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The Unexpected Presence of Snakes

We drove to Woodstock last week for a private screening of Cambiz –Amir Khosravi’s documentary film, “Inheritance.” The drive was long and winding, there was no GPS signal for a while, and I was irritable by the time we arrived. Friends and new friends, cheese, dips, wine, watermelon and a frisky dog, Cooper, awaited us. My mood lifted, more so as I began to understand that the film’s subject—the history of Iran and the role of Cambiz’s father in the autocratic Reza Shah’s regime—has analogies to my own back story. Snakes in the family. What to do about them? Create art, evidemment (French pronunciation, please.)

I, too, had a father I hardly knew whose questionable actions were eventually revealed by me and others. The decision to expose the truth was not hard ; my father had abandoned my mother when she became pregnant with me. But mine was not merely a revenge exploration, nor is Amir-Khosravi’s pilgrimage into Iran’s history and an estranged father he disliked. Much as we might resist, at first, these intimate and, sometimes, shameful stories, the process of shaping them artfully becomes discovery, expiation and, finally, an addendum to the historical record.

Though he was a Holocaust survivor, some of my father’s art collection—mostly Egon Schieles—was purchased from caches of Nazi looted art. For a while I could not believe that he had done this, but then it made perfect sense based on my experience of him as his daughter. Yet, when an art scholar recently asked me about my father’s motivations, I could only hypothesize: he imagined he was rescuing the looted art ; he was obsessed with Schiele’s skill as a draftsman and the pornographic, sadistic imagery; he persuaded himself that the provenance was legitimate; or, alternatively, he was totally ignorant of the art’s provenance; or, as the art accrued in value, he got greedy. And so on.

“Egon Schiele, My Father and Me,” was written after one of my father’s paintings was restituted to the rightful heirs. I was furious at my discoveries and wrote in a frenzy, then calmed down and told the story as accurately as I could. Both my article and Khosravi's film have a similar restraint and intensity.

Amri-Khosravi was living in Teheran with his aunt in 1953—just nine-years-old—when the CIA and British backed a bloody military coup that installed the Shah. Khosravi's father, Reza Gohli Amirkhosrovi, who had worked for the Shah's father as Minister of Finance, joined the inner circle of the new government. These facts, and many more, are undeniable. What Amri-Khosravi has made of them is art.

“Inheritance” will be screened at the San Francisco Film Festival on September 23rd:

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The Trump Effect

What kind of times are we living in? If I asked my NYU workshop students this question at the beginning of every session, their answers would probably sound similar. They are distressed, distracted, preoccupied, disappointed, concerned, even frightened, at times. As am I. Close to a primary election, I prevail upon them to vote not vent, or vent and then vote, and then wonder if I have crossed a boundary I should not cross into advocacy, though I know that in journalism and in the classroom neutrality is an illusion. Is there any writer who does not have a point of view? Of course not. Just think about how we frame a story—what to put in, what to leave out. It’s like a photographer who crops an image, or blows out a detail either distorting or eliminating what surrounds it, or emphasizing what matters to us.

Writers can sometimes be elusive and reclusive, or they can be annoyingly engagé
and write only to illuminate, blow the whistle, and persuade. If we read Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, for example, and then shift to his non-fiction essays, we segue from family saga to polemical narrative about environmental degradation, particularly the decimation of bird life. An avid birder, he wants us to share his concern. What matters to him, he hopes, will matter to his readers.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times. Confusing times. It’s our mandate as writers to focus and clarify, reflect accurately, illuminate what’s hidden under the skein of the visible story, not let the tendrils of that skein pull us asunder before we can understand what is going on. Has there ever been such a gathering of intelligent, articulate print and broadcast journalists working as there are today?

My husband is an historian and political scientist and more optimistic than I am about strength of our Republic. He is glued to MSNBC and CNN and all the news and analysis he can read. He has an historian’s perspective and is already writing—in his head, not literally yet—the history of our difficult times as an historian would see it 10-20 years from now. So I count on him to keep events in perspective and to keep me informed. We begin our morning with my question: “Any new developments?” And he gives me the rundown, much of it troubling indeed.

I have zero tolerance for what is happening to our country and for the people in this so-called administration, and what they are doing to our language and to my students—the young ones in particular. Their feeling of hopelessness, their fear for the future, their dangerous new cynicism is new in my classroom. Young people, for the most part are enthusiastic, idealistic, and they cannot abide injustice. Given the opportunity to think and discourse, they question everything. Their silences since Trump was elected is unnerving. It even has a name: the Trump effect. Is this an unintended consequence of the reign of terror Trump and his handlers have unleashed? Or is it a calculated consequence? Are we expected to tremble and stop asking questions? Is there a Gulag waiting for us?

New York Magazine reported recently that 20,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested by ICE in New York City in recent months. Some of these are parents of the ambitious and hard-working Dreamers who have passed through my classroom. I want to scoop them all up and take them home with me. I want to protect them from the anxiety they are all feeling every single day. How can they possibly study?

NYU has a campus in Shanghai. Not long ago the greatest challenge in my workshops were students from China who were quiet in the classroom, who would not speak. The reasons are various—cultural and political, mostly. Now this challenge of privileged, shy Chinese students—most of them children of government officials, seems quaint.

What kind of times am I living in? Zero tolerance times. It’s a law enforcement concept Rudy Giuliani admired and instituted when he was Mayor of New York. I was in New York when the “policy” began, running in Central Park one day when a police car careened down the West Drive and nearly killed me, three pedestrians, two other runners, and a mother pushing a stroller. It didn’t even stop; it kept on going. We exchanged names and phone numbers, caught our breath and shakily went on our way. Only later did I find out that the police were chasing three kids who were selling pot. And that they didn’t even catch them.

Giuliani is 45’s man. What was that I heard about stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship? Did I hear correctly? Did my refugee parents flip over in their graves? Did 45 say it, or 45’s man, the one who had zero tolerance when he was mayor? Mr. Mayor: I have zero tolerance for you.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times, as Charles Dickens would say. What can we do about it as writers and citizens? Stay awake. Stand up and be counted every single day. Speak out. Rally. Stay focused. Don’t lose heart. Write our hearts out. Vote.  Read More 
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Damsel in Distress

We hadn’t checked our tires since we moved—oh the joys of car care—and on the way back from the gym I noticed that one of them was low. I headed to the closest gas station where air has a price: $1.50 in quarters for five minutes. But that wasn’t my problem; I had quarters stored in the glove compartment. My problem was psychological: I was on my own in a still-strange town, a tire had deflated to 15 lbs., my husband was not around, and despite AAA membership, I suddenly felt vulnerable—a damsel in distress.

The myth of damsels in distress pervades classical literature, painting, sculpture, cinema and every woman’s life into the 20th century, at least. There are many examples, here is just one: A US World War I poster (Harry R. Hopps; 1917) invites prospective recruits to symbolically save a "damsel in distress" from the monstrous Germans. And the monstrous German looks like King Kong who, in turn, looks like a threatening man of color. Say no more re: embedded cultural stereotypes.

The #MeToo movement continues women’s struggle against oppression, violence, abuse, humiliation, workplace discrimination, stereotypical imagery and, yes, distress. The difference now is that women don’t require “saving”; they are saving and empowering themselves.

But we have our retro moments. I could not, absolutely could not stop releasing air from the tire with—you know—the little gage. I went inside the station, forgetting that gas stations are not service stations any more, and said, out loud, to all and sundry paying their bills for chips and candy and gas, “Is there anyone here who can help me put some air into my tires?”

And, lo! a man said, “‘Yes, beautiful lady, of course.”

I swooned.

Short, stocky, mid-50’s maybe and he had an accent. Eastern European was my guess, grew up in a communist regime, has his own business—I was writing his life story--until he bent over and I saw a statement about supporting the Second Amendment on the back of his tee shirt. I asked him about the logo on the front; the sports store he uses, he said. “You can get anything you want there.” Anything meaning guns and ammunition.

“Great,” I said.

In five minutes the tires were done, with a free diagnosis: “ Dry rot in those tires, I’d suggest a set of new ones before the winter.”

Then came a lecture about our beleagured country and the threats we are facing.

“Russian cyber attacks?” I asked.
“No, the Arabs. Why do you think this is a gas station and there are no service stations any more? Those politicians, they know nothing.”
“And what about killing babies, what about that? They put the vacuum in and suck the baby out.”

I was riveted. It’s not that I haven’t heard these “ideas” before; I have, many times. But there was something about the dissonance between this man’s kindness and his rant that struck me hard. It was a reminder that none of us are all one thing. And that fear runs deep. Because even in the (relative) safety of America, and with a more kindred—albeit fascist, not communist ---politician in the White House, this man was still very afraid.

Dear reader, he was a man in distress.

So I didn’t take anything he said personally, not at all. Beautiful I may be, but I don’t think he “saw” me, or cared about my politics, or where I’m from, or what I do, or my ethnicity. I could have been anyone or I could have been someone, it made no difference. I was a blank screen upon which he projected his terror. I just didn't want to get too close to him when he was carrying a gun. He was probably packing as we stood there talking, or had a weapon concealed in his car.

“Thank you for helping me.” I continued. “You’ve been very kind. I’m heading for Mavis right now to buy a new set of tires. I really do appreciate what you have done for me today.”  Read More 
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The Stallion & The Donkey

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
Once upon a time a black stallion and a donkey lived together in a shed on a horse farm in New Paltz, NY. They lived in perfect harmony with one another, the landscape and their owners. I visited them whenever I walked down Dubois Road, formerly the homestead—twelve generations ago—of Jennifer Dubois Bruntil’s French Huguenot family. I have written about Jennifer’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot,” in a post on May 7 and, since then, have walked the road on Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

The French Huguenots escaped from persecution in France and settled in this magnificent valley in the late 17th century. Despite their own struggles, they became slave owners. Historians at the Huguenot Historic Site (HHS) uncovered a slave register more than a decade ago. It documented what everyone knew: By 1790 there were 302 slaves in New Paltz belonging to 77 families, 13% of the population.

For more information about slavery in the Hudson Valley:

Currently, there is a controversy on the SUNY campus about removal of Huguenot family names from dormitories—another “monuments” discussion. Decisions are forthcoming in a report that was due in April but has been delayed. Meanwhile, many roads in this town are named after the Huguenot families, including Dubois Road. What will the town do about them, ultimately, I wonder? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a memorial to the slaves who labored here will also be erected. There are many possible solutions. The horse farm has changed hands many times over the centuries, but originally was on the Dubois tract or patent “purchased” from the Esopus tribal sachems. But that is another story.

Echoes of past lives are everywhere here, and so much history that still feels very present, very visible. Devoted New Paltz citizens, descendants of slave-owning families, have inherited some tough history. There is a reckoning now both locally and nationally. I hope it remains civil.


I grew up in the city and don’t know anything about horses or donkeys, but I was as captivated by these two gentle creatures living together without discord as I have been by the history of the area. They always came to my call: first the stallion, then the donkey. The stallion was taller than I am, a very large creature indeed. He would broadside his body to the fence, snort a bit, which I took as a greeting, and let me stroke him. I talked to him for a while, he went on his way, and then the donkey arrived. I had never seen a donkey up close before. Those ears and eyes and snout, so adorable. Biblical creatures, they have been used as beasts of burden for 5000 years.

I looked forward to these visits every week and to learning more about the farm, its particular history and its current owners. But this past Saturday, when I returned to the field where the horse and donkey grazed, it was empty, as was the shed. I picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway and walked to the iron gate. There was algae bloom on the pond, the gate was closed with a bungee cord and the greenhouse was overgrown. This farm, like so many in America, is hurting. I soon learned from the grand-daughter of the owners that it is up for sale and that sadly, inexplicably, the beautiful black stallion has died. It wasn’t the heat; they’d been hosing the animals down all day. No, he had an attack of colic—horses cannot vomit to clear their digestive tract—and the vet could not save him. He was only sixteen, which is young for a horse these days.

The owners are bereft, as am I. Before leaving I walked into another field where the lone donkey was grazing peacefully. I don’t know if he feels the loss of his stallion friend—these are human emotions projected onto our beloved animals—but before I walked away I marveled at the dignity and simplicity of their lives.  Read More 
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Dinosaurs Make Me Laugh

Chris Pratt (Owen) hanging out with little "Blue," a smart and compassionate dinosaur. Courtesy Jurassic World:Fallen Kingdom
It was a serious situation: three years after the destruction of the Jurassic World theme park, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing return to the island of Isla Nublar to save their beloved dinosaurs from a fierce volcano. Just minutes into the film, it seems, they encounter very bad military men with very big guns. Mercenaries! Enter endearing yet terrifying gigunda dinosaurs that have been re-constituted from DNA fossils. Spoiler alert: there’s a grand-daughter who is a clone of her mother.

It was boiling outside, as hot as a volcano, so it seemed like a good idea to get into a cool movie theater in our new little town. It’s tricky parking in the mall lot, the sun beating down, no tall buildings to cast protective shadows. So we covered the front seat with a sheet and entered another world: Jurassic World.

I don’t know why I like these films exactly. Maybe it’s because I like Michael Crichton and was very sad when he died in 2008, too young, at 66. My mother, who was also a physician, loved his books and the first one she handed me was “Andromeda Strain.” I didn’t get most of the science but was riveted by the characters and the story-telling. Like most of Crichton’s adapted- for-film stories, the book is much better.

In his books, Crichton posed serious dilemmas about science and contemporary life—misuses, abuses, the nature of evil. And he wasn’t always politically correct, particularly on environmental issues—but he was an educated, curious, thoughtful man who wrote exceedingly well.

Crichton’s nonfiction collection about his travels (called “Travels”) has been on my NYU reading list forever and students are often surprised it’s there. It’s there because Crichton’s quests were fascinating and the writing is strong.

The movie house was nearly empty and my first thought was: I hope it doesn’t close anytime soon because it is very different watching DNA reconstituted beasts on the big screen, and screaming and sighing and laughing in the company of other fans as vulnerable but brave good and evil characters are shredded, stomped on, badly injured or swallowed in one dinosaur gulp .

My husband tells me I was laughing most of the time. He didn’t have to tell me; I knew it. This movie is well-acted, well-made, diverting, and hilarious.  Read More 
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Incarcerated Children; An Urgent Message

“Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack or individual attack directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials.” Source: Wikipedia

I was on a bike at the gym trying to ignore the horrific news on multiple TV screens and searching my New Yorker Today for a good article to read when I found one I’d missed on April 3, 2017 by Rachel Aviv, an outstanding reporter. It’s about the epidemic of comatose children in Sweden whose parents have not been granted asylum after many years of exile, adaptation to new surroundings, and years of waiting for an asylum application to be processed. The children of these families are analogous to our Dreamers; though most have not been born in Sweden, they have spent most of their childhoods in Sweden. Children being children, they learn a language quickly, make friends quickly, and soak up their host culture like sponges—the clothes, the music, sport fandom. More than 400 have fallen ill when asylym has been denied. They become sick for the family, they cannot move. “They fall away from the world,” one psychiatrist said. "They willingly die," said another.

Sweden had been the most beneficent country, taking in more refugees than any other European nation. This beneficence is an expression of the moral center of a humane, previously homogeneous society. But there had been a retrenchment, a right-wing surge, and more deportations if the country of origin was not at war. These deportations, Aviv explains, had become an “affront” to the country’s national character.

Even the Swedish king was alarmed, petitions were signed, the deportations eased, asylum was granted to the families of the comatose children and they began to recover as soon as they “heard” the news.

What can we learn from this astounding story? A great deal, I would say. Most importantly that it is our mandate as citizens to pay attention to the dangerous erosion of our moral center as a nation. Secondly, that we must continue to protest and give voice, as writers, as citizens, to those who are incarcerated and cannot speak. Thus my urgent message today, dear readers.

I find it telling the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court founded in 2002 as a permanent international criminal court to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes and crimes against humanity,” nor, more surprisingly, is it party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Indeed, the United States is the only United Nations member state that has signed but does not participate in the conventions all civilized—and even some uncivilized nations—have recognized as fundamental to the protection of the world’s children and world peace. And who can say that the United States is a civilized nation these days? I cannot.

Please read Rachel Aviv’s original article for full details about the “apathetic” children in Sweden:

And join me on June 30th wherever you are, in whatever country, city or state you reside to demonstrate against the horrific, inhumane actions of the current administration. Please vote in the primaries and get out the vote in November.

Support the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law:

and the American Civil Liberties Union:  Read More 
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Finding the Story

Crimson Crisp Certified Organic Apples at Westwind Orchards in Accord, New York
I’ve never worked in a deadline newsroom but I’ve always had feature editors who glaze over during a pitch and insist upon finding the story fast. Where’s the story? they ask skeptically, which is their job. In workshop, I call “finding the story” the armature, which is more than the theme or motif; it’s the infrastructure, the deep meaning of the work. Even a longer narrative has an armature, though there may be more than one. Still, all armatures must be linked if the work is to be viable and coherent.

Not a segue exactly, but I’ve been following the story of apples in New York State, and trying to find the story so that I can write something about them. I love apples, eat at least one a day as my physician mother taught me, and have been known to eat them top to bottom, core included. No more. If the apple is not organic, please note: the core is a receptacle for pesticide.

I thought this was going to be a benign and happy topic for me, a respite from all the terrible news, but it’s not; it’s connected to all the callous disregard we are experiencing right now—for the environment, for world peace, for desperate immigrants and their children spilling over our borders.

Already, I digress from my stated armature. The mind wanders. Let me begin again here:

The euphoria of living opposite an apple orchard in a converted apple cooler has worn off. When we first arrived in late March there was still snow on the ground and a couple of mornings a week I got out my ski poles and walked a road into the orchard, around the orchard, and through the orchard. Because I spotted a house on top of the rise, a house with swings and two cars, I penned a heartfelt letter asking permission to walk into the orchard and left it with the tenants to give to the owner. I never heard back; perhaps they knew my request would be moot once I found the armature of my apple story. (Please see my still innocent blog post of April 23rd.)

I kept walking into the orchard for a while, without permission. I carried a plastic bag and picked up debris. I found a hawk’s feather, said good morning to the ground hogs and crows.(I even love the crows, I have decided.) And then the snow melted and it was spring and no sooner was it spring than I heard a roaring sound and saw a spray truck spitting pesticide or fungicide into the trees. Several evenings a week.

I contacted the farmer:

“What kind of chemicals are you using?” No reply.

I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (Region 3):

“Are farmers allowed to spray conventional pesticide or fungicide in their orchards?”

“Yes. They are controlled. We inspect, but yes.”

I contacted the Ulster County Department of Health:

“Is there any evidence that the pesticides from this apple orchard have leached into the ground water? We have two wells on this property and the apple orchard has been spraying for decades."

“Absolutely not. That well water is clean as a whistle.”

A whistle? Really?

Now here’s the dilemma, one among many: I am both a citizen and a reporter, an observer and a participant. I have to get the facts, digest the facts, and respond to them. And one of the facts is this: the apple business is big business in New York State. The growers may want to “go organic,” but it’s difficult; it takes seven years to be certified once the going organic process starts. What’s more, except for crab apples, other varieties are not indigenous to North America ; they were brought in by immigrants, by settlers. And with their arrival came disease. There are natural defenses against these diseases, but pesticides are more “efficient.” More than likely, the apple you are eating right now is loaded with them. Peel the skin. Don’t eat the core.

Most upsetting is the realization that the degradation of our environment is self-inflicted, that it continues apace, and that our efforts to respond to climate change and the use of harmful chemicals must also continue apace so that all the apples our descendants eat will be as clean as a whistle.

That’s the story.  Read More 
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Sunset over the Shawangunks © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
I needed a long, solitary walk to clear thoughts of mental illness and suicide from my writer’s brain. Writers are sponges and the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death, the eulogies, the news loop; I had to turn off the TV. These two high-profile suicides—Spade and Bourdain-- were reminders of the daunting challenge of trying to help those near and dear who are suffering. We all know someone. We may be that someone.

I walked past a horse farm where a stallion and a donkey share a shed. I called to them and they came up to the fence. Though I had no hay to offer, they allowed me to pet them. I immediately felt better.

Years ago, in London, a gifted Israeli playwright we knew, Naftali Yavin, “suffocated” in his sleep at the age of 36. That was the official report. As in the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Yavin had abused drugs and alcohol. Were they used to medicate his despair, or did they exacerbate his despair, or did they cause his despair? And if he was overcome with melancholy, rage, or existential angst, why wasn’t his art enough to exorcise his demons? Why isn’t art ever enough to heal drug and alcohol induced brain changes? Because it isn’t. That is why addicts use the present tense, or the continuous present tense, when they refer to themselves in twelve-step meetings: I am an alcoholic, or I am a recovering addict. They never say: I’ve recovered.

Where was Bourdain in his recovery? Had he slipped? What will the autopsy reveal? How can we deter young artists—or chefs, who are artists—from using drugs? Is it realistic to hope that this is possible?  Read More 
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The Summertime Novelist

Photo of the Lower Catskills © copyright by Carol Bergman, 2018
Once upon a time, a writing group friend told me I probably wasn’t a novelist. The qualifier “probably” didn’t help; it felt like a curse, one I was determined to defy, exorcise, or ignore. It was not a nice thing to say to a writer trying something new. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, period.

I have just finished reading a profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the current fiction issue of The New Yorker, and I am reminded that my experience was not unique. Adichie does not enjoy hanging out with other writers. And I paraphrase her strong words: the knives eventually come out. I don’t know if this is competitiveness, jealousy, or what it is. It’s certainly not helpful to tear a writer down in this way. Surely there are always passages of interest to discuss, something in the submitted pages that illuminates the writing process and the choices the writer has made to tell the story. The choices may have failed, but we all can learn from those failures and make constructive suggestions for improvements.

Since the curse befell me, I have written two novels—“Say Nothing & “What Returns to Us”, and two books of novellas—“Water Baby” & “Sitting for Klimt”—and though they have not sold in the quadruple digits, they were satisfying to me in the writing, publishing and modest sales. Now I am working on a third novel, one I drafted more than ten years ago and abandoned. Was it because of the curse? I am not sure. I am determined to make it work—by the end of the summer. That’s my goal. And though this may sound somewhat dilettantish—I do not work full time on fiction—I am primarily a nonfiction writer/journalist, it is not. I have been researching and attempting this novel for a very long time.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed and some days are hard, very hard. I don’t know how full-time novelists do it, in fact. Adichie likes to be in the place she is writing about and has homes in Nigeria and America. She’s married and has a new baby and has had to find time to write. I became a more disciplined writer once I had my daughter; necessity is the mother of re-inventing daily routines. Writers who don’t have children but work full-time have a similar challenge: how to carve out space in their lives to write.

Like many writers, Adichie also teaches, not to earn money—Adichie does not need to earn money from teaching—but to mentor. Mentoring is a valuable reminder to the more practiced and published writer that writing is effort and that effort is rewarded.

Wish me luck, dear reader, luck and fortitude, as I return to the pages of my abandoned historical novel set in colonial New York. Now that I have moved out of the city I have a different landscape to inspire me. And there’s the hawk feather I found in the apple orchard soon after I arrived. In days past, it might have been a quill pen. Now it sits in my pen jar as a talisman, silently encouraging me.  Read More 
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Philip Roth & Tom Wolfe, RIP

"The sheer surprise of the Lindbergh nomination had activated an atavistic sense of being undefended. "

"A childhood milestone, when another’s tears are more unbearable than one’s own."

--Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America: A Novel,” 2004

“In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.”

--Tom Wolfe, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” 1987

This blog post is dedicated to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe who died this week, both in their 80’s. They were tireless writers, prescient writers. They wrote fiction and nonfiction, though Wolfe was primarily a journalist who wrote his novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” on a dare. All journalists eventually turn to fiction and harbor the ambition to write The Great American Novel, his friends said to him, sotto voce. Hubris ascendant, Norman Mailer had always said he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” a nonfiction book that used fictional devices to tell a story. Roth wrote a tongue in cheek, not very successful novel called "The Great American Novel," in 1973. It was about baseball.

Tom Wolfe found it difficult to relinquish interviewing and the scaffold of a real-life story, so he disciplined himself to produce a certain amount of words every week, and made an arrangement with Rolling Stone to serialize the book. That was unusual, strange and nerve-wracking. He vowed never to do it again. Think of Dickens, Trollope and other 19th century novelists writing to deadline, much like journalists, every week, book after book after book.

Roth had always written fiction, fiction that reads like nonfiction, and only occassionally wrote nonfiction. His setting was more often than not Newark, the city of his birth, and he created a persona, Nathan Zuckerman , a writer, to tell his richest stories. Yet, my favorites are non-Zuckerman novels, both masterpieces: “Nemesis” and “The Plot Against America,” which I reread this year. It was the One Book selection in several towns across America and for good reason; it is prescient indeed.

These days women are often offended by the old guard of white-American, sometimes misogynist male writers—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc. – men of the pre-women’s movement generation. And though we may wonder what women writers were doing for them, and with them, as they were getting published and becoming famous, these essential contemporary questions do not diminish the writers’ talent and accomplishments. Still, it's of interest that Roth's ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, wrote a scathing memoir about her marriage to Roth, "Leaving a Doll's House," that paints the author as a self-centered misogynist. Her book faded into obscurity as his reputation soared. And is it fair and is it right? Fair, perhaps not. Right, absolutely. Books survive on their merit.

So, too, the work of Wharton, Hemingway and many others. Anti-semitism courses through Hemingway and Wharton like a mother lode. When I was young and came upon mindlessly cruel racial slurs, in the voice of the narrator or the character, I shut the book and tossed it aside. I was more than offended, I was terrified. But no longer: the times in which those writers lived were different times. With #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, we are now in the midst of another advancement in Civil Rights. Writers will digest these changes and use them in their work. I am certain that Roth and Wolfe, both astute observers of America, would have done the same had they lived another decade.  Read More 
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