Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Caro and Vonnegut Barefoot at the Beach



Caro and Vonnegut in Sagaponack.
 (Photo originally appeared in Hamptons Shorts, 1999)
One sunny day in Sagaponack, renowned political biographer and seasoned interviewer Robert Caro—who comes to Albany, NY on December 5, 2011—had the tables tuned on him by none other than Kurt Vonnegut.   Their conversation, with Vonnegut posing questions to Caro (though it was supposed to be the other way around!), delves deeply into the nature of political power, the shared qualities of great fiction and non-fiction, and the pros and cons of writing with typewriters or word processors.  And, by the end, they were both barefoot!


Robert Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, will receive the 2011 Empire State Archives and History Award of the NYS Archives Partnership Trust, on Monday, December 5, 2011 at 7:30pm at the Egg at the Empire State Plaza.  The event is co-sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute.

P.S.  This event costs $10. (All other Institute realted events are free!)

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writers Institute Authors dominate NYTimes Notable Books of 2011

Sixteen writers whose books were selected for the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011 are former Visiting Writers at the New York State Writers Institute.  Among these, Karen Russell (Swamplandia!), James Gleick (The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood) and Tom Perrotta (The Leftovers) joined us during the 2011 season, while Michael Ondaatje (The Cat's Table) and Russell Banks (Lost Memory of Skin) were featured readers at the 2011 Summer Writers Institute.  And we are of course particularly thrilled that William Kennedy, Founding Director of the NYS Writers Institute, is on the list for his new novel, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. Check out the list for these and other great titles for gift-giving this year!

P.S. An upcoming blog post will feature more of the sixteen Visiting Writers who made the list. And three more writers will appear at the Institute in  2012...stay tuned for our full Spring schedule!

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Tom Perrotta's New Novel To Be HBO Series

HBO is developing a series based on author Tom Perrotta's upcoming novel "The Leftovers."

Hourlong drama explores the Rapture and how the sudden disappearance of loved ones in a suburban town affects everyone left behind. Perrotta, who is writing the pilot, will exec produce with Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger.

The author has Hollywood connections, having written "Little Children" and then adapting the screenplay for the Kate Winslet-Patrick Wilson starrer. Earlier in his career, Perrotta wrote the novel "Election," which was turned into Alexander Payne's feature starring Reese Witherspoon. Both pics were Oscar nominated. More in Variety.

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Not Writing What You Know

Tom Perrotta, who makes two appearances in Albany today, dispenses some free advice on the "big think" website:

Question: Should you always write what you know?

Perrotta: I’m always wary of any kind of generalization like that. There’re some people who… I think somebody once said there are two kinds of writers, you know, that there’s somebody who lives home and somebody who stays home, and I’ve always been the kind of writer who stayed home but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s going to work for everybody. I think you have to do a lot of reading and you have to do a lot of writing and if you’re lucky you’ll eventually find a voice or find a subject matter that you’re passionate about. I mean that to me is really the crucial thing, it’s somehow, you know, having your work connect with your obsessions and your passions and, you know, it’s… if you teach writing, sometimes it’s just very mysterious because you’ll see somebody, you can see that they have talent, you can see that they want very much to write but somehow there’s a kind of psychological disjunction between the work and what really matters to them and it’s scary, you know, when your work starts to interact with the unruly parts of your subconscious..... More.

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Tom Perrotta Tonight

Tom Perrotta visits the Writers Institute today for two events.

November 29 (Tuesday)
Seminar — 4:15 p.m., Assembly Hall, Campus Center, Uptown Campus
Reading — 8:00 p.m., Assembly Hall, Campus Center, Uptown Campus

Tom Perrotta is the author of masterpieces of satirical fiction set in the American suburbs. His new novel is The Leftovers (2011), the story of ordinary suburbanites who are forced to cope when they are left behind after “the Rapture,” the New Testament apocalypse. The Kirkus reviewer called it Perrotta’s “most ambitious book to date...,” and said, “The premise is as simple as it is startling.” His previous novels include The Abstinence Teacher (2007), and two that were adapted as major motion pictures, Little Children (2004) and Election (1998).

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cod for Thanksgiving

Mark Kurlansky, who visited in 2004, may have started a movement with his 1997 nonfiction book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

Perhaps we should all be eating cod with cranberry sauce.

Jennifer Kennedy of About.com Marine Life cites and paraphrases Kurlansky on a page devoted to cod and the Pilgrims (here):

"In a move that eventually led to their displacement, local Native Americans took pity on the starving Pilgrims and assisted them, believing they would 'receive blessings' for their generosity. They showed the Pilgrims how to catch cod and use the uneaten parts as fertilizer. They also introduced the Pilgrims to quahogs, 'steamers,' and lobster.

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Tom Perrotta on Fresh Air

Tom Perrotta, who visits the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, 11/29, spoke to Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" in August about his new novel, The Leftovers....

"I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity, and obviously the rapture kept coming up," he says. "My first impulse was ... to laugh it off — it's sort of a funny idea, people just floating away. But I kept thinking: What if it did happen? ... I thought, I'm such a skeptic that even if it did happen, I would resist the implications of it, and I also thought that three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it. No matter what horrible thing happens in the world, the culture seems to move on." More.

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Real Bedtime Stories

Sunday's New York Times Business Day had an article about the preference of parents for print-and-paper children's books....

"Print books may be under siege from the rise of e-books, but they have a tenacious hold on a particular group: children and toddlers. Their parents are insisting this next generation of readers spend their early years with old-fashioned books."

This is the case even with parents who themselves are die-hard downloaders of books onto Kindles, iPads, laptops and phones. They freely acknowledge their digital double standard, saying they want their children to be surrounded by print books, to experience turning physical pages as they learn about shapes, colors and animals." More.

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Family Dysfunction: Literature for Thanksgiving

The literary magazine Ploughshares serves up a banquet of dysfunctional family literature for your Thanksgiving gathering in its November issue.

Lydia Davis, New York State Writers Institute Writing Fellow, provides one of the appetizers:

"If your taste for dysfunction veers toward the quietly lethal, I urge readers to pick up a copy of anything by Lydia Davis. 'Meat, My Husband,' which appears in her Collected Stories, and originally in Almost No Memory, is the ideal amuse-bouche for a family gathering." More.

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Why Violence Has Declined

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) is being discussed everywhere.

Pinker visited the Institute to talk about his book How the Mind Works in 1997.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

In his latest book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the world has never been a safer place to live in. Looking back at the history of violence from prehistoric times up the present day, Pinker says it became far more beneficial for human beings to be less violent.... More.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

In Case You Missed the Torrente Ballester Celebration....

Unbeknownst to most Albany residents, one of Spain's major writers lived among us from 1966 to 1972 (and, as it happens, spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out at Stuyvesant Plaza because he didn't own a car). In Spain, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester's image appears on postage stamps; while in the U.S., it is difficult even to find his literary works in English translation.


UAlbany celebrated the late Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Distinguished Professor of Spanish, this past October. A new 35 minute documentary about his life that was screened on that occasion has recently been posted on the Web, and can be accessed in two parts via the UAlbany Library website.

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Thanksgiving Reading

Popular historian David O. Stewart, who visited the Writers Institute in 2007, and delivered the History Department's Fossieck Lecture, picked three books of American history for Thanksgiving reading on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening:


"With Thanksgiving hard upon us, now is a good time to think about our past. History writers can tell the best stories from centuries of human achievement and folly, yet too often they produce recitations of one damned thing after another. A few, though, combine a respect for accuracy with a deep understanding of the longings, fears and triumphs of the people of our past. Such books make magic." More.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

"The Best Film Ever Made About Filmmaking"

Roger Ebert proclaims Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, which will be screened tonight at 7:30PM at Page Hall (free and open to the public) the best film ever made about filmmaking.

Read the full Chicago Sun-Times reappraisal from May 28, 2000, here.

"8 1/2 is the best film ever made about filmmaking..... The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini’s 'stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas.' I celebrate it. A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes. Here is Stone on the complexity of 8 1/2: 'Almost no one knew for sure what they had seen after one viewing.' True enough, but true of all great films— while you know for sure what you’ve seen after one viewing of a shallow one.." More.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Slaughtering Each Other by the Hundreds of Thousands

Tony Horwitz, who speaks at the New York State Museum tonight, talked Tuesday on the PBS NewsHour about his new book on John Brown's raid.


"I think we still struggle to understand how it is that Americans who shared a common language and culture and for the most part religion came to slaughter each other by the hundreds of thousands in the 1860s. And I think John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry give us a window into that story." More

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Situation Normal, All Fracked Up

Eliza Griswold (who visited September 27) contributes an article about fracking in Pennsylvania to this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

"In Amwell Township, your opinion of fracking tends to correspond with how much money you’re making and with how close you live to the gas wells, chemical ponds, pipelines and compressor stations springing up in the area. Many of those who live nearby fear that a leak in the plastic liner of a chemical pond could drip into a watershed or that a truck spill could send carcinogens into a field of beef cattle. (According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 65 Marcellus wells drilled this year have been cited for faulty cement casings, which could result in leaks.) But for many other residents, including Haney’s neighbors, the risks seem small, and the benefits — clean fuel, economic development — far outweigh them." More.

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Bill Kennedy at the Miami Book Fair Yesterday

"William Kennedy, a Miami Book Fair standout," writes Chuck Strouse of the Miami New Times.

"Also here this week are dozens of other important American writers, from John Barth to John Sayles, Chuck Palahniuk to Calvin Trillin, and Harry Belafonte, Jim Lehrer, and Michael Moore. Though Kennedy isn't the biggest name, his story [Chang√≥’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes] is among the most intertwined with South Florida. Not only does his tale wend through the Cuban revolution, which shaped Miami, but also it invokes Santer√≠a, our Afro-Cuban soul, and the Fontainebleau Hotel of the stylish '50s. Fidel Castro, once a William Kennedy fan, and Bing Crosby make cameos. Hemingway plays a pivotal role too, decking one tourist "with a right and then a looping left" before mixing it up in a duel." More.

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Hudson Valley Writers Guild Newsletter

The November edition of the HVWG Newsletter is out.

Events include a celebration of poet, publisher and peace activist Dan Wilcox on Saturday, Dec. 3 at 1:30PM at the Main Branch of the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Ave., downtown Albany, sponsored by the Friends of Albany Public Library. Free and open to the public.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Trippiest Music Video of 1963

Check out the original American 1963 trailer for Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, which will be screened (at full length) on Friday, November 18 at 7:30PM in Page Hall on the downtown campus as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Classic Film Series.


"... a delightful piece of filmmaking full of imaginative flights of creative delirium and accomplished with wit, verve, style, grace, and a tongue-in-cheek joy." --Sean Axmaker, MSN Movies, January 13, 2010.

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The Woman Behind FDR, Friday, Nov. 18

Kirstin Downey, Washington Post reporter, will talk about her biography of Frances Perkins, the female architect of FDR's New Deal, a major historical figure now largely unknown to the public.

November 18 (Friday)Discussion — 4:00 p.m., Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Uptown Campus

Kirstin Downey, Award-winning journalist for the Washington Post, will make an appearance at the 2011 Researching New York Conference to discuss her 2009 biography of Frances Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.

The nation’s first female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins (1880-1965) was one of FDR’s chief advisors, and the principal architect of the most important social welfare legislation in U.S. history. Named one of the best nonfiction books of 2009 by the Library of Congress and the American Library Association, the book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Downey provides not only a superb rendering of history but also a large dose of inspiration drawn from Perkins’s clearheaded, decisive work with FDR to solve urgent problems and to succeed in the face of insurmountable odds.”

Sponsored by UAlbany’s Department of History and the NYS Writers Institute.

For additional information on the Researching New York Conference click here.

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Confederates in the Attic

In his frequently hilarious and occasionally disturbing book about the modern legacy of the Civil War, Tony Horwitz (who visits tomorrow) spends a great deal of time with hardcore Confederate reenactors:

"There's something in me that wishes we could really go the whole way," he said. "I'd take the chance of being killed just to see what it was really like to be under fire in the War." He paused, munching on salt pork and biscuits. "At least then we'd know for sure if we're doing it right."

Fred leaned over to spit out a bit of gristle and noticed something in the grass. "Rob's bloating," he announced. Rob lay splayed on his back, cheeks puffed and belly distended, eyes staring glassily at the sky. Joel walked over and poked a boot in his ribs. "Suck in your gut a bit," he said. "It looks like you sat on a bike pump." Fred rearranged Rob's hands. "They don't look rigor mortal enough," he said. Then the two men returned to their meal.

Rob sat up and wiggled his fingers. "Hands are a problem," he said. "It's hard to make them look bloated unless you've really been dead for a while." More.

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John Brown's Bloody Raid, Tomorrow, NYS Museum

Tony Horwitz, Pulitzer-winning journalist, will present his bold retelling of John Brown's anti-slavery raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, tomorrow at the New York State Museum, free and open to the public.

November 17 (Thursday)Reading/Discussion — 7:30 p.m., Clark Auditorium, NYS Museum, Cultural Education Center.

Tony Horwitz, the featured speaker for the 2011 Researching New York Conference, will discuss his new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (2011). As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Horwitz received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is the author of four national nonfiction bestsellers including A Voyage Long and Strange (2008), Blue Latitudes (2002), Confederates in the Attic (1998), and Baghdad Without a Map (1991).

Sponsored by UAlbany’s Department of History, the NYS Archives Partnership Trust, the NYS Writers Institute and NYS Museum. For additional information on the Researching New York Conference click here.

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Neither Hero Nor Terrorist, or Maybe Both

"When pressed to characterize Brown as an American hero or an American terrorist, Horwitz refused. 'He was neither,' he said. 'Or both. He was a complicated man.'"

The Washington Post Arts Blog covered Tony Horwitz's book release party last Saturday for Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War (2011). More.

Horwitz speaks tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 17, at the New York State Museum downtown.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

We Heard the Screams

"I happened to have been visiting a friend in the park on the other side of the park, and we heard the engines, and we heard the screams and rushed out and rushed over where we could see the trouble was. We could see this building from Washington Square, and the people had just begun to jump when we got there. They had been holding off until that time, standing in the windowsills, crowding, being crowded by others behind them, and the fire pressing closer and closer, the smoke closer and closer."

"Finally, the men were trying to put up — trying to get out this thing that the firemen carry with them, a net, to catch people if they do jump. And they were trying to get that out, and they couldn’t wait any longer. I mean, they began to jump. This is when the window was too crowded, and they were jumping. They hit the sidewalk. The net broke. It was a terrible distance, and the weight of the bodies was so great at the speed at which they were traveling that they broke through the net. And every one of them was killed. Everybody who jumped was killed. And it was a horrifying spectacle."

So said Frances Perkins in a recorded interview rebroadcast on Democracy Now, and featured as part of an interview with Kirstin Downey, author of a biography of Perkins, and a guest author at UAlbany this coming Friday 11/18.

Frances Perkins was the pioneering female author of New York and U. S. labor laws drafted in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the unsung architect of FDR's New Deal. Read or hear more of the radio program here.

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A Spanish Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida

"Spaniards also held a thanksgiving, 56 years before the Pilgrims, when they feasted near St. Augustine with Florida Indians, probably on stewed pork and garbanzo beans."

"The early history of Spanish North America is well documented, as is the extensive exploration by the 16th-century French and Portuguese. So why do Americans cling to a creation myth centered on one band of late-arriving English — Pilgrims who weren't even the first English to settle New England or the first Europeans to reach Plymouth Harbor? (There was a short-lived colony in Maine and the French reached Plymouth earlier.)"

In the New York Times in 2008, Tony Horwitz, who visits Thursday 11/17, discusses Thanksgiving in light of the current immigration debate, and in light of what we know of Spanish activity in the North America. More.

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Isabel Wilkerson Tonight at Page Hall 11/15 8PM

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, fled Mississippi in fear for her life after a relative was falsely accused of turkey stealing, and landed in Chicago in 1937.

George Swanson Starling, a Florida citrus picker who was threatened with a lynching after trying to organize fellow pickers, ended up in Harlem in 1945.

Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster headed west to Los Angeles from Monroe, La., in 1953, frustrated that he was not permitted in most operating rooms in the South, despite his success as an Army surgeon.

This trio of protagonists formed the foundation of Isabel Wilkerson's extraordinary accomplishment, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration," winner of the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for nonfiction. The book's power resides not only in its intimate portraits, but also in its epic sweep, redolent of a great novel.

Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Learn more about tonight's event.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Telecommunications and Sexual Relations ca. 1668

Bestselling science writer James Gleick, who visited last March (see a YouTube clip here), writes about state-of-the-art telecommunications in 1668 in the most recent entry on his blog "Around."

"Anyone interested in the relations between men and women (or any number of other topics) can get great pleasure from the day-by-day online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. It’s a soap opera. Especially at this moment (9 November 1668) and for the last few weeks (that is, 343 years ago).

If you’re not up to date, Sam’s wife caught him in flagrante with her 17-year-old maid, Deborah Willet. He wasn’t sure exactly how much she saw. At one point he confessed to the embracing but denied the kissing. Or the other way around." More.

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Isabel Wilkerson to Speak Evening Tuesday at Page, Afternoon Seminar Cancelled

Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer-winning Journalist

November 15 (Tuesday) {NOTE: Due to a scheduling conflict, Isabel Wilkerson’s afternoon seminar has been cancelled. She will be appearing at 8 p.m. in Page Hall, only.]
Reading — 8:00 p.m., Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue, Downtown Campus

Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010), a sweeping history of the movement of Blacks from the former slave states to the cities of the industrial North during the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore called it, “[A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.” It received the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. In 1994, Wilkerson became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for her 1993 coverage of floods in the Midwest. Cosponsored by the Times Union.

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Tony Horwitz on the Failure of Textbook History

"My complaint is that textbooks do a fine job of communicating the facts that students need to know to pass tests. But they don't do enough to make history exciting and engaging to students. Here's a story [John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry] that's got vivid characters -- men and women, white and black -- risking their lives for a cause they passionately believe in. You've got a violent, dramatic climax with the raid and wonderful speeches by Brown and others."

"It's also a great teaching tool, because Brown and his raid spur eternal questions that are great for the classroom. Do ends ever justify means? Is violence ever appropriate in resisting evil? Who was right? I think it's a pity that this episode isn't used more appropriately in textbooks."

Read more of Elizabeth Floyd Mair's conversation with Tony Horwitz (who visits Thursday 11/17) in Friday's Times Union.

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Isabel Wilkerson: Stuck in an Albany Snowstorm

Isabel Wilkerson (who visits Tuesday 11/15) talks with Paul Grondahl in the TU:

"Isabel Wilkerson's introduction to winter in Albany was one she would rather forget.

She was a 25-year-old reporter at The New York Times, assigned to cover the state Legislature during the 1986 session. She drove upstate and parked her Honda Civic near her apartment, across from Washington Park, as a snowstorm approached.

She emerged the next morning to find the car half-buried in a snowbank churned up by a city plow. Lacking a snow shovel to dig out, she started gunning the engine. Tires spun, squealed and smoked. She rapidly shifted the automatic transmission from forward to reverse, and back again. The engine started making terrible noises.

"I blew out the transmission," she recalled with a groan. "I was totally unprepared for an Albany winter."

Read more in Paul Grondahl's profile in Friday's Times Union.

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Iroquois on the New York Frontier, 11/17

Robert Moss, the Australia-born author of a cycle of nine novels about the Iroquois, will deliver the 2011 Neihardt Lecture of SUNY Press at the Albany Institute of History and Art, 4-6PM on November 17.

The presentation is entitled "Four Indian Kings, Dream Archaeology, and the Iroquois Struggle for Survival on the New York Frontier." More.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Civil War, and His Yiddish Great-Grandfather

Tony Horwitz (who visits Thursday 11/17) was introduced to the Civil War, a lifelong obsession, by his Yiddish great-grandfather, who shared that obsession. He talks about this in the first chapter of Confederates in the Attic:


"In 1965, a century after Appomattox, the Civil War began for me at a musty apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. My great-grandfather held a magnifying glass to his spectacles and studied an enormous book spread open on the rug. Peering over his shoulder, I saw pen-and-ink soldiers hurtling up at me with bayonets. I was six, Poppa Isaac 101. Egg-bald, barely five feet tall, Poppa Isaac lived so frugally that he sliced cigarettes in half before smoking them. An elderly relative later told me that Poppa Isaac bought the book of Civil War sketches soon after emigrating to America in 1882. He often shared it with his children and grandchildren before I came along. Years later, I realized what was odd about this one vivid memory of my great-grandfather. Isaac Moses Perski fled Czarist Russia as a teenaged draft dodger--in Yiddish, a shirker--and arrived at Ellis Island without money or English or family. He worked at a Lower East Side sweatshop and lived literally on peanuts, which were cheap, filling and nutritious. Why, I wondered, had this thrifty refugee chosen as one of his first purchases in America a book written in a language he could barely understand, about a war in a land he barely knew, a book that he kept poring over until his death at 102?" More.

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Blowing the Whistle on Risky Mortgages

Journalist Kirstin Downey, who visits Friday afternoon 11/18 to talk about her new book on Frances Perkins, was writing in the Washington Post about risky mortgages as early as 2005, well before they were getting much coverage in other media outlets....


"The loans are attractive because their initial monthly payments are tantalizingly low -- about $1,367 a month for a $320,000 mortgage, compared with about $1,842 a month for a traditional 30-year, fixed-rate loan. If home prices fall, though, borrowers could lose big.

"It's a game of musical chairs," said Allen J. Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy at the Consumer Federation of America. "Somebody is going to have the chair pulled out from under them when they find prices have leveled out and they try to sell, only to find they can't sell for what they paid for it." More.

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Gunpowder, Bacon Grease and Hardcore B.O.

Authentic Civil War reenactors never take a bath, as Tony Horwitz informs us in his "Deep South Diary." Horwitz visits Thursday 11/17 to talk about his new book on abolitionist John Brown's bloody raid on Harper's Ferry.

Horwitz goes off to war with one of the hard-core Civil War reenactors featured in his bestselling book, Confederates in the Attic:

"Rob's Civil War jacket hasn't been washed since last year's hard campaigns. "Gunpowder, bacon grease, coffee grounds," Rob says, sniffing his sleeve. "Mostly, though, it's hardcore B.O."

"What's with the hair?" I ask him. Rob's long black ringlets are shimmery and moist.

"Just gel," he confides. "In the War, soldiers were naturally greasy so they didn't have to do this." More.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Thanksgiving Poem

"The First Thanksgiving" by former New York State Poet Sharon Olds (1998-2000):

When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. More

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Loving the Nerdiness of Being a Science Writer

"OVER THE PAST THIRTY-FIVE YEARS, I have worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer and occasional editor, as well as a coauthor and author of books, but I always state my occupation as "science writer. I love the distinction, the nerdiness of the term and of course the science, which I loosely define as everything arcane and wonderful worth knowing, though often though often difficult to fathom, unpopular, and best described in mathematical terms...."

Dava Sobel, who visited this past Thursday, writes about science writing in the introduction to The Best American Science Writing 2004, which she edited. Read more.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Albany, the Promised Land

"The Albany that migrants discovered upon arrival from the Deep South was a city on the move. The 1930 census placed the state capital's population at 127,412, with 98 percent white and 86 percent native born.... New arrivals found housing in Albany's oldest neighborhoods along the river. These neighborhoods were composed of row houses broken into apartments and shops. Once fashionable, these areas became worn after generations of newcomers to Albany getting their start and then with success moving on to better quarters and neighborhoods."

In connection with Isabel Wilkerson's visit to the Writers Institute on Nov. 15, it's interesting to read about the impact of the experiences of African Americans who came to Albany during the Great Migration. Jennifer Lemak, UAlbany graduate and Curator of History at the New York State Museum, has published some fascinating information on this period in the city's history

Read about the historic African American community on Rapp Road in the Pine Bush here.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

That Stone in the Shoe of Our History

"Brown really touches many of the hot buttons in our history and culture: violence, race, religious fundamentalism, the right of the individual to defy their government," Horwitz says. "He's that stone in the shoe of our history."

Pulitzer-winning journalist Tony Horwitz, who visits Thursday, November 17, talks with NPR about his new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. More.

And click here to visit the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in the Adirondacks.

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Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Late October 1937

"The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her. She had sold off the turkeys and doled out in secret the old stools, the wash pots, the tin tub, the bed pallets. Her husband was settling with Mr. Edd over the worth of a year’s labor, and she did not know what would come of it. None of them had been on a train before—not unless you counted the clattering local from Bacon Switch to Okolona, where, “by the time you sit down, you there,” as Ida Mae put it. None of them had been out of Mississippi. Or Chickasaw County, for that matter."

Read an excerpt from The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Pulitzer-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. See her live at the Writers Institute, Tuesday, November 15.

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The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson Tuesday

Isabel Wilkerson will talk about her work on November 15 (Tuesday)

NOTE: Due to a scheduling conflict, Isabel Wilkerson’s afternoon seminar has been cancelled. She will be appearing at 8 p.m. in Page Hall, only.]

Reading — 8:00 p.m., Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue, Downtown Campus

Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010), a sweeping history of the movement of Blacks from the former slave states to the cities of the industrial North during the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore called it, “[A] deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book.” It received the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. In 1994, Wilkerson became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for her 1993 coverage of floods in the Midwest. More.

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Poet of the Underworld

Jean-Pierre Melville (director of the police thriller, Le Cercle Rouge, to be screened Friday) said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the "father of the nouvelle vague" listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention.... This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was "a solitary to the power of five - myself, my wife and three cats."

So writes Peter Lennon in a 2003 article in The Guardian.

Audience members will be interested to know that Melville's cats are supporting actors in Le Cercle Rouge as the pets of cat-loving Police Inspector Mattei, who himself plays a kind of cat in the film's game of cat-and-mouse.

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Dava Sobel on WAMC This Morning

In association with her visit to the Writers Institute today, Dava Sobel will be on WAMC's The Roundtable this morning to speak about her new biography of Copernicus, the Polish astronomer who overturned humankind's understanding of the Universe, twenty years before Galileo's birth.

No exact time is available, but based on the schedule of guests, we anticipate she will be on around 11AM.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Power of Books!

"It doesn't happen often, but there are times when a single book turns the world on its head. Isaac Newton's Principia unraveled the mystery of gravity. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species explained how evolution worked."


"But before either of these, there was On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. It was published in 1543. In it, Copernicus made the astounding claim that Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around."

Dava Sobel, who visits tomorrow, Nov. 10, was profiled yesterday on NPR. The author of A More Perfect Heaven, a new biography of Copernicus, Sobel speaks about the huge impact the astronomer's small book had on human civilization. More.

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A Heavenly Book, Tomorrow

Dava Sobel talks about her new biography of Copernicus, A More Perfect Heaven, tomorrow, November 10, at 4:15pm in the Assembly Hall, Campus Center on the University at Albany uptown campus, and at 8pm in the same location.

Dava Sobel, bestselling science writer, is the author most recently of A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (2011), the story of the reclusive Polish Catholic priest (1473-1543) whose scientific observations changed mankind’s view of the Universe. Sobel explains Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, and his courageous defiance of received wisdom, religious tradition and ordinary “common sense.” She also chronicles the events of the “Copernican Revolution,” how his manuscripts circulated secretly among the great scientific personalities of Renaissance Europe, and how his work finally came to be published for a wider audience as the author lay on his deathbed.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Julia Keller called it, “A heavenly book…. a great story filled with fascinating characters, excruciating near-misses and the sudden splendor of the new discovery,” and said, “[T]his beautiful book, combining science and a sort of poetic awe, is emblematic of her work as a whole.” The Library Journal reviewer said, “Sobel has the knowledge and writerly grace to explain what Copernicus accomplished,” and called it, “A book on science and personality that should intrigue us all.”

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History Repeats Itself, Isabel Wilkerson

During the spring floods of 2011, the New York Times reprinted some of Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer-winning 1993 coverage of Midwestern floods. In winning the award, Wilkerson (who visits Tuesday 11/15) became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer in journalism.

"The floods have made the broad, S-curved Mississippi and its otherwise perfectly ordered valley look more like the Florida Keys . ... The river, ecologists and farmers say, was never supposed to follow the tight course humans have expected it to, indeed ordered it to, with their walls of dirt and concrete levees." More.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Election Fraud, Intimidation, Ballot Theft

Election Day may put you in the mood for Election, Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel about a hotly contested election for student body president at a suburban high school. The novel was made into an Oscar-nominated 1999 film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.

Perrotta visits the Writers Institute, Tuesday, November 29. He will be speaking about his new novel The Leftovers.

Here's Perrotta in a recent NPR interview:

"I don't feel like I'm a satirist. I don't even think I ever was, but that label has stuck to me because the movie Election was a brilliant satire, and it amped up some elements that were muted in the book to do that. And that's the first way people became familiar with my work. Labels tend to stick and first impressions tend to stick, but I will say that what happens for me is that I do start in a place that feels like it might lead to a satire, and then the process of spending time with characters — getting inside their heads, trying to see the world the way they see it — pulls me away from satire. And I think a lot of times you can't see where you're going to end up."

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Falling in Love with Copernicus

In an interview entitled "Why I Fell for Copernicus," Dava Sobel talks with Michael Bond of the New Scientist about the importance for a biographer of falling in love with her subject:

Q: You've [also] admitted to having a "long-term crush" on Galileo. Do you always fall for the scientists you write about? A: Yes, I think it's important to feel something like a love for the person, because it's a long time to sit alone in a room. It's not like journalism when you're moving from topic to topic. That sense of some kind of bond with the person makes it easier. More.

Dava Sobel visits this Thursday, Nov. 10th.

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Colson Whitehead and the World Series of Poker

"I have a good poker face because I am half-dead inside. My particular combo of slack features, negligible affect, and soulless gaze had helped my game ever since I started playing 20 years ago, when I was ignorant of pot odds and M-theory and three-betting, and it gave me a boost as I collected my trove of lore, game by game, hand by hand. It had not helped me human relationships-wise over the years, but surely I am not alone here — anyone whose peculiar mix of genetic material and formative experiences had resulted in a near-expressionless mask could relate. Nature giveth, taketh, etc. You make the best of the hand you're dealt."

As the World Series of Poker comes to a climax tonight on ESPN, it is both amusing and instructive to visit Colson Whitehead's July 2011 article in Grantland about training for the event. Whitehead visited the Writers Institute November 1st.

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Oceans of Oil, or Possibly Soda Water....

Dava Sobel, who visits Thursday, Nov. 10, talks of the childhood origins of her "planet fetish" at the beginning of her book of essays, The Planets (2005):

"Every planet opened its own realm of possibility, its own version of reality. Venus purportedly hid lush swamps under its perpetual cloud cover, where oceans of oil, or possibly soda water, bathed rain forests filled with yellow and orange plant life. And these opinions issued from serious scientists, not comic books or sensational fiction." More.

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The Kind of Experience That Makes You Glad Movies Exist

A. O. Scott in the New York Times on the 2003 re-release of Le Cercle Rouge, which will be screened Friday at Page Hall:

"There are... moments of breathtaking strangeness and blunt emotional force: cold-blooded shootings, creepy-crawly alcoholic hallucinations, spangly dancers and nighttime streets. These things could exist -- could look like this, or seem to mean anything -- only in movies. Le Cercle Rouge offers the kind of experience that makes you glad movies exist." More.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Andy Rooney, Charcoaled Peaches and Potato Ice Cream

Bill Kennedy introducing Andy Rooney at the Writers Institute in 1995:

On page 14 of his new book, My War, Andy Rooney writes this sentence. “One of my dominating characteristics has always been that I’m not strange.” Now that’s a lie. Andy Rooney is as strange as charcoaled peaches or potato ice cream, which he invented. Oh sure, he looks normal, and you can understand every word he says and he’s a Giants fan. When I first met him I never suspected he was strange. We were at a dinner party in the penthouse of the Wellington Hotel, looking out at the South Mall, which was under construction, and we began swapping memories of Albany and the newsmen we knew and we realized we could carry on with these stories for years to come, and so we have. We’ve become friends. I have several strange friends. More.

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