Friday Follies


It’s Friday. It’s the beginning of a long weekend in which I hope people will remember that the memorial part of Memorial Day is to honor the fallen; Veterans Day is for all military. Please remember.

In the meantime, Poynter said NPR published the “Holy Grail” of corrections.

In a previous correction on this post, we corrected something that was actually correct. So we have corrected that correction. It had to do with Celsius temperatures.

The Holy Grail was said to be the chalice from which Jesus drank before he was crucified. In myth, King Arthur’s knights went on a quest to find it. Others have decided the Grail  was a symbol of purity, in some cases a human being. Anyway, does Poynter really want us to go in search of all layers of corrections?

From the ridiculous to the sublime. Here’s a link to gorgeous artwork from the National Geographic traveler photo contest.

The one above  is Allan Gichigi’s photograph from Kit Mikai in West Africa.

‘The Creative Thing’


Toni Morrison does not need the barrage of publicity accompanying the publication of her latest novel God Help the Child. She will sell bookstores full with or without the hype. But the multiple interviews and commentaries offer a portrait of a woman who is still searching for new and varied ways to look at the world – as an African American, as a woman, and most of all as a human being.

Maddie Oatman’s essay “Toni Morrison Knows All About the ‘Little Drop of Poison’ “ in Mother Jones provides insight into how the woman approaches her art. Aspiring writers should most definitely read her discussion of the writing process.

As I was writing this post the NYTimes ran a short piece on one of the two movie versions of Imitation of Life, which portrays mother-daughter relationships, one fraught because the mother is dark skinned and the daughter light enough to pass. I’m wondering if God Help the Child is a reverse version of that same story.

Best quotes from the Mother Jones piece:

My editor suggested that I change a two-book contract to one novel and a memoir. And I said okay, and then I thought, “I don’t think so.” A memoir? What’s interesting is the invention, the creative thing. Writing about myself was a yawn.

Even when you think you’ve had a wonderful childhood, I suspect there’s always some little drop of poison—that you can get rid of, but sometimes it just trails in the blood and it determines how you react to other people and how you think.

Morrison also revealed that she adores One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that mesmerized me. Knowing her opinion serves as major reinforcement that the greats of the world can include ghosts in their Nobel works.

A much longer piece in the April 12 NYTimes Mag suffered by comparison. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is stumped (her word) that Morrison says, “It is very important to me that my work be African-American.” The interviewer asks her first? And Morrison says, “Oh, yes.” I re-read that paragraph, stumped that someone apparently so familiar with Morrison’s work would be surprised at the response.

The article tries to cover a vast territory without a coherent theme. We go from Morrison doing an audio recording, to a bit of her literary history, to a limited analysis of the canon, to biography, to the lack of diversity in publishing (especially among Pulitzer winners), and on and on. Toni Morrison’s readers don’t need this barrier between them and her wisdom.

RIP, Cousin Gert

Gertrude Thompson

Gertrude Thompson

For Gertrude Carolyn James Thompson 

My Dearest Gert,

Thank you for being a part of my life. We met when I was a little girl, but I didn’t get to know you well until I was researching Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters. You provided much valuable information that led to a greater understanding of our family. You led me to finding my great-grandmother in Springfield and eventually to finding your great-grandmother in Westchester County. You told me that twins run in the family, that our common ancestor smoked a clay pipe. You interviewed our famous pharmacist relative Anna Louise James and provided significant insights into the struggles with ill health and poverty that the earlier generations experienced.

(Side note for those not familiar with the James family palm frond: the patriarch, Willis Samuel James, had three wives, all named Anna. Gert was descended from the first, I from the second.)

During the times we met, I came to appreciate what a multi-faceted woman you were. Besides raising four glorious children and working fulltime, you launched a second career as an artist. Your exhibits inspired many and amazed this incompetent. Today’s display at the funeral home was a real testament to your taste and talent. The video came to life with the photos of you posed with your artwork. I hope this part of your legacy will find an appropriate resting place.

You were a gracious hostess on more than one occasion, most recently when you allowed our large family to invade your yard and house for a family reunion. (I THINK I reciprocated by taking you to dinner.)

Today I learned that you were also a dedicated sorority sister, a great tennis player, a ballet dancer, and a devoted friend to many. You touched the lives of young and old and became a mentor to women who, like you,  are working to make the world a better place.

You truly embraced life, and I am proud to be your cousin.



What I’m Reading Now


Gregg Mangan has performed an amazing feat with On This Day in Connecticut History. I’m not just saying so because the entries include the birth of Great-Aunt Anna Louise James on January 19. I learned of the book when I met Gregg at the Connecticut Library Association conference where Connecticut Humanities was giving a presentation across the hall from where Christy and I were talking about the veterans’ writing workshop.

Like Women in Clothes, On This Day is a book to dip into. Unlike the former, it is eminently readable cover to cover. I plan to do both.

The three-hundred-sixty-five entries (no leap year) capture the yin and yang of this tiny state: hostile and friendly relations with Native Americans; conflicted feelings about the Civil War; clean politics (non-resident Abraham Lincoln) and dirty (now twice con ex-gov John Rowland).

This is a book for young people to learn about the big stuff of the Charter Oak and the Amistad incident and for the rest of us to become acquainted or re-acquainted with L’Ambiance Plaza, the orphanage that became a world-class university, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and Mrs. Connecticut Courant Hannah Watson, one of the first newspaper publishers in the country.

Read on!

What I’m Reading Now


A Man From Ohio once again offers an education. Analyzing the Toni Morrison interviews and various conflicts of interest is keeping my brain sharp. In the meantime, I’m dipping in and out of Women in Clothes. Again, I’m not sure the source of information on this 500-plus page book, written by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, “& 639 Others.”

Though it appears in printed form, Women in Clothes reads more like a Wiki or a blog with random posts, photos, and drawings. The designers made artful use of white space, but the text feels cramped in places. The typeface, especially the plethora of italics, makes for tough going.

Some of it is fascinating. “Ring Cycle” features fourteen pages of photocopied hands (one naked) with stories of rings. The “Collections” include clogs, eye lashes – some of them look like dead millipedes – Catholic jewelry, and best of all safety pins and bobby pins. Never did get how chewing gum becomes an item of apparel. The photos of early- and mid-twentienth century women are more than worth the price of admission, which is an entirely reasonable $30 considering the size of the volume and the number of photos, some on glossy pages.

The content offers some disturbing pieces. Ana Bunčić’s “Wear Areas” reproduces critiques that four men made of her body. “Man 2 wished I wore a deep neckline so he could show my breasts off.” Man 1 kept saying that I should take better care of my nails.” The twenty-four images in Leanne Shapton’s project “Stains” should be combined into a single painting. The double bicycle stains tell me she needs to invest in some Dawn dish soap. The multiple oil stains will disappear with judicious application of baby powder. Mascara on pillowcase? Wash your face before you lie down. But who wants to mess with art?

The best section gives men’s garments almost equal time. Leslie Vosshall and Julavits hired a “smell scientist” to sniff coats hanging in a fancy restaurant’s coat check. The results were fantastic and perceptive: “secret smoker,” “man who is cross-dressing,” “powdery violet scent,” “refined and subtle,” “sweaty,” “cheap airport,” “robot” because of no discernible scent.

Overall impression: these women have way too many clothes and even more time on their hands. Who needs thirteen navy blue blazers? Rent the Runway could render Women in Clothes obsolete or at least send the work to Instagram.

RIP, B.B. King


I normally post uplifting or fun stuff on Friday, but a superstar musician died yesterday. Here’s my tribute, posted originally in seven years ago, reposted four years ago when MySpace began to keep me from access to my blog, then wiped out again in the great Blue implosion. This post followed his September 2008 appearance at the Bushnell in Hartford.

Thrill Still There

Went to go see the real King. Though he no longer plays Lucille and sings at the same time, the man still has it. He tells wonderful stories. His riff on Dr. Viagra is a hoot. And boy can he flirt!

But the music rules all. His band is tighter than a streetwalker’s skirt. Of course it’s mostly blues, that’s the band’s name, after all. They jammed with the New Orleans sound, too. My favorite was B.B. and his guitar players in instrumental mode. He closed with his million-seller, and everyone in the place knew the thrill was still most definitely there, even the people who ran in and out of the auditorium all night for more beer, more beer, more beer.

Quick Hit


The day got away from me. I never started what I hoped would be a thoughtful post about Toni Morrison. So today I leave you with an insightful quote from Robin Williams. He no doubt knew the truth of it from personal experience:

I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.

RIP, William Zinsser


zinsserMost of the world has probably never received the wisdom of this consummate instructor. Writers know who he is. Any writer who does not should buy or borrow On Writing Well right now. One can read it front to back, but opening the odd page can bring wisdom. I opened to Chapter 2, p. 7 of the fourth edition. It’s classic Zinsser.

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

As I read and then typed that quote, all I could think of was Albert Benzwie who ran Theatre Center Philadelphia where I worked in the 1980s. He helped aspiring playwrights, mostly by repeating the word “clarity.” That’s the call of great teachers everywhere.

Or again in Chapter 9, p. 60.

Unity is the anchor of good writing. It not only keeps the reader from straggling off in all directions; it satisfies the reader’s unconscious need for order and gives reassurance that all is well at the helm.

That image of the writer steering the ship of the book through waters with the aid of the anchor of unity has kept me on an even keel — just to prolong the metaphor.

Zinsser’s life was full of writing, and he inspired any number of others to do the same. One friend and former colleague made weekly trips from Connecticut to New York to learn from him.

Tonight I learned that the latest edition of On Writing Well contains a chapter on writing memoirs because Zinsser said he kept encountering people who had said, “I wish I had asked Mom … or Dad.” I’ve just ordered a copy of the newest edition so my education will be up to date.

Thank you, William Zinsser, for improving writers everywhere.

What I’m About To Read

ohioProfessor Edward Clark’s third volume of A Man From Ohio: Home in the World arrived in the midst of the message meltdown. I was immediately transported to all of those glorious October days that keep New England folk in place despite blizzards, hurricanes, and various other meteorological insults.

The symbolism is obvious: this is the last part of a story that spanned the early years of the Depression, to World War II, to the upheaval of the Civil Rights era, and on into the 1980s.

Here are the links to my commentary on Volume I and Volume II.

Because of their long relationship I of course had to find Ann Petry in Volume III. Ed includes the fabulous “Reason for Nomination,” which he wrote to ask Suffolk University to award my mother an honorary doctorate. I love the descriptions: “distinguished,” “impressive body of work,” and “dedication to the craft of writing.”

Having cleared my brain of technical detritus, I will this evening begin what I know will be captivating, educational, and fully engaged in all things “in the world.”

What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series. Actually another book I’ve just finished reading and another that doesn’t live up to its promise.

Rosa Rankin-Gee sets the opening chapters of The Last Kings of Sark on an island near Guernsey that abides by feudal rule.

This is an excessively  British work, and the names evoke literary figures. Jude has been hired by Eddie as a tutor for his teen-age son, Pip. Eddie learns once the deal is done that Jude is a young woman, not a man.

The set-up is straight out of Rebecca and Jane Eyre: high-powered pater familias who leaves for extended periods, insecure son who displays some autistic tendencies, and the illusive mother, Esmé (French, not Salinger’s British teen). She’s not in the attic but tucked away in a room with bottles and bottles of water and almost no food.

Rankin-Gee populates the island with Eddie’s other employees, especially the irrepressible cook Sofi, who can’t convince anyone that she’s a Brit and not Polish; some seasonal worker guys; and outside help in the form of store clerks who serve the day-trippers. In that way Sark matches pretty much every good summer work/play story.

Somewhere about 75 pages in, though, I began to lose interest. I  decided I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. In this case, the ending differed from Gone Girl and California in being utterly predictable.