Category Archives: Philadelphia

Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

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wednesday musings

image of a late winter sky with heavy and light cloud streaks over pittsburgh, february 2017

Still with me? I know, I know … it has been a few weeks since I wrote an actual blog post here–besides posting links to several published book reviews, that is. Actually, those are a big part of the reason for my absenteeism in this space. Most of you know I do some freelance workwriting, editing and the like. This in addition to my full-time, pays-most-of-the-bills-and-provides-health-insurance (for now) job, which also involves quite a bit of wordsmithing.

Anyway, to my delight, the freelancing assignments have picked up speed in recent weeks. Definitely a nice problem to have. One consequence (if you can call it that) is I’ve needed to spend more time reading–and since most of those books are for reviews post-publication, I feel I can’t say much about them beforehand.

Which, you know, doesn’t lend itself to having much material for one’s book blog.

Good thing there’s nothing else going on in the world to discuss.

(We won’t talk politics tonight because the whole state of the world has me feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, hopeless and downright frightened. Often all at the same time.)

Tonight offers a slight reprieve from reading and writing (plus The Girl, who has been using my laptop for homework is finished early) so I thought I’d give you a few updates.


Two weeks ago I made an impromptu, whirlwind trip back to my hometown of Northeast Philadelphia for what was a sad visit. My best friend’s mother died and as I said in my eulogy at the funeral, she was like a second mom to me. I expected it to be an emotional trip–and it was. I’m working on a post or an essay about this because it was a jarring experience to return to my hometown after many years away. I’m really, really glad I went even if it took me a good week to feel back to what passes for my regular self.


On my trip, I listened to the audio of Wishful Drinking by the late Carrie Fisher. Albeit bittersweet, it was the perfect choice for what is a boring five hour plus drive across the red state of T**mpsylvania. (The audiobook is shorter than the drive.) It’s incredibly conversational, as if Carrie herself was riding in the passenger seat. An excellent audiobook. I loved it.


Mrs. Douglas, our cat, had a bout of pancreatitis last week. She’s on the mend now, thank God.


Kids are fine. I’m in summer activity mode. I think The Girl is going to be doing some volunteer work along with at least one or two week-long camps (writing and music).  The Boy is going to camp for four weeks. Thanks to the freelancing, there will likely be a family vacation after not being able to take one last year.


Speaking of The Girl, she has been working really hard to improve in math. At Christmastime, she mentioned she really wanted to see Bon Jovi in concert when they came to Pittsburgh so we struck a deal: if her math grades improved and she sought extra help after school through the tutoring service if necessary (something she has vehemently resisted), I would think about getting tickets. She hasn’t stopped talking about this. She’s been consistently hovering above or close to a B for a few months now so we’ll be seeing Jon in a few weeks.


Can I say how much I love that my girl is a huge fan of Bon Jovi and how grateful I am that she inherited my taste in music? (Because, yeah, twist my arm to take her to see Bon Jovi and pretend I’m back in 1986.)


I haven’t been running. Like, at all. Even though this has been a mild winter by Pittsburgh standards, I’m not a cold weather girl.  I haven’t managed to get myself to a yoga class or anything else I’d intended on doing. Hell, I’ve stopped taking the stairs at work. When the weather gets warmer–maybe as soon as this weekend!–I’m going to start over with Couch to 5K. That means I won’t be ready to do the Pittsburgh Marathon 5K this year, but maybe I’ll aim for the Great Race this fall instead or another 5K.


If you need a good book to read, here are two of my recent Shelf Awareness reviews.

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff  (she’s a Philly writer, whooo!)

The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

 

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Second Helpings

Before this tumultuous year, Thanksgiving and the weeks leading up to Christmas were already emotionally-charged holidays for me and The Husband.  A lifetime ago, we got engaged during Thanksgiving week. After years of infertility, our twins were born on Thanksgiving Day in a scenario straight out of a Hallmark movie:  twins, Thanksgiving Day, the most incredible gift you could ever imagine.

And then, exactly one year ago today on Thanksgiving Day 2015, The Husband collapsed in the middle of dinner. We hadn’t even brought out the pie. I found him barely conscious in the bathroom and performed CPR right there on the floor. Dessert was replaced by a rush of paramedics, police, tears and two hospitals before 10 p.m.

Thankfully, he survived this unexpected (and somewhat still unexplained) event; it goes without saying that this year — not to mention the rest of our lives — would have been extremely different if he hadn’t.  Grateful is an understatement. In the face of some significant losses and challenges, we still have each other. That counts for something (a lot, actually).

Nonetheless, there was a push-pull effect to this particular Thanksgiving.  Stay home or spend the holiday with family in Philly?  Part of me felt like sheltering in place after the past 17 days since the election. The appeal and comfort of home far outweighed the prospect of politically-charged dinnertime conversations awaiting us on the opposite side of the state.

At the same time, I didn’t want to be home with the ghosts of last Thanksgiving sitting at the table.

We decided to do a quick trip to Philly — less than 48 hours in duration, with 12 of those spent driving. Some close relatives have had medical scares in the past month, and this would be an opportunity to spend some time with them. As if we needed any reminding, life doesn’t come with guarantees. Take nothing and no one for granted.

At a rest stop in the middle of Tr*mpland, we instructed the children that there were only two acceptable topics of conversation for this visit (and probably every other visit thereafter):  The Weather and How Is School Going?.

“What if [insert name of relative who likely voted differently than us] asks us about the election?” The Girl asked, a bit worriedly.

“You say, ‘on the advice of counsel, I decline to answer the question,'” The Husband replied, prompting a discussion of the Fifth Amendment, because that’s how we roll.

As it turned out, everyone behaved themselves as best as possible. No politics were discussed. Instead, we celebrated the kids’ birthdays (and a nephew’s) with both sets of grandparents. My sister-in-law made a delicious dinner. The cousins had a chance to hang out and laugh and reconnect with each other, reminiscent of the kind of holidays The Husband and I remember as children with our own cousins. It was the first Thanksgiving our extended family spent together in six years.

And best of all?

Everyone had more than enough pie.

thanksgiving-dessert-table-2016

 

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zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

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We Could Sing a Rainbow: Remembering Captain Noah

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If you were a kid growing up in Philadelphia during the 1970s, chances are you watched Captain Noah and His Magical Ark starring W. Carter Merbreier as “Captain Noah” and his wife Pat as … well, Mrs. Noah.  Along with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company, Captain Noah was must-see TV for the elementary-school set.

(Those of you who lived in other parts of the country may know Captain Noah, too; at one point during its history the show was broadcast to 22 other markets.)

But Captain Noah was ours because Philadelphia was home to Captain and Mrs. Noah.  Carter Merbreier grew up in Delaware County, attended the University of Pennsylvania followed by seminary school at Temple. He and Pat lived in the area. Their appearance in Philadelphia’s annual 6ABC Thanksgiving Day Parade was almost as highly anticipated as that of Santa Claus, who could have passed for Captain Noah’s twin.

Captain Noah — sorry, I mean, Carter Merbreier — died today, at age 90.  Yeah, for real. If you thought this post was one of those stories that people share with R.I.Ps and sad emoticons and hashtags not realizing that the subject had left this Earth several years prior, I thought the same thing. Even The Husband, who has a keen knowledge of celebrity recognition and obscure trivia, insisted that Captain Noah had sailed away long ago.  (We realized we were probably thinking of Mrs. Noah, who died in June 2011.) I verified all this with my sources —philly.com/The Inquirer/Daily News or whatever they all call themselves these days and 6ABC, which has Captain Noah’s death categorized as Breaking News, which strikes me as both odd and amusing only because there was nothing sensational or urgent or anything remotely breaking news-like happening on the Ark.

Indeed, Captain Noah and His Magical Ark was a simple show with simple things. Stories about animals. Life lessons told by puppets. Children’s artwork. (“Send your pictures to dear old Captain Noah … .”) As a kid, I remember being amazed that you could actually put something in the mail AND CAPTAIN NOAH MIGHT GET IT AND SHOW IT ON TEEVEE!  Sometimes, a celebrity would guest star on the show and it would be the coolest thing imaginable.

Eight years ago, I took my own kids to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. There among the exhibits was THE ACTUAL SET FROM CAPTAIN NOAH AND HIS MAGICAL ARK. I was reverent, awestruck — and yes, stunned that the set was so small. Part of me, I think, expected to see an honest-to-God real ark, like one of biblical proportions. After all, things seem so much bigger when you’re a kid, more magical.

We lose that as adults when the storms of life hit.

I remember staring at the animals, the TV cameras, the captain’s wheel. My kids were running all over the place, ignoring my insistence that they just had to come over and see the set of Captain Noah, right now, because here was my childhood, right here.  Needless to say, they were unimpressed and it occurred to me that there’s only so much of one’s experience and history that can be passed down to the generations after us.

I often think about the ways that stories and the personalities of a particular place have a way of becoming part of us as children, shaping us into the people we become later in life. I feel supremely lucky to have had the childhood that I did, and for having grown up in Philadelphia during the ’70s and ’80s.  In the span of two decades, the world has become a very different place and I wonder sometimes what cultural memories like Captain Noah my kids will carry from their early years, if any.  It makes me a little sad that they likely won’t have the collective shared history that The Husband and I share. That their memories will be more commercialized, so to speak, and less tied to an individualized, unique moment in time, a particular place or person, as compared to a generic, homogenized experience.

Given its beginnings as a religious program for children, Captain Noah and His Magical Ark probably would never be allowed on the air in today’s politically correct, hypersensitive, easily offended environment.  And today’s kids would probably be bored out of their minds. But I know I’m not the only middle-aged person who still has an enduring love and nostalgia for Captain Noah, and that has to mean something.

Maybe it’s a testament to the power of stories, of simple songs about colors and listening with our eyes to the world and being kind to one another.

Maybe those are the only things we need with us in our proverbial ark when the storms of life hit and threaten to destroy our world. 

Red and yellow and pink and green
Purple and orange and blue
I can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow too.

Listen with your eyes,
Listen with your ears,
And sing everything you see,
I can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing along with me.

Red and yellow and pink and green,
Purple and orange and blue,
I can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow too!

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Live Blogging the DNC, Day 1

 

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11:22 p.m.
“Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her tonight.” – Bernie Sanders

11:11 p.m.
“Think about the Supreme Court justices that Donald Trump will nominate.”

11:06 pm.
“Hillary Clinton must become the next President of the United States.” – Bernie Sanders

10:52 p.m.
Larry David should have introduced Bernie.  (h/t to The Husband)

10:48 p.m.
Is this Convention in Minnesota or Philadelphia?

9:56 p.m.
And THAT is how you give a speech.

9:55 p.m.
During the 2004 convention, when we watched Senator Barack Obama speak, I said to Bill that we were watching a future President of the United States.
We’re seeing another one right now.‪#‎CoryBookerWillRiseToTheWhiteHouseMarkMyWords‬

9:50 p.m.
PREACH IT, CORY BOOKER. What a hell of a speech this is.

9:23 p.m.
This is stepping into shitshow territory.

9:21 p.m.
I have just never liked Sarah Silverman.

9:17 p.m.
Sarah Silverman should not be on that stage.

9:13 p.m.
Um, no. Bad choice of songs there with “Billy, Don’t You Lose My Number.”
Who the hell’s idea was that???!! Seriously??!!

9:07 p.m.
“Donald Trump doesn’t hear me and he sure doesn’t speak for me.” – Anastasia Somoza, International Disability Rights Advocate

9:07 p.m.
As absolutely uncomfortable as it was to watch Trump’s mocking the reporter with a disability (and I admit, I had not seen this before now — only the coverage of it), I can only imagine how horrible it was for that reporter. And I am SO GLAD they highlighted this in prime time during the convention.

8:54 p.m.
Al Franken’s speech is comedy gold.

8:08 p.m.
Oh, my God, that kid … I’m practically in tears.‪#‎KarlaOrtizForPresident‬

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She Knew What We Did Those Summers: Remembering Lois Duncan (1934-2016)

I Know What You Did Last SummerKilling Mr. Griffin

My teenage summers were spent poolside at the Valley Club,  sharing secrets with my best friends over orders of French fries blanketed in Cheez-Wiz.  We lounged on beach towels with our Sony Walkmans blasting ’80s pop music loud enough to drown out our immature siblings’ screeches of “Marco! Polo!” in the deep end of the pool. We doused ourselves with enough Hawaiian Tropic oil that made us as bronzed as an Olympic medal.

When we weren’t in the pool or discussing Luke and Laura on “General Hospital,” we were reading anything we could get our hands on.

Maybe it was characteristic of my group of friends at the time or the pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era, but we read A LOT. Like everything and anything.

All the time.

And perhaps it was because of our rather uneventful, vanilla, goody-two-shoes suburban middle-class upbringing (and attending school with peers whose families were in much, much higher economic echelons), but we seemed drawn to darker stories with just enough thrill factor to keep us turning the pages.

Aside from Judy Blume writing about our deepest insecurities and rites of passages and V.C. Andrews’ creepy as all freaking hell Flowers in the Attic series,  young adult author Lois Duncan’s teen suspense novels are the ones that are seared into my memory from those years.

Thrillers about a car accident involving well-off teens that resulted in murder (I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1973); sinister cousins (Summer of Fear, 1976) and a high school prank intended to scare a mean teacher that goes horribly wrong (Killing Mr. Griffin, 1978) were stories as drop-dead real as anything we saw on the evening broadcast of Action News. (These were the years when people still watched the news.  And when the world had to be ending for the news to be considered “breaking.”)

Lois Duncan’s fiction was chilling and terrifying and made those of us who led a relatively sheltered and privileged life wonder if such horrendous things could really happen. Through her groundbreaking writing for teens, Lois Duncan showed us that, at least in fiction, they could. As we got older, real life would have no shortage of atrocities — one only needs to look at the past week for proof of that.

Sadly, Lois Duncan herself experienced personal tragedy in 1989 when her daughter Kaitlyn was murdered — ironically, just a month after the publication of one of Duncan’s novels with a similar plot. For years, she devoted her life to writing about her daughter’s still unsolved murder and supporting others whose loved ones were homicide victims.

Lois Duncan died on Wednesday, June 15 at age 82, leaving a rich literary legacy of children’s books, young adult novels, short stories, magazine articles, and nonfiction. Those of us who grew up in the late ’70s through the mid-80s enjoyed what I believe was a golden age of young adult literature by writers who bravely took chances with their work and were trailblazers for many of today’s equally outspoken and daring young adult authors.

Until I read her obituary in Publisher’s Weekly, I had no idea that Lois Duncan Steinmetz was a Philadelphia native, which endears her to me even more. (Her family moved to Florida when she was young. Still, in my mind she’s a Philly girl like me, making my days of reading her novels while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs especially nostalgic.)

I think the hallmark of a great writer is someone whose books are remembered decades after reading them. Even if some details of the plots have faded, we can immediately recall how books like Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer always made us feel.

Deliciously chilled to the bone, even on the hottest of summer days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #19 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

 

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