Terrorism, Democracy & Other Competing Narratives

“You are home,” said our brand new Canadian Prime Minister to a group of newly arrived refugees stepping off the plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

“Welcome home,” he said.

Simple words, yet powerful.

Images of warm and smiling Justin Trudeau greeting exhausted, hopeful Syrian families flashed around the world. These pictures were broadcasted alongside other recent news, like clips of Donald Trump telling Americans to close the border to all Muslims, and Parisians or Californians standing over makeshift shrines attempting to cope with yet another terrorist attack.

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Truth and All Her Consequences with John Gregory Brown

It is rare to find a book where characters are linked in pursuit of an idea or ideal rather than common experiences. But the central characters in John Gregory Brown’s “Audubon’s Watch” share one overwhelming desire.

They all want to discover the truth.

One wants to know the truth about birds. Another, the truth about human anatomy. And a third—the most mysterious and tragic character—wants to know the truth about herself.

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Why Criticism in the Arts Can Be Overrated

So you and I happen to meet on a street corner. You spot me first, and you give me a warm hello. And you ask me how I’m doing.

Then, before I can say anything, you say: Well, I can see that you’re looking older, aren’t you? You have more gray hair around the temples. Not too many wrinkles yet. But, hey, I think you’ve also gained a few pounds, if I’m not mistaken!

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Beware the Forces of Dehumanization in Storytelling, Part 2

If an author writes to connect to an audience, then how much should she or he try to anticipate what an audiences wants, or what will sell, as the book is being written?

Well, this is a complicated question, I believe.

Writers need audiences, of course. And, since no one lives on air alone, artists need to be paid for their work. So this commercial reality should be kept in mind when writing, one would think.

Or should it?

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Beware the Forces of Dehumanization in Storytelling, Part 1

Once upon a time, as I was innocently sitting at my desk, I noticed that I had absolutely nothing to write about.

What to do?

Well, I did what I always do: I fished around in what I call my “character drawer”, where I have some faceless, sexless, colorless, ageless dolls. And, at random, I picked one out.

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Beethoven, Sara Davis Buechner, and the Archetype of the Hero

Before he picked up his baton to signal the beginning of Bizet’s Symphony in C, the conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller, looked around the podium for a microphone.

The symphony we were about to hear, Gueller said as he turned to face the audience, was written by a teenager, perhaps as a test or an assignment for school. We will probably never know, since it was lost for decades until a musicologist happened upon it, immediately admiring its youthfulness and optimism.

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The Hand That Holds The Mirror With James Risen

New York Times investigative journalist James Risen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting the CIA’s secret history with President George W. Bush in his book “State of War”, and who faces criminal prosecution for refusing to reveal sources on a story involving Iran’s nuclear program, is apparently not in danger of running out of shocking, disillusioning and depressing material any time soon.

His latest parry, “Pay Any Price”, is a series of essays that looks at the aftermath of 9/11, including President Obama’s tenure. Here Risen doesn’t chronicle the convoluted hunt for al Qaeda, but instead focuses on also convoluted and sometimes astounding examples of waste, abuses of power, and war profiteering happening inside U.S. government agencies and the private sector that serves them.

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The Twin Masks of Comedy and Tragedy With Peter Mehlman

Since you never know what will happen on a travel day, we didn’t set up anything special for our first night in New York, but, of course, that didn’t stop us from going out. After consulting listings for every kind of event imaginable, we decided on a reading, discussion and signing event at the Barnes & Noble close to our airbnb apartment on the Upper West Side.

Though the author, Peter Mehlman, was unknown to us, since he was listed as a producer on the TV show “Seinfeld” — and one who had written some of the most recognized episodes — I was curious to see how his particular sensibility might translate into a novel.

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Art, Love, and the Fullness of the Moon With Tom Stoppard

Meaningful art is like a mirror, or a system of mirrors, that reflect themes, experiences and ideas, back to the audience. But, of course, there is more than one type of mirror. Some mirrors clarify. Others distort. Some concentrate and distill. Others diffuse and radiate.

When it comes to the great themes — love, death, sex, artistic creation — it is interesting to see how artists use their craft to manipulate these mirrors. If they are very good they orchestrate entirely unique combinations that create both intimacy and distance at the same time.

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The Slow Bloom of Bountiful Ideas With Steve Himmer

The taste of something new is almost always disorienting. It may inspire wonder or exhilaration, or it may be alienating, off-putting or even maddening.

I experienced many of these responses, and in unpredictable combinations, after I happened upon the fascinating and original book “The Bee-Loud Glade”, the first novel by writer Steve Himmer.

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The Electric Wit and Tender Heart of Robin Williams

Like millions of others, I knew Robin Williams as a famous actor and comedian extraordinaire. I was also familiar with some details of his personal life, like that he had a house in San Francisco, was married more than once, and was a recovering addict. Other than that, I didn’t know much about him.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how much the details circulated by the gossip and celebrity industries tell us about a person. It seems like the more minutiae we are peddled — what the celebrity eats, who he is seen with, behind-the-scenes gossip about his quirks and idiosyncrasies — the less a sense of him we really form.

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Psst! Hey, Peter Mendelsund! Illustrate my book cover, why don’t you?

Well, what do you know? Apparently the publishing industry is not even close to dead. As we are reminded by the recent release of two books, “Cover” and “What We See When We Read”, by guru designer Peter Mendelsund, there are whole departments of smart and talented people devoted to the ancient art of book cover illustration. And these designers are not historical re-enactors in period costume wielding ancient, cryptic tools — but living and breathing professionals working on lofty floors in Manhattan highrises! Designing real printed book covers (on real paper!) that do not even appear in some electronic versions!

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The Landscape of the Self in Georgia O’Keeffe

The other day I had the urge to look up some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, and, as I admired her unmistakable work, I wondered if anyone had written her biography. And, of course, there were a few, but I decided to check out “Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe” by journalist and writer Laurie Lisle, originally published in 1980 and recently re-released.

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The Artist in Disguise in Isaac Bashevis Singer

Novelists write about every kind of character imaginable. Or do they?

Sometimes, I wonder.

No matter how a writer may strive to shape his or her characters into mundane or average peopleit seems to me that some spark of the creative imagination that bore them, some impression of the sculptor’s hand, often remains.

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In the Garden of Good and Evil with “Rectify”

The theme of guilt and innocence is, in fact, freshly played out in all the relationships in this series. Some characters behave worse than others and are outright nasty or sinister. But most are trying hard to do the right thing, or to sincerely find their way, but, of course, it’s not so easy to know what that is. And, even when they think they do know, they may disappoint themselves by doing otherwise.

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Shakespeare and the Summertime of Imagination

Nothing beats a performance of Shakespeare after a hot summer’s day, maybe stopping on the way for a relaxing dinner and a glass of wine; then later, slowly walking to the performance hall, taking a playbill from a friendly student usher, counting the rows to find your seat, and then waiting for first notes of magical language to ring out from the stage.

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Down and Out, Then Paranoid With George Orwell

“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts...” he wrote. 

Not ability to face unpleasant facts. Not habit of facing unpleasant facts. Power of facing unpleasant facts. This is interesting choice of words, very unusual in this context, and it seems that the theme of power and who has it, who doesn’t have it, and what happens when it is unevenly distributed, stayed with Orwell his entire life.

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