Apocalypse Watch

I’ve been teaching a graduate class on apocalypse in contemporary culture and, as a lark, we began opening each class with an apocalypse watch. After two weeks, here’s the list we had:

–Fires and Mud Slides in California

–Nuclear insults traded with North Korea

–Doomsday Clock moved to two seconds before midnight

–An NPR show on Sat 2/3 on the anniversary of The Day After Tomorrow (ABC, 1983) and Mr. Burns, the Post-Electric Play on NPR

–Chemical plants (hundreds of them) located in flood plains

–Daniel Ellsberg, author of The Doomsday Machine profiled in NY Times magazine, He had trouble getting the book published earlier. He feels the danger of an accidental nuclear war is very high.

Realizing our list would grow faster than we thought, we stopped.

We’ve been—I’ve been—concentrating on ideas that link contemporary fact, fiction, and film that show how we think about apocalypse. Some themes are clear: climate change, fear of contagion, nuclear anxieties. But some lurk well below the surface.

I’m writing a book called Primitive Apocalypse: The Lure of Destruction that will, I think—I really think—be a theory of apocalypse for our time. As it moves along, I’ll post here. But mostly, I’ll be reading, thinking, and writing!



Juicy Fiction

When I found myself using third person rather than first for a novel, it scared me. I couldn’t depend on a voice speaking to me, almost speaking through me, as I do when I write memoir. But I’ve enjoyed the freedom third person allows and discovered that multiple voices emerge organically, especially for my main character, a strong, complex female artist. I will announce it quite soon.

I’ve always loved history-based fiction and novels that fill in the blanks and make the past live.
Now I have written my own. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies got me thinking about writing fiction when I learned that Hilary Mantel was not always Hilary Mantel. She had done other things before creating these wonderful books.

I’ve have had a successful career in what people call “acclaimed” non-fiction, like Gone Primitive, Primitive Passions and The War Complex. I also won an American Book Award for my memoir about growing up Italian American in New York, Crossing Ocean Parkway. Now I’m branching out, with a novel in the spirit of The Paris Wife, Loving Frank, The Aviator’s Wife, and other smart fiction about interesting women who lived in fascinating times and places and moved in artistic circles. My main character is a major artist and I see that as a plus. I’m excited to place this novel and to say more!

#novels #women’s fiction #historical fiction #writing #art

Who We are in Memoir: A New Book

As I complete a new book that is part-memoir and part-critical, I am pondering who we are and want to be in memoir.

Maybe we have no choice. But writing takes time and revision and so, in fact, we always do.

Reading Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk exhilarated me: her prose soars like the hawk she trains after her father’s death. Reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights made me sad: for her daughter, of course, but also for Didion herself, who has not entered old age with resilience or wisdom. She’s frail, she tells us again and again. But she’s also Joan Didion and a killer writer still, though she relies too often on the repetition of key phrases. All through the book—a book about her daughter’s death—I kept wondering, what happened? What several things (for there seem to have been several things) went wrong? Didion will not go there, so you need to look back at The Year of Magical Thinking to hear more.

I found Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name wonderful and gripping. It confirmed my binge-reading of memoirs. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary kept me there since I had recently lost a mother and a brother too and their deaths had left me off-balance, off-kilter, and moving restlessly from place to place.

When my mother and brother died, I had recently completed a book about how World War II exists in cultural memory. I had spent years confronting the war’s staggering mass destruction, not just of soldiers, but also, and even more, of civilians. Men, women, and children—often whole families—killed, sometimes in the blink of an eye. Somehow, being a scholar about World War II made it hard, at first, to see the drama in the story of my own loss. I found myself reading the classics and writing about my mother’s and my brother’s deaths. Putting it all together and accessing their memory, without pain, took years and was further complicated by another death in the background, one I had never adequately faced.

I wrote this book in a way that feels true to me and that I hope will speak to others, as my earlier memoir did. Everyone loses a mother eventually; but, when it happens, it’s the only time for you.

Because I am circulating this book to publishers, I am announcing two tentative titles: Healing Rituals: Meditations on the Classics in a Time of Grief or Living Tissue, with the same subtitle. The book forms a sequel to my earlier memoir about growing up in-between Italian and Jewish American cultures in New York. It’s also a meditation on why we read classic books at times of loss and how they speak to us. To paraphrase Rebecca Mead, great books read us even as we read them.

More soon about when the book will appear!

The Return of the (Coney Island) Native

Coney Island 2017 is a different kind of place.

Cleaner. Friendlier. A mellow mix of New Yorkers enjoying the balmy air.

The Boardwalks are low to the ground now, making “under the Boardwalk” a code harder to understand. The feeling seems mellow, almost un-New-York, a feeling amped up when the cool air hits your face on a sweltering day in the City. All in all, it’s pretty cool in more ways than one. It doesn’t matter that the Cyclones game is kind of dull when the real-live Cyclone is part of the view. It doesn’t matter if the game goes into extra innings when the fireworks go up on schedule by 10 p.m.

I was born close to the spot I am sitting at the game. Literally, this is the Return of the Native, Coney Island style. When we neared the stop in Bensonhurst where I had grown up and waited many a long day and night for the N train, also lovingly called the Sea Beach, with a cruder nickname, the recorded conductor keep saying “we are being held here momentarily.”  After the third time, it began to seem symbolic. Like the evening. At Coney Island.







Italian Cookies.

“Those are traditional Italian cookies, you know,” the clerk said — a young man I would judge, on the basis of accent, to be Russian. ”I know,” I said. “But I miss the big traditional butter cookies you used to have, the ones that were plain or half covered in chocolate,” I added. The man looked puzzled.

I was purchasing the cookies for my last day of class, wanting my students to have the taste of New York. For reasons unclear to me, I had scoped through a series of Italian bakeries in the Village the day before, noting each time things missing that should have been there: pignolis fully covered in nuts; fig cookies as the Christmas season moves in, those large butter cookies which tend to be eaten after the fancier ones are gone—being simple, they’re simply delicious. My reasons must have had to do with some desire to regain my past, Proust-like, in the taste of a cookie.

When the Russian young man confided in me that the ordinary biscotti I’d purchased were “traditional Italian cookies,” a whole lot came together. The Italians who used to bake the cookies are gone now — to colleges and engineering jobs and to firms on Wall Street. The desire for the authentic Italian cookie or hero can drive us to frenzy, as anyone who has visited Torrisi Brothers or Little Italy on a weekend will know. But traditional Italian cookies? More often than not, they’re gone now too or mingled with a Spanish or Russian twist.

Summer in This City

You know the kind of day I mean: intense; broiling; with the sidewalks giving up smells of garbage long forgotten. After a bout of London-style weather (gray and rainy, without the “bright”), New York was like that last week: Summer in this City.

All around me, people were talking about going to the Hamptons or upstate or leaving town and just generally dissing the state of being here. This being my first full Summer in NY in quite some time, I had to wonder.

Then, all at once, the feeling lifted and the night was as glorious as it gets: up high, refreshing, with the views and the temperature just great. Sunsets being a Summer theme, here is last night’s. There may be better places to be. But even in the Summer, it’s always right to take Manhattan.

Digital newspapers

Okay… like most of us, I read the paper online as well as in print.  It’s been sad to see stories I read on the net appear days later in the NY TIMES.  It’s like a confession that print journalism is not just on the ropes but down for what is likely to be a permanent count.

That said, I am away from my NY TIMES and want to sing an ode to hard copies.

For one thing, there is the physical pleasure of holding the page and flipping back and forth at will. For another. there is the surround:  what appears next to what on page one.  Which ads appear in which context.  And then there is the matter of attention.  I don’t read every word in print but am far less likely to do so on the screen.  Am I unusual?  Miss you NY TIMES and look forward to having you back.

On Loving A City

Orhan Pamuk says some stunning things about his love for Istanbul.

They made me wonder whether all people who love a city feel something very similar.

Here’s what he says.

“What gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter, every memory, letter… and image jostling in its inhabitants crowded memories.”

“Anything we say about the city’s essence says more to about our own lives and our own states of mind.”

“Why should we expect a city to cure us of our spiritual pain? Perhaps because we cannot help loving our city like a family.”

“I embraced the city as my own – no one had ever seen it as I see it now. Once I had mastered this new poetic outlook, I chased with unchecked ardor after anything and everything connected with the city.”


Joan of Arc

I was around eleven or twelve when I became infatuated with Joan of Arc, reading biographies of her and loving the idea of a maiden warrior for France unfurling her flag and taking the field for God and King.  That was the Joan who came to me, I suspect via a book aimed at pre-teens. She was feisty and strong and above all not hemmed in by a conventional sense of what women can or cannot do.

The Carl Dreyer film shows a rather different Joan.  His Joan has lost her last battle and is on trial for heresy, with the penalty for a wrong answer potential burning at the stake.  His The Passion of Joan is a 1928 silent film that uses intense close-ups to convey its moods. The movie alternates tensely between closeups of Joan and closeups of her accusers and the one priest well-disposed to her case. Coming out, as it did, a year after talkies, the film was always out of sync with its times. I saw it recently in the director’s cut, accompanied by an original and quite stirring score that enhanced the mood.

The film is an idiosyncratic masterpiece about a truly unique and stirring figure in world history.  The director reconstructed a medieval city which is shown only in tiny patches, showing an obsessive quality suitable to his subject, Joan.  For anyone who watches the film knows that Joan’s over-the-top quality will surface in the end and doom her to the witch’s death she so rightly fears. Obsession. Compulsion. The heeding of inner voices. Saints did it. Artists do it all the time.