Category Archives: Writers

In Memoriam: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Sad news today in the Philadelphia poetry world. Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, author of the poetry collection Slamming Open the Door and founder of Musehouse, A Center for the Literary Arts in Chestnut Hill, has died at age 61.

I didn’t know Kathleen personally but her poems chronicling her profound grief in the aftermath of her 21-year-old daughter Leidy’s death from domestic violence in 2003 resonated with me seven years ago. Below is a slightly-edited version of my review of Slamming Open the Door from April 2010.

My deepest condolences to Kathleen’s friends and family.

Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

I never should have read this book.

I never should have read this book because it should never have been written … because the subject of these incredibly heartbreaking poems, Leidy Bonanno, should still be alive.

Leidy should be alive today, not memorialized so lovingly on the pages of Slamming Open the Door, a collection of poems written by her mother Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno.
Her name is pronounced “lady” and her nickname was Ladybug – hence, the ladybug on the cover and the images of them throughout the book in illustrations and in several poems. We meet Leidy as a child (“Meeting You, Age Four”), as a nursing school graduate (“Nursing School Graduation Party, Six Weeks Before”), as a 21-year old victim of domestic violence (“Hearsay”). Her beautiful face greets the reader, and you smile wistfully back, only to be immediately choked by the first poem, “Death Barged In.”

Death Barged In

In his Russian greatcoat
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.
He changes everything,
rearranges the furniture,
his hand hovers
by the phone;
he will answer now, he says;
he will be the answer.
Tonight he sits down to dinner
at the head of the table
as we eat, mute;
later, he climbs into bed
between us.
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
clamping two
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me.

As painful as it must have been to do, I’m grateful to Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno for sharing Leidy and her story with us. In each poem, in each line, she gives us every emotion that accompanies Leidy’s death. We are there with Kathleen and her husband as they call Leidy’s cell phone, as they drive to her apartment, as the police officer gives them the news. We’re there in the flashbacks at Leidy’s graduation party from nursing school, and we know exactly who Kathleen is talking about when she writes:

When Dave clears his throat,
and raises his glass to toast her,
we raise our glasses too –
and Johnny Early, a nice young man
from Reading Hospital,
smiles and raises his glass.

In Slamming Open the Door, we see the full spectrum of grief, from the anger to the absurd.

Sticks and Stones

To you, who killed my daughter—
Run. Run. Hide.
Tell your mother
to thread the needle
made of bone.
It is her time now
to sew the shroud.
The men are coming
with sticks and stones
and whetted spears
to do what needs doing.

What Not to Say

Don’t say that you choked
on a chicken bone once,
and then make the sound,
kuh, kuh  and say
you bet that’s how she felt.
Don’t ask in horror
why we cremated her.
And when I stand
in the receiving line
like Jackie Kennedy
without the pillbox hat,
if Jackie were fat
and had taken
enough Klonopin
to still an ox,
and you whisper,
I think of you
every day,
don’t finish with
because I’ve been going
to Weight Watchers
on Tuesdays and wonder
if you want to go too.

I saw this at the library and started reading it while my own daughter was selecting her books (the irony not being lost on me), and couldn’t put it down. Leidy’s story – that domestic violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, regardless of one’s background or education or anything – is one that needs to be told to as many people as possible. It’s a story that needs to be told, too, because it shows us that we’re not alone in our grief – that although the specific circumstances and details might differ, we have all experienced similar emotions.

Although, understandably, the majority of the poems focus on Leidy’s death and the aftermath, Slamming Open the Door is also a tribute to her all-too-brief life.  She lives in the hearts of those who loved her, and for those of us who didn’t know her, we get to do so in these 41 emotional and contemporary poems.

Slamming Open the Door is the recipient of the 2008 Beatrice Hawley Award.

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Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

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Thoughts on The Art of Description: World into Word, by Mark Doty (66/99)

The Art of Description

Taking a writing class with Mark Doty is high up on my list of literary wishes. I’m a fangirl of his work — poetry, memoir, anything that the guy writes. Even his Facebook posts are poetry. (Because of course I follow him on Facebook).

Who knows if I’ll ever be lucky enough to be in his company, but until then, there’s The Art of Description: World into Word.

Simply put, this small book is a must for any writer.

“It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes and it immediately becomes clear that all we see is slippery, nuanced, elusive.”

Sigh …

This is the type of book where I could have highlighted every sentence on every page, and I can tell you I’ll be consulting this one often, as description is not always my strongest writing tool.

A wonderful addition to every writer’s library.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #66 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.

 

 

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celebrating two writer friends, celebrating two new books

 

Linvilla Orchards - Big Book

Pumpkinland at Linvilla Orchards, Media, PA Photo taken by me, September 2007

I’m thrilled for two of my writer friends this week, both of whom announced news of upcoming books. Melissa Sarno‘s middle grade novel, Next to Nothing, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2018. I’ve known Melissa’s work through her blog for awhile now and there’s a reason why her blog is one of my must-reads. She writes beautifully and I’m looking forward to reading her book.

I know Melissa through Beth Kephart, so I nearly did a double-take when the very next thing I read was Beth sharing her news that that she, too, has a new book deal. A two book deal, in fact. Wild Lines is also a middle grade story and also scheduled for a 2018 publication date. You all know how much of a fan I am of Beth’s books — and Beth herself.

All this felt kind of serendipitous. Two of my favorite writer friends, two middle grade books. And can we get a shout out for middle grade books in general?  I believe they are so important to young readers as that impressionable age seems to be such a pivotal one, and I’m so glad that both Melissa and Beth are among the excellent writers adding their talents to this genre.

Congratulations, ladies!

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #64 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

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sunday salon/currently … ‘bye, july (63/99)

Sunday Salon 4


“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”
– Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting


Goodbye to July and hello to August. I need to get focused on back to school preparations — clothes shopping, easing back into the routine of being out of the house by 6:30, fitting in last minute appointments. I’m hoping beyond hope that this is an easier transition than last year.  It was difficult, to say the least, ushering in one of the worst school years ever.

Reading
Reliance, IllinoisMost of my reading during the past week was online. (See Links I Liked below.) It’s quite possible that I didn’t read one page of an actual book this week.  Wait — no, that’s not true. There was a poetry collection that wound up being a DNF.

For the majority of today, I tried to disengage a bit from all things online. I needed a break from the political discourse, which I’ve been rather immersed in (to say the least). I’m still reading Reliance, Illinois, a historical fiction novel set in 1874 with themes of women’s suffrage. It’s purely coincidental that I’m reading this now in the midst of all this election craziness, but it is rather fitting.

Five books finished this month, which sounds impressive but most were pretty short.

The Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced! I always want to read all the titles, but instead I live vicariously through Nomadreader  and Simon of Savidge Reads, both of whom are my go-to sources for book prize news and reviews.

Writing
July has been an inspiring writing month for me. We met Judy Blume at an author event on July 12, a childhood dream come true.  Then, this past Tuesday, The Girl and I attended Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Made Local event with three of Pittsburgh’s young adult authors — Jonathan Auxier, Nick Courage, and Siobhan Vivian. The Girl is an enthusiastic fangirl of Siobhan’s, and I felt bad that we couldn’t get Jonathan’s and Nick’s books to be signed too.  (We have them out from the library, so I’m guessing the guys will be OK with that.)  I still need to blog about both events.

Listening
My podcast listening was almost all politics related this week. I recently discovered The Bob & Chez Show with Bob Cesca and Chez Pazienza.  They present a fantastic balance of humor, commentary, and solid information that I love.  This week’s episodes (“Homegrown Demagogues, 7/28/2016” and “Trump Putin 2016 7/26/2016” were great recaps of the DNC goings-on and everything else regarding this crazy campaign.

Links I Liked

Op-ed in today’s Washington Post by Ghazala Khan responding to Trump’s comments on why she didn’t speak at the Convention. Ghazala Khan: Trump Criticized My Silence. He Knows Nothing About True Sacrifice.”

For This Republican, Never Trump Means “I’m With Her” (Medium) Caroline McCain, granddaughter of John, writes an honest, reflective piece about family loyalty, the Republican party, third-party candidates, and her decision to back Hillary.

Hillary Makes History and Wears It, Too (New York Times) – There was historical symbolism behind Hillary Clinton wearing all white to accept the nomination for President of the United States. Not your typical fashion article.

Gail Collins: From Bloomers to Pantsuits (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) – I was thinking about Gail Collins’ book American Dolls while watching Hillary Clinton give her acceptance speech. This article was a good reminder.

Blogging …
99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is the 63rd post of my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project, and like the end of summer, I can see the end in sight.  Only 36 more posts to go.

 

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meeting judy (44/99)

You will, I hope, forgive the lack of a real post tonight.

After all, it’s not every evening that you meet a literary icon, a beloved author revered by millions of readers, and a champion of the written word.  (Oh, and one of the people responsible for your dream of being a writer.) Judy Blume - Tickets

Yep. I just spent an hour and a half in the company of the one and only Judy Blume.

And then meeting her during the book signing afterwards, during which I just said “thank you” repeatedly.

 

You’ll forgive me, then, for not having the words for a coherent blog post quite yet.

But I will.  Soon.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #44 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

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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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