Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Necessary Writer: Terry Tempest Williams

In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams confronts the fearsome beauty and power of nature in her descriptions of the rise of the Great Salt Lake and the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and tells the tragic yet life-affirming story of the cancer delivered by nuclear weapons testing that has ravaged her downwinder family.

In An Unspoken Hunger, Terry, as outspoken as she is gracefully and meticulously artistic, articulates the mystical bond between women and the wild. In Leap, Terry recounts her immersion not in a living landscape but rather in a painted world, Bosch’s wildly detailed triptyph, The Garden of Delights, a journey of the imagination that asks, among many other provocative questions, why we don’t value nature as highly as we do artistic masterpieces?

In Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and in The Open Space of Democracy, Williams forthrightly and creatively extends her poetics of place into a politics of place, recognizing that one must defend what one loves.

A naturalist, writer, and activist hailed as a visionary, Williams has testified before Congress, gone to jail for acts of civil disobedience, and journeyed to Hiroshima and Rwanda to participate in acts of art and healing. Williams has contributed to numerous newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and she advocates tirelessly in person for wilderness and justice. Williams has received the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society, the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association and the Wallace Stegner Award. She is the recipient of Lannan and Guggenheim fellowships. Terry Tempest Williams is the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah, and the University of Wyoming's first Eminent Writer-in-Residence.

Terry has said, “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.”

The truth of this observation is born out in her newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Here’s the Booklist review:

Ecologist and writer Williams composes gracefully structured inquiries lush with unexpected and revelatory correspondences. In her most far-reaching and profoundly clarifying work to date, Williams considers the complex beauty of brokenness and the redemptive art of creating wholeness from fragments in a triptych of explorations. She begins in a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy, and then brings the understanding gleaned from working with tesserae to her day-by-day observations of a beleaguered Utah prairie dog town. Williams marvels over this tunnel-building, highly communicative species and dubs them “prayer dogs” for their habit of standing and watching the sunset. Prairie dogs are crucial to the biodiversity of the grassland ecosystem, a living mosaic, yet they have been brutally massacred and driven to the brink of extinction. The story of her brother’s death entwines with Williams’ riveting account of her trip to Rwanda with visionary artist Lily Yeh to help create a genocide memorial. Brokenhearted in this land of bones and sorrow, Williams gathers shattering stories of death and resilience with the help of an extraordinary survivor who becomes her son, bearing witness to the horror of neighbors slaughtering neighbors in an attempted annihilation. Scientific in her exactitude, compassionate in her receptivity, and rhapsodic in expression, Williams has constructed a beautiful mosaic of loss and renewal that affirms, with striking lucidity, the need for reverence for all of life.
— Donna Seaman

Listen to my Open Books interview with Terry Tempest Williams. You'll find it in the Nonfiction section.

Among the many things we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, in a time of cruel diminishment and fear, of catastrophic lies and high crimes, are writers of Terry Tempest Williams' eloquence, insight, compassion, passion, and courage. Let us be thankful, too, that we will have a new President who reads signifiant books, out of respect for the past and the knowledge and experience of others, and who has written books in pursuit of understanding and coherence, truth and inspiration.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and Unity in Suffering

The beautiful Fullerton Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago was nearly full on Saturday morning, although it was the sort of cold, windy, spitty day best suited for staying home. I've heard many an inspiring lecture there and was rather astonished to find myself on the stage instead of in the audience. I was there to speak with Amitav Ghosh, the imaginative and erudite author of profoundly entertaining, history-steeped, and humanist novels, among them The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and his newest, Sea of Poppies.

Ghosh seems to absorb history, including that discovered in such primary sources as court documents, as naturally and productively as a plant absorbs sunlight. His fiction is many-faceted, rich in tragedy and wit, romance and social concerns. He loves spending "long, dreamy days" at his desk writing, and his pleasure in language and story are palpable. Brilliant and fluent, Ghosh responded to each question with a beautifully formed story or thoughtfully expressed observation. When I asked him how he is able to write of dire things--slavery, torture, imprisonment, addiction, exile--without losing a sense of life's vibrancy and humor, he replied by talking about how, even in the darkest moments, the most oppressive places, people come together and find comfort in community, solace in making the best of the little they have--a patch of sun or shade, a hand to hold, food to share, however simple. We take heart; we distribute the sorrow, help carry the weight. We rekindle gratitude and hope, appreciation for beauty and laughter. That's just the way we are. We come together and find strength.

I couldn't help but think of the extraordinary community that coalesced around Barack Obama. We recognized the light of a true leader. Now we need to continue to support our new president, and each other. All of Ghosh's characters end up on a ship, the Ibis. It's no cliche to say that we truly are all in the same boat, that we all rise and fall together, and that we can make this new start a voyage into a more sane, responsible, just, and sustainable future.

I'm so grateful to Amitav Ghosh for all the compassion, art, and ardor he brings to his writing, for his generosity, and for the joy he finds in writing. In life.

Friday, November 7, 2008

RIP and Oh Happy Day!!

Chicago has felt lately like the center of the universe. While many of us continue to pay tribute to the late great Studs Terkel, our city on the lake was the site of a spectacular celebration of democracy at its finest. We cried and cheered and danced and cried some more with astonishment, relief, and pride as Barack Obama came before us as the first African American president-elect, and the leader that will guide us out of the nightmare of the past eight years. I felt liberated, as though a hood had been lifted from my head and face. As though I'd been released from a cramped cell and could stand up straight and take a deep breath for the first time since 2000. We can once again try to live up to our ideals. This is transformation, with millions of new voters, with millions of voices raised to reclaim our beloved country, to reassert decency and justice. I'm so grateful to everyone who worked so hard on behalf of Barack Obama, family and friends included. Thank you, thank you.

And in the midst of jubilation, life, and death, go on. On the literary front, we mourn the loss of another great book advocate, another inspired reader and a supremely gifted critical writer, John Leonard. A man Studs much admired, and vice versa. John Leonard contributed mightily to our culture. He leaves an empty space, and one wonders if any one critic can command the attention he did in this time of pixels and pieces. Quick takes and endangered newspapers.

But then, I think of Obama and know that we'll figure things out. And that we'll keep writing and reading, learning and thinking.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

More on Studs

A Conversation with Studs Terkel

As an associate editor for Booklist, and as a book reviewer and critic, I had the profound good fortune to speak with Studs Terkel onstage and off. It was always a tremendous thrill and boost to converse with him in front of hundreds of his fans, I could feel the admiration, delight, and love rolling off the audience like a breeze over water. And the thunderous applause Studs received recalibrated one’s heartbeat. And no matter how prolonged the clapping, how enthusiastic the standing ovation, Studs would lean over to me and say, “How I’d do? Was it all right?” Half-teasing, but sincere. Studs was a giving and humble guy. He genuinely admired people, all kinds of people, and so for all his fame, he never put himself above anyone else.

I had the great honor and pleasure of celebrating Studs Terkel’s phenomenal contribution to American literature when nominated him for the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan
Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Named after the first president of the NBCC, the award is given annually to a person––a writer, publisher, critic or editor––who has contributed significantly to book culture over time.

As the NBCC states, “Past winners have included Pauline Kael, Studs Terkel, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Bill Henderson, John Leonard, Louis D. Rubin Jr., Jason
Epstein, William Maxwell, Leslie A. Marchand, Robert Giroux, Alfred
Kazin, Elizabeth Hardwick and the Library of America. As you can tell
from the list, the award is truly ecumenical, seeking to recognize
outstanding and long-standing work from any sector that affects a book
and contributes to American art and letters.”

Studs took immense pleasure in this award. He loved books passionately, and read books with penetrating insight and receptivity. When I was asked to write an interviewing the interviewers piece for Bookforum in 2007, I just had to start with Studs Terkel. Bookforum published a brief excerpt of our conversation, and I would like to share the transcript with other Studs fans here.

Seaman: You’ve spoken with so many great writers over the years. Who do you remember most vividly?

Terkel: Jimmy Baldwin, when he first came back from his long self-exile from America. He had just come back from Switzerland and Nobody Knows My Name was out. Well, he was great, just back after a long absence. He felt high. So I thought, hell, I’ll lead off with some Bessie Smith, some blues, and that did it. He loved it. He was terrific.

And it was very exciting to talk with Margaret Atwood. You know, these are improvised conversations to a great extent. I read the book, or, lots of times, all the writer’s books, thoroughly. I know them inside out. I mark them up, I’ve really gotten into it, you know.

And then, well, invariably, I start with the author’s voice. I like to have the author read, maybe from the beginning, or a favorite passage, something to set the tone. This is radio, so you want that. Then what I aim for, what I hope for, is that we’ll talk about the book, absolutely, but more than that, we’ll talk about their outlook on life. How do they see the world? What are they curious about? What’s on their mind?

The thing is to be flexible. You’ve got to be open to the conversation. You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to willing go where they go. Flexibility with substance. Style and substance are related after all. Form follows function. I’m a Louis Sullivan man. I like it solid and ornate. Stone and life, you see. You need both the solid and the fluid. That’s how it’s done.

Another great conversationalist is Gore Vidal. Oh yes, he is very clear. There’s nothing wasted in what he says. The clarity is, oh, amazing. It seems so easy, and he says so much, so naturally. That really stays with you. That’s impressive, that’s exciting. Gore Vidal has really got it.

Seaman: Writers tell me how amazed they are at how obviously well-read their books are. I just spoke to Patricia Hampl, who said that you “munched” her book. That it was “manhandled.”

Terkel: Oh, yes. Everyone says that. I’m famous for that. Patricia Hampl, she’s great. There are so many great women writers. Fabulous writers. They’re really doing great things in new ways. Now I’m thinking about Toni Morrison. How I love Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye. Toni Morrison is brilliant. Such insight. Such stories. Wow.

And I love the nonfiction writers, too. Harrison Salisbury. Remember him? At the New York Times. A historian, knew it all about the Soviet Union, China. He was someone who could speak spontaneously but deeply. That’s an art.

Tobias Wolff is like that, too. So much at the ready, you know. He writes beautifully, too, both fiction and nonfiction. Yes, that’s really something.

And way back, before he started writing novels, Tom Wolfe was something. I liked his early works. Very adventurous. Smart. He was a master of the short takes, and a great talker.

Different worlds, fiction and nonfiction. They’re both important.

Of course, thinking about my hometown, I loved Nelson Algren. Oh yes. We would talk. Nelson, well, he was great. He could speak on any subject, which was a good thing, because he would wander away every time. You’d be talking about one topic, and then off he’d go, on to something else. And you had to stay with it. And it was thrilling. I’ll never forget Nelson.

Seaman: Are there any writers you wish you’d spoken with?

Terkel: Writers I wish I spoke with? John Steinbeck. Now that’s a shame. I did write a good long introduction when they reissued The Grapes of Wrath, the great American novel. At least I was able to do that. And I regret never talking with Saul Bellow.

The thing is, much as I love talking to writers, it is regular folks who say the most surprising and unforgettable things. Yes, people, ordinary folks––a paralegal, an engineer, a bus drive, waitress. Now they can talk. They can tell you things. They have stories. Regular people, they stay with me.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Celebrate Studs

Studs Terkel died today at his Chicago home. He was 96, and he did live long enough to see his new book, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, come into the world. I'm only sorry he wasn't able to stick around to see Barack Obama become president. Among many other roles in his long, empathic, creative, and positive life, Studs was a great champion of civil rights.

Studs of the red socks, cigar, martini, growl, and impish smile will be missed. He will be remembered. His books, works of great sensitivity, respect, integrity, and vitality, will live on. And you have to laugh, picturing Studs, always devilish, declaring that he wanted his epitaph to read: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Radio review

I am loving my gig at Chicago Public Radio. Here's the latest, a review of Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Full story

We are living in a time of diminishment. Everywhere we look, resources are shrinking, from common sense to financial liquidity to forests, ocean life, you name it. Part of the fall into extinction is the squeezing and dumbing down of newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, which, until a week ago, continued to publish a genuine book section, one of only 4 in the entire country, even though it exiled books to Saturday, the day with the lowest readership. I have had the privilege and the deep pleasure of writing for the Chicago Tribune for years and years, and I'm immensely grateful to everyone I've worked with there and continue to work with, especially books editor Elizabeth Taylor. But now, in spite of Taylor's valiant efforts--and Elizabeth Taylor is a true champion of literature, writers, and readers--the Tribune has not only combined book reviews with other cultural coverage, which certainly can create a positive synergy, it has reduced book reviews to a length far too brief for any real discussion of the book at hand.

Certainly short reviews have their place and their delights. But we need both concise and full reviews. Short takes to pique interest, sustained immersions to illuminate all that writers achieve. I've written a couple of the new, tight reviews, and seen them cut down even more. And so, in the interest of full disclosure, and out of the passion to share my joy in books and my full response to this particular book, a brilliant and beautiful creation, here is the original, more detailed version of the review that appears in today's paper.

Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World
By Jed Perl
Knopf, $25, 224 pages

Review by Donna Seaman

Writers are often seized by works of art, their imaginations ignited by communion with a sculpture, painting, or object. Think of Keats and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” By responding in words to form, line, and color, a writer taps into the artist’s creative energy and transmits flashes of insight at once radiant and penetrating. Art critic Jed Perl takes a unique approach to this exalted literary tradition in an elegant tribute to an enigmatic, misunderstood painter.

Anyone familiar with Perl’s essays in the New Republic or his last book, New Art City (2005), a capacious history of the daring art movements that made twentieth-century New York the capital of the art world, knows that Perl writes with precision and a driving narrative force and takes as his mission the rescue of underappreciated artists. Even so, his new book is full of surprises, beginning with his declaration that Antoine Watteau is his favorite artist. Surely not this early eighteenth-century French painter so often dismissed as a frivolous aggrandizer of high-society frolics? Perl anticipates, relishes, and eradicates our skepticism, and not only by virtue of his knowledgeable and supple argument. The very fact that Watteau inspires Perl to write such sparkling, whiplash sentences is proof positive of the subtle power of the painter’s technically superb and brilliantly nuanced work.

In his decisive prologue, Perl characterizes Watteau’s masterpieces as embodying “a mingling of velvetiness and steeliness that constitute one of the miracles of art.” He goes on to explicate Watteau’s “delicious artifice” in which his “hiding or veiling or theatricalizing strong feelings becomes a way of revealing the complexities of those feelings,” as well as “the gathering contradictions of his world.” Perl then avers that Watteau’s paintings and drawings of fashionable young men and women of leisure are about nothing less than the evolution of the self. How do scenes set in nearly wild, certainly secretive gardens in which elaborately attired lovers flirt and dream illuminate the inner worlds of people living in a volatile time? Perl could easily articulate his striking interpretation of the true meaning of Watteau’s work in a straight-forward mix of biography and art history. Instead he invents his own artifice and makes extraordinary use of the simple, playful structure of an alphabet book.

Just as Watteau improvised on stylized tableau to create a clever visual lexicon based on the motifs of the commedia dell’arte, Perl anchors his lively essays to the homey letters of the alphabet, allowing for unexpected and marvelously revealing juxtapositions and jump cuts. This gathering of glimpses, this assemblage of impressions, reflections, and portraits of people influenced by Watteau, from Walter Pater to Samuel Beckett to Picasso, is perfectly suited to Watteau, a “mystery man” even to his friends; an artist who declined to talk about his work right up to his death from tuberculosis at 36 in 1721.

A is for actor, but Perl decides that while “the life of the theater” shapes Watteau’s paintings, his true subject is the elusiveness of identity and self-understanding. B is for backs, and how superb Perl is in his analysis of the “extraordinary psychological power” of this large part of our anatomy and Watteau’s passion for depicting it. D is for Deburau, as in Jean-Baptiste and Charles, the famous father-and-son mimes who launch Perl’s electrifying appreciation of the film Children of Paradise, first screened in Paris in 1945. And W is for women, and how Watteau adored them. Perl sees Katherine Hepburn as a modern “Watteau woman, a woman who is gorgeous and funny and sexy and independent.” Watteau’s charming and irreverent women, Perl riffs joyously, are “goddesses on the lam.”

What a perfect match between writer and subject. What panache, expertise, and sensitivity Perl displays. This refined yet ebullient book, this pearlescent ABC, offers an invaluable key to a great artist of profound pleasures and disclosures, and a scintillating primer in the fine art of seeing.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New radio gig

I'm elated to announce that I am now reviewing books and interviewing authors for a terrific show on Chicago Public Radio, Eight-Forty-Eight. I've reviewed Porter Shreve's funny and smart new novel, When the White House Was Ours and I spoke with the always engaging, smart, and funny John McNally about his superb new book, the short story collection Ghosts of Chicago.

Here are the links:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ruled by a two-faced deity

I was thinking this morning about our two-sidedness, our confounding capacity to do right one moment and wrong the next. Who was it, I asked myself, who wrote recently about Janus, the Roman god of doors, gates, and beginnings who is portrayed with two opposite faces? Studs Terkel.

His new book is P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening.

Oral historian, writer of conscience, and raconteur-on-a-mission Studs Terkel follows his vivid and affecting memoir, Touch and Go, with an electrifying set of found treasures: essays and interviews that have never been published before, or which only appeared long ago in a Chicago venue. These excavated works—and everyone whose personal archives are experiments in chaos will find Terkel’s description of their exhumation from his messy workroom comforting and amusing––are startlingly fresh and stingingly relevant.

Terkel’s recovered 1961 conversation with James Baldwin is worth the price of admission, so sharply and devastatingly candid is Baldwin about the legacy of hate, fear, lies, brutality, and oppression we sanitize with the bland term race issues. This exchange couldn’t be more timely. Ditto Terkel’s conversation with lyricist E. Y. Harburg, who wrote the Great Depression classic, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Terkel also looks back to Chicago election shenanigans and the abuses of clout. And yes, Terkel writes of his city on the lake and on the make as a “city of hands” ruled by the deity Janus of the two faces, a theme brilliantly realized in portraits of Chicagoans of diverse backgrounds and shared needs and dreams. Hilarious, wry, sorrowful, and prescient, this gathering asserts Terkel’s great gift for tapping into the lifeblood of America, and for discerning, always with heart and clarity, what people suffer and how they lift themselves up and keep on keeping on. Long live Studs.

And may we turn two-facedness into the ability to look both back and forward so that we learn from the past, perceive continuity and achieve perspective. To look to others as well as to ourselves, to see both sides of the question and make decisions with reason and fairness, to think twice and not two-time each other but give each other and ourselves second chances to do our best.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Unnecessary Loss

Once upon a time, my good dentist referred me to a periodontist. I’ve had gum problems since I was 15, and once again, some repair was in order. My dentist warned me that if I didn’t have a bone graft, I would suffer bone loss. Actually, I would suffer additional bone loss—damage had already been done. He told me that I might even lose a tooth or two. I was rattled; I did go to the periodontist. But I felt no pain; I disliked the place; I felt hustled, and the cost, even with insurance, was terribly high. I decided to wait. I forgot about it. I let life-as-usual hold me under its powerful spell.

A year went by. I was back at the dentist. He repeated his warnings. He scolded me. He sent me to another periodontist. I liked this place a bit more. I felt more determined. I had new insurance. I was ready. But they weren’t. I had to wait for an estimate, an approval, notification, an open time slot. More months went by. I ignored the bleeding, the sensitivity. My life is full and busy and deadline-driven, and I foolishly spent my bone and tissue capital like a binging gambler, like a homeowner who accepted a mortgage she could never manage, like a financial manager buying and selling millions of these sure-to-fail loans, speculating and gambling with “toxic assets.” I was as risk-inviting, irresponsible, oblivious, and hubristic as a Wall Street day trader. By the time I opened my mouth, ready for a bone graft, it was too late. The tooth had to come out.

Last night I dreamt that the ceiling in this room, the back bedroom in a small brick house that I use as an office, reading and writing room, favorite place to hang out, was separating from the walls. Its fall was inevitable. I dashed in and out, trying to decide what to rescue. My computer. My purse. Photographs. Paintings. Signed books. I did not want to get hurt, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing what I think of as my life. We’d waited too long. We knew the house needed work; we procrastinated.

I’ve been indignant, outraged, and disgusted over the lack of foresight and regulation, the orgy of greed and folly that has led us to financial crisis. But as I sit here, icing my swollen face, tonguing the gap in my mouth, my deficit, my foreclosure, I know that we are all to blame. That we are all creatures of habit, that we are all stubbornly optimistic and childishly reluctant to face facts and take painful action. So now we will all suffer loss, regret, and fear. We will have to make sacrifices, and maybe we will learn from our mistakes. At least for a little while.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

More Truth in Fiction: City of Refuge

Here it is, the last sweet, sunny, slow weekend in summer, and we're still unnerved by last weekend's deluge. Although we are intimate with powerfully bad weather, Chicago is not a hurricane town. Yet last week, we were visited by extreme rain, and endured floods. Our suffering was minor compared to that of Galveston, Houston, and points south and east in the Caribbean, but it does make one stop and think about what we hold dear. Our homes as the holdfast of our identity, our sense of security, the fruits of hard work, and irreplacable artifacts. Every hurricane will remind us of Katrina, and I was reminded of a terrific new novel:

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza knows New Orleans, its flavors, aromas, and sounds. Its blues and jazz, pragmatism and magic, joi de vivre and defiance, amplitude and deprivation. And he understands the full tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Determined to vanquish reader complacency and blast the clichés that sprout and spread, Piazza skillfully and astutely tells a harrowing two-track story.

SJ Williams is an African American carpenter and Vietnam vet who dearly loves his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, keeps his demons at bay through the discipline of hard work, and looks out for his sister and teenaged nephew. Craig Donaldson, an Anglo American magazine editor, is crazy about his adopted home in New Orleans, a passion no longer shared with his wife now that they have young children.

As the hurricane bears down on the city, everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are cruelly tested and exposed. SJ stays put and heroically helps others. Craig realizes that the needs of his family trump his own desires, and they join the exodus. In the pre-storm chapters, the conflicts and dreams of Piazza’s characters, men and women of bedrock goodness, essentially define home and reveal all the precious everyday wonders that Katrina disrupted and destroyed.

Then, in the scenes that make this such an extraordinary and unforgettable novel, Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricane’s shocking aftermath, aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the brutal indifference of war. By following his characters into the Katrina diaspora and back again, Piazza tells a towering epic tale of self, family, and place; terror and courage, criminality and altruism, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself.

We are forever seeking higher ground.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Truth, beauty, and hard facts in fiction, part 2

I've become a great admirer and beneficiary of contemporary Chinese literature. Anchee Min opened the door, and I've become a devoted reader of Ha Jin. This summer I was deeply moved by the beauty, daring, and sorrow of Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, in which a student shot in the head during the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square falls into a coma, but retains consciousness.

It's a mysterious, haunting, and meditative novel of the grim legacy of the surreally brutal Cultural Revolution. Courageous and creative, Ma Jian draws on Kafka and the Chinese epic The Book of Mountains and Seas in this powerfully allegorical masterwork, a compassionate and magnificent novel that exposes China’s catastrophic moral paralysis, and celebrates the inalienable freedom of the mind and spirit.

I'm also very high on Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo.
Aug. 2008. 176p. illus. Doubleday, hardcover, $22.95 (9780385525923). REVIEW. First published July, 2008 (Booklist):

Fenfang has fled the dreariness of her impoverished village in a never-changing land of sweet-potato fields and made the long journey to Beijing. There she copes with wretched little apartments, a violently angry lover, and the viciousness of nosy old neighbors who, resentful of her loveliness and independence, sic the police on her. Cockroaches swarm the walls, while on the street she confronts the great press of humanity, dense smog, corruption, and repression. But things are changing in Beijing, and Fenfang is smart, tough, and funny. She works as a film extra and gets a little break in the role “Female Number Three Hundred.” Writer and filmmaker Guo, whose A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007) was a Orange Prize finalist, is a master of concision, filling each “fragment” of her alluring and admirable narrator’s life with irony, anguish, and insight. Once Fenfang recognizes that her loneliness and yearning for dignity and freedom are shared by all, she finds her voice and path to self-expression. A remarkably atmospheric, metaphoric, and piquant novel of personal and cultural metamorphosis. — Donna Seaman

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Truth, beauty, and hard facts in fiction

Time for a break, after last night's orgy of insults at the Republican convention. After that excessive display of the politics of greed and power. After that surreal scene in which the hatted and buttoned sign-bobbing audience chanted "Drill, baby, drill!" in some very weird trance of aggressive desire for a vanishing resource, a pep talk for raping the earth, a scene right out of Edward Abbey or Christopher Buckley of a world gone smacking mad, I find myself thinking of a beautiful, poetic, intelligent, earth-loving, compassionate, complex, and haunting novel by a writer of deep conscience and high imagination. Linda Hogan writes from a Native American perspective and with a fluent ecological understanding. She is also a mesmerizing storyteller. Leave the world of lies and camera-ready political theater in which a baby is used shamelessly as a prop--although I rather liked the youngest sister moistening her hand with spit to smooth down her baby brother's hair--and escape to Linda Hogan's seacoast world.

From Booklist, of course.

*Starred Review* People of the Whale.By Linda Hogan.2008. 320p. Norton, $24.95 (9780393064575).
REVIEW First published July, 2008 (Booklist).

“The ocean is a great being”; each whale is a planet, so much life does it sustain. These are truths Thomas and Ruth’s Northwest Pacific Coast tribe once held as self-evident. Sweethearts since childhood, they each inherited a working intimacy with the ocean, and their marriage is joyful until Thomas goes off to fight in Vietnam. Ruth is pregnant when he leaves, and when he doesn’t return, she devotes herself to their son, who possesses the old gift for communing with whales. Thomas reappears when his fellow Vietnam vets decide to break the ban on whale hunting, hoping to reclaim his legacy as the grandson of a legendary whale hunter. But the others are motivated by greed, and tribal traditions are grievously desecrated. Hogan, a poet, essayist, and quintessential econovelist (Power, 1998), dramatizes the interconnectivity of cultural extinction, environmental destruction, and war as she parallels Ruth’s courageous defense of the living world with Thomas’ suffering and secret life in Vietnam. She also links the near genocide of aboriginal peoples with the near extinction of marine life. Deeply ecological, original, and spellbinding, Hogan ascends to an even higher plane in this hauntingly beautiful novel of the hidden dimensions of life, and all that is now imperiled. —Donna Seaman

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Personality cults versus serious issues

I watched all the big speeches at the Democratic convention, and I wept. I'm sentimental, for sure, a bred-in-the-bone trait I often abhor not only because it makes my mascara run, but also because it clashes so violently with my righteous indignation and cynicism, making for stormy inner weather. But, tears are also a sign of deep feelings, of connection to others, of love of life. And so I wept in front of the television last week with joy and pride and relief. My heart lifted to see Senatator Ted Kennedy continuing to fight the good fight. I think the world of Michelle Obama, who exemplifies the best of womanhood, the best of Chicago (my home), and the best of America. I am thrilled by Barack Obama's dedication to helping others, his intelligent perceptions of what ails our country and of our country's role in the world; his willingness to listen to others, his strong sense of story, which makes for coherent and empathic thinking. His poise and eloquence. Obama is the finest presidential candidate I have ever seen and voted for. But one day after his historic speech, we were drowning in a muddy sea of mass trivia.

John McCain and his people mock Obama as a celebrity, and then turn around and set up their own instant cult of personality. Obama is a beautiful man, they found a beautiful woman. Obama is a family man with two daughter and a remarkably accomplished wife. Palin has five children; one a soldier on his way to Iraq, the youngest a Down's syndrome child. To many, Obama represents urban American. Sarah Palin is a country gal. She shoots guns, hunts, kills, and slaughters animals. She lives in a state with a small population and a vast and precious wilderness she apparently isn't concerned about preserving. Her husband is a commercial fisherman, an industry in great peril given our emptying of the oceans. Palin is anti-reproductive rights and an evangelical Christian. The calculations in choosing her are obvious and maddening, and distracting. Which is the point.

We are on the brink of environmental catastrophe as global temperatures rise, thanks to our burning of fossils fuels, and the human population increases. Thanks to rapidly accelerated globalization, our resource-consuming, waste-generating habits are spreading to China, India, and beyond. This is not sustainable. Back to our economic woes, they are directly connected to our dependence on foreign oil, which, in turn, is directly responsible for grave geopolitical conflicts. All is intertwined, and all is churning and whirling in a virtual hurricane for which we are utterly unprepared. We have fallen into a narcotized state of indifference and ineptness over the past eight years, years in which we have been at war for no legitimate reasons. This is doing us profound harm, not to mention the suffering we're causing in other lands. Our schools are failing as is our infrastructure. Science is censored; work is no longer respected or rewarded; health care is a Kafkaesque nightmare; the corporate imperative is gutting everything essential to our well-being, from agriculture to newspapers. All that has made our country great is threatened. The lifeblood is being sucked out; we are becoming a hollowed-out, weakened land. We need the four candidates to talk seriously, clearly, and productively about what they are going to do about the crises we face. And we have to put a stop to the crimes and destructive shenanigans of the Republicans.

The world is full of brilliant and caring people. Genuine information and valuable analysis is everywhere available. Take a break from political gossip and read The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank. We're in dire straits for fully comprehensible and carefully documented reasons. Here's my Booklist review:

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. By Thomas Frank.
2008. 368p. Holt/Metropolitan, hardcover, $25 (9780805079883). 973.92.

REVIEW. First published July, 2008 (Booklist).

Frank brings invaluable insider perceptions, ardor, and precision to his lancing inquiry into the erosion of democracy and the enshrinement of the mighty dollar. His One Market under God (2000) was followed by the best-selling What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), and now Lannan Award–winning Frank reaches a crescendo in this electrifying, well-researched analysis of “conservatism-as-profiteering.” With looks back at Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, and sharp scrutiny of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, Frank documents the hard-to-believe conservative strategy of deliberate misrule and the consequences of the conservative mantra, “Less government in business and more business in government.” Citing numerous, hair-raising examples, Frank explains how conservatism itself became a mega-big business and chronicles the grievous repercussions of the gutting of the federal government and the rise of high-rolling industry lobbyists and contractors, who are now feeding off the “ultralucrative homeland security industry.” In this “age of political vandalism,” Frank observes, we have jettisoned oversight and accountability, accrued “massive public debt,” committed crimes against humanity at home and in Iraq, and endangered the environment, the economy, the food supply, health care, and education. In short, Frank argues, the conservative agenda has defiled the American dream. This staggering history of systematic greed will inject new energy into public discourse as a historic election looms. — Donna Seaman

Saturday, August 23, 2008

New Interviews!

Thanks to Hillary Carlip, our web wizard, and, imagine!, Open Books guest, you will see lots of new interviews listed in both Fiction and Nonfiction. Chicago writers are present in an impressive array, from natural history writer Joel Greenberg to Sara Paretsky, crime writer, novelist, and essayist, to fiction writer Billy Lombardo to creatively investigative and scholarly journalist Miles Harvey to novelist Gioia Diliberto. And more. Each has a distinctive approach to writing, each is a uniquely compelling conversationalist. I hope that you'll listen to these discussions about reading and writing and seeking truth and understanding. I hope you'll read the books written by these articulate, caring, and immensely talented writers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

China on my mind

By the time I arrived home Friday night, take-out Thai food in hand, we had already missed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. But we did tune in during the Parade of Nations, and I was instantly captivated. I love people-watching, and this was a rare array. I felt chagrined and amazed: how could I be unaware of the existence of so many countries? I felt wonder and love: how grand and glorious is the human palette. I felt catty as I sized up the costumes or outfits or uniforms. What a fashion show, and how full of energy and feeling everyone was, waving, holding up cameras, flags, looking up and up. What a stage. It looked like a space station, far, far from Earth. Nature reduced to icons. The utter triumph of the human will.

And what a species we are. It was stunning to see group after group, from the smallest delegations, a proud 2, a determined 4, a stern 7, to surging bands of rudely confident hundreds. People carrying so very many stories of families and lands battered, bruised, bloodied and bashed. That very day a new war had broken out in Georgia, and once again, we turned away from the old terrible news in Afghanistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Tibet, right here in River City. During the commercials, a channel surfer could monitor the nasty, idiotic frenzy over John Edwards' affair. Back to the Olympics and the opening night's face-by-face survey of the state of the human family, which embraces the basketball giant Yao Ming and a tiny hero, the young boy who rescued classmates after the immense Sichuan earthquake, walking hand in hand.

Certain that I needed to see the full presentation, I stayed up and finally after 2:00 am Chicago time, it unfolded before me, a display so spectacular, overwhelming, martial, and imposing, I felt that I was witnessing a seismic shift in world power. The combination of the sheer wonder of thousands of synchronized performers and high-tech wizardry redefines our understanding of the place of the individual in the collective, the ability of technology to liberate and harness us, to realize ideas on an immense scale, to create propaganda of staggering dimensions and complexity and intimidating beauty. Such discipline, such grace, such power. Ancient arts writ large with new media. The director Zhang Yimou drew on centuries of art and philosophy and repression to project a utopian vision. An electric fairy tale. A high-definition dream in which hundreds of men and women became a vast machine among vast machines.

Chicago hopes to host the Olympics in eight years. What might our opening ceremony involve? All I could picture last night, in the blaze and burst and shimmer and military perfection of Beijing's resplendent and humbling and disturbing electronic vision of all for one and one for all was an old style old guys blues band hunkered down on a creaky stage in a small shabby club, playing their hearts out on simple instruments of wood and metal, feet keeping time, voices lifting and falling, notes bending and sliding, songs unfurling about loneliness and love, about yearning for home and needing to get away, of the joys and sorrows of the human predicament on the old whirling Earth. Of all that is lost and denied. Of beauty and hope and the certain knowledge that much as we try to do right, we so often do wrong. That as much damage as we do, we are but small creatures in a vast cosmos we can barely discern.

Let us all be athletes of compassion, peace, and truth.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

New interviews on the way

It's summer. That's my excuse. I have many new interviews to add to the site, and I'm working on putting all the elements together. Honest I am. In-between all the other urgent matters on my to-do list. For instance, I just recorded an interview with Miles Harvey about his fascinating and many-faceted work of history, biography, and scholarly sleuthing, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America. I spoke with the editors and contributors to a rich and resonant anthology, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cultural Collision and Connection. Great stuff. Check back.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, My Sister, My Love, months ago, and I had been waiting for it to come out to see what other reviewers and readers thought of it. But before responses to the novel surfaced, breaking news on the actual murder case on which My Sister, My Love is based flooded screens, air waves, and newspapers. This is so Oates. She is so attuned to the collective psyche. The collision of the release if this searing novel with the announcement that improved DNA identification technologies have exonerated JonBenet Ramsey’s family affirms Oates’ attunement to the gestalt. What a gift she has for turning the true stories that rivet our attention, mostly grim outbreaks of violence tinged with aberrant eroticism and certain madness, into fiction of tremendous dark power.

It’s obvious why JonBenet Ramsey’s murder fascinates Oates, a brilliant and daring writer fixated on the valor and vulnerability of girls in an aggressively sexualized and murderous world. She wrote a stinging essay about the 1996 murder of the six-year-old beauty princess during the media frenzy generated by the grossly mishandled case. In My Sister, My Love, she fictionalizes the family horror implicit in the Ramsey tragedy in a novel of ferocious intensity and nervy wit.

In Oates’ tale, the Rampikes live uneasily in wealthy, white Fair Hills, New Jersey. Bix is a big, shambling, sexy, and ruthless guy intent on getting mega-rich in the bio-tech industry. Bosomy, high-strung, and needy Betsey longs for acceptance among the town’s thin and snooty elite wives, and tries to use her jittery son, Skyler, as bait. But it’s her second child, anxious and brittle Edna Louise, who fulfills Betsey’s dream of fame and fortune. Her vehicle is figure-skating, a heady mix of athleticism and exhibitionism perfectly suited to Betsey’s mania for capitalizing on feminine charms to get maximum attention. Oates’ choice of ice-skating is inspired. It’s a cold, hard, and precarious realm fraught with prurience of the pedophile kind—her descriptions of Tots on Ice competitions are gloriously creepy. And her choice of narrator is equally brilliant: Skyler tells the story of his sister’s grotesque transformation into a gauchely make-up and provocatively costumed ice fairy a decade after her death. He himself has barely survived his toxic family, and his chronicle of two adults who never should have had children in an affluent and deeply neurotic society that reduces childhood to an alphabet stew of psychiatric and neurological syndromes and doses them with fistfuls of pharmaceuticals instead of love is a mordantly satirical indictment of upper-class child abuse during the pell-mell greed of the corporate grabfest of the 1990s. Both neglected Skyler and his poor little sister––renamed Bliss and kept out of school and subjected to extreme and painful practice sessions, beauty treatments, and drug regimes (“I’m not a little girl. I’m a thousand years old.”)––are victims of their monstrous mother’s misery over her husband’s incessant infidelities, a storm of hurt and fury young Skyler struggles to understand.

Oates’ insights into her narrator’s psyche when he is nine and nineteen and astonishing in their nuance and stinging humor, culminiating in his fascination and disgust with atrocities of the media coverage in “Tabloid Hell,” and the fiendish cultism in “cybercesspoolspace.” Oates reachers higher peaks with each work, and this is a stop-in-your-tracks novel of extraordinary dimension and power, sympathy and indignation.

Friday, July 4, 2008

For the love of country

It's a surprisingly cool July 4th here in Chicago. The sky a weave of blue and white, the clouds pulled by the wind and sifting the sunlight. It's windows-open weather, which I love because I can hear all the leaves rustling in the breeze and listen to the birds talk and sing. Our milkweed is blooming and I watched a large monarch butterfly wing from one flower cluster to the next. I've spent the day, so far, reading a smart, eye-opening, and harrowing book about honeybees in decline. A book about interconnectivity and our species' inability to detect it. A book we'll be hearing about when it comes out in September.

But today I want to welcome another book into the world, a book officially released this week perhaps because its author, Rick Bass, is a great American. A valiant citizen of the world. An eloquent advocate for the living world, that is. His new book is Why I Came West.

Rick Bass writes out of a profound connection and commitment to wilderness, creating exalted and elegiac fiction—his last story collection, The Lives of Rocks, was absurdly overlooked, and molten nonfiction (no book more lucidly explained why drilling in the Arctic is a crime we must never commit than Caribou Rising). Clearly, his attunement to the great web of life is meshed with his love of language and story, but never before has he told the full tale of his apprenticeship to literature and the place that has defined his life for the past two decades, Montana’s Yaak Valley. In Why I Came West Bass looks back to his suburban Houston childhood and his work as an oil geologist in Mississippi, searching for clues to his love-at-first sight response to the Yaak. As he describes the rich diversity of life cradled in these northerly mountains and forests and his deep immersion in this bountiful land as a hunter, hiker, and meditative observer, he forges a majestic, sad, and clarion memoir of imagination and symbiosis, of “the spirit within us, and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story-like thing––the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it.”

Bass shares his anguish over the clear-cutting of bear-sheltering woods, his turning away from writing fiction to do the hard work of environmental activism, and the virulent hatred aroused by his efforts to secure permanent protection for “fourteen little roadless areas.” Versed in duality and paradox, infused with fierce joy in the oneness of life, poetic, and philosophical, Bass is also “sensate and passionate,” qualities he holds in high esteem. In this ravishing and clarifying and important memoir of one life and the life of a place, Bass writes with incandescent frankness about how difficult it will be to change our ways, but how necessary, and about why we must cherish what little wilderness remains.

Rick Bass writes:

“Some landscapes these days have been reduced to nothing but dandelions and fire ants, knapweed and thistle, where the only remaining wildlife to be found are sparrows, squirrels, and starlings. In blessed Yaak, however, it is all still present: not a single species has gone extinct since the retreat of the Ice Age. I find this astonishing, and magical; I know of no other valley in the continental United States for which this can be said. The biota of the Yaak is the ecological equivalent of a Russian novel. It is a greatness, an ecological heritage, that we still have, barely, in the possession of public ownership. Unlike the Russian novels, however, which are preserved forever in libraries, the last roadless wildlands of the Yaak are not preserved: there is no guarantee of their continued survival, or of the survival of that wildness, that art, that exists between our imaginations and the landscape.”

If we be patriots, we will save this place.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I'm writing this at home, so why am I homesick? I'm longing for my home ground, the place that shaped me. Even though I'm happy in the summer breeze reaching through the large window at the end of my small and cluttered room looking out over a postage-stamp backyard in great need of a gardener's touch, the garage, and alley. Even though it's a blissfully quiet Sunday in my Northwest Chicago neighborhood, with only the pair of white running shoes dangling from the electric cable strung between houses to remind me of what goes on while I sleep, I yearn for the Hudson Valley. Not only for its curvaceous beauty and deep history, but for all that I was taught there about what it means to be human.

I grew up in Roosevelt Country, both literally in that Hyde Park was just up the Hudson from our Poughkeepsie home, and conceptually, because I grew up in a liberal household where our parents taught us that how one lived one's life in the here and now matters. And that we possess an imagination so that we can envision ourself in someone else's place. So that we can imagine what it feels like to live a life different from our own, and cultivate respect and compassion for others, and generosity of spirit.

I grew up learning about the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, a courageous and compassionate first lady who looked, listened, and advocated without fuss and preening. About an administration that put people to work, that valued the land and the arts. That recognized that the American dream was rooted in a society in which families or all configurations can thrive, a society in which people can work with dignity and afford food and a safe place to live; where people are educated, the air and water kept clean, bridges and roads maintained. A place of high ideals and practical solutions. A place where business, like religion, is kept separate from government.

In the ideal place I'm calling Roosevelt Country, government was a force for good. It was formed to protect and serve the people. The government, like other grassroot organizations, was created to ensure representation and justice. Among government's many functions was its role as counterbalance to the marketplace. The federal government would look beyond monetary profit. In this nurturing and democratic land, the government would serve as a corrective to greed and prejudice. It would understand that for business to flourish, the public has to be employed, cities have to work, the infrastructure must be maintained. For sellers to find buyers, people must be able to earn a living and foresee a better future. I'm homesick for a society that values people over profit, that believes in quality, learning, and the reality of the living world.

I know that this dreamy dreamland, this republic of the reasonable, has never existed, but at least it's a realm socially conscious and hopeful people used to talk about. Unlike the nightmare world we've allowed to coalesce behind our backs, the world of big business without restraint, of selfishness and looting, of corruption and lies and cynicism. This vampire empire has hollowed out our government, drained the life out of schools, sapped the strength out of the health care system and every agency designed to help people live free of exploitation, discrimination, and piracy. We are now imperiled, the cherished American way of life once admired the world over as endangered as many of the planet's precious animals and wilderness areas.

It does not have to be this way. The market is not holy; the market is not the matrix for a democracy. We do not want a country of the mega-rich and the oppressed poor, of poisonous produce, failed levees, gutted communities, disappearing jobs, lost homes, and corporate thuggery.

We look back to where we came from to try to understand where we find ourselves. I thought alot about my homegrown vision of a better world when I was invited to write a travel piece about Hyde Park, New York, for the Chicago Tribune. I was honored and thrilled by this opportunity, and an edited version ran in a spring issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine as part of an intriguing series about presidential sites. Here's the original version:

Roosevelt Country
Hyde Park, New York
By Donna Seaman

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “All that is in me goes back to the Hudson.” A beautiful and bountiful river fed by the Atlantic Ocean and freshwater Adirondack streams, the wide, glinting, tidal Hudson River, technically a fjord, flows through a rolling landscape of secretive valleys, voluptuous hills, and dramatic cliffs and mountains. The site of critical battles in the Revolutionary War, the Hudson became the new nation’s most important waterway, while its mystic grandeur inspired the Hudson River School of exalted landscape painting.

The Hudson Valley’s prominent first families included the Livingstons, the Beekmans (established in 1766, the Beekman Arms is the country’s longest continuously operating inn), the Montgomerys, and the Roosevelts. In the nineteenth century, industrialists named Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Astor followed, building lavish river-view mansions along a lush length of the river that became known as Millionaires Row. But these grand country seats proved impractical and burdensome, and modern-day descendants generously turned their gracious, art-filled, magnificently landscaped family estates into historic sites open to the public, among them Boscobel, Vanderbilt, Mills, Wilderstein, and Montgomery Place. Thanks to the efforts of environmentally aware river gentry and not-for-profit groups, including Scenic Hudson and Clearwater, the Hudson Valley’s unique and majestic beauty is now protected under law as a Congressional National Heritage Area.

Head north from Manhattan, where the Statue of Liberty extends her regal welcome from the watery depths, and follow the broad and vital, glinting and mysterious Hudson River past Sleepy Hollow of writer Washington Irving fame, Sing Sing Prison (which gave new meaning to the phrase “going up the river”), the historic military academy West Point, Storm King Mountain, the alluring island ruin of Bannerman’s Castle, the small river town of Beacon, now home to the internationally renowned contemporary art museum, Dia: Beacon, and Poughkeepsie, one of the Hudson’s earliest colonial settlements and home to Vassar College. Keep on traveling north by train or on Route 9, past thriving Marist College, and the Culinary Institute of America (originally the John R. Stuyvesant estate), and at last you’ll find yourself in Hyde Park. Roosevelt Country.

As a sickly child, Theodore Roosevelt was sent upstate each summer to take the fresh-air cure, a Hudson River tradition that gave rise to many a resort, camp, and sanatorium. It worked for Teddy, who not only grew robust, but also became a nature lover, establishing more than 200 national parks, forests, and preserves as the United States’ 26th president. Franklin D. Roosevelt followed in the footsteps of his fifth cousin in both politics and conservation. He, too, spent much of his youth outdoors on the family estate, hiking, climbing trees, cutting firewood, and sailing ice boats. Franklin entered politics in 1910, and as a state senator promoted wildlife and forest protection laws. FDR also planted thousands of seedling trees each year on his vast family estate.

After contracting polio at age 39 in 1921, FDR found solace and spiritual renewal at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate. In spite of his disability, he became governor of New York in 1928, and president in 1932, ultimately serving four extraordinary terms as the 32nd president, guiding the nation through the Depression and World War II. Throughout this time of horror, courage, and compromise, FDR returned to Hyde Park, his cherished home ground, as often as he could, traveling on a specially outfitted train from Washington, D.C., nearly 200 times during his exhausting and heroic presidency.

Not only did FDR regain his strength and perspective in the peace and beauty of pastoral Hyde Park, he also took great pride in his ancestry and was fascinated by the region’s history. He counted among his forefathers one of the earliest Dutch colonists in the Hudson Valley, Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt, who arrived sometime around 1650, and Isaac Roosevelt, who participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1788 in Poughkeepsie, where New York ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Roosevelt was born in Springwood on January 30, 1882. Built around 1800 on high ground with a view of the river, the Big House is situated on Route 9 north of Locust Grove, home of the inventor of the telegraph Samuel F. B. Morse, and south of the 212-acre Vanderbilt estate. Enamored of Dutchess County’s Dutch colonial buildings, Franklin acquired a passion for architecture, adding two new wings to the Big House, and designing four area post offices and several schools. His simple, rustic aesthetic is evident in America’s most personal and intriguing presidential sites, Top Cottage and the cottages Franklin built for Eleanor at Val-Kill.

The cottages, built acres away from each other and the Big House, embody the dynamics of a complicated marriage. Franklin had an exceptionally close relationship with his formidable widowed mother, Sara, who lived in Springwood with her son, his wife and their five children (their sixth died in infancy). It was Sara who sat at the head of the table opposite her only child, Franklin, and it was wealthy and pragmatic Sara who financed and managed the Roosevelt household. She adored her son, was intensively proud of him, and meddled unabashedly in his life. As FDR readied himself for his second term as president, expecting it to be his last, he decided that he needed a quiet place of his own away from the formality and pressures of the Big House. So he built Top Cottage, designed to comfortably accommodate his wheelchair, on a hill on the eastern edge of the Roosevelt estate with a glorious view of the Hudson.

While Franklin was much indulged as a boy, Eleanor lost her mother, beloved father, and a brother. It wasn’t easy living with her exacting and accomplished mother-in-law, who had objected strenuously to her son’s decision to marry his distant cousin. Eleanor was bedeviled by insecurity and depression as a young wife and mother, and devastated by her discovery of Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918. Her own struggles and innate humility made Eleanor profoundly sensitive to the suffering of others who faced discrimination and other forms of injustice. As she came into her own as a world-traveling activist, tireless humanitarian, radio personality, and daily newspaper columnist (“My Day” was syndicated in 135 newspapers), Mrs. Roosevelt, as she was known, ardently supported civil rights, women’s suffrage, and humane labor laws. Recognizing that Eleanor was a keen and empathic observer and eloquent speaker, Franklin came to rely on her as an advisor and envoy. But Sara expressed dismay over Eleanor’s increasingly independent life and liberated women friends. Realizing that his wife needed, and deserved, a place of her own, in 1925 Franklin built Stone Cottage and Val-Kill Cottage for Eleanor and her friends.

The cottages at Val-Kill are set on a long cresting hill facing a pond that is home to swans and a notorious gaggle of geese, and ringed by broad lawns, gardens, and deep woods. Val-Kill was Eleanor’s first real home, a sanctuary where she walked with her beloved dogs, rode horses, and enjoyed gatherings of family and friends. With the intention of supporting the local economy and encouraging the creation of crafts by local artisans, Mrs. Roosevelt established Val-Kill Industries.

Hailed as the “first lady of the world,” and described by Winston Churchill as possessing “a spirit of steel and a heart of gold,” Mrs. Roosevelt continued her public life after her husband’s death in 1945. Appointed as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Truman, she helped found UNICEF (the United Nation’s Children’s Fund), and was the leader in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sought for advice by world leaders, Mrs. Roosevelt lived in her beloved Val-Kill Cottage until her death in 1962.

With an eye to prosperity, Franklin Roosevelt built the country’s first presidential library. Privately financed and gifted to the federal government, the FDR library opened its doors to the public in 1941. Today, the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site encompasses the state-of-the-art Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, Springwood, the Rose Garden gravesite of Franklin and Eleanor, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. As for Val-Kill, President Carter signed a bill creating the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historical Site, a national park open to visitors, and home to the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, an organization that continues Mrs. Roosevelt’s work on behalf of racial equality, human rights, youth development, and women’s empowerment.*

Stroll these lovely grounds, tour historic Springwood, study the objects, photographs, and documents on display at the FDR library and museum, many testifying to the gratitude and reverence for the Roosevelts felt by people from all walks of life across America and abroad. Enter the serene environment where Eleanor and Franklin, homebodies and citizens of the world, reflected on their commitments to public service, family, and friends. You will find yourself surrounded by nature’s splendor and the aura of exemplary lives lived with great thought, effort, and conviction, sorrow and humor, valor and true generosity of spirit. Will we ever see their like again?

*My parents, Elayne and Hal Seaman, are recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Season of the Book Fest

What's my excuse for not blogging for several weeks? Another big double issue of Booklist, some actual writing other than book reviews, a book review for the besieged Los Angeles Times--look for it this Sunday: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, by Saša Stanišić, a Bosnian German writer, and translated by Anthea Bell. (See my reveiw of Honor Moore's The Bishop's Daughter in the new Bookforum.) And the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago, where I was sorry not to speak with Richard Preston about his amazing book, Wild Trees, as planned, but where I had a fun time talking about nature, culture, and art with a superb watercolorist, Peggy Macnamara, who has a beautiful new book, Architecture by Birds and Insects: A Natural Art, and with Julia Bachrach, the historian for the Chicago Park District and author of a photo-rich book, Inspired by Nature: The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago's West Side.
I also watched Studs Terkel bring an audience to its feet as he riffed for 40 minutes without taking a breath. Studs is 96, and more vital than most folks half his age. And what a perspective.
Oh, right, there was also the Harold Washington Literary Award dinner, a benefit for Chicago's Authors in the Schools program. Columbia College's ardent fiction department chair and all around great guy Randy Albers spoke about Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and about Barack Obama, no explanation needed, and about this year's award winner, writer and activist Scott Turow. Who talked about growing up in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood and his grandparents and finding his way to writing and the law. And who told a story about Harrison Ford. And it was all very moving and smart and caring and in such confounding contrast to the idiocy of what's going on in board rooms and back rooms and cells and bunkers elsewhere as to leave us all feeling bittersweet.
The new shows are stacking up. Soon we will expand the Open Books Radio web site with conversations with Sara Paretsky, Billy Lombardo, Gioia Diliberto, Hillary Carlip and lots more.
Read on.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Choosing a winner

Chicago is a stalwart city. Still new and raw on the grand time scale of human civilization, it nonetheless holds fast to its traditions, when it isn't tearing down glorious old buildings. Called, in its early, hopeful days, Paris of the Prairies, Chicago has been proud of its artists and art institutions, including the The Society for Midland Authors. This heartland writers group was founded in 1915 by the likes of Clarence Darrow, Edna Ferber, Vachel Lindsay, and Harriet Monroe, and early members included Jane Addams, Ring Lardner, and Edgar Lee Masters.

The Society for Midlands authors continues to thrive as it nears its century mark, and each year it marks the vitality of Midwest literature with literary awards and a fancy awards banquet. I was pressed into service as one of this year's three fiction judges, along with the always mischievous and passionately literary Mark Eleveld and Billy Lombardo. We were deluged with novels and short story collections and quite dizzy over this bounty. But we thrashed our way through and came up with three finalists:

Benjamin Percy. Refresh, Refresh. Graywolf.
Tony Romano, When the World Was Young. HarperCollins.
Brock Clarke. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Algonquin.

And the winner, from Kansas City, a town that holds a special place in my heart:

Matthew Eck. The Farther Shore. Milkweed Editions.

Congratulations, Matthew! And thanks for coming to Chicago to celebrate with us.

Here's what Booklist had to say:

September 1, 2007
**Starred Review**
The Farther Shore. By Matthew Eck. Oct. 2007. 192p. Milkweed, hardcover, $22 (1-57131-057-6).

Three American soldiers are stranded in a war-blasted desert city in Africa. The heat, the sand, the impenetrable darkness are all exacting a toll. The enemy is everyone and anyone, even your comrades. The mission is vague, preposterous. The people are starving, desperate, and violent, tyrannized by warlords and clan loyalty. Packs of emaciated dogs roam through smoking ruins. All is obscured by haze, dust, and fear. Josh, a good boy from Wichita, Kansas, struggles to stay rational, vigilant, honorable. Santiago, their lieutenant, tells him, “Stop thinking so much.” Their situation goes from bad to worse to all-out nightmare as they barely escape the city and set out for the sea. Every word in Eck’s first novel is as solid as a stone. Every moment of crisis feels authentic in its terror and tragedy; indeed, Eck served as a soldier in Somalia at age 18. Heir to Hemingway, and damn near as powerful as Cormac McCarthy in The Road (2006), Eck has created a contemporary version of The Red Badge of Courage in this tale of one young man’s trial by fire in the pandemonium of war in an age of high-tech weaponry and low-grade morality.— Donna Seaman

Saturday, May 10, 2008

In Praise of Good Mothers

Our Mother's Day broadcast on WLUW will feature an interview with Elizabeth Berg, a writer of great spirit and generosity. Elizabeth, a mother and a grandmother, writes with great insight and wit about women's lives, and about marriage and family, so we were thrilled to speak with her at this particular time. And I want to say Happy Mother's Day to my amazing and wonderful mother, my marvelous mother-in-law, and all the terrific mothers I count among my relatives and friends. No work is more important, difficult, and giving than nurturing the young, and standing by your children long after those delirious early years. Love, love, love.

Elizabeth's new book is a collection of short stories as perfectly crafted as they are emotionally and socially authentic: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation. Berg exemplifies the writer as storyteller and artist, as close listener and keen observer, as empath and charmer. Berg seeks and finds connection with readers, writing clear and embracing prose about so-called ordinary lives with profound respect and joy. She's funny, frank, unafraid to be tender, and a natural and compelling conversationalist. Free of pretension, full of feeling, bemused and benevolent. Smart as can be. Beautiful.

Elizabeth Berg had wonderful things to say, but, alas, we were working without a studio and could do nothing to diminish the roar of the ceiling vents in our borrowed conference room. It was like being on a jet plane. Hopefully once we post the interview, you won't mind joining us as we fly to the land of reading and writing, of fiction and truth. All of us who love to read and write, who love quiet time to think and daydream, are always battling against a million distractions, a cacophony of machine noise, and endless interruptions. The space for stillness and thoughtfulness is always shrinking. But we persist.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Read this novel.

The Sorrows of an American. By Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt’s intricate and heightened novels cast a spell not only because Hustvedt is exceptionally observant and writes beautifully, or because her alluring characters are smart, sensitive, and accomplished, or because her stories are significantly complex, but rather because she perceives life’s hidden dimensions, the dark force of secrets, and the radioactivity of trauma. Preternaturally attuned to the vagaries of memory and the dangerous revelations embedded in dreams and delusions, she writes of psychological mysteries and maladies with emotional veracity and intellectual specificity. Her previous novel of family tragedy, the ravishing What I Loved (2003), featured New York artists and scholars. She returns to this milieu, even bringing along a character, art historian Leo Hertzberg, and deepens her inquiry into its spirit in this even more fluent and mesmerizing tale.

By narrating from the point of view of a psychiatrist, Erik Davidson, Hustvedt brings a professional perspective to besieged minds, although Erik’s knowledge isn’t helping all that much as he struggles for equilibrium in the wake of his divorce and his father’s death. Add to that his immersion in his father’s startlingly evocative memoir (based on a real-life source, as Hustvedt discloses in her Acknowledgements, evidence that Hustvedt’s writing skills are bred in the bone) about his poor, suffering immigrant family’s bruising hardscrabble life in unforgiving Minnesota and his scarring military service in World War II. Erik’s understanding of his past is greatly altered, and he is forced to recognize that a sensitive family mystery must be solved.

Erik’s sister, writer Inga, is even more reluctant to delve into the past. Not only is she mourning their father, she is also grieving for her late husband, a celebrity-famous novelist, a loss made all the more tortuous as a manipulative biographer and a vicious journalist root out painful truths.

Yet another unexpected set of concentric circles of pain and confusion ripple out from Erik’s involvement with his possibly endangered downstairs tenants: Miranda, a Jamaican-born artist he helplessly desires, and her young live-wire daughter, Eglantine. Like the great nineteenth-century novelists who combined riveting storytelling with incisive philosophical musings, Hustvedt has created intellectual and compassionate characters and a bewitchingly brilliant plot to explore the great chasms of human life. The Sorrows of an American illuminates with grace and insight the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants, and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

In Praise of Literary Heroism

The Shadow Factory by Paul West.

“Can you think without words?” Paul West, a playful, prolific, and erudite master writer, was forced to contemplate this paradox in the wake of a massive stroke. The author of many remarkable and diverse novels, including The Immensity of the Here and Now, Cheops, and Terrestrials, and a string of vivid memoirs, West was already hospitalized for a drastic kidney infection when he was struck down and hurled into the void of global aphasia. His right arm was paralyzed. He could barely swallow. He could not speak. After months of heroic effort, he uttered his first complete sentence, “I speak good coffee.” His doctors were adamant: he would never write again. But over the years, West has overcome adversity in many forms. Persistent, ardent, witty, life-loving, deeply curious, and aided and abetted by his indefatigable, brilliant, and loving wife, the writer Diane Ackerman, he proved the good doctors wrong, regaining his great facility with language, and writing this astonishing work, the first aphasic memoir. A dispatch from the “shadow factory” of an abruptly silenced inner realm in which a radiant mind struggles to burn through dark matter.

West was determined “to be as sentient an observer as possible” even in this frightening, wordless state, and so he was. And in this philosophical, positive, and dream-like chronicle, a work that booms like Shakespeare and clicks like Beckett, West describes the lightning strike that changed everything, the voices he heard, and the slight alterations in sensation that gave him hope. As he ponders the nature of muteness, the solace of reason, and the maddening gap between thought and speech, he does not dwell on the fear, anger, and “silent frustration” engendered by his ordeal, but instead discerns an eerie beauty in his journey from the dim “languageless wasteland” into the full sun of life and the music of words, glorious words. “We live, most of us, in a world of dumb recalcitrance, saved occasionally by inspired seers.” West is just such a being. We all benefit from his valor and artistry. Watch for his next novel.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New shows in the wings

My intention was to add five new shows to the web site, but, alas, more pressing, can't-wait matters required my attention. And now I'm about to return to my home ground, the beautiful Hudson Valley, for a visit with my parents. So Open Books Radio will receive its Spring infusion soon. In time for May, that month of promises.

In the meantime, this Sunday the Chicago Tribune Magazine will feature coverage of presidential sites, including my article on Roosevelt Country, a piece I very much enjoyed writing. And the Chicago Tribune Books section will contain my review of Louise Erdrich's new novel, A Plague of Doves.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

On the Air

Open Books will be on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio, this Sunday night at 9:00 central time and it's a heartland Earth Day edition featuring Chicago naturalist, writer, birder, and activist Joel Greenberg. Joel wrote the magnum opus, A Natural History of the Chicago Region, and has now put together an inspired and revelatory anthology, Of Prairie, Woods, & Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing.

Joel is a dream guest, ask a simple question, and receive a great fountain of information, observation, irony, enthusiasm, and insight. You can listen online,

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bravo Junot!

One of my favorite novels by one of my favorite writers and Open Books guests has won the Pulitzer Prize: Junot Diaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

If you haven't read it, do.

I'm also happy to see two other titles I gave starred reviews in Booklist: Robert Hass's Time and Materials in poetry, and the terrific Eden's Outcasts in biography by John Matteson. It's always good to have one's passions affirmed.

Pick these up.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Librarians listen

Last week I attended the Public Library Association conference in clean and serene Minneapolis. The city, brisk and sunny, was a balm to stressed nerves and overheated brain; the company of thousands of thoughtful, book-loving, community-supporting librarians was affirming and inspiring. Public librarians from across the country gathered in meeting rooms by the hundreds to listen to their peers talk about books and readers. Even on a Saturday morning at 8:30 when three of us spoke about that most maligned and misunderstood form, the memoir. Thousands laughed uproariously at the closing session as Paula Poundstone, author and big reader, made good fun of them. You don't think, in that context, that the world of books is imperiled. No, you feel certain that literature is a pillar of civilization, that reading is a profoundly pleasurable practice cherished by many, that people are hungry for news of new books and writers, for precise and penetrating reviews, for reading recommendations and fresh perspectives on the river of books that flows from publishers to book review editors to bookstores and libraries. And then you find yourself stuck at the airport, your flight delayed, CNN blaring on TVs hanging above your head, and most of your fellow travelers spending their arrested time fiddling with gadgets--cell phones, laptops, and iPods. Now maybe they're talking about a novel they just read, or reading an essay online, or listening to an audiobook. It's possible. Me? Sure, I was reading one book, with another handy.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Story Week Afterglow

Each March the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago puts on an electrifying writing festival. This year was radiant. I had the profound pleasure of sharing a stage with Chitra Divakaruni, a writer of fluent imaginative and spiritual intent. Chitra was exceptionally giving in her disclosures and in talking about the endless conundrums and efforts of writing, quite hilarious. I'm so grateful to Chitra for her spellbinding and compassionate books and generous nature. I heard Aimee Bender and Cristina Garcia read, exceptionally smart and inventive and funny writers. I met the uniquely talented and adventurous and inspiriting Hillary Carlip. Queen of the Oddballs and intrepid creator of A La Cart, Hillary is also the web design genius behind Open Books Radio, and it was an absolute joy to meet her. We did conduct an Open Books interview, coming to this web site soon!

Hillary was part of the culminating literary rock-and-roll event that brings Story Week to its grandly rambunctious crescendo. Hillary and ZZ Packer and Colin Channer and Junot Diaz and the empress of literary programs and pizazz, my dear friend Sheryl Johnston. And Randy Albers, big-hearted and brilliant director of this exuberant and inspiring and supportive fiction department, who presented me with the Story Week Achievement Award. I'm so proud of this, and so astonished by this, I'm quoting the plaque because, well, because I'm still trying to internalize it.

"For excellence in writing, for promoting 'the fine art of reading,' and for creative contributions to Story Week."

Long live Story Week. Hugs and kisses to all.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On the Air

Open Books is still broadcast in Chicago on WLUW 88.7, but I have to say that I'm thrilled to report that a new show will air again on Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ 91.5, and, on Sunday night, March 9 at 9 Central Time. (Don't forget, we lose a precious hour this weekend.)

In this edition of Open Books I speak with Chicago writer Gioia Diliberto about women's history, her biographies of Nobel Peace Prize winner and reformer Jane Addams; Hadley Hemingway, Ernest's first wife, and Brenda Frazier, the Paris Hilton of her day. Diliberto also talks about art and fashion, fact and fiction as we discuss her novels, I Am Madame X and The Collection, which revolves around a character based on Coco Chanel.

More on Joyce Carol Oates

Our sympathy and concern for Joyce Carol Oates remain high, and none of us involved with Story Week here in Chicago were surprised when Oates cancelled her March 17 appearance. It's too soon after losing her husband. I hope to have another chance to speak with Oates in the future. For now, I'm looking forward to reading her next book, a very intriguing novel due out in June titled, My Sister, My Love.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Immersion and sympathy

I live book by book, deadline by deadine, immersed in worlds imagined and reported. Certain writers are always present in my mind: boon companions, scouts, guides, goads. Enigmas and friends. Joyce Carol Oates is a constant presence. Her books stay with me, deep-swimming sea creatures, luminous and pressing in the dark. The power of her fiction, its risks, and insights; the complexity of her work, the many masks she wears and the consistency and courage of her vision: all inspire and incite me. My fascination is fed by her essays and The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973 - 1982. And ever since Joyce Carol Oates was invited to participate in Columbia College Chicago's Story Week this March, and ever since I was invited to speak with her onstage on March 17, I've been thinking about how to approach her work. What questions to ask, what subjects to raise. And now I'm thinking of Ms. Oates with great sympathy, having learned of the death of her husband, Raymond Smith. Her anchor.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A new venue

Open Books will air on the Chicago's NPR station, WBEZ 91.5 and Sunday, February 17, at 9:00 pm central time.

We are thrilled to join WBEZ's Sunday night rotation. This edition of Open Books focuses on African American cartoonists. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Nancy Goldstein, the author of a fantastic, groundbreaking new book, Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, and cartoonist and cartoon historian Tim Jackson.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

New interview: "Invisible No More"

The show I wrote about in my last post is now up: "Invisible No More: Voices of Literacy Chicago," the 'new' show in Nonfiction. Please listen. This is a very special edition of Open Books.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Denied Access

We're alone with our thoughts, and alone in our habit of silently telling ourselves the story of our life day by day. When we read, we tune into stories created by another mind turning over the stones of thought. The written word is an extended hand, an invitation to connect, to share. The written word only comes back to life when someone else turns her or his attention to it. The act of reading is a powerful bond between strangers, and this common experience underlies my conversations with writers. We feel a ready rapport because we have both traveled the same trail of words, the same path through the labyrinth. The writer has laid the stones, the reader has set them more firmly in place by her tread. We are able to speak the same language even as we see the books under discussion from different perspectives. These are exciting and affirming conversations.

But often when I leave the studio feeling uplifted and grateful for communion with an artist and thinker I admire and reenter the larger world and look into the faces of strangers hurrying in the cold, I wonder, are books part of their lives? I've been speaking with writers for a decade and I will continue to do so. But now I'm going to extend my Open Books inquiry and speak with readers.

I feel that I'm part of a resplendent realm of knowledge, effort, beauty, wit, tragedy, and discovery simply by virtue of my reading. What if I was walled off from that paradise of language and empathy? What if I couldn't read? How would I navigate the wilderness of human emotion and endeavor?

I've always been aware of the shameful fact that in our great land many people not only go hungry, but are also starved intellectually and aesthetically. Boys and girls attend public schools, moving up grade by grade, and yet they do not learn to read. Smart, determined, and creative, they adapt, they conceal, they improvise. They drop out of school and get on with life. But far too many adults live diminished lives because their reading skills are rudimentary at best. For all that they accomplish, they are isolated and silenced. And many refuse to accept this fate. Men and women of all ages make the tough decision to try again to learn to read. I decided to speak with people who are striving to become literate, word by word, and thanks to friends, spent the best part of two days at a true haven, a true place of learning and love, a school called Literacy Chicago.

Nine stories above State Street is a community of dedicated teachers, tutors, and students. We three--Craig Kois, Neese Aguilar, and me--sat at a long table in an overheated, windowless room and listened to stories of neglect, struggle, reclamation, and triumph. Of love and hope. We felt humbled, privileged, and deeply moved. We are putting together a show based on these tales from the reading front, and recalibrating, once again, our understanding of what it takes to be a human being.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A new year and interviews new and new to the site

Thanks to my Open Books comrades, my husband David, my producer Craig Kois, and our web genie Hillary Carlip, lots of new conversations are now available for your listening pleasure. We've loaded the most recent shows, among them conversations with Yannick Murphy and Jonathan Messinger, two dynamically creative fiction writers. And I've gone to the archives to reclaim shows from the past that merit listening now. I just tuned in to Diana di Prima and was captivated all over again. How extraordinary to listen to the Queen of the Beats talk about going to the library as a girl in Brooklyn decades ago and finding excitement and solace in books. I'm reading Sara Paretsky's memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence (a finalist in the National Book Critics Circle awards), and she describes the same experience of finding sanctuary in reading in eastern Kansas. I could tell a very similar story about my childhood in Poughkeepsie. Tomorrow, or, technically, later today, I'll be speaking with Sara Paretsky for the next edition of Open Books. So you know, more conversations with gifted and caring writers will be coming your way.

Read, and vote!