The impressive old ladies of Cape Cod

While I was in Cape Cod learning how to make radio at Transom, I produced two pieces.

My final project started out being about the local candlepin bowling alley, but became a story about one bowler — the inimitable 94-year-old Nellie Kenyon. You can listen to it here.

The first story, produced as an assignment for WCAI’s Creative Life series, was about the Provincetown Public Press, a project of the awe-inspiring-especially-for-its-size Provincetown Public Library. Reporting that story, I met one of their authors, Marilyn Colburn, who was really nice — and turned out to be the friend and neighbor of several of my Key West friends. Small world, many connections between outposts.

Here’s a take-home lesson I didn’t expect: Older folks might want to consider staying up north for the winter. Because the Cape seems to be full of energetic, intelligent people in their 80s and 90s. My classmate Alison Byrne produced a great piece about the senior center’s poetry group and Falmouth’s 99-year-old poet laureate — I’ll link to it as soon as it airs. I’m starting to think I should make Cape Cod my retirement plan. Meanwhile, my journey home starts this evening — I’m taking the Silver Meteor train from DC to Miami. Once I get home, get unpacked and get geared up, I’ll be making more radio. So keep an ear on this space.

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What I’m up to. And my classmates, too!

eel pond raw fileNormally, I wouldn’t just make a blog post that simply links to another blog post. Because that’s what Facebook and Twitter are for, right? But since I’m all about the radio at the moment, I thought I’d provide this link. And this excellent photo, which is our class photo (we had to top or at least match the previous class, which had arranged a Last Supper kind of deal).

Anyway, here’s what we have to say about what we’ve learned in the workshop, so far. A lot of it is very helpful for writing in general, radio writing in particular, and how to approach storytelling. As you can see, we were all very impressed with Nancy Updike, one of the founding producers of This American Life, who came and spent a class with us.

If you’re at all interested in radio storytelling and how it works, I encourage you to check out other features on Transom. The site includes stories about/interviews with great radio producers, as well as just plain great radio stories. Check it out. And if you can’t just up and leave your life and loved ones to hang out in Woods Hole (applications for the fall workshop are now open!), check out the online offerings.

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Old print dog starts learning new radio tricks

radio_wireless_towerI feel like I’ve crossed some kind of Rubicon by spending more time over the last three weeks listening than reading.

It makes perfect sense since those three weeks have been spent in an immersive radio school — which for an old print person with extremely limited radio experience like myself feels a bit like entering Radio Grad School without having taken Radio 101.

Fortunately, the instructors and fellow students are as nice, smart, helpful and encouraging as could be.

Sometime in the last week between a presentation by a talented podcaster named Jonathan Groubert (whose podcast is called The State We’re In) and grilling a talented classmate half my age who doesn’t own an actual radio, I think I finally Got It about podcasts and how radio reaches people now. I am familiar with podcasts — I used to laboriously download the BBC Newspod and NPR Books podcast to my computer via iTunes, then transfer them to an iPod, then listen while folding laundry or whatever. But that’s a pain in the ass and I got out of the habit. I have occasionally downloaded episodes of This American Life or On the Media to my phone and listened there. But mostly, in a pretty old-fashioned, analog kind of way, I get my radio from the radio.

It turns out nobody, or at least nobody under the age of 30, does this anymore.* And that podcasting, now around for 10 years, is hitting its stride in a really interesting way. I had been thinking of podcasts as a way to catch up to radio shows that you missed, or that are not carried on your local station. They are that, but there are also smart, creative people out there making podcasts that aren’t carried on many stations, or any stations at all. And you can get them .. for free! On your phone!

If you have a smartphone, you probably have a built-in podcast app. There are also lots of apps out there that make it even easier (Talented Classmate Half My Age recommended one called Downcast, which seems to be well worth the $2.99).**

So what I have been listening to? Of course This American Life, because how can you not? And I subscribed to some old favorites like On the Media, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and a bunch of podcasts from the BBC and KCRW.

But I’m most excited about the ones that are new to me. Start at Radiotopia which gathers seven really cool podcasts — my favorite is 99% Invisible but they are all good. It’s not all new stuff either; Fugitive Waves is work from the archives of the Kitchen Sisters and Radio Diaries has the work of producer Joe Richman. These are people whose stories are used as “texts” in radio grad school — with the added benefit that they are a pleasure to listen to. You learn stuff and you’re engaged/entertained.

You know what else I found out? John Oliver has a podcast! It’s called The Bugle and it’s done with Andy Zaltzman and it’s very funny, especially if you’re an aficionado of Anglo-American humor/satiric political commentary. Since I haven’t talked anyone into handing over their HBO Go password to me yet, I was excited to learn I could get some free Oliver on a weekly basis. Another comedy podcast I haven’t listened to yet is WTF with Marc Maron — and classmates whose judgment I trust say it’s great.

There are tons more and I won’t list them all. But if you’re curious, leave a comment and I’ll try to find a recommendation in your area of interest.

And since this is supposed to be a book blog, I’ll make a reading recommendation. I finally broke down during a trip into Falmouth this week and went into the really nice Eight Cousins bookstore. I bought a copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It was a quick read and exactly what I needed. And it’s set in these parts — on fictional Alice Island, which doesn’t exist in real life but which you reach via ferry from Hyannis.

The titular A.J. Fikry is a cranky widower who owns a bookstore on Alice Island. His life is changed entirely when a 2-year-old girl is left in the bookstore aisle. Blurbs and jacket copy recommend it for readers who liked The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society — books I always felt I should have read when I was working at the library but avoided because I’m allergic to sentimental, uplifting stuff. But this book (A.J. Fikry) manages to be sweet while avoiding the saccharine. And it is suffused with a love of books and reading and writing. So I recommend it, though probably not to my more skeptical reading friends, or those looking for something with sharper edges.

* It’s not just people under 30! Turns out this group also includes … Ira Glass, the godfather of the public radio revolution (wait that’s a bad metaphor — the Fidel Castro of the Radio Revolution? The Leon Trotsky of the radio revolution?). Anyway here’s what he said in response to a reader question in the Guardian:

When do you listen to the radio?

In the morning, when I shave. And really, not for very long. I don’t hear the radio that much. I don’t own a radio. I listen to everything through apps, or on my iPhone. And then I download the shows I like. Shows like Fresh Air,Radiolab, Snap Judgement, all those shows.

 

** TCHMA and I had a funny moment yesterday in class when we realized we were both thinking about the story of the guys behind the @Horse_ebooks Twitter feed (and more projects that may or may not constitute Internet performance art). I read the story in The New Yorker. He heard it on TLDR, the On The Media spinoff podcast. The title stands for Too Long Didn’t Read — in other words, it’s the anti-New Yorker. We then raced to see which outlet had it first. Turns out Susan Orlean broke the story on the New Yorker’s blog. I think.

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After they’re gone

present darknessIt happens every time — I wind up obsessed with the writers who appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar for months after the event. Perhaps it’s just the inevitable effect of spending four days in their company, or thinking about their subjects.

I at least have a valid excuse for reading After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman after the Seminar — because it wasn’t published until February. What a great read it is — an unconventional crime novel in many ways, more of an examination of what happens to a family when its center mysteriously disappears. In this case it was first Felix Brewer, and later his mistress, who disappeared exactly 10 years after her lover. Many assumed she had gone to join him — until her body showed up 12 years after that.

Another decade has passed by the time it gets taken up as a cold case by Sandy Sanchez, a retired homicide detective now working as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department. But the real pleasure of the book is not just following Sandy’s investigation, but in learning the story through chapters that move fluidly among characters and in different times. It provides a portrait of Baltimore in the second half of the 20th century, for the most part, in a particular upper middle class Jewish circle. And it never flags — while in some books that alternate viewpoints you just can’t wait to get away from some characters and back to others (ahem, George R.R. Martin), in this one every single chapter was interesting in its own right and I was always glad to pick up with whomever Lippman wanted to tell us about next. The whodunit aspect is satisfying, in the end (I hadn’t guessed it) but the real pleasure of this book, for me, was the people.

Speaking of compelling characters, I’ve just caught up to Malla Nunn‘s series of Emmanuel Cooper novels (s0 far) with an advanced copy of Present Darkness, which publishes in June. The books are set in South Africa in the early 1950s, just as apartheid is being instituted, and it’s a fascinating, horrifying, fraught time period especially for a man in Cooper’s position. I don’t want to offer any spoilers but suffice it to say that Cooper’s background and upbringing means he’s in a position to cross a lot of lines. He’s also a World War II vet with a nasty case of PTSD decades before that term would be applied — in his case it manifests as migraines and the voice of his Scottish drill instructor issuing orders and advice inside his head. Start with the first in the series — A Beautiful Place to Die — and read them in order.

I had always considered apartheid the most outrageous social atrocity of my high school and college years, and its ending a miracle of my adulthood — but I had never really sat back and thought about 1) how insanely recent it was 2) its endless complicated consequences for the people who actually had to live with it and 3) how bizarre it was in a country that had just sent soldiers to World War II — fighting against and defeating a regime built on ethnic hatred. Cooper is a classic crime fiction hero in many ways — a flawed but admirable man who seeks to do good in a deeply screwed up world. It’s a tribute to Nunn’s skill that I find myself missing his world when I finish one of her books — because who would really want to live under those conditions? Yet her people and the plots are so compelling that want to know what happens next for Detective Sergeant Cooper. Like Matthew Shardlake (C.J. Sansom’s Tudor series), Gaius Petraeus Ruso (Ruth Downie’s Medicus series) and Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), I am eager to hear how he will get out of his next tight spot and figure out a way to, improbably, do some good.

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The Searchers on page and screen

wood and wayneDuring this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, Percival Everett, who teaches a course on Western movies, described The Searchers as a movie that both “admits to American racism and practices it.” I had noticed a recent nonfiction book about the film, and the true story behind it, published last year. Everett’s mention, plus the knowledge that we had the movie in the Monroe County Library collection, was enough for me to get hold of both.

The Searchers by Glenn Frankel is an excellent nonfiction book, one of those books that uses a focused lens to examine an important slice of American history. It starts with the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, the real girl whose family was killed in a Comanche raid in Texas. She was kidnapped and, essentially, became Comanche, bearing three children. Some 25 years later, she was recaptured, along with her young daughter, by Americans in a raid on a Comanche camp — an experience that appears to have been just as traumatic for her as the original kidnapping. She and the young daughter died a few years later. She never saw her teenage sons again.

One of those sons, named Quanah, grew up to be a leader of the Comanche and a peacemaker with whites. Teddy Roosevelt even had dinner at his house.

After telling Quanah’s story, Frankel moves into how the Cynthia Ann Parker story reverberated through the culture — with almost no regard to historical accuracy, naturally, and culminating with Alan Lemay’s novel The Searchers. That novel, roughly, was the basis for the John Ford/John Wayne film that is the most prominent remaining reminder of the story. And what a weird film it is. I really wanted to admire it from a pure film appreciator point of view. But perhaps because I had just read the real story behind both the Cynthia Ann Parker life and the making of the movie, I just couldn’t buy into it. All the side stories, like the nephew’s romance with Laurie, seemed like a forced comic relief. And I’ve never gotten the John Wayne that so many people admire — not his politics, particularly, but his persona. I’m glad I saw it, since it is obviously a significant piece of popular culture (the American Film Institute even includes it in its top 100 list of movies). But it didn’t make sense to me, as a story. So thanks, Percival Everett. I guess.

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Checking out

library pic from Herald

Yes, I took this photo sometime in the early ’90s. And then I paid for this photo, last year, after the Herald photo archives showed up on ebay. So I own it. OK?

Thursday was my last day at the Key West Library. It was a great job in a lot of ways … I keep telling myself and other people that it’s a good thing to leave a job while you still like it. I’ve loved and felt at home in libraries all my life, and have loved more than I could ever have expected getting to know how they work — or at least how this one works — from the inside.

It wasn’t all joy and happiness. Every single job has its challenges and this one certainly did — mostly, from my perspective, having to do with the library’s physical plant and the aging and inadequate resources it has to offer for technology access, one of the most important roles public libraries play today. During my short tenure there, I saw almost all government services and most employment functions go entirely digital, which means people who don’t have computer access or skills are SOL. Except for the public library.

But enough about the negative — I’ll save that for future rants, perhaps. Here are things I will miss about this job:

  • The people — specifically, my co-workers. The Key West Library is really fortunate right now to have a staff of smart, nice, funny, generous people. It was always a pleasure to show up for work and see them in the morning. I’ve had enough different jobs that I appreciated that — really appreciated that — and I will miss it. I will also miss many of the patrons, both old friends I got to see and chat with regularly as they came through the library, and people I only got to know through my job there.
  • My commute — a 10-minute bike ride that took me through the Meadows and the Key West Cemetery every morning, and down Olivia Street every evening. A perfect length of time to prepare/relax/reflect on my day, except during the occasional torrential rainstorm.
  • The books — Library books. Donated books. Ebooks. Advanced review copies, sent out by publishers. I have plenty of books at home and of course will continue to borrow from the library. But it was reassuring to see how much people still read, and occasionally surprising to see something new or unexpected come across the counter. I even started a Facebook album of donated books that made me laugh.
  • Helping people who genuinely need it — whether it was finding an obscure title via Interlibrary Loan or helping someone get through a complicated online job application process (I’m looking at you, CVS!), there is a great satisfaction in providing a public service that isn’t available anywhere else. There were plenty of frustrations along that line to be sure, but often it works and when it does you feel pretty damned good about your choice of employment, and the county’s commitment to keeping the library’s doors open.
  • The kids — from the babies and toddlers just discovering the wonders of the library (the train set! Story time!) to the tweens carrying home box loads of manga books (literally), it was fun to watch them grow up and be the familiar friendly face who provided the fodder to help them grow. I also learned from my colleague Art that you can entertain squirmy toddlers by showing them how the scanner beeps every time it scans a bar code.
  • The vault – I got to fill in some in the Florida History Department, giving me a better look at the many wonders inside the vault and, increasingly, online. Too many to list here but I may return as a volunteer to keep working on my project of scanning photos from local elementary schools in the 1950s and ’60s.

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Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Final Chapter download

Lyndsay Faye and Sara Gran. Read them! Read them now! Photo by Nick Doll.

It’s always a risk when the Key West Literary Seminar puts on a double session, meaning two separate Seminars two weekends in a row. We want to accommodate as many people as possible, and we’re limited by the seats available at the San Carlos Institute. But it’s exhausting for the staff and other organizers. And worst of all for those of us with the terrible duty of attending both weekends, it can get repetitive so you feel like you’re stuck in some literary version of Groundhog Day.

To everyone’s great relief and delight, this year that did NOT happen. Probably because only one panelist — James W. Hall — appeared on both weekends and truly, he’s the kind of guy you could listen to tell funny stories all day. The two weekends felt quite different, but both offered illuminating and diverse discussions of crime fiction in its many and varied and forms. Having superstars Lee Child and Michael Connelly in the house for the Final Chapter certainly added to the excitement and they were both great. Child, in particular, was an erudite speaker, who set the tone Friday morning with an entertaining talk about the roots of suspense fiction going back into human history. Evolutionary history.

With Child, Connelly, Lisa Unger, Tess Gerritsen and other big names on board — and two, count ‘em two Edgar nominees for Best Novel (William Kent Krueger and Thomas H. Cook) — this week might have felt more commercial, to apply an overly broad adjective. Maybe because of that we had less of the old genre-vs.-literary discussion which I am alternately fascinated and bored by (I’ve got a bunch of links on my Readme page if you feel like delving into it). John Banville, Mr. Literary Himself with a Booker Prize to prove it, said he dislikes the genre stuff and wishes bookshops would shelve everything alphabetically — mainly because he feels like it ghettoizes literary fiction and consigns it to a dark and forbidding corner. We shelve all the fiction alphabetically at the library, I’m happy to say.

Once again, though, it was the women who really caught my interest — I’ve already posted about my bordering-on-embarrassing-fangirldom of Lyndsay Faye, whom I interviewed for Littoral. I had seen Sara Gran last summer at ALA, and she was even smarter and cooler than I remembered. Malla Nunn was a terrific new voice for most of the people in this crowd and her stories of writing about mixed-race people in South Africa as apartheid was being instituted were riveting. Elizabeth George’s keynote was great, setting a wonderful tone — and making me realize that I must have some kind of sick voyeuristic Protestant fascination with hearing about miserable Catholic childhoods. Mary McCarthy, Mary Gordon, Frank McCourt, you name the writer — I just never get tired of hearing about them. Or reading about them.

I tweeted a lot less this time. Not sure why, but I do know partway through Elizabeth George’s keynote I put down my notebook and just allowed myself to sit back and listen — she was not speaking in tweetable nuggets and I did not want to distract myself by focusing on listening for them.

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