TED Talks: Billy Collins, Two poems on what dogs think (probably)

I don’t know a lot about poetry, but I do know I love Billy Collins, former two-time Poet Laureate of the United States.

He was my first high-profile author interview; somehow I talked my way into a phone interview for the first incarnation of this blog. Wires were crossed, somehow. No doubt he wouldn’t have given me the interview had he really understood the venue. Still, he very graciously answered my questions, and I’ve loved him ever since.

I saw him live in Woodstock, IL a few years ago, when he came for a reading. After, sitting in a little restaurant on the square, I saw him walk across the park alone. I thought about running up to him, telling him how much I appreciated what he’d done. To this day, I regret I let that moment pass. He wouldn’t have remembered me, I mean, come on. Still, I ignored the impulse that rose in my stomach, pushing it back down with my Greek salad. Yes, I remember what I was eating.

A moment missed. Ah, well. May as well not worry, since I can’t have it back.

I have enough regret to carry around, already. Don’t we all?



magnolia cemetery, charleston, s.c.

Few things make me more irate than seeing the confederate flag placed on a grave as a supposed gesture of honor. There is no honor for traitors.



magnolia cemetery, charleston, s.c.

I don’t want to hear about the weird lighting affect in this photo, how the sunspot and lighter area on the statue is weird or spooky or what-not. I was shooting against the light; I was bound to get a lens flare.

I found the level of detail in this statue amazing. They don’t make monuments like this one anymore.

mood music: to the ends of the earth by lord huron

My daughter introduced me to Lord Huron and I’m smitten. We have strangely similar taste in music. Well, mostly. I like all the same indie music she does. Most of the same indie music, let’s not go crazy.

Pretty weird.

I never had that degree of affinity with the woman who happened to conceive and give birth to me. The woman undeserving of the word “mother,” but alas. It’s her name I’m stuck putting on forms and such.

What can you do?

But my daughter and I are incredibly synchronized when it comes to music.

Enjoy Lord Huron.  They’re one of my new favorites.


I said we’re all gonna die but I’ll never believe it
I love this world and I don’t wanna leave it
Said that death is a deal that you cannot refuse
But I love you, girl and I don’t wanna lose you

Don’t want a long ride, I don’t wanna die at all
I wanna be the man who lives forever
I ain’t never gonna die and I want you to come

I said life is a tale, it begins and it ends
And forever’s a word that we can’t understand
Well, I know that my life’s better when we’re together
So why can’t our story just go on forever?


Summary: My Ireland

“We survive. We’re Irish. We have the souls of poets. We love our misery, we delight in the beauty of strange places and dark places in our hearts.”

– Ellis Flynn, Wear Black


Having finished posting about the first leg of my adventures in Ireland I’m feeling rather contemplative re: what it meant to me visiting the homeland of two of my family lines. Working on all this genealogy lately I’ve been struck, all over again, by the interconnectedness between us all.

Amazingly, tracing back relations by direct lineage and marriage I was able to hit upon a vein ripe with English and Scottish nobility, which sideswiped me. We all want to say we’re related to historical figures and what I found far exceeded that. I’m descended from a governor of the Virginia Colony. The generation before him were nobility from Wales, a fact that pleased my Wales-loving daughter to no end. Because of him, it doesn’t stop there but rather branches out through Europe and back as far as the Middle Ages, because nobility had the advantage of record keeping the poorer didn’t share.

My reaction to all this was, at first, laughter. The generations I know from both sides of my family are not rich nor, on one side, particularly well-educated. They’ve lived in poverty as far back as I’d ever known, farming cotton, barely scraping. So, how does a family of noble origin sink so low? The Civil War, maybe. It knocked the legs out from under entire generations of Americans; it was the great equalizer. The South still has not recovered economically and won’t in my lifetime, nor in my childrens’. It may never climb back to its pre-war economy. There’s justice in that, in one way. An economy built on the backs of slavery has no honor, yet I believe in the right of redemption. So many generations later, I wish things could turn around for them. Sadly, circumstances are stacked against them.

Visiting Ireland the the UK, not realizing I had Welsh ancestry at the time, brings a lot home to me. I identify strongly with the Irish part of my ancestry, you may have noticed. Not only did the red hair and blue eyes come down the line but the sense of humor and a few cultural bits, as well.

I loved Ireland before I saw it and being there cemented my feelings. It’s not just the beauty, which is stunning, but the people I connected with and fell in love with. They’re a kind people, quick to help, expecting nothing in return. They saved me great trouble many, many times. In particular, I will never forget the employee of Irish Ferries who saw me sitting out front of the building at Rosslare, knowing I wouldn’t see a bus or taxi for hours. He walked up to me quickly and with purpose, asked where I needed to go – in this case, Dublin – grabbed my suitcase and led me to the train station, which wasn’t terribly far but was the most hidden station I’ve ever seen – honestly, what were they thinking? He took my luggage onto the train for me, set it on a seat, then disappeared as I was thanking him profusely, almost crying in relief. It was as if my thanking him was an embarrassment; he didn’t help me to impress but out of human kindness.

I ask myself if an American in the same position would have helped me like that and feel ashamed of the answer. If someone newly arrived here, feeling desolate and unwelcome, deserted and even a bit frightened, would be visited by an American guardian angel. Of sorts, I mean. I don’t believe in angels, nor in a God, but after my trip my faith in human kindness has been renewed. Created, actually. I didn’t much believe in it before but there is no denying the Irish and Welsh people are, in general, more kind than your average American, with exceptions of course.

No wonder I felt such joy visiting, torn apart upon leaving. Whether I get there again or not, I have the knowledge some of my people came from that land of empathy and indescribable beauty.

Forever, I will be thankful for that, more than I’ll ever feel pride in my distant noble ancestry. Because the milk of human kindness is the one thing truly without price.






a tramp’s abroad: photo essay of Galway city and the Cliffs of Moher

Yeah, I realize it’s taken me more than double the time to tell you about my two weeks in Ireland and Wales than it did to experience them. And you’re probably sick of hearing that old excuse about how busy I am and how exciting my life is and how my social life consists of rubbing elbows with such literati as Jonathan Lethem, whom I met last Sunday. He was great, generous with his time and shared his thoughts on, among other things, living in New York City and the evolution of books and technology. Hint: he’s not worried about books.

The whole story is long, because I do not have normal days. It involved the failure of Apple Maps (you SUCK) to get me anywhere near the venue, making me 45-minutes late, street parties that forced me to take side detours through a maze of Chicago alleys and a pen that exploded all over me, to top everything off. Then there’s the fact it was nearly 100 degrees and the a/c in my car wasn’t working.

By the time it was my turn to have my books signed I looked like an insane woman, hair standing on end, ink all over both hands, smelling of sweat and desperation. To top it off, I shared everything with him in a rant that tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop it. No, not too humiliating. When I saw him in the bookstore after the signing I apologized for unloading on him, begging him not to think of me as a smelly, disheveled bitch. It was no problem, he told me, which may have been designed to make me go away and allow him time to duck out the back door.

What, not enough for you? Happy my life isn’t all sunshine and unicorns?


To save time and having to compose a written post, I decided to go with a photo essay to represent our second Irish bus tour, to speed the process of what’s become a shamefully slow synopsis of my two weeks abroad. After all, pictures are worth blah, blah, blah.



no, not the liffey but the corrib (and it looks like there’s a body floating in it, just below the surface)


 remaining old city wall, Galway city, Ireland


bustling shopping area


note the chicago sign 🙂


home of the claddagh ring


lovely galway





interior – cathedral



wish I knew what this is… yeah, a FLAG, shut up, but which and why


cliffs of moher


 think i’ll throw myself off here when i’m done with life



It was a great tour. We had much more time to stop at less places, so we were able to see everything in more depth. I was miffed we couldn’t stop and buy a claddagh ring in the home of claddaghs, so we wound up buying ours elsewhere. I really wanted to buy Allison’s ring in Galway, not some gift shop. Bastards. Because you can’t go to Ireland and not buy a claddagh ring. Okay, you can, but why? Ditto a wool sweater. I bought one supposedly made on a small charming island off the coast of Ireland (a big charming island), signed by the lass who knitted it. It’s a lovely, bulky fisherman’s cardigan that took up half my suitcase coming home. Oh, but this winter it will all be worth it.

For now, this ends the Ireland leg of the trip. Next up: Wales, then back to Ireland for me. Staying in Wales another month for me daughter.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch



“Summer House With Swimming Pool” reveals at the start that Ralph is dead and that Marc’s medical techniques contributed to his send-off. Anyone looking for a comparison to “Gone Girl,” winner and still champion in the realm of books that begin with deceptive death reports, will find no stiff competition here. Yes, Ralph is dead. Yes, Marc is dangerous. And most of Mr. Koch’s male characters in this book, like most in his last one, genuinely deserve their doom.”

– Janet Maslin, The New York Times


Herman Koch possesses the superhuman ability to endear his highly flawed, often morally ambiguous characters to his readers. Like Vladimir Nabokov before him, Koch utilizes humor and some very deft writing to render sympathetic middle aged men with inappropriate feelings – and general disrespect – for both young girls and women in general. Likewise, he is able to pull off making a doctor’s decision to commit vigilante justice seem not just acceptable but morally necessary.

Summer House with Swimming Pool revolves around a  vacation home shared by three groups of friends. The first family, actor Ralph Meier, wife Judith and two sons are the wealthy family who rented the home. They invited their family physician, Dr. Mark Schlosser, his wife and two daughters, aged 12 and 14, as well as Hollywood director Stanley Forbes and his indecently young girlfriend to come along with them.

What follows is at first an odd and wacky trip, followed by increasingly disturbing sexual and sexually suggestive situations. All the characters, in turn, feel an attraction for someone else in the group, save perhaps Stanley’s young model girlfriend, who is instead an object of lust. What begins as a fun holiday with friends spins further and further out of control, until one of the Schlosser daughters is raped. By whom, is the question.

Dr. Schlosser chooses their host, Ralph Meier, as perpetrator without enough evidence to convict. Yet, when given the opportunity to diagnose Ralph with cancer he instead tells him there’s nothing to worry about, effectively handing down a death sentence.

But did Ralph do it? And what gives Schlosser the right to  condemn?

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a masterful novel, at once hilarious and highly charged with sexuality. It begs the question who is innocent and how is innocence defined?

I would highly recommend this book as fast-paced and at times keenly funny, noting it presents mature themes. I was so impressed I’ll now go back and read his first novel, The Dinner, which I’d been avoiding due to its incredible popularity. If there’s one thing that screams “Overrated!” it’s great press and holding the top spot on every imaginable list. However, Summer House with Swimming Pool has convinced me Herman Koch is a major talent to be reckoned with. I guess sometimes the masses are right, after all.

[Thank you to Edelweiss for a free e-ARC of this book]


Chicago Tribune:

“With a seasonally appealing title like “Summer House With Swimming Pool,” you would think this novel is a perfect fit for a day of reading on the beach. It’s very much that, but “Summer House With Swimming Pool” is no typical summer read. Balmy temperatures and sunny skies won’t stop the chill that runs up and down your spine as the story unfolds.”

– Carol Memmott


The Washington Post

“No matter how cheaply you travel, no hotel room will ever feel as cramped and sordid as the mind of this narrator, Dr. Marc Schlosser. He boasts, “I’m more charming than most men,” but that’s true only if most men are sociopaths, and Sam Garrett’s slightly stilted translation only adds to the reptilian tone of the doctor’s thoughts.”

– Ron Charles


Summer books rising with the mercury

It’s yet another amazing summer for books. Major writers, major quality literary fiction.

Here are a few that have caught my eye:


All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

Doerr has written short story collections, a memoir and two novels, all to great acclaim. His collection Memory Wall (2010) was his major break out with a mass readership.

His work has won four O. Henry Awards, been anthologized in several collections and I don’t have the energy to write out all the other awards and distinctions he’s won.You can find his essays here and here and a short story here.


“She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

– All the Light We Cannot See



From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).



The Casebook by Mona Simpson (Knopf)

Mona Simpson has studied poetry with such notables as Seamus Heaney, was editor of The Paris Review for five years and has won loads of prizes, including the Guggenheim (as did Doerr, by the way).

The Casebook is her sixth novel.


“We come into the world whole, all of us,but we don’t know that, don’t know that life will be taking large chunks out of us, forever.”

– The Casebook: A Novel




Miles Adler-Hart starts eavesdropping to find out what his mother is planning for his life. When he learns instead that his parents are separating, his investigation deepens, and he enlists his best friend, Hector, to help. Both boys are in thrall to Miles’s unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is “pretty for a mathematician.” They rifle through her dresser drawers, bug her telephone lines, and strip-mine her computer, only to find that all clues lead them to her bedroom, and put them on the trail of a mysterious stranger from Washington, D.C.

Their amateur detective work starts innocently but quickly takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family’s well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil and concoct modes of revenge on their villains that are both hilarious and naïve. Eventually, haltingly, they learn to offer animal comfort to those harmed and to create an imaginative path to their own salvation.

Casebook brilliantly reveals an American family both coming apart at the seams and, simultaneously, miraculously reconstituting itself to sustain its members through their ultimate trial. Mona Simpson, once again, demonstrates her stunning mastery, giving us a boy hero for our times whose story remains with us long after the novel is over.



The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey (Bloomsbury)

from her website:

Maud Casey is the author of two previous novels, The Shape of Things to Come, a New York Times Notable Book, and Genealogy; and a collection of stories, Drastic. She is the recipient of the Calvino Prize and has received fellowships from the Fundación Valparaiso, Hawthornden International Writers Retreat, Château de Lavigny, Dora Maar, and the Passa Porta residency at Villa Hellebosch. Casey teaches at the University of Maryland and lives in Washington, D.C.





In a trance-like state, Albert walks—from Bordeaux to Poitiers, from Chaumont to Macon, and farther afield to Turkey, Austria, Russia—all over Europe. When he walks, he is called a vagrant, a mad man. He is chased out of towns and villages, ridiculed and imprisoned. When the reverie of his walking ends, he’s left wondering where he is, with no memory of how he got there. His past exists only in fleeting images.

Loosely based on the case history of Albert Dadas, a psychiatric patient in the hospital of St. André in Bordeaux in the nineteenth century, The Man Who Walked Away imagines Albert’s wanderings and the anguish that caused him to seek treatment with a doctor who would create a diagnosis for him, a narrative for his pain.

In a time when mental health diagnosis is still as much art as science, Maud Casey takes us back to its tentative beginnings and offers us an intimate relationship between one doctor and his patient as, together, they attempt to reassemble a lost life. Through Albert she gives us a portrait of a man untethered from place and time who, in spite of himself, kept setting out, again and again, in search of wonder and astonishment.



Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

from his website:

Edward St Aubyn was born in London in 1960. He was educated at Westminster school and Keble college, Oxford University. He is the author of seven novels of which ‘Mother’s Milk’ was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, won the 2007 Prix Femina Etranger and won the 2007 South Bank Show award on literature.

His first novel, ‘Never Mind’ (1992) won the Betty Trask award. This novel, along with ‘Bad News’ (1992) and ‘Some Hope’ (1994) became a trilogy, now collectively published under the title ‘Some Hope’.

His other fiction consists of ‘On the Edge’ (1998) which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and A Clue to the Exit (2000).


“That was the wonderful thing about historical novels, one met so many famous people. It was like reading a very old copy of Hello! magazine.”

– Lost for Words


Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels were some of the most celebrated works of fiction of the past decade. Ecstatic praise came from a wide range of admirers, from literary superstars such as Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon to pop-culture icons such as Anthony Bourdain and January Jones. Now St. Aubyn returns with a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.
The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year. Meanwhile, a host of writers are desperate for Elysian attention: the brilliant writer and serial heartbreaker Katherine Burns; the lovelorn debut novelist Sam Black; and Bunjee, convinced that his magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant, will take the literary world by storm. Things go terribly wrong when Katherine’s publisher accidentally submits a cookery book in place of her novel; one of the judges finds himself in the middle of a scandal; and Bunjee, aghast to learn his book isn’t on the short list, seeks revenge.
Lost for Words is a witty, fabulously entertaining satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and asks how we can ever hope to recognize real talent when everyone has an agenda.


  Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen

cambridgekaysen (Knopf)

from Goodreads:

“Susanna Kaysen is an American author.

Kaysen was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kaysen attended high school at the Commonwealth School in Boston and the Cambridge School before being sent to McLean Hospital in 1967 to undergo psychiatric treatment for depression. It was there she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She was released after eighteen months. She later drew on this experience for her 1993 memoir Girl, Interrupted, which was made into a film in 1999, her role being played by Winona Ryder.”

“It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did . . .”

So begins this novel-from-life by the best-selling author of Girl, Interrupted, an exploration of memory and nostalgia set in the 1950s among the academics and artists of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, the precocious narrator ofCambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the locations to which her father’s career takes the family. She comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition.

Written with a sharp eye for the pretensions—and charms—of the intellectual classes, Cambridge captures the mores of an era now past, the ordinary lives of extraordinary people in a singular part of America, and the delights, fears, and longings of childhood.


riseandfallgreatpowersThe Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (Dial Press)

from his website:

Tom Rachman is the author of two novels, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (upcoming in 2014), and The Imperfectionists (2010), an international bestseller that has been translated into 25 languages. Rachman, who was born in London in 1974 and raised in Vancouver, studied cinema at the University of Toronto, then journalism at Columbia University in New York. In 1998, he joined the Associated Press as a foreign-desk editor in New York, then became a correspondent in Rome in 2002. He has written articles from India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Belgium, Britain and elsewhere. From 2006-08, he was an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Slate and The New Statesman, among other publications. He lives in London.

“People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past–the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one’s intellect, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty.”


New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.

Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.

Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.

Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.



 Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter  Writing by Nina Sankovitch (Simon & Schuster)


Nina Sankovitch launched ReadAllDay.org in 2008, and at the end of her year of reading, she was profiled in the New York Times. She continues to review books on ReadAllDay.org and for the Huffington Post. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and four sons.



Witty, moving, enlightening, and inspiring, Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Nina Sankovitch’s discovery of a trove of hundred year- old letters. The letters are in an old steamer trunk she finds in her backyard and include missives written by a Princeton freshman to his mother in the early 1900s. Nina’s own son is heading off to Harvard, and she hopes that he will write to her, as the Princeton student wrote to his mother and as Nina wrote to hers. But times have changed. Before Nina can persuade her child of the value of letters, she must first understand for herself exactly what it is about letters that make them so significant—and just why she wants to receive letters from her son. Sankovitch sets off on a quest through the history of letter writing—from the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James.

Sankovitch uncovers and defines the specific qualities that make letters so special, examining not only historical letters but also the letters in epistolary novels, her husband’s love letters, and dozens more sources, including her son’s brief reports from college on the weather and his allowance.

In this beautifully written book, Nina Sankovitch reminds us that letters offer proof and legacy of what is most important in life: love and connection. In the end, she finds, the letters we write are even more important than the ones we wait for.



Whet your appetites for some great reading?

Hope so.