Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Nonstandard Staircase

I have drifted away at times from the original purpose of this Staircase Writing web journal. Here is a very literal return to the concept of Staircase Writing -- the staircase in the cottage we call Tim's House (in West Cork), which I painted in homage to the colorful village streetscapes common to this part of Ireland.

As I embark on my new novel and leave 2011 behind, it's a good moment to reflect on the notion of "l'esprit d'escalier," staircase wit, but instead of dwelling on the wise and witty things I wish I had said, or done, or, for that matter, the things I wish other people had said or done, it's a good moment to gather intentions to get my work done in the weeks and months ahead. Out with the old, in with the new. It's a transitional moment for me in a number of ways, and it's time to stop looking back and start looking ahead.

(If there is anything of an elegiac tone here, it is not about this blog, and there will be fresh posts in the new year.)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tomato Paste in My Lunchbox

My mother put tomato paste in my lunchbox by mistake. I was in third grade. As I reached into my red lunchbox for my can of what was supposed to be pineapple juice, I put up my hand so the roving lunch lady could come to me and punch those two triangular holes in my juice can, with the can opener she wore on a string around her neck. As she bore down on me, I saw to my horror that the oddly heavy can in my hand, identical in dimensions to the juice cans of the era, was in fact a can of tomato paste.

I yanked my hand down and bent over my lunchbox, thrusting the erroneous cylinder of tomato paste deep into the wrappings of my peanut butter sandwich, hoping nobody had glimpsed this embarrassing artifact of my mother's fogginess. The lunch lady crossly demanded, "Who had a hand up here? There was a hand up?" I kept my head down in anxious contemplation of my pleated skirt until she gave up and stomped away.

Sometimes my sandwiches were on bread that was blue with mold, or were made with irridescent ham. I was used to pretending to eat those sandwiches. The tomato paste was worse. I felt let down in some new way.

That was nearly fifty years ago.

How I wish certain experiences around the publication of my newest book did not make me think of that can of tomato paste, and the shame of feeling that all the other kids have nice lunches while I have to pretend to have a nice lunch and hope that nobody notices the difference.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Culminating, Superb "Miss Gandy"

Last night I saw the new, nearly perversely static Clint Eastwood-directed movie, J. Edgar. Sitting through this bizarre film (awards for makeup and costumes, for sure), it was hard not to think about my father's FBI records, some 800 pages on Sidney Kaufman gathered over nearly forty years, especially given that Helen Gandy and Clyde Tolson were the two supporting characters in the film. Here is some of what I wrote about them in The Memory Of All That:

"There is a marvelous rubber-stamped list of names of FBI personnel to whom copies of the Kaufman documents were circulated. This was their work; this is what they got up every day to do — process this Confidential, Classified, Secret, and Top Secret information about my father. I like to imagine them, sitting at their desks, typewriters clacking and phones ringing in the background, like a newsroom. There is much to do, fresh reports on the Subject: Sidney Kaufman to pore over, there is new information gathered by SA [redacted] or reported by “[redacted], an informant who has in the past furnished us with reliable information” (or even better, information provided by the occasional “[redacted], an informant who has in the past furnished us with reliable and unreliable information”). Presumably there were reports written about these reports. Individuals must have been assigned to analyze and come to conclusions about the information that had been so painstakingly compiled about the Subject: Sidney Kaufman. Meetings must have occurred, decisions must have been made about further interviews with informants reliable and unreliable, and all those pretext phone calls must have been scripted and scheduled. And all of the reports were typed up, copied, circulated, and filed with all the other accumulated Sidney Kaufman information.

By the late sixties, the rubber-stamped copy list had been streamlined to simple names, but I must admit to a preference for the more traditional earlier iterations, when each name is given the honorific “Mr.” and then there is the culminating, superb “Miss Gandy.” This list of names reads:
Mr. Tolson
Mr. Boardman
Mr. Nichols
Mr. Belmont
Mr. Harbo
Mr. Mohr
Mr. Parsons
Mr. Rosen
Mr. Tamm
Mr. Sizoo
Mr. Winterrowd
Tele. Room
Mr. Holloman
Miss Gandy

I really love this list, which changes only slightly through the years of documentation of Sidney Kaufman’s activities. It is a sequence of names rich in possibility, yet, seeing it repeat throughout the pages of these files, it becomes reliable and familiar, like a wallpaper pattern or a melody. The names, when seen again and again, start to have a delightful rhythm and inevitability that invite memorization, like the presidents of the United States, or Latin declensions.

The roster of FBI employees who were copied on the steady flow of classified information about Sidney Kaufman over all those years is intriguing. Clyde Tolson was Associate Director of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s sidekick. Lou Nichols and Alan H. Belmont were Assistant Directors. John P. Mohr was head of five FBI divisions; he was the number three man after Tolson in FBI hierarchy. Alex P. Rosen was the FBI supervisor on the John Dillinger case and on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Joseph A. Sizoo was in the Domestic Intelligence Division. E.A. Tamm was an Associate FBI Director. Frank C. Holloman was s supervisor in the FBI Headquarters in the Crime Records Section, the Fugitive Desk, Plant Survey Section, Special Intelligence Section, Informant Section, and the Records Division.

“Miss Gandy” was Helen W. Gandy, J. Edgar Hoover’s ferocious and devoted executive assistant for fifty-four years. It is known that over a period of months following his death in 1972, she destroyed tens of thousands of pages of his “personal” files thought to contains the fruits of illegal wiretaps and a vast array of incriminating information about numerous public figures and government officials and their family members, as well as detailed reports from the spies Hoover maintained in every White House administration. Her devotion to the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover was that of a nun’s devotion to the Church and the Pope. Their relationship was decidedly odd; Hoover never once called her by her first name. Her mother was painted by Thomas Eakins.

J. Edgar Hoover is not on this list, because just about every document in my father’s files is a memo to The Director. The FBI surveillance of Sidney Kaufman that began in 1936 and apparently ended in 1972 is almost identical to the span of Hoover’s FBI Directorship."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Forest for the Trees

Not being able to see the forest for the trees is a truism we all know. But until last week's devastating storm swept through Connecticut, leaving some 20 inches of snow, tens of thousands of damaged trees, and downed power lines all over, I hadn't thought very much about the phrase in a literal sense.

Our house is in a heavily wooded spot, and we had terrible damage here. The oaks and maples were still in full leaf, which is why they were so susceptible to damage, as the leaves were like sails in the high winds, and they also held the snow and ice, which would have slipped through bare trees with less impact.

In my five days of dark and cold (and no water either, because we are on a well that requires electricity to run the pump), even as I began to deal with the aftermath, arranging for the downed trees to be cut up and cleared, identifying the broken trees with dangerous hangers (which need expensive attention, thus the need to triage -- tree-age -- and only do the work on the trees near the house, leaving the trees on our wooded hillside as they are, though some of them are so damaged they will probably come down through the winter), I realized I have spent years not seeing the trees for the forest. Only at a moment like this, as these massive oaks and maples are tilted and strewn and broken in jarring new ways, do I really see each tree.

My only source of warmth, the roaring fires I built each evening in our fireplaces (it's an 18th century house with four fireplaces that throw heat nicely), were made with the cut, dried, and stacked logs of wood from other trees we have lost through the years. I depended most of all on chunks of oak to burn steadily through those cold nights.

I couldn't work during the power failure. I really depend on electricity. These days, people have taken to calling books "physical books" to distinguish them from e-books (the way an ordinary clock is now an analog clock as opposed to a digitial one), but for a long while they have also been called "dead tree books," too. I am sure there is a useful metaphorical lesson in here somewhere.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Would Edith Wharton Do?

Many religious Christians wear a bracelet with the initials WWJD? As I embark on my new novel, I have an imaginary bracelet which reads WWEWD? Instead of Jesus, what would Edith Wharton do?

Inspired also because I am in Paris at the moment, just three blocks from her house at 53 Rue de Varenne, I have been reading her exceedingly odd book, The Writing of Fiction, published in 1924, when she had been a Parisian for a decade. Very often I don't agree with her, but I am finding her thoughts on writing fiction to be suprising and sometimes fantastically illuminating. On the subject of dialogue in the novel, she writes:

"The use of dialogue in fiction seems to be one of the few things about which a fairly definite rule may be laid down. It should be reserved for the culmnating moments, and regarded as the spray into which the great wave of narrative breaks in curving toward the watcher on the shore. This lifting and scattering of the wave, the coruscation of the spray, even the mere material sights of the page broken into short, uneven paragraphs, all help to reinforce the ocntrast between such climaxes and the smooth effaced gliding of the narrative intervals; and the contrast enhances that sense of the passage of time for the producing of which the writer has to depend on his intervening narration. Thus the sparing use of dialogue not only serves to emphasiz the crises of the tale but to give it as a whole a greater effect of continuous development."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, My first novel, published in 1995 and now available in a new paperback from Broadway and, like all six of my books, as a download for e-readers (I am fortunate and pleased to have all of my books in print and available for e-readers as well), is concerned with perceptions and reflections. It's about seeing yet not perceiving. The main character of the novel, Harriet Rose (who also makes an appearance in my third novel, The Little Women), didn't acknowledge the uncanny work of Diane Arbus, who was obsessed with twinning and mirroring and multiples, as she narrated her thoughts and feeling about her own photography. It would have been a good element to include in the story, and I regret not having devoted sufficient thought in that direction.

About photography, Diane Arbus said: "The process itself has a kind of exactitude, a kind of scrutiny that we're not normally subject to. I mean that we don't subject each other to. We're nicer to each other than the intervention of the camera is going to make us. It's a little bit cold, a little bit harsh."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Not Exactly Family

My mother's first husband, Justin N. Feldman, has died, at age 92. He was a lovely man whom I enjoyed knowing, though ours was an odd connection. His New York Times obituary today was lengthy and fascinating. He was someone who made things happen, most notably as a manager of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1964 New York Senate campaign. Earlier, he was a campaign aide for John F. Kennedy, having entered reform politics in the late 1940s as a leader of the Fair Deal Democratic Club, a group of reform Democrats dedicated to breaking the political influence of Tammany Hall.

My mother, to whom he was married in 1942 (a complete fizzle of a marriage that lasted three years on paper though it was over in half that time), was omitted from mention in his obituary, and his second wife is described as his first. His third wife, to whom he was very happily married for many years, is Linda Fairstein, the former sex crimes prosecutor who is now well known for her thrillery crime novels. We had a warm friendship, my husband and I, as well as our daughters, with Justin and Linda, and the omission of my mother from the story of his life is strange, yet somehow it is not unexpected.

The New York Times itself (Mr Grimes, the obit writer, surely could have found this in his own paper's archive, if I can read it with two clicks) reported at length on their wedding on April 25th, 1942: "The marriage of Miss Andrea Swift Warburg, the daughter of James P. Warburg of this city and Mrs. Faye Hubbard of Bend, Oregon, to Justin N. Feldman, son of Mr. and Mrs. Hyman Feldman of Yonkers, New York, took place yesterday afternoon in the home of the bride's father and stepmother, Mrs. Warburg, at 34 East Seventieth Street...The bride and bridegroom dispensed with attendants. The bride wore an afternoon gown of beige crepe and a small matching hat, and a corsage of white orchids."

My mother's mother, "Mrs Faye Hubbard of Bend, Oregon," a.k.a. Kay Swift, was not there that afternoon. She was not present at any of her daughters' weddings. (When my aunt April was married soon after this, she wrote a letter to a friend remarking on this, saying "April has married her Italian, surrounded by no relatives, on Staten Island.")

I cannot imagine my mother even knowing what "an afternoon gown" might be, let alone wearing one in beige crepe with a small matching hat. It was another life, but a false start -- the start of another life she almost led -- a life I like to imagine would have been far happier than the one she lived, though I would not exist. Had Justin died before my book went to press, I would have written about this odd experience of reading his obituary which made no mention of my mother.

UPDATE October 3 -- The NYT ran a correction, not naming my mother, simply saying that they had omitted one of Justin's divorces.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Did My Father Do in the O.S.S.?

The Office of Strategic Services was an intelligence agency created during the Second World War, with a principle mission of coordinating espionage activities of the different American armed services. After the War it was transmogrified into the C.I.A.

My father, Sidney Kaufman, about whom I write extensively in The Memory Of All That, served in the O.S.S. during the war, making training and propoganda films. But the details of his activities are few and I don't really know what he did.

Though in recent times (in August, 2008), O.S.S. records became available through the National Archives, ten years ago, my request for my father's military records was met with a form letter stating that there was no record of Sidney Kaufman (with his birthdate and Social Security number) ever having served in any branch of the military. This is because O.S.S. files were in the C.I.A. archive and were entitely classified -- n personnel were identifiable, period. For many years, the only absolute proof I had for his service in the O.S.S. was this identification badge. I will never know the details of his wartime service.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

You Say To - MAY- to

In 1998, the Library of Congress hosted a symposium with musical performances over several days in honor of what they called George Gershwin's 'centennial' and I call his centenary. (For some reason, the Library of Congress did not take my advice on this, though I did seriously try to influence what they were calling the event. I just cannot win on the centenary vs. centennial front.)
In 1998, the Library of Congress hosted a symposium with musical performances over several days in honor of what they called George Gershwin's "centennial" and I call his centenary. (For some reason, the Library of Congress did not take my advice on this, though I did seriously try to influence what they were calling the event. I just cannot win on the centenary vs. centennial front.)

I was part of it, with the concluding performance being a salute to Kay Swift, at which I spoke, in effect narrating, with the late arranger Russell Warner, a concert performance of "Fine and Dandy" by Bill Bolcom, Joan Morris, and Max Morath.

During those days in Washington, I was privileged to spend a lot of time with a fantastic range of Gershwin people, from Anne Brown, the original Bess of "Porgy and Bess," to English Strunsky, the delightful brother of Ira Gershwin's not-so-delightful wife Leonore. (They are both dead. There were a lot of elderly people who knew George at this event, and most of them are now gone.) English was fond of my grandmother, and he recognized her role in George Gershwin's life. Among our many chats, over a range of topics, was a particularly resonant story that he told me. It had the feeling of a story told many, many times. I didn't include it in The Memory Of All That, though I wish I had, so this is a true staircase thought.

English Strunsky was an entrepreneurial soul with many interests, and one of them was a large tomato farm in New Jersey, what would be called a truck farm. (Do you see where this is going?) One day, Ira and Leonore went out to New Jersey with him to visit the farm. Observing English talking first to his workers in the field, and then later to some buyers, Lyricist Ira, ever alert to words and language and turns of phrase, asked him why it was, when English talked with his workers, he said "to-may-to," but when he spoke with certain buyers, he said "to-mah-to." Was he aware of this? And English replied with a shrug, "Oh, to-may-to, to-mah-to..."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Secrets of the Knife and Fork

In The Memory Of All That I write about my grandmother's influence on George Gershwin as their friendship and then their romance deepened. She dressed him, she decorated his apartment, she taught him to ride (note the shiny new riding boots), and in countless ways she encouraged him to develop his own taste and style. They had so much fun!

Written some two years after this photo was taken of Kay and George at Bydale, the Warburg country house in Greenwich, is it possible that Jimmy Warburg's witty lyrics for Kay Swift's elegant music for the Fine and Dandy number "Etiquette" were a pointed commentary on this aspect of his wife's complex romantic involvement with George? Was this an aristocratic Warburg making a dig at George's origins and aspirations? The song is about lower class factory workers who "aspire to acquire proper etiquette," instructed by the shop foreman, Edgar Little. Here are just some of the lyrics:

"Murphys and O'Gradys, gentlemen and ladies all/they have made your life a perfect Hades/paying you a wage that was too small./You who are the masses/working lads and lasses should/live like all the so-called upper classes/You have been too long misunderstood!

I will raise your/standard of living right away/Now that I am head of the business, hear me say:

Murphys and O'Gradys, you shall join the smartest set/You shall all be gentlemen and ladies/I will teach you perfect etiquette!

Blums and Blaus and Blitzes, Steins and Lipkowitzes, you/Ought to be at home in all the Ritzes/I will show you what you ought to do/How to tell a waiter 'Bring an al-li-ga-tor pear,' how in fact you always tell a waiter/In a word, I'll teach you savoir-faire/I will teach you how you should greet a King or Queen/How to dress for wedding, divorce, and everything/Blums and Blaus and Blitzes, you shall join the smartest set/You shall all be Vans and Macs and Fitzes!/I will teach you perfect etiquette!

Chorus: What's your proposition? We have got ambition/Show us the way/to be a la-dy./Up the social ladder/how I wish we had a/friend who would help us on our way./We would like to learn the proper way to eat and talk./We would like to learn the secrets of the knife and fork/How are we to know what clothes to wear?/Tell us how to part our hair!/We long to break away from all this life of toil/We'd like to have the leisure time to study Hoyle./We should like to join the smartest set/We aspire to acquire proper e-ti-quette!"

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 1700 Typewriters of Sidney Kaufman

In The Memory Of All That, I refer often to the FBI records concerning my father, Sidney Kaufman. Here's a page from among nearly 800 pages. Note the generally insane look of this document, which could have been a prop page created by the mad mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. Your tax dollars at work! The 1700 typewriters of Sidney Kaufman were a minor obsession of the Bureau for years. What was he up to, what master plan for world domination was taking shape in our garage, where these 1700 flimsy East German typewriters (which did not have a QWERTY keyboard) were quietly rusting into a solid coral reef of uselessness?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bracelets from George Gershwin

In this photo of my grandmother, Kay Swift, taken in late 1928, she is wearing the antique gold cuff bracelets that George Gershwin gave her to celebrate the success of "An American in Paris." At this point, she had been married to my grandfather, Jimmy Warburg, for ten years. (They were not divorced until the end of 1934.) Kay's involvement with George was well underway, and she had recently been employed, at George's suggestion, as the rehearsal pianist for a Rodgers & Hart musical, A Connecticut Yankee. Kay and Jimmy had now started writing popular songs together, and the following year would bring their first big hit, "Can't We Be Friends?"

What do you suppose Jimmy thought about her having and wearing these bracelets?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

They Were So Young!

Here they are, my grandmother Kay Swift and her great love George Gershwin, with horses, before or after a ride through the woods of Bydale, the country house in what was then rural back-country Greenwich, Connecticut, where my mother spent her childhood summers. George spent much time there as a houseguest, especially during almost the entire summer of 1928, when he was ensconced in the guest cottage, writing An American in Paris. This photo was taken that summer. The horse he liked to ride was named Denny. He always called it "horse riding," and my grandmother, who dressed the city boy from Brooklyn in riding clothes and taught him to ride, would correct him, ""Horseback riding, dear."

George would turn 30 in September, two months after this photo was taken, while my grandmother had turned 31 three months earlier. They were so young!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why Did My Mother Marry My Father?

Of course, there is always a bit of mystery to any attraction. I make the case in The Memory Of All That for a significant factor in what drew my mother to my father being his passing resemblance to George Gershwin, who loomed large in her childhood. Can you see it? They were both self-made men, brilliant Jewish boys, the children of immigrants. Both took themselves from the streets of Brooklyn to the uptown world of culture and refinement. But George Gershwin acomplished monumentally great work as a composer in his 38 years, while Sidney Kaufman died at 73 without ever meeting his grandchildren, whose mother he had rejected, and left only a few bad movies, a couple of good ones, and the gift to mankind that was Aromarama.

Friday, July 8, 2011

July 11, 1937, and a July day in 1935

On July 11th, 1937, George Gershwin died a tragic and lonely death at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where he had just undergone extensive surgery for a brain tumor, the symptoms of which had plagued him intermittently for many years. His final months were a misery, compounded by his doctors' failure to recognize the true nature of his illness and by what could almost be called a conspiracy to isolate him and keep at a distance the most significant people in his life -- his good friend Mabel Pleshette Schirmer, his sister-in-law's sister Emily Strunsky Paley, and the love of his life, my grandmother Kay Swift.

"Why has everyone left me?" he would ask his nurse plaintively as he lay in a darkened room, drugged and miserable with excruciating headaches and vertigo. Mabel, Emily and Kay, each deeply devoted to George, would have provided him with the comfort and tenderness he needed. Any one of them might have insisted on better and different medical treatment when it would not have been too late to save him, if only they knew the truth. But Leonore Gershwin preferred to keep George isolated, following instructions from his psychoanalyst in New York, Gregory Zilboorg, she always said. As George's condition grew critical, he fell into a coma, and only then was rushed to a surgery that came too late (even after some fourteen years of symptoms, at the end, if sugery had occurred just two days earlier, it would probably have saved his life). Even then, during and after the surgery, Leonore Gershwin withheld crucial information about his condition from the people who loved him the most. He died alone.

Here is a glimpse of a happier July day, just two years earlier, when George and Kay spent a weekend with Kay's good friend Mary Woodard Rheinhardt (the future Mrs Albert Lasker) on Long Island. Kay had divorced Jimmy Warburg the previous December. Porgy and Bess was in rehearsal for its Fall premiere. What are they eating? Why are Mary and Kay in beach attire while George is more formally dressed? Has he just arrived from the city and joined them at lunch, or is that the remains of brunch? As always, he needs a shave. Is Kay saying to him, "Here, dear, why don't you finish mine?"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Memory Of All That Artifacts

I am going to be posting a number of items in the coming weeks, as The Memory Of All That makes its appearance in the world, things which aren't quite staircase thoughts (as you may have noticed, I post lots of things here that don't really qualify) so much as they are things that could have been in the book, but in the interest of making the book less of a loose, baggy monster, are not. Or they are mentioned in the book only en passant, or only implicitly, and so I will have a little more to say about the subject here. Not to mention the actual staircase thoughts that will no doubt arise.

We begin with this fish knife, one of eight in my possession, part of the remains of the silver service which belonged to my grandparents at the time of their marriage, the first of three marriages for each. The monogram is a J and a K nestled inside the W -- James and Katharine Warburg. I don't know if this set was used in the city (East 70th Street) or the country (Bydale, in Greenwich), but I suspect that when my grandmother left the marriage at the end of 1934, it was the silverware she had in her post-divorce apartment. It is very likely that George Gershwin used this fish knife at some point in the years (1925-1936) during which he was a constant in my grandmother's life.

In 1838 a book of etiquette for ladies recorded that, 'in first rate society, silver knives are now beginning to be used for fish: a very pleasing, as well as decided step in the progress of refinement.' The elaborate dining etiquette of the Victorian era made it a time when all sorts of weird utensils were created for eating particular foods. The proper use of cutlery required lengthy explanations in etiquette manuals. Often the standards of behavior reflected the manners and status of 'old' versus 'new' money. The development of fish eaters, as they were originally called, is a good example of this. Until the 1880's, it was traditional to eat fish using two ordinary table forks or one fork and a piece of bread. It was the middle-class who would have bought the newly developed utensils like fish eaters, thus distinguishing them as socially inferior people who have to buy silver because they don't already have it.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Perils of Vanity

One of the charmingly weird pieces of information that has come out about the arrest of fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger (see previous post) is that his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, was obsessed with her appearance and liked to have her teeth cleaned professionally once a month. This helped identify her, which led to their arrests last week. It's a telling character trait, which is why in True Confections, Alice Ziplinsky likes to impress her hygienists by secretly alternating between two practices so each will admire her impeccable oral hygiene. One wonders about the connection between Greig's oral fastidiousness and the intriguing description on the Tulsa, Oklahoma "Wanted" posters for Whitey (one of many murders for which he is a suspect was a hit in Oklahoma), which describe Whitey Bulger having "extremely bad breath."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Finding Vermeer?

The FBI arrested the murderous 81-year-old Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger this morning at his condo in Santa Monica, where he had been living with his girlfriend in broad daylight despite being on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List for the past sixteen years. This is fantstic news!

Why do I care? Because I am among those who believe that he may hold some key information about the unsolved Gardner Museum heist, which is central to the plot in my 1999 novel The Music Lesson (just reissued this year from Broadway in an attractive new paperback edition). Does the Gardner get Vermeer's "The Concert" back on its wall where the blank space has been maintained ever since it was stolen in 1990? Fingers crossed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Words I Never Use

This is, I suppose, the precise opposite of a staircase thought, or perhaps there should be a term for something you are glad you haven't said. Is there such a term? Anyway, there are certain words I simply cannot abide. In The Memory Of All That, I went out of my way to avoid "scion," "prestigious," and "socialite." Those very words have already been used, and I am sure will continue to be used, by others who have something to say about the book.

My word prejudices run deep and wide. For example, I am very unfond of "veggies." It's familial. My sister-in-law feels faint at the mention of "brunch." One of my daughters gets the cringies from "moist." What are your no-no-no-never! words?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Literally Walking Off the Page

The first three "industry" reviews for The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy Of Infidelities have come in. They are positive, selling reviews, to be sure, but two of them are the kind of reviews the publisher is happier about than is the author. Here's why:

Publishers Weekly called the book "a wry and engaging portrait of a powerful, talented, but troubled family." It summarizes certain elements of the story, concluding with this: "The most touching passages describe the impact of unavailable adults on Weber (she was left alone for five days on a film set) and Weber's relationship with Swift, who took her to Broadway shows, Central Park, and Schrafft's soda fountain." No characterizing final conclusion, no context with regard to my novels, and not a word about the actual writing. A strangely incomplete review. Not to be ungrateful for the coverage, but, hey, PW reviewer, what did you think of the book?

Kirkus had a more knowing reviewer on the case, I suspect, though that review was also muted and a bit ungenerous. After some useful summarizing and quoting, the review concludes: "The book is strongest in its rich details of a dazzling but painful family past fraught with betrayals, infidelities and other assorted dysfunctions, including-in the figure of art historian Aby Warburg-mental illness. However, Weber is overly reliant on historical narrative to convey a very personal recollection, which creates an unintentionally brittle objectivity that makes it difficult for readers to connect with either Weber or her account, except at a distance. Illuminating but often dry." I don't agree with this last opinion at all! But I certainly welcome a review that has something to say.

Booklist gets The Memory Of All That best of these three. Here is the whole review: "Novelist Weber (True Confections, 2010; Triangle, 2006) mines her rich family history, hitting the mother lode of pedigreed romances and remembrances. While it may be a stretch to call the infidelities of several generations love stories, many of the eccentric characters on Weber’s family tree are more than a touch quixotic, imbuing their often sordid relationships with an intriguing aura of romance. With a novelist’s light, sure touch, Weber propels this fascinating family memoir with stories and recollections of the prominent relatives who informed her life. Grandmother Kay Swift, the first female Broadway composer and George Gershwin’s longtime lover; grandpa James Paul Warburg, FDR’s economic adviser; and daddy Sidney Kaufman, serial womanizer, unconventional filmmaker, and producer of the first feature film that literally smelled, thanks to a process called Aromarama, literally walk off the pages of this captivating multigenerational saga."

THANK YOU, thank you! Booklist reviewer, for your appreciation, and for recognizing that I am a novelist (it is likely that the PW and Kirkus reviewers had little or no awareness of my five novels), and for suggesting that the memoir is actually a literary work. The unintentionally hilarious "literally walk off the pages" is entirely forgiven. (Book critics no doubt have staircase thoughts of their own.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Memo to that Certain Family Member

Dear You Know Who You Are:

Perhaps you wouldn't lie awake nights wondering if my forthcoming family memoir has "all those bad things" in it if you hadn't done all those bad things in your long, long life! Give it a thought one of these 3 a.m.s between now and pub date in July.

I am far kinder and also far more discreet than you deserve. For example, I just wrote that.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Final Moment Before Staircase Writing Sets In

I have turned in all corrections to second pass pages for The Memory Of All That. From this moment on, anything else I want to include in those pages will consist of staircase writing here.

The last new writing, in these final corrections, was a parenthetical sentence about my great-aunt the psychoanalyst, inserted into a late chapter in a paragraph about the imperious old ladies in my family and their hierarchies: (Bettina always cheated ferociously at croquet, to ensure that Nick won, she came in second, and I finished last.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Say, Dat's Still Tasty

Bound galleys are in for The Memory Of All That, which pubs in July. The paperback of True Confections came out just before Christmas. So while it still feels like a new book to me, now that spring has sprung, the world has pretty much moved on. For the first time in three years I won't be attending the huge candy convention in Chicago next month.

I am ready to move on, but before I turn all my meta writing energies to my forthcoming book (while devoting my actual writing energies to my new novel in progress), this is just a reminder that there is a website for Zip's Candies, and at the website there is a contest that is still live, with very beautiful "Say, Dat's Tasty!" t-shirt prizes still available to anyone and everyone who submits an entry. Please visit Zip's Candies , and please enter the contest! And please tell everyone you know!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Fire

Today is the centenary of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company. On March 25th, 1911, at least 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women, died because the owners of the garment factory sweatshop where they labored over their sewing machines cared more about profits than about the safety of workers. A fire broke out. Within sixteen minutes, about half of those who died had jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor, while the rest died in the fire that roared through the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building, just a block west of Washington Square.

The Triangle fire is at the heart of my 2006 novel Triangle, which I was inspired to write because my paternal grandmother, Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman, finished buttonholes at the Triangle Waist Company in 1909. I am in the HBO documentary about the fire discussing Pauline's violent encounter with a policeman during the uprising of the 20,000 garment workers in 1909.

I don't have much new to say about this event that has not already been said very well by so many other people as the Triangle fire centenary has loomed (other than to insist that the proper term for a 100th anniversary is "centenary" and not "centennial," but I am a lone voice in the wilderness of imprecision.) I have participated in a number of panels and other events, and I spoke this week at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, where my fancier Warburgian maternal forebears were "twice-a-year" Jews.

What are the lessons of the Triangle fire? I fear we are still learning them. Today, please stop to think about where your clothing comes from, and think about the lives of the people who made what you are wearing right now. What do they eat? Where do they sleep? What are their living conditions? What are their working conditions? How much do they get paid? Garment factory workers, many of them children, are still dying in garment factory fires that are shockingly familiar: Locked doors, undocumented workers employed by sub-contractors, extremely unsafe conditions, a fire.

The only difference between 1911 and 2011 is that in this era of outsourcing, now that so many of our cheap garments are made in unsafe factories in third world countries, we outsource our tragedies, too. Are you comfortable in those clothes?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Just a Few STETs, Please

The copy edited manuscript for my forthcoming memoir, The Memory of All That, arrived on my doorstep this morning. Working with this, I have to complete all final revising in the next few days, because from here it goes to typesetting. Next time I see these words they will be set in first pass pages (those are the pages from which galleys are made and sent to reviewers), and no further changes will be possible beyond the corrections of typesetting errors.

I have been anxious about the copy edit because, frankly, strictly entre nous, I had some very terrible copy editing on my last two books. Great copy editing is an elegant, subtle art. I absolutely love skilled copy editing which helps the author say and mean what she means to say. Copy editing is essential. It saves the author from repetitions and other artifacts of revision and rewriting, and it saves the author from her own weaknesses. (I have a tin ear for "that" and "which," no matter how many times I check Strunk and White.)

Bad copy editing, on the other hand, introduces new errors while overlooking existing errors. Bad copy editing cites Wikipedia as a definitive source. Bad copy editing betrays cluelessness about the author's tone and style while revealing far too much about the copy editor's own limitations (and, perhaps, failed ambitions). Bad copy editing is painful. It takes time and is horribly enervating. Bad copy editing causes one to wear out pencils writing STET over and over. Stet is Latin for "let it stand," which is to say, it is a veto of a correction. But if you have to write it too many times on a manuscript you begin to think it is actually the Latin for "fuck off."

The fantastic news of the day is that I had a fabulous copy editor for this manuscript! The copy edits are reasonable, attentive, thorough, and intelligent. They are also respectful of the author's intentions, for which I am profoundly grateful. I have work to do, the kind of work I love, and I am diving in now.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meaning More Than I Meant, or Maybe Just a Lot of Cats

When you have published five novels, it is possible to look back over the elements common to each and to discern certain themes and patterns that weren't intentionally planted to be part of a larger scheme, but there they are.

One common element in all my novels is cats. In my first novel, Objects etc, a cat falls out a window and dies, and another cat is seen sleeping in a shop window. In The Music Lesson, my second novel, there are a multitude of cats thronging the Irish cottage of a significant character. In my third novel, The Little Women, there is one cat named Tiggy Winkle and another named Miss Demeanor. In Triangle, there is a cat, Joe Green, short for Giuseppe Verdi (nobody got that, I mean nobody), who almost falls off a high ledge to his death, but then he doesn't. In True Confections, there is a cat who dies horribly as the consequence of a fire. (Fire is a topic for another day.)

So what's with all the cats? Maybe nothing momentous. I love cats. See above for a glimpse of my cat Katinka, the not-unlarge Siberian. Cats signify for me, and so why shouldn't they be present in the lives of my characters? In effect, cats are simply also characters in all of my novels so far.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Music Lesson redux

This week, the new Broadway paperback of my second novel, The Music Lesson, was published. I am thrilled that my 1999 novel has steadily appealed to readers in more than a dozen languages and has been a perennial with book groups. The Picador paperback ran through eleven printings, and I am optimistic that the Broadway edition will have a nice long shelf life.

I am especially happy that Random House/Broadway are my new paperback publishers, with True Confections just out from Broadway, and with my first novel, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, scheduled to appear later this year, in July. It is a major big deal for a novelist to have an entire backlist in print. It's a terrific vote of confidence from the publisher, and I am grateful.