Friday, July 24, 2009

On the Move

We've launched a new website with a content management system that hosts our blogs. Come find me and my new posts at! Please? Pretty please? C'mon, it'll be fun. Promise.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Summer Reading

Okay people, you are in for a treat.

In yet another attempt to avoid writing anything that requires me to miss out on the beautiful weather we’re having here in Wisconsin (minus today ... it’s a little brisk) I have pestered some of the nicest and most talented writers in the state, no, in the world, to find out what they are reading right now.

Dwight Allen, author of the newly released novel The Typewriter Satyr:

I have been reading the new translation of War and Peace, and given its length and my tendency to shut my eyes at ten at night, I will probably be reading it until at least the beginning of the second Obama Administration. I am almost finished with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I gave this novel to my son last Christmas, when he was in South America, and when he got back, he told me to read it. Vargas Llosa is a South American T. Coraghessan Boyle—antic, full of surprises. I recently read A. Manette Ansay’s Good Things I Wish You. (I reviewed it for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) Ansay tries to answer the question of whether men and women can be friends, whether friendship can survive passion. She is a sure-handed storyteller. I am also reading In Love With Jerzy Kosinski, the new novel by my friend (and fellow Madisonian) Agate Nesaule. It’s about a Latvian woman living alone in Wisconsin, trying to find her way, after leaving her nutty control freak of a husband. It is written with great heart and quiet humor.

Well, speaking of Agate Nesaule: she tells me what she’s reading, too:

Here are two books I love. Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? is suspenseful, funny, and smart; it also deals with the serious theme of survival after extreme experiences. But I don’t believe I have been as head-over-heels in love with a character since I read Jane Eyre. Sixteen-year old orphan Reggie is brave, resourceful, loyal, and a terrific liar. I want to go live with Reggie, her employer Dr. Hunter, and the baby. Larry Watsons Montana 1948 is a small jewel. It’s a short, compelling, and morally complex account of courage and of prejudice and crimes against Native Americans, which never once descends into racial stereotypes. The writing is beautifully nuanced and understated.

Soon after I received this e- from Agate I got a P.S. e-mail.

I should have said that I haven't been in love like that since I read Jane Eyre AND A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

And, incidentally, I am about to read Montana 1948 a second time just to see how Larry Watson does it.

I’m glad I got in touch with Dean Bakopoulous, author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, because I learned some news about a fascinating life change:

We’re in the process of moving to Iowa, and my wife and I are selling and/or giving away most of our stuff, burning our mortgage, and heading west. I’ve been inspired to do this, in part, by a classic book, Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, by Henry David Thoreau, which made me hate most of my possessions and despise the idea of debt. It’s remarkably apt in the age of economic collapse. (The book was recently published in a very cool new “Great Ideas” series from Penguin Books.)

I’ll be joining the faculty at Iowa State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing & Environment. The great Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jane Smiley recently retired from there, so, in hopes of getting some of that good karma, I’ve been reading Smiley’s wonderfully insightful Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, as well as her hilarious satire of academic life in the Midwest, Moo.

I was bummed when Dean moved from Madison to Mineral Point, but Iowa? At least it’s for all the right reasons:

Meanwhile, I found David Marannis, whose most recent work is Rome 1960, “happily enjoying these beautiful Madison days” at his home on the near west side:

I’m reading a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallants Paris Stories. I had just read an interview with her in Granta magazine that made me want to read her, and Ive not been disappointed. The stories are amazing. Other than that, Im reading books on Kenya, Chicago, and Indonesia for my next book, a multigenerational biography of Barack Obama.

Just reading up on some books for his next biography on Obama. Um, wow.

Me? What am I reading? How nice of you to ask. I recently put down The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I have an old dog who also may have to be put down soon and if you’ve read the book I think you know where I’m going with this. So I switched to non-fiction, which doesn’t inflict as much emotional damage on me even when a real human dies. I’m now back to reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Writer Frank Bures gave it to me and for a while I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment to us both or a subtle hint to switch careers. Perkins is the guy who discovered F. Scott Fitgerald, among other famous American authors of the early-to-mid 20th century. I’m obviously hoping to learn how he did it so I can discover and edit more talented writers like Frank. It’s a great biography and literary history and I haven’t cried once.

So, what are you reading this summer?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Blog More, Sun Less

Who on earth can blog when it’s beautiful outside? When your kid’s room needs a fresh coat of purple paint? When you’re trying to re-launch a magazine website?

Well, Madison Magazine contributing writer Maggie can. But she has a room of her own and ads on her blogs. That’s blogs-zzz ... plural. Here's the other one. She's the founder and moderator.

Style editor Shayna can, because fashion and style wait for no one. Meanwhile she’s still managed to work on her tan. Outside. In a stylish swimsuit to be sure.

Mad Mag food writer Dan Curd can, though he’s also a master of Facebook and Twitter and all things PR and marketing—so he doesn’t count because he’s way out of my league. He's probably grilling ribs with one hand and posting the recipe with the other as we speak. Jerk.

C3K sports fan Jeff Robins blogs even when he’s in pain—as noted in his most recent posting. Here's the thing about fans of anything, though (especially sports). FAN is short for FANATIC.

I have no doubts that associate editor Katie Vaughn will blog soon. She was on vacation so we’ll give her a break (see above note on beautiful weather) because she is one of the best and most disciplined arts journalists in the city. And because Art Fair On the Square (and Off!) is this weekend and she won’t want you to miss it.

I can’t prove this (which is why it’s in the blog and not the magazine) but I’m pretty sure northern clime bloggers are more dedicated and prolific. One can only snowshoe so much before one’s tootsies freeze and one must head inside to drink brandy and post a blog about it. If, in Madison, Wisconsin, seductively warm days came around more often, we’d probably have to hand over our “most wired city per capita” crown to Ann Arbor. That or take up tweeting en masse from the Memorial Union Terrace.

Have I mentioned—in my blog I finally got around to posting—how beautiful it is outside?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Green Scene

Veronica Rueckert of Wisconsin Public Radio was broadcasting live from Custer, Wisconsin, during my morning commute. She’s covering the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, which bills itself as “the nation’s premier energy education event.”

Rueckert’s guests were the folks from Inn Serendipty, an environmentally conscious B&B near Monroe in southwestern Wisconsin that operates on solar and wind energy. The proprietor couple, who quit their Chicago careers to live off the land, also grow seventy percent of the food they and their guests consume. Imagine your grocery expenses if your garden out back provided you and your family with nearly three quarters of your three squares a day—year-round. That’s impressive.

The couple, Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko, also write about their experiences in ECOpreneuring, Rural Renaissance, and Edible Earth, a book of essays mixed with vegetarian recipes.

At one point during the show, Ivanko talked about how humans shouldn’t have or need landfills because nature doesn’t have or need landfills and it really made me think, what if? I’m so grateful these conversations are happening in the mainstream, over the airwaves and in books and schools and on blogs…

Speaking of blogs, my previous post brags about how much free stuff editors get. Here’s three books with green themes that have found their way to my desk recently, though I feel it my journalistic duty to point out that they weren't delivered on foot or by horseback so their carbon footprint isn’t zero.

Vegan Brunch: Homestyle recipes worth waking up for (Lifelong Books, $19.95) by Isa Chandra Moskowitz of Portland, Oregon. Curry scrambed tofu with cabbage and caraway, anyone? I'm being serious. It sounds really good.

Cooking Green: Reducing your carbon footprint in the kitchen (Lifelong Books, $17.95) by Kate Heyhoe of Austin, Texas. Did you know “Americans throw out 27 percent of all food available for consumption”? Good to know the old “Clean your plate, children are starving in Africa” line I stole from my mom is as pertinent as ever.

The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, how to keep animals happy, save Old MacDona
ld’s farm, reduce your hoofprint, and still eat meat (Lifelong Books, $24) by Catherine Friend of Minnesota. I haven’t cracked the spine on this one because I’m still recovering from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Please pass the tofu.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

American Girl Goodies

Magazine editors get a lot of free stuff: beer, wine and liquor, music CDs and movie DVDs, bath and body products, jewelry and invitations to grand openings with complimentary food and drink. Marketing and publicity departments shower us with all these goodies, hoping for what’s known in the business as “earned media.” I swear that's what it's called.

While these attention-grabbing gifts are fun when the envelopes and boxes show up on my desk, I usually pass them on to other writers and editors who might actually include them in an article. When the goodies box is food-related, we invite the whole staff to taste test the product with us. The wine-infused ice cream from Metcalfe’s Sentry was a welcome late-afternoon treat. And the gourmet cupcakes from the new bakery/cafĂ© on the east side were out of this universe.

Once or twice a year I receive a box of new books from American Girl in nearby Middleton and founded by Pleasant Rowland. While most Madisonians know Rowland as one of the city’s leading arts philanthropists (along with her husband, Jerry Frautschi) and the brains behind our beloved Concerts on the Square, she made her fortunes building a business that caters to the wholesome hearts and minds of little girls. The historical character dolls and educational books and products are a refreshing antidote to Barbies and Bratz Girlz, whose anatomically impossible body parts and purposely misspelled words help turn out sassy, body conscious teenyboppers rather than smart, confident young women. Just sayin'.

The latest American Girl offerings include a new doll, Rebecca Rubin, who joins a terrific collection spanning American history from 1764 to 1974. Rebecca also stars in a six-book series about growing up as a first-generation Jewish immigrant in New York City in 1914. In Meet Rebecca, readers are introduced to an adventurous young girl with a flair for the dramatic whose parents and grandparents were among the mass exodus of Jews from an increasingly prejudiced Eastern Europe. The book is well-written and beautifully illustrated and, like all the American Girl dolls, historically accurate right down to the stoop she and her four siblings likely lingered on outside the family’s front door on the Lower East Side.

“The most enjoyable part of preparing to write the stories was spending several days in New York City…,” writes author Jacqueline Dembar Green. “We walked the streets that would have been part of Rebecca’s world. We toured the cramped apartments preserved by the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, were invited into a period apartment like Rebecca’s fictional one, and toured the Coney Island Museum.”

Another youth novel newly released is the latest in American Girl’s mystery series. In Clues in the Shadows by Middleton author Kathleen Ernst, World War II-era’s Molly is the main character out to catch the troublemaker wreaking havoc on the Red Cross drive she volunteers for.

What I love most about the AG books—and what most girls probably like least—is the “Looking Back” history essays at the end of every book that provide more context to the setting in which the stories take place. The Molly mystery essay explains how the government enlisted all Americans, not just soldiers, in the war effort, from children’s volunteer drives to women working outside the home for the first time. Rebecca’s “Looking Back” essay includes a glossary of Yiddish terms used throughout the book. Reading them felt like I was back in high school reading Cliffs Notes for Moby Dick rather than the real Moby Dick, without the guilt.

The Rebecca doll and book series was released this past Sunday, the same day my daughter turned eight, so I took Meet Rebecca and the rest of the AG shipment home for her to be my “taste-tester." She is now, as my husband likes to say, "in the wheelhouse" of American Girls' target age range. True to form, my little sweet-tooth smiled at the Rebecca and Molly books, then went straight for the fun: the activity books the company does so well. Here’s a sampling.

Dazzling Desserts Dubbed “awesome” by my kiddo, this recipe and treat decorating book is, let me just say myself, SO COOL. It comes with five cookie cutters, including one in the shape of a cute little dress, and some of the coolest sprinkle, spread, color, cut and devour ideas ever.

Is This Normal? Girls’ questions, answered by the editors of The Care & Keeping of YOU is a Dear Abby Q&A for the eight-to-twelve “tween” set. “Look, Mom: advice for nail biters!” my daughter yelped. Sadly, she was referring to MY nasty habit and proceeded to read me the sage advice about doodling, squeezing a stress ball, and other fixes. They don’t work, but then again I didn’t have this book for counsel when I was gnawing away in second grade.

a smart girl’s guide to her parents’ divorce Unfortunately, I didn’t have this book as a kid either, and thumbing through the contents, I see I could’ve used a chapter or two when divorce happened to me—even as a grown-up college kid. I have to say that I was impressed that AG doesn’t shy away from the really rough and often scary issues that can surround a family split. The book tackles fathers who leave and don’t come back and domestic violence. The final page is a wonderful “girl’s bill of rights” that touches on the books mains themes of staying healthy, safe and happy—and most of all, trusting your instincts.

Good stuff. And for me: free!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cancer is a Total Bitch

A few weeks back I headed south of the border with a bag full of goodies for one of my best friends and her two kids. For Ann the Eldest, I packed hand-me-down princess purses and a dolphin charm for the bracelet I gave her when she was baptized. When Ann’s mom Sarah asked my husband and I to be Ann’s godparents, she joked we’d provide the agnostic view from above—the “above” being liberal Madison north of their Chicago suburb. For Kyle the Youngest I came bearing a Scoobie Doo DVD. I almost brought him a Packer T-shirt, too, but I decided not to offend my gracious hosts.

On the way down I stopped at the Border’s in Schaumberg (yes, it’s right next to Ikea) and bought my friend Sarah a terrific new book, Cancer is a Bitch, by Madison author Gail Konop Baker. When the book came out last fall, I wasn’t ready to read it. Cancer is a bitch, I thought to myself. I certainly didn’t need a memoir to convince me. Then last February, Sarah called me in tears. “I have breast cancer.”

She’s my age: thirty-eight. I honestly didn’t know what to do with the fear and frustration that came over me. So I grabbed Gail’s book from the cluttered little shelf that is my bedside table and devoured her story in a single afternoon. It was like chicken soup for the sad friend’s soul.

Later, when I interviewed Gail for this blog, she wasn’t surprised that I had found comfort in her book—sisters and friends of survivors were reacting the same way. What surprised her, though, is that another audience had found its way to her book, and the blog that led up to it.

“The diagnosis crystallized a lot of stuff women face mid-life,” Gail says. “The book brought it out like a strong reduction sauce.”

The memoir’s themes of age, marriage, family and relationships caught her publisher’s attention as well. Read on for where Gail’s writing career is headed next.

The book explores your marriage pretty explicitly. What’s that been like for your husband and family? When I started writing the column, he said, “Just please change the names,” because he felt like it would be better for the kids. Now we go out and everybody calls him ‘Mike’ (the name of his character in the book).

I love how many Madison references you use. Getting that sense of place is really always important to me as a writer.

What’s it been like since the book came out? Nothing like I imagined. I really didn’t expect to launch with a memoir because I’d written fiction forever, and certainly not a breast cancer memoir. You just don’t plan these things. There’s a bittersweet quality, where I had to suffer through this to get that kick that got me launched. After the column and the book contract, I thought, “Do I really want to stand up and be the woman who had breast cancer?”

It’s turned out to be such a blessing in disguise. Not only do I have this new, exciting wonderful career, I’m doing patient advocacy. I hear from survivors who tell me my words help them feel less alone, and it gives them courage facing surgery. That never would’ve happened if I had launched with a fiction career.

But it’s still hard.

At a recent book reading, my son and husband were in the audience. I feel like I’m retraumatizing all of us. On the other hand, when patients and survivors come up and thank me, this is what I’m giving back. I do believe that cancer is a last-standing taboo in that you say the word and there is a stigma. So if I can stand up here and wear that label it helps someone else.

Last fall when the book was coming out Andrew [her youngest of three children] kept riding down to Borders to see if the book was there. Then he calls me from his cell phone, “Mom, I’m standing at the front table and I’m holding the book. You’ve gotta come down here.” He’s looking at me and the book and me and the book. And he said, “You know mom, you really turned this thing around didn’t you.”

How has it affected your two college-age daughters? A woman can launch herself mid-life in the midst of something so scary. A woman can do that. Now I’m traveling, I’m being interviewed all over the place. I was on Dr. Oz!

What about some of the characters in the book that didn’t always come off as friendly or supportive? I was open and honest but careful. I always erred on the side of kindness. In every situation that I recounted, it had to be accurate but when you write something you can tilt it in the way of kindness. Eleanor was a composite of three women. Everything that was said was true but I put into detail enough that they wouldn’t identify themselves. “Everyone knows an Eleanor.”

The book title, is, well, so right on! I didn’t have any of that writer’s distance. That’s why it reads very raw and intimate. When I read it again now I get choked up because it was so raw and unfiltered. Dr. Oz loved the title!

Was it difficult to write? I moved my pen across the page. It came out really fast. The columns I wrote over a period of months. The rest of it I wrote in four months. Getting it out on the page was very cathartic. And then playing with it—flipping the words and changing the phrases—felt like something I could control.

You’re very revealing about marriage, which can be a taboo subject, too. People have identified and thanked me for being so honest about marriage. My new book is about marriage. Somehow this whole thing did really make me re-examine my marriage. The working title is “Anatomy of a Marriage.” I conducted interviews. Every story is unique and universal. In every story there was a kernel that talked to me personally.

I’ve learned that what we think of as a typical or normal marriage doesn’t exist. We’re a wedding and a divorce culture. We don’t discuss a lot about that complicated thing called marriage and what it really looks and feels like. To not talk about it as a culture means we really need to talk about it. It’s a very moment-to-moment thing. People who aren’t married look at it as a monolithic thing.

Besides your marriage, what were some other “a-ha!” moments? It woke me up to the fact that now was the time in life I was always meant to live, to be the person I was always meant to be. I feel like I’m living with a stronger sense of purpose and urgency. When an opportunity would come up I could talk myself out of it. But I went from the why of everything to why not?

It’s had a dramatic impact on my life. Book, career, travel, a million more new experiences in the last year than in the last fifteen years combined. I’ve run two half-marathons; I’m running the Chicago Marathon in the fall; I’m getting my yoga certification. The fear of experience turned into a fearlessness.

Tell me about the normal writing process for you. Getting started is always the hardest thing for me. A lot of times I get physical. I get the pen. I like to write sensorally and a lot of that experience is feeling the pen in your hand and on the page. If I’m feeling stuck, I often pick up the pen. When you’re writing you shouldn’t be thinking. I think it’s important to move the pen across the page. There’s a parallel to running. A lot of times it’s just putting your shoes on and tying them and putting one foot in front of the other. If you’re not over-thinking it you don’t get stuck.

How do you know when you’re done with the book? It’s really hard and it’s done when you send it off to your editor. It’s kind of like sending your child off to school.

After a double mastectomy in April, Sarah started chemo this week. Cancer is definitely a bitch. But for the first time in six weeks, Sarah was able to pick up Kyle from his crib. He wrapped his legs around her waist, tucked his sweet little face into the well-worn groove between her neck and shoulder, and let out a primordial sigh of relief. Mother and child were both back home where they belonged. Cancer and all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Getting the Watchdog Word Out

It's the Midwest, so it can't possibly be beautiful out two weekends in a row. Plus, we have all summer to enjoy the outdoors. So why not join me for the Investigative Reporters and Editors Better Watchdog Workshop this weekend?

Great training, great speakers and great price -- just $20 for students ($40 pros) for Saturday, 9-5:30, $30 for 3 hours of optional hands-on computer-assisted reporting training on Sunday, 9 to noon. The online registration period is over but your fee will gladly be accepted Saturday on-site at Capital Newspapers.

The workshop includes 6 months of IRE membership.

Here's the official release. Join me!

IRE is bringing its Better Watchdog Workshop to Madison on May 9-10,

Hosted by The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, The
Wisconsin State Journal, The Janesville Gazette, The Clarion and Madison
Area Technical College


* Producing quick-hit enterprise stories
* Tips on interviews and developing sources
* Bulletproofing stories
* Freedom of information laws and public records
* Using the Web effectively, including wikis, blogs, and RSS feeds