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Here's hoping that all of you dear readers had lovely holidays and a felicitous, peaceful, and smooth entry into the beginnings of 2012. During this time of year, I often hear from students who have either graduated recently or long ago and who I now call friends.  Two friends who I mention here are former students from our English Department at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln:  Lenna Pierce is a gifted musician and singer and Emily Danforth is a gifted writer whose first novel comes out in February.  

I had coffee with Lenna Pierce last week. She had just returned from her cross-country one-woman concert tour:  from Lincoln, Nebraska to New York.  It was intriguing listening to her road stories.  She recounted experiences in bars, dives, and very nice concert venues.  Most interesting to me were her descriptions of the music she heard along the way, the musicians she met--alternative, experimental.  Lenna is in a world far and away from popular culture.  The kind of music she creates with her cello, voice and words, transcends anything that is on the radio or I-Pods right now.  I find it literary, creatively multi-layered, so complex in its lightness. Before Lenna went solo, she performed with Rachel West (who accompanied Lenna's cello with an accordian) and they called their duo, "Das Hoboerotica."  They played various venues here in Lincoln, Nebraska until Rachel decided to pursue other interests.  Now Lenna has broadened her concert card to a number of states between here and New York (inclusive of NY). You don't meet many alternative cello playing singers.  Lenna says the cello, "just feels so right.  You know, it's big and warm but it's dark too.  It's not a simple instrument, but it is a beautiful one." Lenna's music reminds me of the Argentine singer, Juana Molina.  Juana sings in what I call "Rioplatense Spanish transcendency." Rioplatense is the regional Spanish she chooses to use in the writing of her songs.  Listen to her here: (CLICK) and also here: (CLICK). She is in a kind of trance, repeating words, verses, shifting chords that shift the listener, move us into another space. Sometimes I imagine Lenna Pierce playing with Juana Molina. What a collaboration that would be!

If you're in Lincoln, Nebraska tomorrow (Friday, January 6th) you can hear Lenna Pierce at Meadowlark Coffee House at 8p.m. (1624 South Street).  

Emily Danforth received her PhD in creative writing just last May 2011 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  She is now an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College in Providence.  
Her soon-to-be-published book, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming of age novel and it is riveting, told in gorgeous descriptive prose. 

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When I read Emily's words, I am literally there lying on the Montana fields watching those slow moving clouds above me.  She carries you from there to heartbreaking and bittersweet first love, loss, and maturity. The book is already a "starred review" from Kirkus Reviews:  "Rich with detail and emotion, a sophisticated read for teens and adults alike."  Booklist also starred it:  "[An] ambitious literary novel, a multidimensional coming-of-age."  It will be released February 7th.  You can also pre-order from your local bookstore!  

Lately, book publishers have been marketing their books with youtube mini-films.  It's brilliant.  Emily's publisher, Balzer and Bray have come 
out with a sweet, lovely "trailer" so to speak, to whet your appetite.  Here it is: CLICK HERE.

I always wish for our students to find what makes their hearts leap, to pursue a passion-- not to pursue what someone else thinks they should be doing. I hope for students to dig deep inside themselves and find their true gifts to develop. Lenna and Emily are passionate about their work.  It shows.  It delights.  We are lucky to have them share their gifts with us.  

And on that note, today I read a wonderful article in the New York Times regarding professors who are taking their lectures "to the bar" or to concert hall venues, or main stages of clubs-- giving lectures for free-- trying out their ideas in public.  This is wonderful.  Here's the article about it entitled:  "Continuing Education, at the Bar."  These are people who wish to reach a different audience from the 8a.m. class.  It's a way to spread the love of learning.  



Patterns in Carpets

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Today's New York Times magazine features novelist Margaret Drabble who, at 70, has just published a memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet:  A Personal History with Jigsaws.  Kudos to Drabble for taking the topic of games, researching its history, and weaving the metaphor of play through a history of her life and the lives around her.  I've been a Drabble fan since the 1970s when I read her novel, The Needle's Eye.  A friend had recommended it after our lively discussion on Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  Both novels focus on class and people's preoccupations with money (or the desire to eschew it) and the career choices or interpersonal decisions they choose when they place money or reputation based on wealth as the object of desire.  In the article, Drabble's family is described as "first-generation bourgeois, one foothold removed from working class."  Margaret and her sister were the first in her family to go to college.  This perspective is key to her work, key to creating such multi-dimensional characters whose desires lead to compromises that then lead to incomplete lives.  Her characters are like watercolors:  layers upon layers of washes that add up to truths about themselves, about our human condition.  

On another topic (that may or may not be connected but this is where my head is going):  This past week, Ellen Degeneres was hired on to replace Paula Abdul on "American Idol".  I have always been an Ellen Degeneres fan for her comic timing, her sharp wit.  This past summer when she sat in on one show of "So You Think You Can Dance," her comedic remarks interrupted the serious business of judging. Perhaps they asked Degeneres to judge due to critical comments about the show's homophobic bent but if this is true, the solution doesn't fit the problem.  I was not a fan of Degeneres sitting on the judge's panel.  The judges on "So You Think You Can Dance" are all veteran dancers and choreographers.  They speak the technical dance jargon; they know dance.  Ellen's comments during the episode focused on a dancer's cute face and eyes.  Some may think this is essential to a TV show in order to draw viewers.  I say keep it serious in order to educate viewers about dance and the craft of dance (and maybe this is why I am not in the TV business).  Simon Cowell (who creates and produces all these 'rags to riches" reality contests) often decides to comment on a singer's costume, body shape or hair cut instead of what is most important:  how the singer sang the song. It says looks trump talent (not that this is a new adage--it's older than Dreiser's Sister Carrie).  

A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to hear Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal in concert.  They were fabulous.  Looks had nothing to do with their breathtaking vocals.  And anyway, we could hardly see them--we were way in the back.  It didn't matter!  Bonnie Raitt once said in an interview that if she were to start her career now, it would never happen because the focus is all about looks.  She said the focus on craft and the time needed to hone your craft is not often valued.  Susan Boyle (from "Britain's Got Talent," another Cowell show) shattered Raitt's comment but just for a little while.  

All these shows:  "American idol," "So You Think You Can Dance," "Britain's Got Talent," etc. remind me of little Caroline Meeber at the beginning of Dreiser's Sister Carrie.  There is Caroline on the afternoon train with her faux alligator-skin satchel "full of the illusions of ignorance and youth" on her way to "fame and fortune" in Chicago.  I think of all the thousands of people who line up to audition every year for American Idol, etc. and often wonder--are they there because their desire is to be famous or rich or because they truly are passionate about the craft of dance, music, singing?  

In England, Margaret Drabble writes about people who have misdirected desires and carefully reveals what they do to achieve their desires, how it forms who they are (specifically those who have been raised as working class or "one foothold removed from working class").

During my senior year in high school, after feeling the pressure of so many people telling me what I should study in college to "get the job," "make a lot of money," "rise above my working class background," I approached a career counselor I trusted and still value his words today. He said not to even think about a job or career.  Instead he told me to take those classes that would make my heart sing.  "Follow your passion and use that passion to develop what you love to do."  I've tried to do that but as I have discovered, it's never easy.  Bonnie Raitt at times has swerved into the pop music realm (going for catchy simplistic tunes) to stay afloat or paid the big bucks to keep her hair that lovely red.  The pressures are intense:  a jigsaw of a puzzle at times.  At 70, Margaret Drabble is not flashy or pretty.  She's smart and wise.  Her novels have consistently returned to the theme of choice.  "Can we . . . unmake our beginnings, or are we always acting willy-nilly on the promptings of the past?  Are our individual stories foretold, or do we create them as we go along?" To answer these, Drabble has always chosen family to work out this puzzle but I have always broadened her theme to include social norms, societal expectations. Can we really disengage ourselves from desiring what society and family want us to desire or from what society and family deem an authentic life?  Can we truly seek out our own desires to arrive at an authentic truth?  

What do you think?  

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