proud Americans!

Still, in the spirit of womanhood, I scrolled through this list and thought about some of the books by women that have made an impact on me recently. Happily, I discovered that of the modest 17 books I’ve gotten through these last two years (how embarrassing!), 14 were actually written (or, in one case, edited) by female authors.

For now, because I am sleepy, the best I can do is name a few of my favorites and hope that eventually I will get into the groove of writing thoughtful reviews for you to peruse. Until then, I give you my very own, very short-list of life-changing books by women, as read by a woman in her early 30s:

International Women's Day

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong — A liberated woman self-discovers in the ’70s, searching to find meaning in her new-found freedom. Witty and absorbing and ground-breaking in its day.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath — I highly recommend re-reading as a grown woman, especially if, like me, you’re still paralyzed by all those figs. Each word is served with devastating precision, if you’re into that kind of thing. (Full disclosure: I am totally into that kind of thing.)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion — Winner of most dog-eared passages. I was struck by how Didion’s brave and raw study of grief so deftly skirted sentimentality. I honestly am shocked it took me this long to get around to reading this book, and when I finally set it down I think I was more heartbroken than I have ever been before. Luckily I now have Slouching Towards Bethlehem waiting for me on the bookshelf.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood — In our sterile dystopian future we easily slip back into those old bad habits of keeping women as property. This one’s particularly chilling because Atwood’s created a world that really doesn’t feel all that far-fetched.

So what’s next? Looking forward to finally picking up Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay this year, as well as Barbara the Slut by Lauren Holmes, Family Furnishings by Alice Munro, On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.

*When I started writing, before my fresh mozzarella pie arrived and I decided to celebrate National Pizza Day (February 9) instead.

You may also like: 33 Life-Changing Books in Honor of International Women’s Day via Lit Hub.

Art of the Sentence

Weekend goal: get my paws on a copy of “At the Bottom of the River” and read it.

"At the Bottom of the River" by Jamaica KincaidIt’s incredible the work that sentences can do beyond simply moving a story forward. With one comma they’ll turn on you. In a dash they can elevate or destroy you.

If you’re reading Kincaid, they’ll pull, pull, pull you ’til you’re taut and then they’ll slingshot you.

“I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…

— “The Letter from Home,” Jamaica Kincaid

via: Jane Wong’s beautiful analysis Art of the Sentence: Jamaica Kincaid in Tin House

Negative Space

The negative space of writing — what we do when we’re not writing — is probably just as important, if not more, than the act of writing itself.

Which I suppose is one reason why writers are so notoriously tormented. Even the smallest decisions — what color to paint my nails, how to eat my eggs — always seem to paralyze me.

Loving this piece by Ingrid Rojas Contreras in Electric Literature about fretting over the many ways everyday minutia can impact the quantity and quality of your output. (See her chart below.)

Writing Output by Breakfast Types, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras

“All the hours I spend in the back of my throat, flexing my tongue, agonizing in unwritten sentences—is that writing?”

Food for thought.

via: On Not Writing: An Illustrated Guide to My Anxieties by Ingrid Rojas Contreras in Electric Literature

She Came to Slay

Grateful for voices like that of Dr. Zandria Robinson and for women who write, profess and educate. Grateful that her words reached me, and that she and Beyoncé and a whole formation of black, female voices will not stop challenging me to read more deeply, listen more closely and hear the experience of someone who is not just like me.

Beyonce - Formation - YouTube


Be sure to read Dr. Robinson’s spirited and inspired piece on New Southern NegressWe Slay, Part I, or her Rolling Stone essay on “Formation” and how Beyoncé’s video is both a tribute to “southern blackness” and a rallying cry for the marginalized.

And just look at this electric sentence:

‘Formation’ is an homage to and recognition of the werk of the ‘punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens‘ in these southern streets and parking lots, in these second lines, in these chocolate cities and neighborhoods, in front of these bands and drumlines.

How To Be a (Person Who is Alive)

“if the opposite of a “pure” or “high-minded” man is one who is “alive,” then isn’t that what he is accusing her of being? A woman who is, simply, alive?”

Sharing one of a number of delightful femlit¹ pieces I’ve read recently challenging the word “slut” — a cheap word that, like its “good twin” the virgin, exists solely to put women in their place.

The author, Tara Ison, also skewers pop culture flicks for perpetuating this useless, dichotomous thinking when it comes to women and monogamy.

via How To Be A Slut: The Choices and Priorities of a Promiscuous Woman, and No, You Do Not Complete Me in Electric Literature.

¹Is this a term? I’m going to keep using it.