The Sunday Salon: Children on My Mind

In the confluence of events that is the reading life, the fate and experience of children is much on my mind this morning, and the thoughts are enhanced by feeling a particularly deep longing to stroke my grandson’s silky cheek and hear my son’s laughter.

Today I’m reading The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, another in a long list of summer books (The Sandcastle Girls, The Chaperone, The Shoemaker’s Wife) that astound me with their perfectly expressed sense of time, place, and truth. Traveling between present day and Nazi Germany, McCoy invites us to reflect on the cost of what happens when good people do nothing, and when the cost to the individual finally becomes too high to bear.

One of the young women in this novel is involved in the Lebensborn Program, established by Himmler in 1935 for widowed or unmarried women who had become pregnant through their association with SS officers. Seen as a way to expand the best attributes of the Aryan race, there were strict provisions for the mothers involved. As the  Nazi eugenic program expanded, so did Lebensborn, until there were numerous “homes” throughout Germany, Norway, and Sweden. It is believed that the program evolved into a “breeding ground” for young women who were impregnated by SS officers and their children adopted out in an effort to ensure the future of the Aryan race.

Somehow, in all the reading I’ve done over the past 50 years, I’d never heard of this “program” before.

Or if I had, I had blocked it from my mind because the thought was so horrible to contemplate.

In McCoy’s novel, one of the infant children (a boy) is deemed “not quality,” and is taken away and ostensibly adopted out of the country. However, his mother later hears rumors that such “rejects” are actually poisoned and their bodies burned to eradicate any trace of an “imperfect” specimen.

I am still astonished at the cruelties human beings can perpetuate on one another in the name of misguided principle.

So I read this after spending some time talking this weekend with friends who are parents and teacher, people who are all concerned about the fate of children in 21st century American where the pressures to excel and achieve seem to outweigh the need for personal responsibility or the desire to live a decent life of simple happiness and ordinary human goodness.

And today I read this post (thanks to Beth Kephart, who always points me toward enlightenment of one sort or another) about a book (Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, by Madeline Levine) that addresses this very subject, and a reviewer who has this to say:

“…the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.”

We must learn to value our children, not simply as conduits to fulfill our personal dreams, commodities to ensure our future, or examples of a pure nationality, but as human beings with the universal and lifelong need to be loved and cherished and whose well being depends not on how much money they make but on how much satisfaction they attain from their work, their relationships, their self image, and their place in the world.

Now I wish I could go and hug my children, large and small.


The Sunday Salon: Pondering Periodicals

When I was little, it was the glossy pages that appealed to me.

And the smell -perhaps I should call it the aroma, because that sounds so much sweeter – and the aroma of fresh ink on smooth glossy paper is sweet indeed.

So I sort of understand the mystique Travis Kurkowski is writing about in his essay (Dreaming about the Past: Is Online Publishing Permanent Enough?, Creative Nonfiction, Spring 2012), which discusses whether online publishing (i.e., blogging) is as satisfying as print publication (i.e., magazines/journals).

“A blog is not a magazine,” Kurkowski writes. “The online world is not the print world. The online world is loose, informal and constantly revisable; print is hard, largely formal and inherently static.”

I’ve been pondering the differences between the two, knowing for sure there are differences. Not that one is bad and the other is good – no such thing at all.

They are just different.

Reading blogs for me is like shopping at art fairs. I  meander all around first and then maybe I’ll go back to some of the more interesting booths and poke around in the jewelry or photography or hand-painted tiles with cute sayings on them. I never spend more than a few minutes, because most everything I need to see is right there within the tiny square footage of the artist’s tent. Perhaps the artist is hovering around, and we exchange a few words (a “comment”).

“So interesting!” I might say. “Very creative.” “Lovely.”

But magazines – at least the ones I regularly read – require more lengthy perusal. I fold my Newsweek in half and tuck it into my oversized purse to read while I linger over coffee at Panera, or to pass the time between classes when I’m accompanying at the middle school. During the summer, I keep a basket for magazines under my comfy chair on the back porch, and sometimes spend a hour with a glass of iced tea and an essay or short story from The Sun. I save up the More and Oprah magazines for plane rides, because they occupy me for the whole of those times when electronic devices are not permitted and provide just enough distraction from the noisy, cramped quarters.

Occasionally I might underline a particularly interesting sentence or passage. Save one to pass along to a friend. Tear out a page I want to keep in my idea file.

These are things you can do with magazines.

I think what Kurkowski is trying to remind us of is that print has a sense of permanence while digital is transient. Once those words are placed on the magazine page, they aren’t going anywhere. But online content can be eradicated from existence with the ease of an administrator’s key stroke.

Online publishing is certainly here to stay, and I’m glad about it. I enjoy my daily forays through the art fairs of the digital world.

But I still like the feel of those glossy pages under my fingers, the stunning photos in living color, and the sweet aroma of printer’s ink.

How about you? Do you think there’s an important difference between online periodicals and print?



The Sunday Salon: All A-Twitter

Rarely have I read so many good books in a row as I’ve read this summer.

The Sandcastle Girls.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.

Today, I’m adding The Chaperone to that list.

I loved this story of a Wichita matron in the 1920’s who spends a summer in New York chaperoning a young Louise Brooks (who became a star of silent movies). But the book is really Cora Carlisle’s, a woman with an unfolding story far more complex than I ever imagined when we first meet her in her corsets and high necked dress. And Laura Moriarty unfolds that story in such a masterful way, pulling the reader in and making you long for more on every page.

I finished it this morning, and haven’t yet chosen my next selection. I was excited to receive a copy of The Baker’s Daughter in the mail on Monday. I’ve been wanting to read this, and may choose it next. You have to be careful after reading a book you really love, don’t you? It’s so easy for things to fall flat.

In other bookish news, the airwaves were all a-twitter with some wonderful news for two of my favorite authors. Beth Kephart’s newest book, Small Damages, received a shining review in The New York Times this week, and was listed (along with Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls) as one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of the week.

I was vicariously thrilled for both of them, and it was also great fun to see Twitter and Facebook streams suddenly light up with people passing these accolades around. Sort of the cyber equivalent of tossing confetti and toasting with champagne.

So, here’s you you, Beth and Chris. Thank you for sharing your wonderful words with all the rest of us.

The Sunday Salon: In Celebration of the Ordinary

I’m celebrating an ordinary day on this summer Sunday.

Girl in a Hammock, Winslow Homer

With nothing on my calendar this weekend, I’m happily languishing in my leisure like I would a hot bubble bath on a cold winter day. I spent much of yesterday morning on the back porch, finishing Nicole Bernier’s novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. After lunch, with the mercury hovering near 90 degrees, I traded the back porch chair for the living room sofa, where I spent a good part of the afternoon with the latest Bess Crawford mystery, An Unmarked Grave.

I love an ordinary day above all else. Puttering around the house, reading, playing with the dogs, trying a new recipe for dinner  – that’s my idea of a good time. Sounds boring to some, but for me it’s heaven on earth. Simple, ordinary pleasures. I don’t take them for granted, because I don’t always have time to indulge in them or appreciate them.

There has been some recent media coverage in celebration of the ordinary, especially in terms of the expectations we place on our young people. Earlier this week I read an article in Newsweek by David McCullough Jr., whose recent commencement speech to the graduates of Wellsley High School has caused something of a kerfluffle. “You’re not that special,” he told those high school seniors who were all poised to take the world by the tail and shake it.

You see, if everyone is special, than no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another – which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality – we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.

What McCullough was trying to say is that no one of us is more “special” than the next. We each have gifts to offer, and they don’t all have to revolve around the highest SAT scores or the championship trophy. It’s perfectly okay to live an ordinary life, have an ordinary family, raise ordinary children. He’s right when he says that “loving accolades more than genuine achievement” is detrimental to the welfare of our society. Our ultimate achievement lies not in honors or awards – monetary or otherwise – but in fulfilling our own measure of happiness with a spirit of selflessness and empathy.

McCullough’s remarks at that commencement have made him rather famous. I wonder if parents are getting tired of this relentless responsibility they’ve undertaken in recent generations, this unceasing process of making sure their offspring’s “specialness” is rewarded. This demand to insure that children are poised to achieve their ultimate best leads families into all sorts of frantic activities, almost from the time a child is born. It’s not enough now to make sure kids are fed, clothed, healthy and well mannered. Nope,  they also have to be in the 95% percentile in every subject, all while learning soccer, improvisational dance, horseback riding, and Chinese. That’s a huge burden for parents who are embroiled in their own version of the 21st Century Ultimate Achievers Pageant.

Makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

It’s so much nicer to lay back in the summer sun with a good book and a glass of lemonade. I may not get famous doing it, but that’s alright. I’ll just revel in my ordinary old happiness.

That’s plenty special enough for me.

* For Further Reading:

Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable, New York Times, Business Day, June 29, 2012

The ‘Busy Trap,” by Tim Kreider, an OpEd piece in The New York Times, July 1, 2012

My friend Beth Kephart talks about extricating herself from the busy-ness trap today, too

The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: The Promise of Reading

Imprinted on my mind and heart is a picture of my grandson Connor and his mommy, lying side by side on the quilted floor of his colorful play area this morning while she reads story after story and he waves his tiny arms and legs in pure delight. He studies each picture with a solemn concentration uncommon to six month old babies and already recognizes favorite phrases from the most oft-repeated books.

He seems to be a natural born book lover, and while I’d like to take some of the genetic credit, it really doesn’t matter where the love of story comes from. What matters is that his parents are bright enough to recognize it and take full advantage of it.

Because, of course, reading together is about much more than just one particular story. It’s about sharing imagination and experience, about finding pathways to new information and ideas, about creating a bond with someone you love.

Fresh from watching Connor’s morning story time, I find Beth Kephart’s reflections on Alice Ozma’s book about this very experience. The Reading Promise; My Father and the Books We Shared is, according to Ozma, “about the act of reading and the time spent doing it. The books are important but the conversations they started and the bonds they created are what really matter.”

And so in a world where children are over scheduled, under loved, bombarded with noise and flash, Ozma extolls the power of sharing what Beth Kephart calls, “time spent kindly together.”

It’s a gift I wish every child could have, in every place and every nation. I believe the world would be a kinder and more thoughtful place if they did.

The Sunday Salon: My Great Summer Re-Reading Project

Ever since I cleaned and rearranged my bookshelves last week, I’ve found myself drawn to them more and more often. Each time I peruse all those volumes lined up so neatly, I see another book I’d forgotten all about.

It seems reasonable that if I’d forgotten I owned them, I’ve probably forgotten a lot more about them.

Like the plot.

And the characters.

And the message.

So I’m embarking on a Great Summer Re-Reading Project. In the spirit of those library reading programs I enjoyed so much during my childhood vacations,  I’m setting myself a goal of re-reading three books from my shelves every month this summer. I’ll even keep a little list, just like I did when I was small. But this time, instead of printing it with a stubby pencil on the mimeographed sheet from the library, I’ll enter them on the designated page here at the Blog.

My, how times have changed.

I’m thinking my impressions  of these books will be changed, too. In some cases, it will have been more than three decades since the original reading. So I might like the book more – or less. I might empathize with the same characters, but for different reasons. A character I once admired, I might now disdain. Part of the challenge in re-reading will be to try and remember what was going on my life the first time ‘round, and how that might have effected my interpretation of the book.

Don’t worry, I’ll share all my thoughts with you, my bookish friends. Look for posts on Thursdays beginning June 14.

I’ve chosen these three books for my June selections:

Crossing to Safety, by Wallage Stegner: Published in 1987, this is a “grand, beautifully written novel about a long, not-always-easy friendship between two couples.”

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym: Published in 1952, this novel of manners features Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter, and mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. Mildred is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors—anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door—the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

Her Mother’s Daughter, by Marilyn French: Published in 1987, this novel by the author of The Women’s Room is an “enthralling narrative about the lives of four generations of women,” especially the “primal, inescapable bond between mothers and daughters.”

And if you’d like to embark on a Great Summer Re-Reading Project of your own, please let me know, won’t you? I’d love to find out what you’re re-reading this summer.

The Sunday Salon: My Top Five Reads in April

I’ve come to like the notion of a monthly reading wrap-up, and what better place to do it than here in the salon on a sunny Sunday morning?

Top off your coffee cup, and take a peek at the favorites from off the top of the stack...

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin: You know I’m a fan of family sagas, and this one was right up to speed. Henkin plunges the reader into the midst of the Frankel family as they’ve come to memorialize their only son, a journalist who was kidnapped and later killed in Iraq. Despite the tensions and disagreements, it’s obvious this family cares deeply for one another. Henkin aptly portrays that even a family this fractured can find ways to connect in the end. (This book will be published on June 19, 2012).

Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott: As a new grandmother, how could I resist Lamott’s “journal about her son’s first son”? Written with her trademark humor, whimsy, and insight, the book made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

Ninepins, by Rosy Thornton: I’ve loved Thornton’s other novels, and this story of a mother and daughter living deep in the Cambridgeshire fens fits right in with her other books. Once again she gracefully explores the family dynamic and the relationship between modern women and those they love.

Digging to America and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler: These are both re-reads, so I’m lumping them together, even though from a plot standpoint they were nothing alike. But both of them have Tyler’s delighfully quirky and sympathetic characters. I went on a bit of an Anne Tyler binge in eager anticipation of her new novel, which is just out in stores.

Secrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian: This smoldering story of a small town minister, a young mother’s suicide, the secrets they shared, and (of all things) angels, made me remember why I like Chris Bohjalian’s books so much. He takes ordinary characters and places them in rather microscopically extraordinary circumstances, then shines the magnifying glass of his writerly perception on them until they burst into flame! I’m looking forward to his new one too (The Sandcastle Girls), due out in July.

What I was missing last month? A good audio book – any recommendations?

All told, I completed 9 books in April, even though I was also busy trying to catch up on a lot of television shows that had accumulated on my DVR. We had a minor meltdown with our recorder a couple of weeks ago, and I never realized how much I depended on it and on Direct tv. We use the dx3 direct tv system to schedule and record all our favorite programs, and I never have to think about when anything is on..the dx3 does it all for me. Without it, I was literally lost. But all is in working order , and I’m a happy watcher once again.

And up next for May – oh, I’m excited.  I have a library stack and a review stack, and both of them contain some goodies – for instance…

The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller

The Book Lover, by Mary Ann McFadden

The Cottage at Glass Beach, by Heather Barbieri

Other Waters, by Eleni Gage

Kindred Spirits, by Sarah Strohmyer

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m back to my current read, Web of Angels, by Lilian Nattel. This is a fascinating novel about an ordinary wife and mother who has DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), better known as multiple personality disorder. Compelling and heart wrenching, I was hooked from the first stunning chapter.

Now tell me – what were your favorite April reads, and what’s on the stack for perusal in May?

The Sunday Salon: Books By the Bed

Confession time: I sleep around.

Just around my house, that is. Our guest room doubles as my office/reading room, and contains a very comfy full sized bed where I retreat when the combined snoring of my middle-aged husband and our two snub-nosed dogs becomes unbearable.

But back to Books By the Bed* – beside each of my beds there is small table, and heaped on the table are stacks of books. One can never have too many books at hand, so I’m well prepared to read myself into dreamland wherever the need arises.

The books on my regular bedroom night table are always the most current volume (or volumes) on the go. Right now that includes an ancient pocket book edition of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler, which I pulled out the other day after finishing a re-read of Digging to America. I wasn’t sure if I was going to re-read  Homesick Restaurant clear through, or just pick around in it, sampling juicy bites here and there as I reacquainted myself with the Tull family and all their dysfunctions. I’ve never put a bookmark in it, but just leave this yellowed and battered volume lying splayed open on its belly. I’m now 20 pages from the end, so I did end up munching my way through the whole book. Underneath lies Ninepins, a new book by Rosy Thornton, whose previous three novels I’ve loved. I’m waiting eagerly to start that..maybe tonight in fact.

On the table in my other bedroom are two journals – one where I write snippets of poems, quotes, or passages from novels  that have particular meaning for me – sort of a Commonplace book, if you’re familiar with that concept. Also piled there are a couple of books about writing that I often poke through for inspiration: Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones are usually among them. Not the best bedtime reading, perhaps, because reading other writers on writing always makes me want to write myself, and that is an activity best left for the morning if you want to get any decent sleep.

I’ve always kept books by my bed, and even in my bed, hiding a paperback and a flashlight under my pillow when I was a little girl so I could read under the covers long after lights were meant to be out.

Nothing’s changed very much at all in the last 50 years.

What books are by YOUR bed?

**This post was prompted by a feature section entitled Books By the Bed, located at We Wanted to be Writers blog.**

The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: As Time Goes By

Already on this Sunday morning I have been up for hours, yet it’s still dark outside.

That is not a good sign.

Sleep eludes me this week, at least the good, deep sleep that rejuvenates the body and spirit. I’ve been waking at 3 or 3:30 every morning because there are things on my mind that refuse to be quelled  by slumber’s sweet oblivion. For a few hours their hammering at the door of my psyche goes unrecognized. Finally, its too much to ignore, and my mind give in.  “Oh for crying out loud,” I can hear it say. “Quit your banging out there and come on in.”

And so I wake and stumble to the kitchen, pull the coffeepot from inside the still warm and slightly steamy dishwasher, and start the blessed brew that will fortify me through this much too early morning.

Good reading has come from all this early rising (a silver lining in this insomniac cloud), and I’m here to chronicle it for you, scatter the dust on this Bookstack that has piled up since last we spoke more than a week ago (!).

On Easter Sunday, I re-read Into the Tangle of Friendship, a memoir by Beth Kephart. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much) we had dinner the evening before at the home of a friend, who had pulled together a last minute gathering in an effort to lighten the heart of one who was mourning the very recent death of her only daughter. We all seemed gifted that night with the ability to make her laugh – we didn’t even have to work at it, she was so ready to let the tears go for a while. And that is SO what friendship is about, wrapping your arms around someone and giving them just the kind of love they need for a moment. These are the moments Kephart writes about as she traces some of her most vital friendships, and the book came alive for me in my experience that night.

Monday I picked up  my ARC of The World Without You, Joshua Henkin’s second novel and one I’ve promised to fully “review” much closer to its publication date in June. But plan to put it on your summer reading list. Henkin explores the emotional intricacies of a large family who have come together on the 4th of July to honor the memory of their brother, a journalist who was kidnapped and murdered while on assignment in Iraq one year earlier. Their varied approaches to life and to grief are chronicled with great insight and tenderness. As in Matrimony, Henkin pokes and prods at the beast of one of life’s great passages, and reveals much about its nature.

From one family saga to another of a different kind – Secrets of Eden, by Chris Bohjalian. It has been a while since I’ve read one of Bohjalian’s books, and I’d forgotten how he creates such convincing characters who sweep you directly into the heart of their story. This book, told from the viewpoint of four major players, is a literary thriller about a minister, one of his parishoners, her murder, and a woman who believes in angels. Loved it.

And for the past two days I’ve been totally immersed in Some Assembly Required, Anne Lamott’s book about “her son’s first son.” In her usual quirky style, Lamott can get to the exact heart of what I’m thinking and feeling. It’s always a gift when a writer conveys their  experience in way that’s like turning a mirror on your own. It’s comforting to know that so many of the feelings associated with being a grandmother are universal…

Seeing Jax, in his brown beauty and charm and lovliness gave me a big hit of peace. I think that the shadow side of being a grandparent is that the child becomes like an ATM of self-respect and completion. You can be at your worst mentally, with grudges, anxiety, and no self-esteem, then spend five minutes with the Unit and feel instantly restoresd. It is a form of love addiction. There are twelve step programs to stop using other people to fill up your holes.

Oh, well. Too bad, so sad. Hand over the kid! I will deal with this soon.

Grandchildren “grow you,” Lamott realizes at the end of Jax’ first year. “With your own child, you’re fixated on the forgeround, trying to keep the child safe and alive. But with a grandchild, you can be in softer focus, you can see beyond the anxious foreground.” It’s true – there is less ultimate worrying with a grandchild..even if I do find myself with the occasional grandiose dream of planning for college for him, and I’m already thinking of way to help out in paying for college.  Some things never change, I guess.

Good reading this week, friends, much of it done in the wee hours before sunrise on bright spring mornings.

How about you? What (and when) have you been reading this past week?

The Sunday

The Sunday Salon: The Sunday Papers

For some, it can be as sacred a ritual as attending church, as unswerving as the Ten Commandments, as comforting as the Lord’s Prayer.

Reading The Sunday Paper.

As invigorating as the hot coffee that usually accompanies it, reading the Sunday paper brings its devotees up to date on the news of the world and what’s going on in their own backyards. Favorite columnists step up on their various soapboxes and offer readers their two-cents on any variety of subjects. Features that don’t appear in the daily news offer ideas about entertainment, health, science. Advertisements put ideas in our heads about fashion and food. Puzzles engage our minds and keep the wheels of thought in motion.

The gold standard of Sunday Papers is, of course, The New York Times. Naturally it’s available in an online edition, but what fun is that? Isn’t it much better to grab that hefty pile of newsprint off the heap at the newsstand, or tug it out of its blue plastic bag where it’s been deposited on your porch with a satisfying thud? Isn’t rummaging through for your favorite section (Book Review! Arts and Leisure!) and then retreating to your favorite cozy corner a necessary part of the ritual? Doesn’t the crisp sound of paper being shook straight and then sharply folded over have an almost musical ring to it?

And now that I’ve written such a lovely elegy to this standard American pastime, it’s time to set off and engage in it.

Happy reading.

How about you? Do you read the Sunday papers? Or do you engage in another favorite Sunday past time of mine, going to school playgrounds or commercial playgrounds? Children usually have little patience for reading the paper, at least once the comic strips have been read. Our local playground just put in some marvelous new play equipment with Rubberrecycle underneath, so it’s soft and safe. I love to watch the little ones engage in their own Sunday morning play ritual.

The Sunday