Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Art of Americas Wing, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (new exhibit)

The Art of the Americas Wing just opened at the MFA at the end of last year. Housed on 4 levels in thematic rooms, the extensive collection reaches back to Ancient American through Colonial up to 1970’s modern art. 

The paintings are hung with antique furniture, lamps, imported tiles, stained glass and silverware. Even the wallpaper matches the period. There’s a sense of walking back in time that brings the old art to life.

My 13-year-old daughter enjoyed the exhibit as I did. There were plenty of (non-exhibit) benches to sit upon and soak up the atmosphere or write stories, as she did, inspired by art. We especially loved the Sargents, and how the giant urns featured in a painting of an American expat family in Paris were displayed on either side of the painting (below).

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1882, MFA website.

The new wing's architecture (below) was really good too, but be careful not to miss the side galleries off the main column or the native/colonial displays in the basement. I liked how the gallery was historically stacked from oldest up to newest. The addition integrates well with the old museum. Afterward, we had a good but pricey lunch in the glass-enclosed MFA courtyard by the gallery. There was a line, but it moved quickly.  The soup and salad were delicious, and it was pleasantly sunny and bright on a cold day.

Art of America's Wing designed by Foster & Partners of London, opened on 11/ 30/10, MFA website image.

It was definitely worth the drive down from Maine to see this marvelous collection. The parking lot can fill so take the Green-E Line T (subway) from central Boston to the "Museum of Fine Arts" stop. I'd also strongly recommend the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, in walking distance from the MFA. The Gardner is currently under renovation but you can still see parts of it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What is Mud Season?

Thawing Estuary at the Wells Reserve, Maine (cool summer arial shot in the link)

Following last week's post, I had many questions about when spring starts in Maine. March, and even April, is not spring up north; it’s mud season. This is when all the snow and ice melts. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it snows. More often, we get a wintery mix and erratic swings in climate. Nature is at its most capricious.

Last Friday it was 68 F (20 C) with 50 mile per hour winds. My son spotted a pair of bald eagles searching for critters, emerging from long winter naps. I opened the windows and doors for fresh air. Newspapers and manuscript pages flew like autumn leaves around the house. Sitting out on my deck, I tested my Kindle in bright sunlight (very good visibility) while six inches of old snow in my backyard halved to three inches in one afternoon.

Then Saturday morning I awoke to the muffled silence of freshly fallen snow and Bowdoin students away on spring break. Our almost budding trees were powdered white. The mountains in Maine get the most snow in March, but our proximity to the ocean “moderates” our weather. I went skiing out back yesterday morning (above) after yet another storm with more flurries in the forecast this week. That's our treehouse shivering in the woods. It's beautiful, but is this your idea of spring? Even mud season seems a misnomer. Don't worry: the mud will come soon.

Frozen Marsh at the Wells Reserve

Sinky snow, slippery ice and squelchy mud make the woods nearly un-walkable. At this time of year, I head to the coast.

Laudholm Beach, Wells, Maine

There are miles and miles of public beaches in Maine. During mud season, they are nearly empty except for the occasional dog walker, enjoying offseason privileges.

Dunes at Fortune Rocks

Mud season is no one’s favorite time of year, but it’s the price of living in Maine. Our winter brings fresh snow and bright blue skies; autumn has the most glorious foliage and summer, with moderate heat and low humidity, is perfection. Spring doesn’t really kick in until May, and then everything blooms at once. I love living in a place with all the seasons, even if I’m counting the days to daffodils.

mini icebergs at Laudholm Beach

Mud season is not all bad. There are no crowds. Days are getting longer. Shovels rest while snow piles shrink. Winter traces on empty beach are beautifully surreal. The sidewalks to town are finally clear of ice; the plowed snowbanks removed by front loaders and dump trucks.

Surf at Laudholm Beach

It’s also easy to stay inside and write on foul weather days. Perhaps that is why there are so many authors in Maine, especially in my college town. Of course there are academic authors at Bowdoin College but also several children's authors chose to raise their families here. My neighborhood friends include: author Charlotte Agell, my crit. partner; Newbury Honor author Cynthia Lord; young adult author Maria Padian and the Hunger Games editor Kate Egan. When we first met four years ago, Cindy Lord posited it must be something in the water, but I would add that it's the temperature of the water that breeds writers in our part of Maine. We've got a cool location to set our novels, in more ways than one.

When I crave spring, I visit your blogs. Thanks for sharing your blooms!

Blog Watch: Through the Sapphire Sky shared beautiful cherry blossoms from Japan and Signs of Hope after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Sapphire writes from the perspective of a Kobe earthquake survivor.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beyond Winter?

When snow lingers longer than it ought,

The dune grass shivers,

Whilst sand freezes in windy ripples.

Still, the tide escapes the deep freeze.

The sun defrosts the bitter sea,

And me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Harvard Square: glass flowers, indie bookstores, ethnic food, ice cream and warm memories

I know Maine is called “Vacation Land,” but I need a city fix to unwind. Nature can be too harsh. In late February my coastal paradise was glazed in ice and buried under two feet of melting snow. (It still is.) Harvard Square is only two and a half hours south . . . well, six hours if it’s stormy on the way back.

It was still worth a return to my old home. After growing up in NYC, I went to college and graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My husband and I met at Harvard (left), and our two kids were born in Boston. Our teenaged daughter must have inherited my urban genes because she loved our trip to Harvard Square. Her brother stayed back to compete in the Maine State Championship in Nordic Skiing, and her sad dad had to work. It was a girls-only vacation.

We stayed at the Charles Hotel. Our room overlooked Harvard University and the Boston skyline. Henrietta’s Table served the best Belgian waffles and fresh tropical fruit. There’s a glass-encased lap pool and an outdoor skating rink in this luxurious hotel. We were well pampered, but we didn’t spend too much time in our comfortable room.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History has the most amazing exhibit of glass flowers (above.)  They were made in 1887-1936 by a father and son team in Germany and have been used ever since to teach botany. My daughter, who inherited my glass animal collection, could not believe the flowers were not real. We also loved the gorgeous gemstone exhibit. I got nostalgic walking around campus, but my daughter is too young to be thinking much about college yet. If you ask her, she'll say she wants to go to Oxford University in England after our sabbatical there. Oxford was also her dad's alma mater.

Catering to many international students, Harvard Square has a broad selection of affordable ethnic food. We had lunch at Chutneys (right) in The Garage Shopping Center. A nanini (nan bread+panini+curry+rice) is the best idea ever! The paratha wrap was tasty too. Our meals with samosas and a fresh mango lassi came to less than $10/person. It was not so much fast food as good food fast.

My beloved Herrell's had just shut, but a friend recommended Lizzy's and JP Licks for homemade ice cream. Steve Herrell founded Steve's ice cream in 1973 and sold his first name chain. He then reopened under his last name on a smaller scale. Both local chains still exist but not in Harvard Square. My daughter liked JP Licks, but it wasn't the same as sitting inside an old bank valt painted like a fish tank while spooning salty-sweet malted vanilla ice cream with Heath Bar - Reese's smoosh-ins, laughing with a friend. That was the flavor of college for me.

For dinner we had delicious Korean and Japanese food at Shabu Ya (above), the former Shilla. Their specialty is Shabu Shabu, a one-pot meal of thinly cut beef and vegetables that you cook in a savory broth at your table. It was a good sign that most of the clients were Asian. Another good sign: my husband and I have been dining there for over two decades. Two locations ago, Henry first met my parents for dinner there. My parents also met and fell in love in Cambridge 50-something years ago. It's a special place for me.

A friend treated my daughter and me to tea at Café Algiers (left), another old college haunt of mine. At the table beside us, two women were chatting in French. Sipping fresh mint tea and nibbling baklava, we felt transported to Algeria. It has the best atmosphere if not the best tea. Still, nobody rushes you and it's quiet, a  great place to catch up with an old friend.

Afterwards, we found terrific sales on clothing and browsed in bookstores. The Harvard Book Store, featuring new and used books, has been there since my college days. Several other independent bookstores were long gone, sadly. The adorable Curious George store is all that’s left of the old WordsWorth. Tween/teen chapter books were in the basement along with some adult crossover fiction. I was pleased to spot Ellen Booraem’s Small Persons with Wings sparkling (silver glitter letters!) on a display shelf.

We ran out of time to do everything on our list, like making earrings at the Boston Bead Company, sipping hot chocolate at Burdick's or scoffing cupcakes at Sweet. Sure beats mud season in Maine.

Happiness Watch: The 2010 Gallup poll rated American congressional districts by national well-being, looking at indicators such as emotional status, work satisfaction, eating habits, illness, stress etc. The NYT reporting last Sunday, tracked down "America's Happiest Man" and shared a fascinating map of national happiness.

Theater Watch:

Al Miller at the Theater Project in Brunswick, Maine has adapted Shift by Charlotte Agell to the stage.  I'll be attending the opening on Friday night, March 11th. The play runs on weekends through March 20th. Charlotte has been advising this teen production based on her dystopian novel for young adults.

Lots of Shakespeare in NYC this spring.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jersey Tomatoes are the Best by Maria Padian: mom and daughter review & interview

Don’t let the title put you off: Jersey Tomatoes Are The Best is not about gardening or Snookie. The “Tomatoes” are talented Jersey gals like the author, my friend Maria Padian. Eva attends ballet camp in NYC, and Henry (don’t call her Henriette!) travels to Florida to be coached for junior-circuit tennis. They narrate in alternating chapters with distinct voices, keeping connected via cell phone. Pushy parents, rival peers and demanding schedules plague them to varying extents. This newly released young adult novel shows the sacrifices that come from seeking perfection, especially at a young age.

Henry’s story could stand on its own. My favorite character was her roommate, Yoly, who introduces Henry to Cuban American culture. Tennis superstar David adds romance and shows us the glamorous world of pro tennis. Henry’s nightmare sideline dad-coach provides comic relief. Interestingly, Maria originally intended for Tomatoes to be just Henry’s story.

It was a later decision to break the narrative in half to give Eva her own voice, or rather voices. Maria’s teenaged daughter made this excellent suggestion. Eva’s tale is more inward than Henry’s; it follows the emotional arc into mental illness. The main secondary character in Eva’s story is her horrible inner voice, who tells her she's fat and ugly. Her struggle with anorexia is heart rending due to its realism.

The triumph of Tomatoes is that anorexia does not consume the character. Eva is more than her disease; she’s a talented dancer and a good friend. It was also easier to read about her downward spiral because Henry’s sunny story balanced the darkness. Henry models a healthy attitude toward diet and exercise . . . and she looks like a Victoria Secret model. Good message!

Tomatoes would be an excellent book to share with your children or students for a discussion on body image. My beautiful 13-year-old daughter is both a dancer (shadow photos) and an athlete. She is also a healthy eater with a big appetite for young adult fiction. 

My teenaged daughter's review:

Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best definitely deserves a spot on my bookshelf. There is friendship, horror, romance and humor.  The book is an eye-opener, and I enjoyed the two narrators. Although their parts are drastically different, I thought they counter-parted each other very nicely. Henry’s chapters were light, fun and comical, while Eva’s were very deep, disturbing, passionate, and at times repulsive. Eva’s chapters definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and they were very different than anything I’ve read before.

Though frightening, I thought Eva’s storyline was real. So many girls out there have eating disorders, but not many people talk about it. This book showed the horrors of anorexia and the true-to-the-bone feelings of Eva, which I thought was very fascinating, riveting and added an edge to the book. Tomatoes is a gripping story of two friends who are always there for each other through the best and the worst. It is a definite must-read.

Our Interview of Maria Padian

Author Maria Padian by Betsy Evans, her tennis teammate.

What’s the story behind your title?

Maria: the title is from a T-shirt I owned when I was young. It’s a play on words, since tomato is slang for girl. So that T-shirt and yes, my title, essentially say Jersey Girls Are the Best. It’s the mantra for my main characters, two teens who feel a tad defensive about being from New Jersey.

But while the setting and the background noise of the novel is largely New Jersey, the book is not about Jersey. Henry and Eva are talented kids facing extraordinary pressures, and the novel is about battling your demons, making healthy, life-affirming choices, and taking ownership of your future.

How did you get from New Jersey to Maine? 

I fell in love with New England when I attended college in Vermont, so while I lived and worked in the south for a while (Virginia, Georgia, Washington D.C.) I always hoped to “settle” north. Maine’s wonderful hiking, canoeing, skiing and camping drew my husband and me to the state, so 20 years ago we found work here and put down roots.

Those woods at left are where Maria and I often meet for walks to talk about books and writing.  Yep, that's what Maine looks like in early March.

How did you research anorexia and what made you write about it?

I have never struggled with an eating disorder myself; however, through high school, college and into my adult years I have known friends and family members who have struggled with eating disorders. They, along with professionals, have shared their stories and insights with me. I have been inside treatment centers and attended counseling sessions. I have wept with anguished parents who fear their daughters will die. I have been brought to my knees, watching helplessly as someone I care for disappears behind the veil of irrationality which is anorexia.

Despite all that is known about this illness and all the strides we have made in combating it, I have been bewildered by our ability to bear witness yet say nothing. Young people skip meals, become achingly thin, retreat from their friends and the rest of the world, and we say … nothing. We claim that we want to “respect their privacy.” We don’t want to “assume.” This situation, which must change, fueled my desire to tell Eva’s story.

The world of junior tennis and of pre-professional ballet in Tomatoes felt very real and detailed. What’s your background in those fields or was it researched?

I play tennis, and still play competitively, although not nearly at Henry’s level! As a result, writing the tennis scenes was easy for me. I also had an opportunity to tour the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida, and speak with a representative there about the work they do with young players. Evert makes a real commitment to helping players maintain a good balance in their lives and stay healthy.

The ballet sections took some real work, because I don’t dance and have never taken a single ballet class. I relied heavily on interviewing young dancers, reading books about ballet, combing through autobiographies of my favorite dancers, and even watching ballet how-to videos. I once tried standing en pointe in some borrowed slippers. That lasted about one excruciating second! Luckily, I’m a big ballet fan so getting up to speed on the dance sections was a real labor of love.

What was the inspiration for the Cuban American character, Yoly?

The inspiration for Yoly came from two places: first, my mother. My mom is Latina and like Yoly, when she speaks Spanish she is one person; when she speaks English she is another. It's something you've got to see to believe! My second inspiration came from visiting Calle Ocho in Miami's "Little Havana" and eating some pretty amazing Cuban food. I grew up eating my mom's arroz con pollo, but it was nothing compared to the roast pork and black beans I found on Calle Ocho. I couldn't resist putting that pork in Tomatoes!

Do you think “write what you know” is good advice?

Write what you know is emotionally true. Write from the place where you can relate to the characters and the situation. For example, I can’t dance. But I do know about performing. I was a classical pianist for many years, and as a teen actually prepared for a piano competition at New York’s Carnegie Hall. I believe that experience enabled me to write Eva’s sections of the book.

That's a yearbook photo of me at age sixteen (at left) near the age of my main characters.  I had just returned from a week at the Jersey Shore . . . that's where I got those pooka beads.

Can you tell us about your next young adult novel?

It’s set in Lewiston, Maine, and the narrator is a 17-year-old boy who befriends a Somali immigrant who plays on his soccer team. Lewiston is a predominantly white, Catholic, Franco, former mill town, which has seen a huge migration of refugees from Somalia and other nations over the last decade.

This is the first time I’ve written from a male point of view, and the first time I’ve set a fictional tale in a real place, against the background of actual events. I feel tremendous pressure to get this “right,” especially because I have been so moved and inspired by the amazing people I’ve met in Lewiston, especially the teenagers. The projected publication date is fall 2012.

Tomatoes' release date: March 8, 2011. Thanks for joining us today, Maria!

More Young Adult Novels on Anorexia:

I’d also recommend two other well-written novels about eating disorders. In Just Listen (2008) by Sarah Dessen the protagonist’s sister is an anorexic model. Dessen does a great job in engaging the reluctant reader, but the eating disorder plot is secondary. Winter Girls (2010) by Laurie Halse Anderson is more grimly realistic and focused, but the protagonist is anorexia, not the girl. "I am the space between my thighs," says Lia. The haunting images of this exquisitely crafted novel terrified me. In both of these books, however, I never got a sense of the characters beyond their afflictions. Eva in Tomatoes felt more real.

Disclosure: I borrowed the Tomatoes ARC from Maria at my request.  I will be buying a finished copy for us.  I also reviewed Maria's debut Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress. The Roseate Spoonbill birds and Alligator photos were taken by Maria in Florida. I borrowed Wintergirls from Maria and bought Just Listen myself. No free products were received for these reviews.

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@Barrie Summy

Baby Watch: congratulations to Denise and David @ The Education of a Pulp Writer on the birth of their first child! Their daughter is called Ava, which is also how you pronounce Eva, one of the MC’s of Tomatoes.