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My Astoria

I have recently acquired a pen pal in St. Louis, my home town, who was under the mistaken impression that I live in L.A., due probably to my recent interview for the Women and Hollywood blog. He wrote from a gloomy day in St. Louis, grumbling that he didn’t even want to hear about how the weather was where I was (L.A., he presumed) and complaining about the weeds taking over the zoysia grass. I’m sure zoysia is common worldwide, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about it in these parts. This is probably because I live in New York City, where talk of lawn care in general is thin on the ground. But the word “zoysia” immediately evoked my South St. Louis grandparents and their too-perfect lawn.

“I don’t live in L.A.!” I wrote back to him. “I live in Astoria, Queens.”

He wrote back that although he had grown up in Brooklyn (back when there were still Brooklyn Dodgers) he knew little of Astoria except for having traveled through it to visit a relative.

Well, that was Astoria, originally. A place to travel through. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it thus, in the 20’s, before Astoria was transformed by the great wave of Greek immigrants in the 50’s. Back then, it was just a dismal backstage boneyard feeding the roaring 20’s maw of Manhattan:

This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

A place, in other words, no decent Princeton grad like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” would be caught dead stopping in, even for gas, traveling between his “bond business” on Wall Street and the great West Egg of Long Island to Gatsby’s mansion. How awful, to have to witness the “obscure operations” of the working class from your Ivy League gaze.

And popular culture has been no kinder. The people of Queens are depicted in the movies as buffoonish ethnics, the defeated lower middle class, slamming crockery and stepping on their vowels, or a curiously unethnic, untough and un-accented Hollywood baby-faced Spiderman.

What I had been about to tell my pen pal about Astoria was that I chose it, or it chose me, for a variety of practical reasons – its persistent lack of cool keeps the prices down, its proximity to Manhattan repeatedly startles visitors from other boroughs, and primarily, its sense of déjà vu. “It is like South St. Louis,” I would have written him, “except substitute Greeks for Germans, and I don’t know which is more xenophobic.”

Well, I do know which is more xenophobic. For one thing, the Germans are colder towards everyone, even their own kin, while the Greeks are more clannish.

Also, “xenophobia” is their word — “xenos” from the Greek meaning foreigner and “phobos” from the Greek meaning fear. I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and only recently has the butcher or the tailor at the dry cleaner given me a reluctant nod in response to my “Good morning.” Even my saying it in Greek elicited no kinship: “kalimera” brought nothing but smirks or blank faces. “You Greek?” they ask. “No, actually I’m from –” I start to reply, but already the shades are drawn and the front door lock has clicked.

It would also be helpful to remember here that the word “barbarian”, now understood to mean an uncivilized person, means, in Greek, “one who does not speak Greek.” It was thought, according to noted Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, to derive from the Ancient Greeks’ mockery of the languages of other tribes: “Bar bar bar,” they would say to the mongrel tribe leaders, much as we say “blah blah blah” to indicate the speech of those whose interests and patience do not match our own.

What I would have told my St. Louis pen pal is that the pre-war buildings and the tidy gardens of Astoria remind me of South St. Louis. I bought my apartment because I loved the pre-war building, about which I have written here. The building has lovely arch doorways, and beautiful landscaping (though no zoysia) to which several of my neighbors contribute the whole of their weekends. My neighbors and I are not as close as I would like. But I realize that in NewYork City, even in the “ashes” of its glitter, that lack of neighborliness is a luxury problem. My building is diligently tended to, scrupulously clean, generically attractive, as the lobby of an “extended care facility” might be attractive, full of unused couches and artificial flowers. No, my building is not cool. But it is lovely.

But my grandmother would have been pleased. I would say “delighted” but “delighted” was never her style. I was able to buy the apartment in the first place because of a small inheritance from her and her frugal, reserved lifestyle. When I stepped into my then-empty apartment as a prospective buyer, I felt that my grandmother’s dishes would fit into the kitchen. I felt that she would have approved although, had she been there, she would have had no one to talk to, Germans and Greeks being what they are.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal was the latest to “discover” Astoria
as a “gentrifying” and “hip” emerging new nabe. We have been down this road before. Roomy apartments! Young hip filmmakers! Close to Manhattan! Up and coming! Have a baklava!

But on second thought, you know what? Stay away.

Originally published Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Emotionally Draining, Physically Exhausting, Please Don’t Let It End

Kenyon Day 4.

Quite a heady time here in the brutal central Ohio heat. I had planned on using the fantastic-looking pool here, but Kenyon seems to make its money by renting out its lovely dorms and buildings to a variety of groups throughout the summer. Last week was Job’s Daughters and a group of teenage mimes. This week it is writers and teenage swim camp. I have not seen the teenage swimmers swim, although I have heard from an eyewitness that they are profiles in endurance. On dry land, they stand in a herds, feeding, eyes glazed either because it is early in the morning (at breakfast) and they are teenagers, or because they have spent all day swimming (at dinner) and are exhausted. I had hoped to use the pool, but there are only slivers of availability.

So yesterday I went on a trail hike. The assignment was to describe myself at a moment in time and my goal here at Kenyon was to generate work that was not about me as a child. “Describe myself at a specific moment in time,” and I wanted to be 1) an adult and 2) happy. It took a hell of a lot of trail hiking to come up with something and by the time I got back to Mouse Cottage, as I have dubbed my over-air-conditioned dwelling which I share with two roommates and a noctural rodent, I had time only to shower, change and shuffle slowly, sore-muscled, off to the dining hall, where the teenager swimmers were huddled around the soft serve ice cream machine, silently pumping and nudging each other aside.

In this morning’s session, two people cried when they read their pieces. I cry when they cry. I cry at anything. I haven’t cried reading my own pieces aloud but I experience a different, marvelous confluence of nervous sensations: my hands shake, my palms sweat, and my voice trembles. Lovely. Can’t wait for my public reading Friday night!

Back to Mouse Cottage now, to change into my trail clothes.

Originally published Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me

In the time since I last wrote about the vandalized Astoria piano, much has changed.

I was laid off from my “day job” in legal marketing.

My primary and immediate response to this has been to focus almost all of my energy on revising my novel, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.  The novel takes place in Bermuda during the spring of 1941.  During my revision process, I have kept my leisure reading “in period” in order to keep the voice of the novel “yar.”

Among the nonfiction:  a collection of essays by George Orwell (always a pleasure), Facing Unpleasant Facts, John Steinbeck’s so under-crowed-about dispatches from the European theater, in a collection called Once There Was a War, transcriptions of Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the London Blitz called (of course)This is London, and a heart-rending accounting of Murrow, Harriman and Gil Wynant by Lynne Olson, entitled Citizens of London.

In addition to the John Lawton “Inspector Troy” series of novels (particularly Second Violin, Blackout and Riptide), I have read and can happily recommend several contemporary novels which are set in the period.  A Fine Radiance by Lauren Belfer, The Postmistressby Sarah Blake and The Information Officer by Mark Mills.  A Fierce Radiance follows the story of Life magazine photographer Claire Shipley and her involvement with a doctor on a medical team racing to perfect the formula for pencillin with the hope of saving the lives of millions of soldiers (since so many of the wounded died from the infection to their wounds when they might have survived the wound itself).  It’s a terrific evocation of the New York City of that period, particularly of my old neighborhood on the west side of Greenwich Village.

The Postmistress weaves together the story of three women, two of them residents of a small New England coastal town and the third a radio reporter and Murrow colleague with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Frankie Bard.  Her reports from the London Blitz are both frank and bardic, and they reach into the lives of the two stateside characters with poignant and tragic consequences.

The Information Officer details another blitz — that of the island of Malta.  With its fast-paced and (almost unbearably) suspenseful plot and its witty, sexy characters, I wish British television would just hurry up and produce it already.  It contains the best exchange of dialogue I have read recently.  I can reproduce it here without spoilers since I’m not saying who, to whom, when or in what context:

“You threw him out of a plane?”
“You make it sound easier than it was.  He fought me like a tiger all the way.”

Originally published Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How I Will Be Killed

I will probably be stabbed on the subway because too often I violate the MTA prime directive and I stare at people.  One day I will stare at the wrong person and he will stab me; either he will be one of America’s Most Wanted, or he will be an impatient paranoid man with a penchant for privacy and a long blade strapped to the side of his left leg, a gangster, perhaps, antsy from a recent release from a halfway house.  I say “he” because a woman wouldn’t stab me.  She would, if obviously beautiful, long ago have learned how to endure a gaze.  And if not, she would walk away, scowl, or stare back in an exaggerated manner to demonstrate what an impolite fool I look.  I can tell you this with the authority of experience.

I’m not staring because of attraction.  Attraction inspires a series of furtive glances.  I’m staring either because I’ve become lost in a series of image associations or because I’ve fallen into a narrative inspired by the first quick observation but swiftly detached from the reality of the stared-upon person as I cascade through the story in my head.  (And before you suggest it, yes, I have mentioned this to my therapist, and she confessed that she did the same thing.  She makes up stories about people she sees on the bus.  “He has a mean wife,”  she will silently diagnose.  “She hectors him.”)

Recently I was staring at a man who looked like a Russian icon.  “He looks so Russian,”  I thought.  “Like Ivan the Terrible Russian.  No, like a saint, the way they portray their saints.  The long, gaunt faces, the dark, otherworldly, suffering eyes.”  He looked like the depiction of Joseph in the paintings of the Holy Family I saw at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia in Prague.

I was watched as I walked through each room by a different short unsmiling nun.  But I couldn’t hurry along (I had no idea of what they needed to get back to doing, anyway) because the depiction of the nativity in Eastern Europe art is so different from what I was accustomed to:  more brown, less blue, more earthy, less divine.  No celestial shafts of light, no halo around the Virgin and child, no magi.  Plenty of straw and wood, a large assortment of unimpressed livestock, a slightly more interested cat (the Italians never show a cat) and a weary Joseph.  He has the air of a man who most likely has to muck out the stables to pay for their night’s lodging and still has that tax thing to figure out.

Any-way.  I was staring at this medieval-faced but youngish man on the 7 train.  He nodded.  I nodded back.  The train stopped at Bryant Park.  I rose to leave.  He spoke to me.  I pulled my earbuds off in time to hear him ask, “Russki?”

“Sorry?”  I asked.

He shook his head, realizing I was not Russki.  But he was.  I was right!  And I stepped off the subway, still alive.

Originally published Monday, November 22, 2010

Thunderbolt of Lightning, Very Very Frightening!

So the other night I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors for Outstanding Achievement in American something or other by an American thus-and-so (my high school French teacher used to say “thus and so”; I always found it quaint).  I wanted to see the tribute to Bill T. Jones.  Because I don’t know much about dance but I like Bill T.

I have always found ballet similar to basketball — impossible to watch on t.v., compelling in person.  I can’t remember which ballet it was that I last saw performed by the New York City Ballet — Coppelia?  Swan Lake?  — something in which I thought well, for God’s sake, if it’s that hard to do, and it looks so hard to do when you’re doing it, don’t do it!  It’s like the triple-axle, triple-salchow, triple-triple-death-spiral nonsense of the Winter Olympics — at a certain point, we just want the beauty, not the suffering.

So I haven’t seen Black Swan, nor will I.  I saw Requiem for a Dream, by the same director, and I am only now getting over it.

But the beauty of the body in motion is not the topic here.  It is that I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors for Outstanding Whatever — there was Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Herman, I think?  (musical theater guy), Bill T. Jones, Merle Haggard (sweet!) and Paul McCartney.  (Maybe someone else, but I’m proud of myself for remembering Jerry Herman, because I’m not a musical theater type, be gentle in your comments.)

So, was I thinking, but Paul McCartney is not American, so why is he receiving an American honor?  (Truth be told, I was.)  Was I thinking, why is Oprah acting like she invented Paul McCartney (although, for a little, as she clutched him and beamed, I was?)  Was it, as some young woman younger than I am (and I am seriously younger than all of his children, and yet, and yet.  He is ever and always a romantic ideal) groping him in proprietary pleasure when the kids on the stage launched into “Let It Be,” who the hell is that one, now?  Yes, there was some of that.

But I what I was really thinking was, Paul McCartney finally looks like an old man.  Not a decrepit old man, or a sad old man, but just, a man, near the age he probably, biologically, is.

“You’re just a little old man from Liverpool,”  various Beatles tauntWilfrid Brambell, the actor who famously played Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night.

So, I wondered, was Paul now the age of the actor who played his grandfather?

Nope.  Paul is 69.  Wilfrid Brambell at the time that A Hard Day’s Night was filmed was 52.

Originally published Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Idea of Order in Poetry Month

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it!

For April is Poetry Month, I posted on my Facebook page one poem a day, for each day in April. Because of the attention-deficit nature of Facebook participants (I include myself), I included only a fragment of the poem, with the idealistic hope that particularly motivated readers would seek out the full poem for savoring. There is this device called Google. And, for now at least, there are still books.

This was the order I imposed on April.

Since April is National Poetry Month, for the nation of the United States, I leaned where possible to American poets — 26 out of 29. (The final post directed Facebook readers to this blog post.) I count T.S. Eliot as half-American because he was born and raised in St. Louis and didn’t become a British citizen until he was 39. Other British-American hybrids, but in the other direction (grew up there, moved here) are Judith Barrington and Denise Levertov. I included St. Louis poets because St. Louis is a city of poets. Also, I am from there. As are T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Joseph Stanton, Sara Teasdale, and Maya Angelou.

All poems were originally written in English. I favored contemporary poets, and when possible, living poets (who could benefit from your patronage). In the spirit of VIDA, I tried to ensure a gender balance (15 women, 14 men!) I leaned toward poems about poetry, writing or other art forms; I figured that was more user-friendly and conducive to the theme. For special days (e.g., the anniversary of the Civil War, Shakespeare’s birthday, Good Friday), I went with the best pertinent fragment. For birthdays, I let the birthday girl have her pick. And yes, I threw in a few poets because in addition to being gifted, entertaining, generous souls, they are also pals (Judith Barrington, Matthew Olzmann, Joseph Stanton.) The full list follows with the key:
A = American
M = Modern
C = Contemporary
In bold face – alive and writing. Google them! Buy their books, go see them at readings!

Maya Angelou – A, C – Phenomenal Woman
Judith Barrington – ½ A, C – The Musicians’ Seamounts
Charles Bukowski – A, M – So you want to be a writer
Billy Collins – A, C – The Norton Anthology of English Literature
e.e. cummings – A, M – somewhere I have never travelled
Emily Dickinson — A — Hope
Stephen Dunn – A, C – Charlotte Bronte in Leeds Point
Lynn Emmanuel – A, C — The Politics of Narrative: Why I am a Poet
T.S. Eliot – ½ A, M – The Waste Land
Deborah Garrison – A, C – A Working Girl Can’t Win
Jonathan Holden – A, C – How to Play Night Baseball
Marie Howe – A, C – The Moment
Clive James – C, L – Whitman and the Moth
Julia Spicher Kasdorf – A, C – First Gestures
Denise Levertov — ½ A, C – Come Into Animal Presence
Thomas Lynch – A, C – Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets
Heather McHugh – A, C – A Ghazal for the Better-Unbegun
Marianne Moore – A, M – Poetry
Matthew Olzmann – A, C – Previous Theories of the Body
Dorothy Parker – A, M — Comment
Kay Ryan – A, C — quote from her interview in the Wall Street Journal, regarding poetry, as the Pulitzer winner this year
Christina Georgina Rossetti – Good Friday
Joseph Stanton – A, C – Vermeer’s “A Woman Weighing Gold”
Mark Strand – A, C – Eating Poetry
Mary Jo Salter – A, C – John Lennon
Sara Teasdale – A, M – Advice to a Girl
William Shakespeare – Sonnet 7
Walt Whitman – A – The Uprising
Paul Zarzyski — A, C – Matched Pairs

What are your favorites?  Let me know.  And I’ll see you on Facebook next April.

Originally published Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats

Last week I attended the book bloggers convention, which closed out 2011’s BookExpo, and felt like something of an amateur compared to the hordes of genre-specific young people (mainly YA, middle grade and children’s reviewers) who had half a million followers and sophisticated streams of ARCs (advanced reader’s copies) coming in. As readers of this blog know, I review what I like, with an emphasis on literary fiction, writing about writing, and anything to do with Shakespeare.

One set of galleys I did get my hands on was a first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards, an accomplished work following Jinx, a woman of West Indian descent living in London as she finally comes to terms with the role she played in the murder of her mother fourteen years earlier. As the novel opens, the murderer has just been released from prison, but it will take Jinx the rest of the novel to similarly liberate herself.

She was the only child of a poor, uneducated Montserratian land worker and his semi-literate wife,” Jinx writes of her mother. “Everything I know about them I learned from her, and the sum of everything she said was that they could not have worshipped God himself more than they worshipped the ground she walked on. Full stop.

She was too beautiful to make her own way to and from school at a time when every other child in the country was doing it, or to cook or clean or shop or carry, or even to amass a single useful life skill.

Orphaned at 17, Jinx’s mother is rescued by Mr. Jackson, three times her age, who, “though half-blind from glaucoma . . . still had vision enough to see that my mother was too beautiful to weep broken-hearted, forlorn in her single bed . . . She was too beautiful for anything but the very best, and that was all she had because Mr. Jackson doted on her.”

This vivid passage, laid out early in the novel, encapsulates the complicated blend of anger, envy, love and bereavement that haunts and hampers Jinx. When Mr. Jackson (Jinx’s father) dies early in Jinx’s childhood, Jinx has her mother all to herself until she hits her teens and her mother meets up with the jealous, violent Berris. Jinx’s mother abandons her, first figuratively, in the thrall of passion and violence, and then literally, when she is killed. Having inherited neither her mother’s beauty nor her passivity, Jinx’s road to maturity and motherhood has played out far differently, and her coming to terms with what she has done and who she has become resolves itself in a surprisingly tender conclusion.

Originally published  Friday, June 3, 2011

The Weird Sisters

Well, this one was a shoe-in for me, seeing as I’m on the board of directors of a scrappy little Shakespeare Company, but still, I was surprised by how enchanted I was by The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Since my own recent novel is narrated by a Shakespeare-spouting heroine, I fell easily into the world of the family Andreas – dominated in a bookish, ethereal way, by the father, a renowned Shakespearean scholar who seldom converses in his own words if a quote from the Bard will suit the situation. (“Oh, Daddy, a Hamlet joke. How lovely. You shouldn’t have.”)

And so the daughters Andreas – Rosamund, Bianca and Cordelia – are all a bit, by any standards, weird. Brainy but passionate, deceitful but decent, peripatetic but a secret nester, respectively, all three women return to the house in the small Ohio town where they were raised to help their father cope with their mother’s sudden dire illness. Rosamund – Rose – like her father, a PhD, although in the far more logical field of mathematics, has never left the sphere of the university town she grew up in. Bianca – Bean – has fled back home from to avoid the consequences of succumbing to the variety of temptations in Manhattan. And Cordy, the baby, who has always been babied, is going to have a baby, without benefit of clergy, partner, money or job.

Narrated by the collective first person voice of the sisters, this book is a delightful, deft, witty read. The intimacy among the sisters is not cloying and the irritation and affection among them is heartfelt. I loved living in this world, and I didn’t want to leave it.

If you are one of the strange folk among us who is not a fan of Shakespeare, I beseech thee to have a go at this novel anyway if you are any of the following: a sister, a daughter, a reader, a sensualist, a baker, a clotheshorse, a mother, a cancer survivor, an academic, a Midwesterner familiar with the smell of ozone in the air just before a thunderstorm, a lover of summer in a small town, a lover of summer, a lunatic, a lover, or a poet.

Originally published  Sunday, June 12, 2011

Teardrops on the City

Some things you just can’t write about.

Some things, you spend a lifetime writing around.

RIP, Clarence Clemons.  You’re one of the reasons I wrote at all.

(P.S.  I stole this title from a headline on  It was too good not to use.)

Originally published  June 19, 2011

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive

Many, many years ago, before there was an internet, before there were cell phones, odd people who became obsessed with factlets (a term I’ve invented for facts that interest only you) would, if they lived in New York City, pick up the phone and call the reference number for the New York Public Library. A librarian, a bona fide human being (businesses did not use voice mail in those days) would answer the phone, repeat your query, put you on hold, trot off to who-knew-where, and return with your answer. “The population of Montana is 800,000, ma’am,” a hushed, respectful voice would say. “Do you have any other questions?”

In that age, known to paleontogists as the early 80’s, I was in college and working at a small publishing company which published a newsletter about publishing. So, yes, plenty of oddballs there – who else would agree to the salary? – with lots of questions for the New York Public Library hotline who responded to answers of both the work-related (population, circulation) and of the who-wrote-the-book-of-love variety.

“I know that Hank Williams died in the back seat of a car,” I told one of these saintly librarians one day thirty years ago, the receiver of the phone cradled in my neck while I typed subscription renewal notices on an IBM Selectric I coveted. “But what I want to know is, what kind of car?”

Please hold.

“It was a robin’s egg-blue ’52 Cadillac with a Continental wheel,” the librarian whispered when he came back on the line, with, I thought, a gratifying level of excitement. That was the thing about those librarians. If you asked them something really odd, because you were odd, and a novelist (“Did Egypt have eggplant in Cleopatra’s time?”) they became information detectives: they wanted to know as much as you did.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the novel II’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. I read it this weekend. I would have read it in one sitting except that circumstances forced me to leave home, to gather food and drink, and to do all the other things that take one away from the urgency of story.

I have a complex relationship with Earle, further tangled by the fact that this relationship exists only in my head. Suffice to say, after much badgering on the part of my friend Linda, I have come to accept him as my own personal troubadour. I really liked his collection of short stories.

And I really like this novel.

We open the life of Doc, a defrocked hophead physician who stitches up the dealers and the johns and takes care of the whores in the slums of San Antonio in 1963. President Kennedy and his wife Yah-Kee (as she is known among the adoring illegal Catholic Mexican population of Texas) are soon to touch down on their way to Dallas.

Doc feels responsible for the death of Hank Williams – was it Doc’s shot of morphine which pushed Hank over the edge? – and then he comes to feel responsible for Graciela, the teenaged Mexican girl who is brought to him for a back-alley abortion and then abandoned and then … well, I can’t tell you.

This novel is fantastically imaginative, compassionate, engaging and American. I think if you read it, you will know what I mean by that, and appreciate it.

Originally published Sunday, June 26, 2011