The Budding Trees

April 27, 2015

Photo by Carol Bergman
I managed to get away for a few days after the end of term and I am still away as I write this. It's chilly, the fire was on when I arrived at my daughter and son-in-law's house in upstate New York, but the sun was out.

This morning I was up with the light, wrote in my journal, listened to music as I read the awful news from Nepal, called an editor in London, took out the compost, let the chickens out (there is one rooster), forgot to collect the eggs, fed the dog, walked with the dog down a quiet country road, had a yogurt and strawberry breakfast (the strawberries frozen from fresh picking last summer), made a phone call or two, checked my e-mail, had a Facetime conversation with my husband in the city (partially a business call about our small, family-owned publishing business), and though this all seems busy, it did not feel busy, nor is it late, just mid-day right now. Life here is just as productive as in the city, more so probably, because there is less distraction. I move through the day slowly; it is very quiet.

I wish I could be here all the time, but I cannot. Even the drive over the mountain above the tree line revives me. I drive in all weathers and experience--viscerally--the change of season.

I feel blessed to be able to come up here to refuel and let my mind drift. I'm working on another collection of short pieces as they occur to me. This will be called either "Nomads Two," or "Nomads Redux." I have about forty already, not all of them usable, but it seems to be a format that works for me, a distillation that enables me to improve the precision of my writing and keep the writing muscle supple, especially during term time when I am so immersed in my students' work.

But the late spring and summer is for my own work, usually fiction. I want to start another novel. I've already done some research, taken notes, visualized characters. Like the flora at this time of year, my ideas are slowly budding.

Freak Show

April 17, 2015

Photo by Diane Arbus
They tried to understand what had happened. It had happened fast, they’d been drinking—what else does one do at a bar (while socializing of course)—and talking about the descriptions of various wines on the chalk board. Someone had a good handwriting they noticed; it looked like calligraphy. Different colored chalks plus a drawing of a wine glass. Pretty damn good.

There were three of them, all men, hanging out after work. Where else was there to go? They had nothing much to talk about except their work and the descriptions of the wine and where they were going on their next vacation and their electronic devices. All three cell phones were on the bar, silenced, but lighting up now and again and demanding their attention—a tweet or a text.

A couple slid in next to them, a man and a woman, the woman much younger than the man and pretty, the man balding and overweight. The three friends began to whisper and giggle like a bunch of schoolgirls. And the balding man noticed and said, “Hey, what are you looking at?” The way he slurred his words, it was obvious he’d had a head start at another bar somewhere. But this didn’t stop the three friends from hooting and howling and making lewd remarks to the woman. “That your daughter?” one of them asked.

Within seconds, fists were flying and the older balding guy was on the floor. Not suprisingly, everyone had a different story to tell the cops depending on whose side they were on—the three young guys or the balding older guy and his pretty young date—and where they were sitting at the bar. The bartender had a story, so did the manager. Who could tell the story straight? Who knew what had really happened?

I watched it all unfold, as a reporter. And I thought to myself that it was up to me to get the story straight—to interview everyone, gather all the details, and write it from a reporter’s point of view, like a detective. I wasn’t part of the action, I wasn’t at the bar; I was at a table. I had an obligation. Small story and I am writing it here. My observations, my point of view.

I’d just come from a screening—a story about two sisters, concert musicians, who lived together like a married couple all their lives. Their symbiosis was eccentric and troubling, but never discussed. How did they become this way? There was very little narration—the reporter was mostly absent—cinema verité.

Diane Arbus intruded on her subjects in a similar way. Her photos are compelling, but they are also freak shows.

Woman In Gold; Why This Is a Good Movie

April 8, 2015

Tags: Randy Schoenberg, restitution, Helen Mirren, Jewish Holocaust

Art restitution was still on my mind. I’d published “Egon Schiele, My Father and Me” in The Jewish Forward on February 11th about the restitution of one of my father’s Schiele paintings. The response had been interesting. Some readers were concerned that any Jewish misdeeds would once again and forever stir anti-Semitism. Some tried to disprove it—it never happened. How could Jews—Holocaust survivors no less—deliberately, or unwittingly, buy and sell looted art?

The doubters/deniers offered me documents. Would I like to see them to prove innocence of malfeasance? Others congratulated me on the brave article I had written. Though I do not consider myself brave, I do know that—thanks to my parents, their education, their early lives in a cultured pre-Nazi Vienna—my moral compass is strong. I stand by what I wrote in the article.

And now we have the film, “Woman in Gold,” with Helen Mirren playing Maria Altman, niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of the painting by Gustav Klimt hanging in the Neue Galerie in New York. This gorgeous, valuable painting was restituted after many years of legal action by E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg against Austria, and then bought by Ronald Lauder for his gallery. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, has bought other restituted paintings, a great gift to the families after so many years of heartache and struggle.

I am what the Germans call a “zweiter,” a Second Generation. According to Helen Epstein in her seminal work, “Children of the Holocaust,” it is my generation that does the “emotion-work,” which often means that we pay attention to issues as they arise and feel obligated to speak out about them. Our parents—the survivors—were too busy escaping and then surviving—beginning again, trying to be happy, and raising their children as best they could despite the distortions of their agonizing trauma. There have been other genocides in history—many are still going on today—and I worry that we are becoming numb to them. As a writer and a child of the Jewish Holocaust, I feel that it is my mandate to remain alert to these new atrocities and, more immediately at home, to discrimination and the protection of American freedoms. Indeed, I am very pleased to be an American.

In a line at the end of “Woman in Gold,” Altman says that she had thought the restitution of the painting would make her feel better; it didn’t. And why not? Because she had left her parents behind.

I had already been crying, but this scene took me over the edge. In my efforts to understand my mother’s pain, I had always fixated on her mother—my grandmother, Nanette, who was killed in Auschwitz—and had written about her often in memoir and fiction. I had imagined my mother’s farewell scene with her parents before her escape with my father and his siblings. The exactitude of the script startled me, as did Mirren’s performance which so perfectly embodied the elegant, dignified, undefeated hauteur of the Viennese refugees I had grown up with. The film is a tribute to them and I loved it.

What I Am Reading, What I Am Trying to Read

April 1, 2015

Tags: George Eliot, Rebecca Mead, Joseph O'Neill, Henry James


1. “My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead. Mead is a reporter for The New Yorker, born in England in a small provincial town much like Middlemarch, and she came to my rescue as I was trying to read the novel for the umpteenth time, and failing abysmally. Perhaps if I read Mead’s book, I thought to myself, I might enter this challenging novel at last and inform my niece that I have done so. She belongs to a “classics” book club and is well ahead of me with that list.

Mead’s book is part memoir, part literary analysis, part bio of George Eliot. It’s well written and interesting, but whether I’ll finally be able to read “Middlemarch” itself, I do not know right now. Or, perhaps, I could cheat and say I have read “Middlemarch” because I have learned so much about it from Rebecca Mead. Not likely.

2. “The Bostonians,” by Henry James. Having failed with “Middlemarch,” I turned to another 19th century tome with greater success. This surprised me; I have never been able to read Henry James even though my husband was named after him by his journalist father. (We call my Henry James Jim for short. The 19th century Henry would not have approved.) Well, this is not exactly accurate. I did read “Portrait of a Lady” in college. I can’t remember a word. So how did it happen that I should attempt another Henry James? Well, I was upstate at my daughter’s house where I keep a small library of books and needed something to read slowly—slow reading I call it—before going to sleep (the e-books are too speedy at bedtime) and there was “The Bostonians” on the shelf. Fortunately I wasn’t too tired to get the cadence of James’ long sentences that first night and, before long, I was swept up in the story of New England suffragettes and, more importantly, sequestered homosexuality. Henry James was gay. This I learned from studying Edith Wharton and John Singer Sargent. And the book is loaded with allusions, attractions, rapture, commitment, jealousy—all woman to woman for safety sake. Please forgive me, dear reader, but I see Henry James and his struggles in his protagonists Olive and Verena. What an odd couple!

3. “A Son at the Front” by Edith Wharton. Published in 1922 and dedicated to two friends she lost in WW I, Wharton describes in scintillating descriptive detail what it was like in Paris during the war. She had been living in Paris, was already a successful author, and became a war correspondent for two magazines, traveled to the front, and was active in relief efforts for wounded soldiers and their families.

This is a reread for me as Wharton’s stories and sentences never disappoint me. I didn’t start reading her work until about ten years ago and I go back to them time and again for inspiration, psychological insight and entertainment. I had wanted to read this one last year—the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WW I—but was too busy with other things.

We are still a nation at war and probably will be for some time. Soldiers returning from Afghanistan, their families, all of us. This book resonates.

4. “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill. Such an interesting writer—half Turkish, half Irish, raised in Holland. This is his first novel gifted to me by a friend just yesterday. I started reading it on my long train ride home and was riveted from the first paragraph. It’s a 30-something story and I am no longer 30-something (no one is for very long) and so I find some of it boring and predictable and I am not that interested in cricket, I am interested in this writer and how he is making this story. I don’t know if I’ll finish it or not, but I’m pleased to have been introduced to him. His new book is called “Dog,” set in Dubai (now that is interesting), and he’s also written a memoir, “Blood-Dark Track,” which is definitely on my list because I am so interested in O’Neill as a writer.

That’s it for today dear reader. Would you add your current reading escapades here, please, not just titles, but annotations—how you found your way to the book and why it resonates, or doesn’t? Many thanks.

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