REVIEW: ‘The Sunlit Night’ by Rebecca Dinerstein

Frances, just graduating college, loses her boyfriend and then her family, as her parents split up and nearly disown Frances’s sister over her choice of fiance.

Yasha, just graduating high school, loses his single father when he dies of heart trouble while the two are traveling overseas.

Frances and Yasha are unknown to each other, but both wind up on an island in Lofoten, a small string of islands off the coast of Norway, nearly a hundred miles north of the arctic circle. Frances travels there for a summer artists colony opportunity she resurrects from her email trash folder. Yasha arrives to bury his father “at the top of the world,” away from civilization, following his last wishes.

The Sunlit Night is a novel that beautifully weaves together these two characters’ stories as they are stripped of the circumstances and context that define them and then as they feel their way forward toward reestablishing their sense of identity and direction. This self-discovery takes place among strangers, in a lonely land where the sun never sets.

Lofoten, Davide Gorla

Frances tells her own story, while Yasha’s is told through narration. Their stories come through in lyrical yet matter-of-fact language. We watch them act without grand gestures. We hear them think their confused, unstructured, difficult thoughts. The effect is that we come to know Frances and Yasha clearly while they still feel hesitant and dispersed.

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The pleasures of secondary sources

Kierkegaard is a hard nut to crack, and I’ve picked up his work multiple times, only to put it down before long.

Still, he has had a profound impact on me as a person, almost exclusively through secondary sources. One of those sources is the lecture by Robert Solomon that I’ve embedded below.

Reading primary sources can be a real joy, and I consider myself a much more complete person for having studied through many of “the great books” in my college years and since.

But secondary sources, where other intelligent, insightful people synthesize and re-present the primary sources, are often more pleasurable and more impactful because they are more clear, and because the author has the standing to point out the significance of elements in the primary sources. I hope professors, teachers, and writers of history and popular science take heart.

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‘Girl Crush’ is just ‘Joleen’ (though not as good)

S ome country radio stations are refusing to play Little Big Town’s current single, “Girl Crush,” because some listeners hear the line “I’ve got a girl crush” and assume the song is promoting a “gay agenda.”

The song is just a modern spin on the same idea behind Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”

Girl Crush

I want to drown myself
In a bottle of her perfume
I want her long blonde hair
I want her magic touch
Because maybe then
You’d want me just as much
I got a girl crush

Jolene

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

 

I like that the woman in the new song is more empowered, but otherwise, it goes without saying that “Jolene” remains the better song.

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You’ll be missed, Etta James

Etta, having your cassette on rotation in my beat up Geo Prizm helped me get through the darkest and most difficult times of my life. Thank you.

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Creative writing in Lancaster

Here’s a poem fragment that merits reflection on a spring Sunday. It’s Franz Wright, reflecting on his baptism

That insane asshole is dead
I drowned him
and he’s not coming back.

I’m trying to write more like him—spare and contemplative yet rich and bristling with action.

Today I met up with Susan Pogorzelski (20orsomething on Twitter) and Lynn Holmgren at Square One Coffee for our first real meeting as an admittedly small writing group. We each write in different genres and modes, and we each have somewhat different ideas of what we’d like to get out of the group, which keeps it fun, interesting, and flexible.

Writers chair by Andrew Wyeth

The simplicity and solitude of the act of writing (as captured here by Andrew Wyeth) doesn’t always lend itself to community and networks.

In my networking here in Lancaster, I’ve met relatively few creative writers. The ones I’ve met include Chet Williamson, Kelly Watson, Linda Espenshade, Timothy Rezendes, Jessica Smucker Falcon, and Garrett Faber. Just last week I had the pleasure of meeting Kerry Sherin Wright, who runs Franklin & Marshall’s Philadelphia Alumni Writers House. It’s a priority of mine to meet Betsy Hurley of the Lancaster Literary Guild. Please, tell me what Lancaster writers I haven’t met and need to. Extra points for poets. And if you’re a writer and I just don’t know it, smack me upside the head.

I’m confident that there is a respectable number of creative writers producing creative works here in Lancaster County. We seem to be the least well-networked of the artists in the area, particularly when compared to musicians and visual artists.

This afternoon, Susan offered a line from Shel Silverstein as a writing prompt: “I’m afraid I got too close.” I don’t particularly enjoy sharing early drafts, but in the spirit of sharing and openness, here is my very rough draft inspired by the prompt.

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25 random things about me

Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things. I’m finally allowing myself to get sucked in…

  1. I specifically trim the corners of my beard because orthodox Jews are not supposed to. I somehow arrived at the understanding that that means that we goyim are supposed to.
  2. In an online debate, when I quote the text of someone’s post in a response, I correct typos and grammatical errors, to make them look more intelligent.
  3. Once, I went an entire year praying nothing except the Lord’s Prayer.
  4. My taste in beer has become less refined over time. I started out drinking nothing but microbrews and imports; now I get pretty excited about Old Milwaukee.
  5. I think “it is as if” is one of the most music phrases in our language.
  6. “Precisialmente” was my favorite word in Spanish, until I was told that it’s not a word, and I must have made it up.
  7. I think basketball is like ballet for guys.
  8. I can’t stand watching NBA games for the sole reason that the organ gets on my nerves.
  9. I have Michael Jordan’s 1991 Upper Deck baseball card.
  10. My mom used to work as a legal secretary for Phillies pitcher Mike Mussina’s father.
  11. I was at Mike Schmidt’s last baseball game. (EDIT: I lied. It turns out it was a night in his honor the season after he retired.)
  12. My favorite animal in the world is the blue shark.
  13. The one thing in the world that most hurts my soul is loss of habitat for wild animals.
  14. I read my horoscope most days and think about taking its advice. I’m a Cancer.
  15. About 30% of the time I am thinking about myself in the context of the cosmos.
  16. When I was eight, I used tire white-wall cleaner on my sneakers to try to impress a girl.
  17. I am utterly unimpressed by bruises. The skin has to break.
  18. I admire pompous asses but am afraid of being one.
  19. My favorite magazine is The Atlantic. My favorite food is ice cream.
  20. A sight I love more than anything is looking up through the leaves of a pin oak on a sunny day when the sky is deep blue.
  21. The two parts of my family heritage that I’m most proud of are Swedish ancestry and workers for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
  22. I do not have a favorite color or season. I like them all, in balance.
  23. My fingernails grow freakishly fast and strong. Women are jealous. I also have long eyelashes.
  24. I used to be a horrible speller. I had to work very hard at it. I still do. I use dictionary.com all the time.
  25. I used to live my life as if one day a biography would be written about me.
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TRIBUTE: John Updike and America

John Updike died today at the age of 75.* That’s a good statistical age. It sounds like an average lifespan; like a neat round American age. He was in many ways a penultimate American, a writer in love with the American idea.

*-OK, news reports are now correcting themselves; his age was 76. An even more American number. (P.S., Years ago I adopted the use of “OK” rather than “okay” from Updike’s novels.)

John Updike. Photo by Martha Updike.

The New York Times has an old page (from 1997) that includes links to two NPR Fresh Air interviews with John Updike, as well as articles including reviews of his books.

Updike was an incredibly prolific writer. In his later years he focused on serving as an art critic and essayist. He wrote poetry, too. His most famous poem is “Player Piano,” which the New Yorker published in 1954. It was in 2000, upon reading “Rainbow” in The Atlantic, that I first observed, however, that it seemed like he was writing poetry to stay in shape for writing novels.

Taken together, his Rabbit series may well be considered an epic prose poem on the later half of the twentieth century in America. That is the place to begin if you’ve never read much (or any) Updike. Grab Rabbit, Run and go.

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CLOSE READING: Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

The poem that Elizabeth Alexander offered at Barack Obama’s inauguration, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a poem whose meaning has to be teased out. It works like many contemporary American poems in this way—the first time through, all that happens is you fall for the sound and cadence and are moved by some of the images.

Young man playing steel drums

‘Someone is trying to make music somewhere, | with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum.’ Photo by Flickr user Bitpicture.

The experience is similar to listening to a new song on the radio—on the first listening, what you hear is the tune and the basic gist of the song. In both cases (hearing/reading a poem and hearing a new single), there is a lot you miss. It’s not until you go back and hear it again (and again) that you begin to peel apart the layers and see what is really going on.

This post is my offer to walk with you through another reading of the inauguration poem and share how I am experiencing it and some of the interesting things I notice, including what I think the poem means. I don’t expect to get in the habit of explicating poems on this blog, but this is a special occasion, right?

The Meaning of Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem in Simple Terms

Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is at its heart a celebration of the moment. The poet gently places a hand on our shoulders and politely turns us so that we can see the glorious sight that she sees.

Here is the moment in history as the poet sees it: “Someone is trying to make music somewhere,” and today, with the inauguration of President Obama and all it signifies, that someone stands (with the rest of us who hope and struggle) “on the brink” of success in that endeavor. That someone struggling to “make music… with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum” (which is really all of us) can now launch into a rich and melodious praise song.

That, in a poetic nutshell, is what this moment in time is. That is the central “message” and theme of this poem.

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