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Literature, life, reflections on books read and books written. Photography and videologs are integral to the postings.
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1. Geometric September

The bold geometries of baled hay. 
The beginning of September.

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2. the news worth telling

I had 30,000-plus images stored in my computer, and the old Apple wasn't going to take it much longer. And so, for the past four hours I've sat here whittling those images down.

Reviewing a photo log is like reviewing a life, in miniature. Yesterday I might not have been able to tell you, as assuredly as I can now, that my photo obsessions (which may also be my life obsessions) can be divided rather readily into: family and friends, unusual (to me) places, portraits of children, my house in every season, dancers, and Chanticleer garden.

It seems that there is not that much more to me than this: I love those I love, I love to find and explore the new, I find peace in the sheltered quiet of this world, young people thrill me, dance is magic. I don't tend to photograph my vast collection of books. But I love the books too, of course.

The other day I was actually thinking about this question—the me of me. My son had called and had told me his news—the adventures he'd been having, the conversations, the outtings with friends, his river at night, his city from a rooftop club. And then he stopped and asked what I'd been up to lately, and I stumbled. I find this question a perennial stumper. What's new? What's up? It's a rare day when I have something meaningful to say.

Because most of what is new with me is what goes on inside my head. I read a great book. I had this idea. I was fighting with a sentence. I was lying down and looking up and I remembered my grandmother. Or I remembered Uncle Danny's laugh. Or I thought about a meal I once had and tried to resurrect the recipe. Or—oh, I know—I was thinking of painting the bathroom. On a good day I can tell you about a movie I've seen or opine over "Orange is the New Black" or mention that I've been to Adamstown and bought a pair of 19th century baby shoes. Or maybe I'll say (if I sense that there is time) that I lucked into a Hamburg hamburger festival, and that will be it: my news. A sentence or two, and I'm done.

What's new? Every time I'm asked I feel the Tedium of Beth coming on.

What is the life news worth telling? At my old age I'm still figuring it out.

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3. Writing is a kind of sickness: History of the Rain/Niall Williams: Reflections

I bought History of the Rain because Melissa Firman said I should, and because I trust this fine reader/writer/reviewer.

I read it because it is glorious. Irish and tangled and and caught, at times, in its own whirl, its own strange uncharted loveliness. It is a story about failure that is, itself, a victory of style, foresight, love. A book of tangents and a-chronology, of curves and mist. A book that, on its final page, does not, will not end.

Ruth Swain lives by a river in a part of the world where it always rains, where family is good, where the absence of a brother and a father requires Ruth herself, sick and perhaps dying, to write her family's wobbling story down. Into that story she writes the stories of the books her father loved and endowed to her, the mythology and the hope, the fortitude and the flood.

Look at what Niall Williams does with a character:
Two-handed, Mrs Quinty lifts the glasses free of the minor parsnip of her nose, holds them just in front of her and scrutinises the dust gathered there. Rain makes bars of light and dark down her face and mine, as if we're inside the jail of it.
Look at what he does with landscape:
The fields are wrapped in soft grey tissues of weather.
Look what he does with memory:
I know that field. Years ago I went there. It's rough and wildly sloping, hoof-pocked and rushy-bearded both. Running down it is bump and splash, is ankle-twist treachery. You get going and you can't stop. You're heading for the river. And you can't help but scream.
And (knowingly, truthfully, achingly absolutely), look what he does with the truth:
Writing of course is a kind of sickness. Well people don't do it. Art is basically impossible. Edna O'Brien said she was surprised Van Gogh only cut off one ear. Robert Lowell said that he felt was a blazing out, flashes, nerve jabs in the moments when the poem was coming. I myself have had no blazing out, and don't suppose it's all that good for your constitution. To stop himself from taking off into the air Ted Hughes had to keep repeating over and over Beneath my feet is the earth, some part of the surface of the earth. The thing is, writing is a sickness only cured by writing. That's the impossible part. 
More than 350 pages, and every page this good.

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4. Hamburg-ers and Philadelphia Sidewalks

Yesterday we went off in search of a river trail—an end of summer drive through corn country—and discovered a hamburger festival in (but of course) the town of Hamburg. One of those sweet surprises that puts an exclamation mark against the word adventure. I'd been anticipating a sleepy, overcast river walk. But when we arrived, I found the Supreme Woodstock of beefy festivals instead. Dozens upon dozens of hamburger chefs out on the street alongside musicians and leashed pigs and roller derby queens, the crafts people and the wood carvers, the hat wearers and the cigar smokers, the people having a beautiful time. It was as if I'd gone on a one-day European vacation. It was an hour and a half drive and a whole other country. I loved it.

I love, too, my collaboration with Kevin Ferris of the Inquirer, who gives me room to write about the Philadelphia places or experiences that I hope will resonate with those who have meandered through or wondered about our city. Many months ago, while we were chatting, Kevin suggested that I study the sidewalks of the city and see what they might reveal. And so one day, I set out on a sidewalk walk, then wrote the story that begins like this:
From 30th Street Station I walk east on Market - cross one river in pursuit of another. I watch the world beneath me shift. Asphalt. Curb cut. Bridge. A ribbon of discontinuous sidewalks.

Way down deep, the planet's inner iron core radiates some 5,000 Celsius degrees. Here, on the Market Street sidewalks, solidity is an illusion. The concrete panes are cracking. The bricks are buckling. The rising angles of the slate and granite tiles suggest the ceaseless motions of the Earth's crust and the convective power of a restless mantle.
A planetary urging from below.
A streetscape pounding from above.

The sidewalk like geology, I think.
and continues here.

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5. the very height of things, the end of summer

You know summer is ending when the flowers at Chanticleer are taller than you, when the pods are mostly empty, when the petals have mostly blown away, when the cardinal flowers light the bendy paths.

You stand at the crest of the hill. You consider the months that are now tucked inside your history.

There's a breeze out there. A stirring.

Next week, or the week after, I will drive to the beach and stand on the shore and talk to the sea. Because the end of summer also means a little reckoning with the salt and the churn of the sea.

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6. giving thanks

To John Warner, who writes Biblioracle, for listing Handling the Truth on his Recommendation list. I read Mr. Warner's smart books essay every week in Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal. I learn whenever I do:
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations

1. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

2. "Love and Shame and Love" by Peter Orner

3. "Handling the Truth" by Beth Kephart

4. "J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist" by Thomas Beller

5. "Carsick" by John Waters

To the American Bookselling Association, for including Going Over in the 2014 Best Books for Children & Teens, Too. Honored to be there. Grateful to be listed alongside my friend, Amy King.

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7. In Chicago Tribune: Books with purpose demand urgent reading

Earlier this summer the impeccable Bill Wolfe invited me to write a short piece for his beautiful blog, "Read her Like an Open Book" that focuses on the work of women writers (their methods, their work). I had been thinking a lot about books that matter and the clicking tock, about the world we're in and the role of writers. And so I wrote a quick piece on the topic that began an interesting conversation out there in the virtual world.

A few weeks later urgency was still on my mind, and my dear friends at Chicago Tribune gave me room to expand on the thesis. This time I included books—both fiction and nonfiction—that have lately impressed me as significant.

That piece runs here today.

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8. WS studioarts: a gathering of my husband's art

Ceramics. Photography. Graphic Arts.

This is the work my husband does.

This summer, Bill has brought all of that together in a single web site, which I have the privilege of launching here.

Some of our clients will recognize some of the images. Our pottery friends will recognize the pots. Our dancing friends will find themselves inside Bill's magical 3-D imagery. My niece will find herself in the image above, reading a book that is called Small Damages.

The site is like a gathering. I hope you'll take some time to explore it.

The link, again, is this.

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9. A Kephart is the first American to scale Mount Kilimanjaro

From my cousin Libby, earlier today, this bit of family history, posted on the Cornell University news site. I didn't know this. I probably should have. I find it especially interesting today, as I finish reading the new Matt Higgins book Bird Dreams: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight, a magnificent chronicling of the men (and women) who choose to jump from planes, buildings, antennae, and cliffs, some wearing nothing more than flying-squirrel-shaped suits.

What people will do. What they can do. And apparently Leonard Kephart, my grandfather's brother, chose to scale Africa's great mountain all in a hunt for new glasses, and clover.
Aug. 30, 1927 Leonard W. Kephart, Class of 1913, is the first American to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. He was in Africa on a search for new grasses for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kephart took four days to reach the peak, slogging through snow-covered gravel the last day. The climb was not entirely without scientific reward, reported the Cornell Alumni News (Nov. 10, 1927). Kephart discovered three new varieties of clover on the expedition.
Leonard (pictured standing with my grandfather and great aunts (and Laura Mack)) was one of his six children born to Horace Kephart, the librarian-turned-outdoorsman who helped found the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I've written about Horace here. But just moments ago, I found this lovely biography on the Horace Kephart Alaska Center Weblog.

I learn so much from those who do history well.

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10. Throwback Thursday. I had a thing for hats.

I still have that hat.
I don't think, however, that I am still so deer-caught-in-the-headlights-ish.
(I hope not; perhaps being not-headlightish is the sole advantage of advancing age.)

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11. Miranda Kephart, my niece, dazzles with a foxtrot (and turns 21)

My niece, Miranda Kephart, will soon turn 21. Having made her way to Yale with countless science credits and awards, Miranda soon emerged as a truly stellar ballroom dancer—learning the steps, and the artistry, at lightning speed. This foxtrot was filmed at Yale's 2014 Spring Show, and Miranda's old aunt (that would be me) watches it through teary eyes.

Happy Almost Birthday, Miranda.

And Happy Already Birthday, Owen. (Owen being Miranda's brother, who dazzled the Beth Blog World last year with this amazing Rubik's Cube performance and who is now settled in for his first year of college.)

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12. Elly P.: tween wonder

Yesterday, this:

A client sends a gift of blank notebooks in the wake of a job I gladly did (so many jobs, through so many years, I've done—but this gift, so unexpected). An author for whom I read and blurbed a debut novel sends a beautiful card and gift—wholly lovely thoughtfulness. The weather unfolded, magnificently. I wrote the first two pages of a book.

All of that was enough and then, end of day, an email from the impeccable Elly P. of Alaska-trip fame arrives. The world's top National Geo Junior Explorer who has a travel pedigree that outshines most, wears a camera around her neck like a pro, jumps into frigid bay water with nary a blink, and kept me company on a glorious boat with stories about herself and at least one fantastical story that she made up on the spot, while spreading Nutella across her breakfast toast.

Elly P. Elly P. All these weeks later, she writes to me.

Elly, you may have taken a bunch of photos of the crazy author lady with the untamed Alaska hair, but I've got pictures of you being your glorious intelligent, determined, clever, funny self. I've got these.

Magical camera. I'm in.

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13. upcoming, open, and free: September 4/rivers, gardens, ghosts/Radnor Memorial Library

The talk is written.
The doors will be open.
Rivers. Gardens. Ghosts.
Radnor Memorial Library
September 4, 2014

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14. baby steps/finding our way toward new projects

In Adamstown yesterday, I buy this pair of 19th century shoes. I bring them home. I add them to my small collection. I like the scars and worn buttons. I like imagining the child who yearned to run.

Which is precisely what I've been doing lately—imagining, yearning. We need time, I always think, between projects. We can't leave one thing and rush to another. I never have, never do. We have to figure out who we have become in the midst of making and who we are going to be next. We have to believe in the validity of our own work, its place in things. Write as if you are writing your last book, I always tell myself. Because someday it will be your last book.

I will want to believe that it mattered.

And so I buy a pair of shoes and study the scars. I turn stories over in my mind. Yes? No. What? For whom? What is going to matter now?

If no one but me reads the books I write next, will I still believe they were worth making?

They have to be.

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15. That someone who could change your life—Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs/Joshua Wolf Shenk

This weekend's New York Times Book Review fills me with desire. I imagine a lake house. I imagine time. I imagine a week with nothing but books and a notebook into which I might record my favorite lines.


That isn't here, or now. And so I find myself reading the first many chapters of the reviewed books instead, trying to narrow my choices for those days when I will have full reading time. In Joshua Wolf Shenk's Powers of Two, reviewed by Sarah Lewis, I find this bit of loveliness. I am, to be honest, a lone wolf much of the time—searching my limited brain for a next idea, having the conversation mostly in private, taking the long solo walk to breathe more substance in.

But there have been moments, projects, abbreviated eras when I've found myself in the midst of a heady collaboration. Someone to talk to. Someone who makes the small idea bigger or clearer than it began.

Shenk captures the feeling of that here:

When the quickening comes. When the air between us feels less like a gap than a passage. When we don't know what to say because there is so much to say. Or, conversely, when we know just what to say because somehow, weirdly, all the billions of impulses around thought and language suddenly coalesce and find a direction home.

Sometimes you meet someone who could change your life. Sometimes you feel that possibility. The sense that, in the presence of this celestial body, you fall into a new orbit; that the ground beneath you is more like a trampoline; that you may be able—with this new person—to create things more beautiful and useful, more fantastic and more real, than you ever could before.

How does this happen? What conditions of circumstance and temperament foster creative connection? In other words: Where and how does it begin? And which combinations of people make it most likely?

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16. Scenes of Hamlet—my husband's book of ceramics and still lives (now live on Blurb)

A few days ago I posted here about my husband's work as a ceramicist and photographer.

I can now share that exquisite work here. Bill made all of the pots, arranged, lit, and took the photographs, and designed the book, which he will soon be sharing with ceramics studios.

I, however, love the work so much that I have asked if I might share it with all of you.

The link to the Blurb book preview is here.

In a few weeks I'll be sharing Bill's new web site, which features this work, his 3D design work, and his photography.

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17. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky/Lydia Netzer: Chicago Tribune Review

I want to love every book I read. I crack the spine eager with hope. I struggled, unfortunately, with Lydia Netzer's new novel, a book that has elsewhere earned raves as well as raised eyebrows.

My review of the book is now live in Printers Row Journal. It begins like this, below, and can be read in its entirety here.
If you are a reader intoxicated by the strange, a reader for whom conceits matter more than characters and song, then Lydia Netzer's "How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky" is the sort of book that may well live up to its billing as a funny valentine. If, on the other hand, you read in search of stories that ultimately transcend ideas, then this second novel by the best-selling author of "Shine Shine Shine" may furrow your brow.

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18. Honoring Greg Djanikian in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette

I felt blessed when Pennsylvania Gazette editor John Prendergast invited me to write a 3,000 word story about Greg Djanikian, who trusted me to teach at Penn, who talks with  me many spring-semester Tuesdays when I arrive early to teach, who inspired a key character in my forthcoming Florence novel One Thing Stolen, and who writes some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere. I wrote of his most recent book, Dear Gravity, here.

To write this story I spent an afternoon in Greg's beautiful home (filled with the artistry of his wife), interviewed Stephen Dunn, Julia Alvarez, Al Filreis, and others, and returned to a dear student, Eric Xu, who brought valuable insights to the Greg's beloved teaching.

The story can be found here.

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19. Lost and Found: a poem I wrote years ago, for a neighbor I still love

Yesterday a former neighbor visited me. There are miles between us now. There's never any distance.

She has been wondering what had become of a poem I'd written for her children years ago, when our houses sat side by side.

I said I'd look for it.

Boxes, photos, so much attic dust later, I found it.

Soup, this one deserved its own blog post.

To us. To then.

Thank you.

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20. Us. Then.

I have been hunting through old photos and treasures—seeking a lost poem for a friend.

The poem is still lost.

But this was found.

I have loved every inch of being a mother to this son. And I still do.

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21. living my own unpublished novel: a torn page

My last night was much like one I'd written of years ago, in one of the many unpublished novels that sit here, quiet.
            In the family room she slowly navigates toward the two-piece chaise lounge and moves it, one piece at a time, toward the window.  Right up against the window, facing the moon, which now hangs unobstructed in the after-hours sky—a perfect half, an orange color — amidst the vague white constellations.  She had always wished for a hole in the roof of her house so that she could lie, in any weather, beneath the moon, but this, tonight, is a good enough solution—the window up, the night blowing in, the mystery of the house across the street.  She settles back into the thin, sleek leather cushion and twines her hands together at her waist, the posture of prayer.  She holds her eyes open as long as she can, and then she closes them but doesn’t sleep and doesn’t dream, just listens.  There is the soprano pulse of crickets near.  A mole in leaves, making for cover.  Bird call, and also bird wing.  Perhaps the snuffing out of a candle now, on a table, in a house.  She can differentiate the sounds, but how much better is it, after all, to let them play, orchestral. 

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22. Richard Bausch on sophisticated fiction

In today's Printers Row Journal, Kevin Nance interviews Richard Bausch about his new novel, Before, During, After. Complexity, Bausch suggests, separates serious fiction from other forms of entertainment. And I think, yes. Complexity. That's the word.

Q: The other intersection between public and private history in “Before, During, After” is indicated in the title. There’s a way in which these great calamities that happen — in my parents’ generation it was the Kennedy assassination, in my own generation it was 9/11 — seem like points of demarcation, watershed moments that define “before” and “after.”    

A: Yes, and it has to do with the discovery of complexity and the fact that there’s evil in the world — things that no amount of study or work or will or effort can change one bit, and we just have to somehow live with it. I think that’s what separates serious, sophisticated fiction from more trivial kinds of entertainment — although it all had better entertain or it’s a failure, no matter what its intent. 
    It’s all honorable and good, I should say; there’s no such thing as fiction writing that’s immoral — I don’t believe that at all. If it diverts and tells a story that involves the reader, it’s a good thing. If it’s boring, that’s different, but that’s another kettle of fish that has nothing to do with what the activity really is. I mean, Stephen King, who’s begun to get some cachet as the excellent storyteller that he is, used to be dismissed out of hand as some sort of hack. But if you read the guy, he can write like hell. There’s an aspect of what he does that could be defined as genre writing, but even that shows real thought and real intention, and people are starting to notice that.

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23. returning to failed projects so that I might understand the failures

In between reading and thinking, cleaning and restoring the house, and trying new recipes out on friends who accept the dare, I am reading the work of yesteryears—the pages upon pages that were never published. What went wrong? What must I not do again as I ponder the possibility of new stories?

Sometimes I find passages, written as fiction, that return me to real life. Here is a boy and the paragraph I wrote for him inside a novel I never published. The place is San Miguel.
Nothing was neutral in San Miguel.  The place was full of opinions—the murmur of fountains behind padlocked doors, the inscription of grills high on windows, the casual flamboyance of the mariachi men, the coruscation, in the distance, of abandoned mining towns.  The lintels above the ornate doors were carved with news of vanished families, rose spires pierced the sky, the smoke of the helotes carts was weather, and every day a boy wearing a yellow cabled sweater and shiny shoes carried a moose puppet across the cobbles of the town.
 “Where do you think he’s going?"
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think he wants?”

The failure here? The static quality of the dialogue. Too much like a poem, which is not how real people speak.

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24. Meera Lee Patel: gift upon gift

Not long ago I posted here about an extremely gifted artist, Meera Lee Patel, whose delicate and soulful renderings of atmospheric worlds grace tea towels and greeting cards, tote bags and journals, even slingy chairs. You can find her work on Etsy and in Free People. You can follow her musings over Twitter, her process sketches on Instagram, her hope for the world in every line she draws, and next year Perigree Books will be releasing her book Being Me (But Better). I can't actually imagine a better Meera Lee, but I'm eagerly anticipating her book.

Yesterday, as a cadre of painters and window caulkers and windowsill fixers and stucco men finished the rescue of my modest bungalow home, a gift arrived from Meera, a package of most precious things. Number 37 of 50 of her keepsake Elephant and Moon (her illustrated story of an elephant seeking his place in the world). A handmade card: Grateful. A postcard. Her long-lettered words to me. She is so utterly embrace-able, this Meera Lee. And I am enormously lucky to have her in my life.

For look, above, at what she makes.

Soon, here, you'll find another inimitable work of art from Meera Lee, for Chronicle Books had the extraordinary stroke of genius to hire her as the cover artist for One Thing Stolen, the Florence novel due out next April. I've not yet seen the final cover. I have seen the intricate, intelligent watercolor. I can't wait to hold this book in my hand, for Meera's reading of the novel was so astute; her discovery of the small details make her cover illustration sing.

One Thing Stolen, which has a rare neurological disease at its heart, was not an easy book to write; it was, in fact, heartbreaking as I imagined myself inside the mind of frightened young girl. It emerged out of many drafts and deep considering. I stumbled until at last I found the light, and then I waited. Before I'd even seen a glimpse of Meera's cover art, I'd heard from Meera—words from a reader that will always matter to me.

Gift upon gift upon gift. And then yesterday's package.

When the cover art is ready for sharing, you will find it along with an interview with Meera here. Between now and then, Meera, the atmosphere is, as you write in Elephant and Moon, "feelings and fabrics from lifetimes before."

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25. Leah Apple, my beautiful student, shares her dance as a Fulbright Scholar on the island of Kinmen

The great privilege of teaching extraordinary students is that the semester of writing, reflection, and talk marks only the start of an involving conversation.

Last evening, Leah Apple, the hip-hop dancing Fulbright winner who enrolled in my second nonfiction class at Penn and whom you met here in a Philadelphia Inquirer story, came for dinner, bringing with her tales of her time in Kinmen, near the People's Republic of China. In a remote niche of that island, Leah met and taught English to children with whom she soon fell in love. Inevitably, they fell in love with her. Dance, "the universal language," became core to Leah's curriculum as she and her fellow Fulbright scholars prepared the children for a first-ever island flash mob.

This short film, shot and produced by Leah's friend Jonah Stern, tells the story of remote classrooms, willing children, and a young woman with a boundless soul.

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