Q & A With Author And Activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin
“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” is the latest work by feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Set in 1980s New York City, the novel focuses on Zach Levy, son of Holocaust survivors, who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe. Conflict ensues when he falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African American activist who could be his soul mate. In telling the story, Pogrebin probes weighty issues including self identity, inherited pain and the legacy of trauma. RI’s Lisa Green met up with Pogrebin, a part-time resident of the Berkshires, who will be speaking about the novel and signing copies at the Lenox Library on Friday, July 24 at 6:30 p.m.
RI: You delve into so many profound issues in this book, but the overriding one seems to be the question whether or not Zach — a stand-in for many of us — is obligated to choose guilt over love. Do you think non-Jews feel that to the extent that Jews do?
LCP: I often wonder if there’s any equivalent to the way Jews feel responsible for the diminishing numbers of us. I don’t know if any other people have a sense of how they could disappear. I did want to really describe what that feels like.
RI: Zach makes a promise to his mother, even though he doesn’t practice Judaism in any traditional way — he doesn’t keep kosher, doesn’t attend synagogue except maybe once a year. Yet, as you write, “The essence of his Jewish identity was his obsession with his Jewish identity.”
LCP: We struggle. We have so many gradations along the spectrum. You can be a once-a-year Jew in synagogue terms, yet very Jewish…whether it’s a few rituals that are family oriented or identifying with our heroes, that kind of Jewishness. An Orthodox Jewish person wouldn’t say we’re Jewish, but we are, we feel it.
RI: Zach was so stuck on finding his bashert — his soul mate — he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
LCP: When you have a filter that all the prospective dates in your life have to fall through, you close down so many options, and religion is a big one. The question for me in this book is, do you give up love for a kind of macro responsibility to your faith/tradition? What does continuity mean? What are you going to practice? You start slicing it very thin. It’s a conversation that’s very real and self defining. It forces you to distill meaning, instead of saying, I’ve got to marry a Jew, I’ve got to have Jewish children. What constitutes raising a child Jewish?
RI: How much of the writing was a way to sort out your own feelings?
LCP: All the things we’re talking about are things that obsess me. That’s my Jewish identity: obsessing over my Jewish identity. I feel like I am a transitional generation. My mother was born in Hungary and came here when she was 9. My father was born on the boat over, so his was an immigrant family. One third of each of their families perished in the Holocaust. We were very aware in the war that people weren’t answering their letters; care packages came back. Even though I was a tiny kid, you don’t miss that. My kids have grown up with none of that — the sense that if we lose this war we’ll be dead, too. The Holocaust is a historical event for them, but to me it feels like something I lived through. That’s why I have Zach saying, How can you have a flashback on something you didn’t experience? But you can — you fill in all the blanks.
For me to write about this displaces it onto some other characters but feels exactly what I feel, think about, worry about. The issue of race relations, especially black and Jewish, matters a lot to me. I was in a black-Jewish dialogue group for ten years, which is the only way I could feel entitled to write about Cleo. So black-Jewish relations, Jewish identity, the power of inherited trauma, the question of desire versus obligation — those are big things for me. But I didn’t end the book anywhere dispositive.
RI: A book reviewer said that you posed enormous questions without suggesting answers or even that they exist, that the search is the thing.
LCP: We’re much too focused on 10 tips for your garden, the recipe for happiness…it flattens the complexity of life, sands down all the rough edges. That’s not how life is. Between Zach and Cleo you have worlds in their past and their hearts. To wrap it all up neatly would be a disservice to all those worlds that are whirling around inside of those characters.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Friday, July 24, 6:30 p.m.
The Lenox Library
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Readers: Enjoy A Day Of Books And Authors At ‘Off The Page’
By Paige Darrah
New York City residents might be familiar with “Open House,” in which publishing giant Random House invites readers to its offices to spend a day with A-list authors. In the wake of those successful events, Random House will take authors “Off the Page” and into Upstate’s Basilica Hudson on Saturday, July 11. The first event of its kind in the Hudson Valley will feature keynote speakers Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor and New York Times food critic, and Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project.
“The main goal of our special events program is to connect readers with authors and readers with readers – a model that has proven very successful,” says Theresa Zoro, Random House’s director of publicity and communications. “The spirit of the Hudson Valley cultural scene perfectly embodies our vision for a day of literary inspiration.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that a number of the authors and speakers participating in the program have homes in this “culturally engaged community.”
It’s also an opportunity for the area to shine. Random House is partnering with local businesses like Gracie’s (one of the several food trucks that’ll be parked at Basilica throughout the day); Hudson-Chatham Winery (they’re doing tastings); and an Etsy pop-up shop featuring local Hudson Valley artisans.
The day begins with Reichl, who will be discussing her forthcoming Hudson Valley-centered cookbook (her first in 40 years), My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Changed My Life. The book’s gritty photographs — Gourmet-magazine-era prop food stylists are notably absent — span farmers market, forests and all four seasons, capturing the region via an inquisitive culinary lens.
“I think that this is one of the best places in the world to live… especially if you’re a cook,” Reichl says during a phone interview from her home in Columbia County. “I was in such a bad place [following Condé Nast’s abrupt shuttering of Gourmet in 2009]. Being up here really grounded me. My whole attitude about life changed in that year. I was able to find moments of joy in the kitchen and pay attention to pleasure again.”
Gretchen Rubin will give the afternoon keynote speech focusing on habits and happiness, the subject of her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives. “Many of us have a draining habit that crowds out healthier, more productive activities,” Rubin says. She’ll offer some habit-changing strategies that will help you live your best life — a recurring theme of the event.
There will be a variety of talks and book-inspired workshops throughout the day: mix-and-match sessions — dealing with “stuff,” standout travel destinations, meditation exercises, book club advice and more — plus time to meet and greet the authors and editors. And who doesn’t love a nice tote bag filled with summer reads and other goodies?
The event will be capped with a wine tasting featuring selections from local wineries; a special al fresco dinner is an add on.
Books, authors, food and wine — what could be better? Only, maybe, that it’s happening right in the Rural Intelligence region.
Off The Page at Basilica Hudson
Saturday, July 11, 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
110 South Front Street, Hudson, NY
Tickets: $100 (tote bag included)
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Author/Pilot Mark Vanhoenacker Captures the Magic of Flight
By Nichole Dupont
Last year, on a flight from JFK to San Juan, my 11-year-old son was only concerned with two things. One, was I sure the hotel had a pool? And two, did I book him a window seat on the flight? Yes, and yes. I looked over his shoulder as we said goodbye to rainy New York in April, and again as we descended over the blue waters of the Caribbean. I wondered how many people had enjoyed this view before me. But air travel is something we too often take for granted, or even loathe, and author Mark Vanhoenacker says we shouldn’t. The 747 pilot has just published his first book, Skyfaring (Knopf 2015), which is part metaphysical contemplation, part memoir, and part intro to aviation engineering. It encourages readers to sit back and truly enjoy the modern magic that is flying.
“On a simple level, I wrote the book to show what my job is like,” says Vanhoenacker via phone from New York. He’s taking a little bit of time off from flying to promote the book stateside (it was released in the U.K. in April). “Some people, actually a lot of people, don’t like to fly. I’m hoping that those people will read the book and think it’s a pretty cool thing to do sometimes. C’mon — you’re looking DOWN at the clouds!”
Vanhoenacker will be on the ground on Friday, June 19 at The Bookstore in Lenox to read and sign his book on, as it turns out, his native soil. The well-traveled pilot, who began flying commercially when he was 29 years old, grew up in the rolling Berkshire hills and returns to the area regularly to be with friends and family. This place, he says, even after long jaunts to Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo and nearly every other major city in the world, will always be home to him.
“A lot of the world is kind of hot and crowded. I’m actually glad to come from a place that has seasons, even winters — I know, I know,” he laughs. “Because I fly a 747, we usually only go to the biggest cities and my first inclination when we land is to leave it and find the hiking trails.”
Not an easy feat when one is in, say, Hong Kong for the day. But Vanhoenacker has done it, and insists that there is “tons of open space” on the islands that surround one of Asia’s most crowded epicenters. In the book, he describes a hike with other flight personnel in a park in South Africa, where it is “hot and dusty” and the “soil gusts up in crimson clouds with each step” while back in London, where they departed, it’s freezing. This constant flux of climate and geography and light, all within the span of just a few hours, and the sense of shock that comes with such adjustment, is what he and others in the field refer to as ‘place lag.’ According to Vanhoenacker, place lag doesn’t fade away, no matter how veteran the traveler. It’s non-combative, and also part of what makes his job so enjoyable. In this state of lag, making connections — human, geographic, ethereal, metaphysical — becomes both a science and an art.
“It’s amazing and interesting work. The plane is making connections between very different places,” he says. “There’s a social shake-up that happens with the crew, as well. I don’t have a fixed set of colleagues. I may never see some of these people again. It’s the same with the passengers. It’s so interesting to see new people and learn the kinds of jobs people have. Some are on the trip of a lifetime that they’ve saved their whole lives for.”
Off the ground, Vanhoenecker allows readers a mystical-toned glimpse into the world of flight. He writes about sky regions, a “new world, high above the old one, that is not yet fully charted,” the intricate and somehow beautiful guts of passenger planes, and the vastness of water and night. A whole world familiar yet unfamiliar, and at times incredibly solitary. But he is able to balance the solitude, and has found little pockets of acclimation — a bookstore in Beijing, sunset in Scandinavia, a shrine in Japan — that seem always to bring him back to the landing strip.
“I’m at home, standing sleepily by the sink,” he writes. “The water runs over the soles of my trainers, sweeping the African dust brightly over the stainless steel. I try hard to remember that this is an unusual experience of the world — to have stood on the earth there…then suddenly to find myself alone on an ordinary afternoon quietly washing it from my shoes.”
Mark Vanhoenacker reading and booksigning
Friday, June 19, 7 p.m.
11 Housatonic Street, Lenox, MA
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WCMA Launches A First: ‘Warhol By The Book’
Andy Warhol, Andy Warhol’s Index (Book), 1967 (pre-publication mock-up designer’s copy). Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Richard F. Holmes, Class of 1946. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
By Lisa Green
Even now, 28 years after his death, Andy Warhol is an artist who keeps on giving. Just this week, in preparation for the “Warhol by the Book” exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art, curator Kathryn Price and Matt Wrbican, chief archivist of The Andy Warhol Museum, made a discovery about the artist’s Index, a popup book complete with sound recordings, balloons, fold-outs, holograms, even a do-it-yourself nose job.
On Friday, March 6, that book, called a “children’s book for hipsters,” along with around 500 other Warhol book-related projects, will be on view at the opening of the first U.S. exhibition to concentrate on Warhol’s book work. Organized out of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the exhibit makes WCMA its first stop, thanks in part to the College’s own collection of Warhol’s book-related works, many of which were given by Richard F. Holmes, Class of ’46. The fact that Williams is in the middle of a year-long, campus-wide Books Unbound initiative made this setting particularly relevant.
“We’re so happy to be partnering with the Warhol Museum,” says Kathryn Price, curator of collections at WCMA. Inspired by the Williams Warhol collection, she first proposed doing such a show four years ago. “Our venue will be the largest one dedicated to this exhibit.”
Andy Warhol, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, 1954, (Printed by Semour Berlin, written by Charles Lisanby), bound artist’s book, litho-offset prints on paper with hand coloring. Williams College Museum of Art, Gift of Richard F. Holmes, Class of 1946. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The exhibition showcases a range of material from Warhol’s practice including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and artist’s books, all of which demonstrate Warhol’s experimentation with form and content. Included in the exhibition are never-before-shown paste-up layouts for two books of photos, a to-scale model of a book made from his Marilyn Monroe prints (it unfolds to almost 30 feet), and preliminary mockups that show how the Index changed from inception to its final state (and therein lies that most recent discovery).
Book lovers who are surreptitious snoopers of other people’s bookshelves will especially appreciate the gallery that recreates Warhol’s eclectic personal library. Among his collection: the first edition of the Atkins Diet and a book on poodles.
At the opening, Price and Wrbican will present the first in a series of conversations devoted to Warhol’s contributions to the field of publishing, with drinks and mingling to follow. The exhibit will be on view through August 16 and will then travel to the Warhol Museum.
“Warhol by the Book”
Williams College Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown
Warhol & the Stuff of Books
Friday, March 6, 6 p.m.
Warhol & Cookbooks
Tuesday, April 7, 6 p.m.
Warhol & Infiltrated Publishing
Tuesday, April 28, 6 p.m.
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Author Megan Bergman Brings ‘Almost Famous Women’ To Oblong Books
By Nichole Dupont
There is almost no drawl left in Megan Bergman’s voice. The North Carolina native has become almost completely northernized thanks to life on her Vermont farm which she shares with her veterinarian husband, their two young daughters, and a slew of feathered and four-legged critters. Maybe it was those long New England winters that prompted Bergman, who penned “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” a starkly rich collection of short stories that received almost instant accolades, to delve deep for her latest, arguably darker ensemble. “Almost Famous Women,” (Scribner, Jan. 2015) was released this month and is Bergman’s first foray into historical fiction. But it doesn’t feel like fiction at all.
“I’ve been reading this stuff for ten years as an academic and a writer. If it’s out of print and obscure, I’ll read it,” says Bergman in a phone interview from her home state, where her book tour has begun with balmy 40 degree days. “The research really lights up my brain in response. The hardest thing was that I had to give myself permission to write historical fiction. There was so much missing anyway that the imagination takes over.”
Bergman will be at the Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on Sunday to answer any questions — if she can — about the women she has chosen for the collection. And what women they are. The book opens with Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins well into the twilight years of a life once-filled with Vaudevillian potential. The story is told by Daisy, who implores the reader to “Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing, without the other knowing.”
The book’s title hints at the quiet devastation of bad choices, hard times and plain old flawed characteristics that shape and shatter or let go to ground the lives of Dolly Wilde, Tiny Davis, Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen, Norma Millay and the others, named and unnamed. None of us are immune, it seems, least of all the talented.
“The ‘almost’ is a qualifier from the beginning. It’s a longing, coming up short. We’re fascinated by characters, even people, who really want something. But it was important to me that this wasn’t ‘Almost Famous White Women’ or ‘Almost Famous Straight Women.’ The fact that they still read as challenging stereotypes in a contemporary setting is significant.”
The stories, which are largely set in the 1920s through the 1940s, flow in a cacophonous timeline of war, solitude, poverty and decrepitude, and are not limited to one continent. From heiress turned boat racer “Joe” Carstairs’ Caribbean paradise to a convent in Northeast Italy where the bastard daughter of Lord Byron is hidden from the world to Steepletop, home of the venerable Edna St. Vincent Millay (and her oddly obsessive sister, Norma), it seems as if no geographical stone is left unturned as these women refuse to bend into the mold that is laid out for them. For all of us, really.
“All of these women are taking risks,” Bergman says. “They are all navigating that strange line between self-actualization and self-sacrifice. Life can be very messy and there’s so many ways to sail this ship of being a woman. I didn’t want to cultivate the pity of the readers. These characters are definitely more interesting than likeable.”
In fact, some of the characters are, at first glance, detestable. What remains of artist Romaine Brooks is presented to us at the very last stages of her physical and mental disintegration. She wants to die. We kind of want her to die, too.
“…Romaine cracks one of her ancient teeth on biscotti. The misery in this world is constant, Romaine says, one liver-spotted hand to her temple.”
But before she dies, before any of them sound off or disappear for good, there is so much to uncover, and so many questions about unconventional lovers, about deciding not to raise their children, about divorce, about cheating death on a motorcycle, about the origins of their madness. In some instances, Bergman gives us that; she gives us the finality we need to move on to the next tale, but not always.
“I’m really interested in these moments that are distilled,” says Bergman. “It’s flash fiction. Some people really get it, others don’t like it. But it’s the idea that there are these moments that can define a character’s whole life.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman Presentation, Q&A and Book Signing
Sunday, January 25 at 4 p.m.
Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY