Books

In 'Amityville,' A True Real Estate Horror Story

By Josh Kilmer-Purcell   |   Wednesday, October 27, 2010
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Book Your Trip: Nancy Pearl Picks Tales For Travel

Thursday, October 7, 2010
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Center Stage

Tuesday, August 24, 2010
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The Art of Ritual

By Alicia Anstead   |   Monday, August 23, 2010
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"The eloquent testimonials last week of several outstanding writers and close family members were what you might expect at a public memorial service for the crime novelist Robert B. Parker who died in January. But when his son Daniel, an actor, stepped onto the dais with a pianist, the crowd froze with anticipation. Before he began, Daniel said only a few words – that the two things his father loved best, past family and work, were baseball and singing. And Daniel Parker didn’t need to say more because the story he told through the poignant father-and-son up-at-bat song “What You’d Call a Dream” and the last stanza of “Danny Boy” said it all.

My guess is that we don’t typically think of ourselves as creative producers at funerals or even weddings because their formats are often dictated by religious traditions or social conventions. But, as many cultures know, performance can lift some of the solemnity of ritual and allow us to experience life’s most commanding transitions in a joyful and piercing way through the storytelling embedded in art.

Earlier this month, I attended the funeral of my cousin who was a dancer with Joffrey Ballet Company and, later, a sheep farmer on an island. (And yes, that means she had the most graceful way of raking hay.) Jackie was a woman of the arts and a woman of nature. Farmers and artists alike attended her memorial service in a scruffy seaside park. A trio of trombone and strings accompanied the local community choir for several songs, and a couple of us spoke about her life. But no moment resonated more with who she was than when a 13-year-old dancer stepped forward on that grassy stage and perfomed to the old Shaker tune “Lord of the Dance.”

Performance can tell the story of a life in a symbolic way, one that can tap deeply into our individual memories and collective unconscious. Where ever people gather – funerals, weddings – there is the possibility for transformative storytelling. When we find ways to include art and artists in our ceremonies, we find a direct connection to our shared humanity. But don’t take my word for it. “All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare, “And all the men and women merely players.”"

AudioBooks

By Carlo Rotella   |   Friday, August 20, 2010
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"There I am, under a stack of weights, listening to Elizabeth telling off Mister Darcy for declaring his feeling for her in an insufficiently gentleman-like manner."     Jane Austen

I tend to be skeptical about the effect of gee-whiz technological advances on our minds in general and our reading habits in particular. Yes, I know, there’s a universe of information at our fingertips and all that, and these advances make life better in many ways. But not in all ways. High-tech multitasking and constant communication, for instance, often just provide excuses to be rude, sloppy, lazy, or childishly distracted. And online reading, for all its promise of infinite hyperlinked breadth, is to reading a book roughly as nine-ball is to straight pool: it tends to maximize eventfulness and choice at the expense of depth.

But there’s one technological advance in reading in the past few years about which I’m completely enthusiastic. I regard it as a major improvement that I can listen to a book on a near-weightless device while I go for a run or work out at the gym. Cigar factory workers of yore used to chip in to pay a reader, but I work on my own, and I can’t listen to someone else read while I write. By allowing me to read and exercise at the same time, ipod and audiobooks grant more of the right kind of life. It’s a rare case in which new technology extends the precious supply of time when you can pay intimate attention to another person’s voice and story without being interrupted by competing technology--a ringtone or inbox chime. You do have to remember to be alert when you’re crossing the street, but you can find running routes, like riverside paths, that cut that necessity to a minimum.

And I find that when I’m exercising, the quality of concentration, my sense of entering the author’s world as the author enters mine, is especially sharp. I’m no Olympian who needs to focus on high-performance workouts; I can just put my body on autopilot, and getting the whole system warmed up and flowing has the odd effect of making my mind more acutely intent on the reader’s voice in my head. You could well argue that I’m rationalizing yet another retreat from human contact, but I think not. Especially at the gym, where all I’m shutting out is “Eye of the Tiger” on the sound system and guys around me talking about what they eat, I feel as if I’m missing what should be missed in order to hear what should be heard.

I particularly enjoy being carried away from there by the most inappropriate books, like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There I am, under a stack of weights, listening to Elizabeth telling off Mister Darcy for declaring his feeling for her in an insufficiently gentleman-like manner. And I’m thinking, “Yeah, fie upon you, Mister Darcy. Now pray excuse me, for I must do a set of squats."

Book review: Cleaving by Julie Powell, sequel to Julie & Julia, has plenty of spice

By Cathy Huyghe   |   Thursday, August 12, 2010
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Julie Powell must certainly have considered cooking her way through volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the follow-up sequel to her wildly successful Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Some writers would have done just that. It would have been a predictable next move, maybe, but one that came with a fair guarantee of readership by the legions of Julia Child fans – many of whom have been Child devotees since WGBH’s groundbreaking cooking series, The French Chef.

But instead of cooking her way through Mastering (Volume Two), Powell apprenticed herself at a butcher shop in upstate New York. It was a bold, creative, and decidedly unpredictable move, and I applauded her courage and lack of orthodoxy. Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession was my book club’s March’s pick, and we met last week at Cornerstone Bookstore in Salem to discuss it in detail.

I was, I rush to say, keen to discuss Powell’s descriptions of dismembering steer and disemboweling pigs with the group, fellow food lovers all. But, if speaking honestly, it must be said that we all were more interested in what else Powell writes about.

What else she writes about is sex.

In Cleaving, Powell writes candidly and in detail about her highly charged affair with “D.” She writes about her troubled marriage in a tone that oscillates between indifference and agony. She writes revealingly about the emotional and psychological troubles of a life she complicates to the extreme.

It was a racier book than anyone in our group had anticipated. What it had to do with Julia Child – the reason at least some of us voted to read the book in the first place – was tangential at best. And as discussion within the group began, thoughts of Julia or, indeed, of butchery in general, fell quickly by the wayside.

There was a little of this at the start: “I was amazed by what it takes to cut meat.” And this: “I liked the parts where she went to other countries and connected with people over the meat.”

But the tempo of the conversation picked up considerably when we turned inevitably to the subject of sex.

“I read the whole thing,” one member volunteered immediately.

“I finished it ahead of time,” said another.

“She hooked me right at the beginning,” said a third.

Sex manages to strike those chords. Not that we spent much time on the specifics of the acts, but we did delve into what the acts meant and how we related to them.

One woman related, with startling clarity, the merits of “a love that hurts.” Another zoomed into page 22, where Powell describes her grandmother’s lifelong feeling of pointlessness, something that was passed down from generation to generation, and her mother’s “bone-deep unhappiness or discontent.”

It wasn’t a pretty story but, frankly, neither is sex nor love nor life all the time. I found Powell’s book refreshing exactly because it did not have an ending all tied up in a bow. In fact, members of our book club disagreed on what exactly the ending of the story was. We read the same last pages, but our interpretations of those pages varied widely.

I say that’s a good thing.

Because a perfect thing, a perfect, pretty thing, is boring. Powell’s story, and how it strikes chords within our own, is life. It’s complicated. It has texture, and ridges. It’s coarse. And rough. Sometimes that’s just what you want. And sometimes that’s what you get, whether you want it or not.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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