Monthly Archives: May 2011

A gaga book nerd, part 2

Schwartz logo guy, now with Boswell

I wrote yesterday about being all awestruck at this year’s American Academy of Arts and Letters awards event. It was an opportunity for me to chat with other people who care about punctuation, grammar, and beautiful sentences, not to mention what happens when they all come together behind a spine. I need to mention one more lovely thing that happened twice during my literary conversations.

Upon mentioning I was from Milwaukee, two different people asked me about Schwartz/Boswell Books. They knew about Daniel Goldin, and clearly appreciated what a special thing we’ve got going here. Now these are fancy book publishing people, one of them someone who edits one of the most renowned U.S. fiction writers of the day (I don’t want to drop names but — Jonathan Franzen).

I was happy to say I live just around the corner from Boswell Book Company and run into Daniel, its proprietor, all the time. It was a heartbreaking moment in our city’s history when Schwartz Bookshops closed down after 83 years in business and after bringing (it must have been) tens of thousands of authors to the city for readings, signings, talks. But Daniel stepped in to keep the Downer Avenue shop open, renaming it Boswell and retaining that funky little guy in the logo. The Downer shop is as wonderful as ever. Daniel is one of the most amazing readers I have met (a point made by one of the fancy NY people, too). He still brings scores of writers into town. Titles and authors and imprints just tumble out of him. Give him a word and he’ll give you a list. Travel. Romance. Squirrels. Corduroy slacks. He’s a lovable presence on NPR from time to time, and writes a great blog. My boss and I recently took him out to lunch so we could pick his brain about book events (we have a project in the works) and he gifted us with a generous helping of his considerable experience.

Thank you, Harry and David Schwartz for the years you gave us. Thank you, Daniel, for giving us more of those years. Because of you, I can go to luncheons in New York, say the word “Milwaukee,” and talk about books instead of football.

>> Daniel wrote a post for the blog Publishing Trends, you can read it right here.

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A book nerd goes a little gaga

I got a chance to attend the annual awards event at the Academy of Arts and Letters in NYC this week (someone I know was being honored). I also had the chance to be a little like a kid at a Lady Gaga concert, because there were quite a number of arts and letters luminaries. Tony Kushner! Edward Albee!  Suzan Lori-Parks! Lorrie Moore! Cy Twombly’s son! Also, Garrison Keillor in red socks!

But the best part was that my luncheon table was full of writers and editors.

The guy to my left was a fellow named Brando Skyhorse, and the woman to my right was his publisher, Martha Levin of  Free Press. Brando’s wonderful book, “The Madonnas of Echo Park,” won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, which goes to the best work of first fiction (novel or short stories) published in 2010.  Brando, who now lives in Jersey City, is a charming man with an interesting story. Growing up in LA he assumed he was Native American, because that’s what his mom told him. He later learned he was Mexican.

Of course I couldn’t help myself but ask Martha, What upcoming books are you excited about? Which is a little like asking my Uncle Bill his favorite bad joke — I knew I’d get an earful, but I was ready to. She told me about two in particular I am going to watch for. It’s interesting to me that both authors deal with race, otherness, and ethnic identity.

The first is by Julia Scheeres, the author of “Jesus Land.” Like Bando, Julia has a fascinating back story. She was raised in rural Indiana in a fundamentalist-religious family with an adopted brother. She’s white, her brother’s black. At one point, the two were shipped off to a reform school in the Dominican Republic. The memoir recounts her story. I haven’t read it but I’m putting it on my list. Julia’s next book, due out this fall, is titled “A Thousand Lives.” Martha tells me that Julia wanted to write a piece of fiction about a charismatic religious leader, so she started researching Jim Jones for inspiration. In doing so, Julia discovered scores of records from the Jonestown massacre investigation that hadn’t been written about. She also realized that there were survivors (which I didn’t recall). She switched course and decided to write a piece of nonfiction about Jones. Her fundamentalist upbringing was her secret handshake. One survivor, a teen-ager at the time, didn’t want to talk to her until he read “Jesus Land.” After reading Julia’s account of growing up in a zealously religious community he realized: she’d get it.

As we talked, Martha pointed out that nearly all the Jonestown followers were African American — another detail I didn’t recall. I’m looking forward to reading about a chilling piece of American lore with fresh eyes, through fresh eyes.

Brando and Julia are flip-flopping. His next book is a memoir called “Things My Fathers Taught Me.” He laughed when I asked him, “Tell me about it” as his publisher was listening, because he had to have his pitch down. Among the  urgent need-to-read phrases he delivered was “just in time for father’s day,” “best memoir ever,” and “I had five step-fathers.”

At about that time a squall arrived, fluttering the sides of the tent and sending streams of water under our luncheon tables, requiring me to pick up my soaking purse and compelling several other tables to evacuate. The talk turned to a John Ashbery poem about a squall. The award recipients were called away to assemble on the stage, and we tip-toed around the puddles to the auditorium. I knew I shouldn’t have worn open-toed shoes.

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Apparel detente: A Mother’s Day tribute

Four at the Jersey Shore: My mom with her kids Leslie, Diane and Michael. (Photo by Dad)

That’s me in the pink tank suit and I remember that tank suit vividly. It was made with stretchy puckery material and was super comfortable. I’m sure mom took me shopping for it, probably at the Menlo Park Mall. This photo was taken before generational shopping tensions set in. Before I started considering those kinds of sunglasses weird. Before my first pair of Dr. Scholl’s sandals or halter top. The carefree days.

I bring this up because I was looking for a Classic Mom Photo that would set the tone for a Mother’s Day blog post. My collection is limited and tends to skew toward Jersey Shore photos like this one. But as I browsed, I realized how much we dressed up in those days. Or perhaps a better way to put it — how neatly we dressed up.

Exhibit A: this was taken on a family trip to Washington, D.C. A white dress with a bow! Matching purse! White patent-leather shoes!  It was sweltering, but at least the dress was sleeveless. I am sure all three of us kids were equally tidy, tasteful and respectful of the setting — Our Nation’s Capital and all. It must have taken a lot of planning. Mom, all these years later, I take my hat off to you.

I also want to say that I am still trying to be as neatly turned out as I was in those days, but it’s a little tougher to do without your fastidious eye. And I have a few other things to say, as well.

I want to tell you that I appreciate the way your mouth tensed up when, three or four years later, I wanted to buy a peasant blouse instead of a peter-pan-collared blouse. Or rather, I wanted YOU to buy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this kind of moment probably presented serious dilemmas to a woman who, for many years, had her hair “done” every week in a bouffant and wrapped it in toilet paper when she slept. Who sewed a lot of my clothes (maybe even the one in this photo) and knew a good seam when she saw one.

I really appreciate you taking me to that funky store in Plainfield, the one in an old house, where they sold corduroy, 3-button hip-huggers in more colors than I could imagine. In the days when a pretty young mother was on the uncool side of the Generation Gap, you ventured into groovy stores to shop for me. And, I strongly suspect, for a good bargain.

You were raised with a sense of what was Proper. I think that might have a lot to do with the fact that, as I later learned, the Golembeski girls did not have a lot of means and yet always looked fabulous. Grandma would visit shop windows, study the dresses there, and make outfits for you (at least that’s the story I heard from Aunt Marie). Maybe you lived humbly, but by golly no one would accuse the Golembeski girls of not dressing tastefully. So why, why, why — during the peak of American prosperity, married to a man with a good job — why would a daughter of yours want to wear a peasant blouse? It must have been tough on you. And then came the work boots, and the bell-bottomed jeans that had to have frayed hems. The mini-dresses, the maxi-dresses. Talk about confusing times.

On the other hand, you must know that I got my mischievous fashion streak from you. I remember some fashion chances you took back in the day. (That black-lace number you wore to — I think — Uncle Matt’s wedding? Kids are impressionable, they pick up on these things.)

Fast forward to last month, when you and dad flew in from New Jersey to visit me. We needed to run an errand at Trader Joe’s, get some new watch batteries, that kind of thing. So while we were at the mall I just had to take you by a few of my fashion-bargain favorites. Just to peek.

Now, the shopping mall is Diane and Mom’s Natural Habitat. We are totally in synch with each other at the mall. Through the door, a beeline to the sale racks, fingering the fabrics, checking the finishing, chatting in our Shopping Shorthand. “No, not that.” “You?” “If it didn’t have the bow ….” “Sleeves.” “Ha ha! Can you imagine?” “Onmygosh for Katie.” “Would’ve worked once.” In Forever 21 (and yes, we were the oldest people there by many years) we channeled the old flea-market instincts, understanding that in this environment it’s the bargains more than the seam quality. And then I saw it: a maxi dress. It reminded me of a number I had in high school . That one was a red print with a scoop neckline, little pouf sleeve, flounced hemline. This one was a brown-white-and orange print — yes, it must be said, a peasant print — with braided shoulder straps and a flounced hemline. And at $17 it was a steal.

We bought it. Mom’s treat.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.
I will wear my maxi dress today in your honor.

Milwaukee, with Momtini. (Photo by me)

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