The last of the summer of 2019 Jazz & Blues concerts brought the Boston-based music collective, the A-Beez, to Library Park with much-appreciated musical numbers, including Overraged (Aaron Bellamy); Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana) and Ramblin' (Ornette Coleman). With its roots in soul, funk, and R&B, the core musicians of the group, Amy and Aaron Bellamy, began their musical collaboration in the early 2000s as members of the Sam Kininger band (BMG Japan recording artists) and have since backed up numerous artists, including Chaka Khan, Beyonce, Terri Lyne Carrington, Elan Trotman, Martin Luther, Cody Chestnut, The Perceptionists and Club D’elf .
In addition to touring nationally and internationally, the A-Beez are staples of the local Boston scene, hosting a more than 14 years’ residency at Boston’s renowned Wally’s Café and performing in clubs and venues throughout New England and the East coast. They co-wrote and compiled a catalog of original material that became their debut album Never Going Back, released in April 2015. Their second studio album, Say Goodbye, came out in March 2018.
No less than five vocalists sang their hearts out on Tuesday night, August 20, when the Nephrok’s Allstar band brought the Motown sound to Library Park and all the surrounding roof decks, patios and open windows around the South End library. An unusually warm and humid night where not a drop of rain tried to spoil the fun set the stage for a melodic and high-energy performance that brought some in the audience to their feet. They danced alone, with partners, with their infants and toddlers and a few with their puppies, not surprising in the pet-loving South End neighborhood.
In the third of the four outdoor Jazz & Blues concerts of the 2019 season in Library Park, Nephtaliem McCrary and Sarah Seminski played into each other’s powerful renderings of Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing and Stevie Wonder’s For Once in My Life. The other vocalists, saxophonist Pat Loomis, trumpetist Scott Aruda and keyboardist Ben Hillman joined them in subsequent titles, including I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Gladys Knight and The Pips); You Can't Hurry Love (Diana Ross and The Supremes); Ain't Too Proud To Beg and My Girl (both by The Temptations). Musicians Charlie Hunt (guitar), Daniel Day and Benny Benson (drums), playing with their usual skill and enthusiasm, were warmly received by the audience for their return performance.
Pat Loomis sang the last number for his son Aiden, who had requested it for his birthday. It was Birthday by The Beatles. A chocolate birthday cake came with the personal performance.
Next week, Tuesday August 27, another beautiful late-summer night is predicted by the FOSEL weather team, which this year has a special dispensation from the gods of rain..they plan to stay away.
The second of four Library Park concerts this summer, held on July 30, saw another remarkable musical performance by pianist Kevin Harris who played several of his own compositions. Accompanying him were Pat Loomis, on the alto saxophone; Max Ridley, on the acoustic bass; and Yoron Israel, on drums.
It was another beautiful, dry, somewhat sultry summer night after a blast of heat had tormented many Bostonians during the day. Coming to Library Park, shaded by tall oak trees, spelled relief., as did the copious number of watermelon slices available at the refreshment table.
The thrilling musical numbers composed by Kevin Harris included The Potential To Be, followed by Lullaby For A Yellowbird, Lullaby For Humanity. Then onto The Silent Majority and Ali. The foursome also played two Charlie Parker compositions, Donna Lee and Ko Ko, as well as a remarkable piece by Hoagy Carmichael, Skylark..
The next two concerts will take place on Tuesdays, August 20 and August 27, rain or shine: The Motown sound of the Nephrok! Allstar Band will fill the park on the 20th (“Bring you dancing shoes,” Pat Loomis told the audience”) and the A-Beez Music Collective, with roots in Soul, Funk and R & B, will close the summer outdoor concert season on the 27th.
All performances in Library Park are free. They are sponsored by FOSEL with generous contributions from you, our supporters. Thank you. We serve sliced watermelon. There will be some seating but bring yours if you want to.
Celebrated Puerto Rican percussionist, Eguie Castrillo, was the star performer at the first of four Jazz & Blues concerts in Library Park on July 23rd. The Grammy Award winner played seamlessly with the members of Pat Loomis’s Friends, a local band that has electrified Library Park summer evenings for more than a decade. This year, for the first time, every concert has a Special Musical Guest performer, paid for by you, our generous donors, and recruited by Loomis, himself a well-known and popular saxophonist and vocalist.
What the Boston weather gods will bring to the park concerts is always the biggest source of anxiety its sponsors but, miraculously, the torrential rains of the previous night and morning deposited their last droplet at noon. This left enough time for Library Park to dry out, Parks Department employees to sweep up the debris, and for the big outdoors to broadcast the glorious sounds of a free, live jazz performance. It was the first concert since the Park’s redesign and upgrade last summer, when concerts could not be scheduled due to the reconstruction.
As is often the case in the South End neighborhood where the legacy of jazz and blues runs deep and wide, professional musicians not booked for the concert regularly walk on and join the performers. This year, a fabulous flutist, identified only as Julia, was the walk-on and, with the band, gave an inspiring performance of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia. Other numbers included Mambo Inn (Mario Bauza); Senor Blues (Horace Silver); Chucho (Paquito D'Rivera); I Mean You (Thelonius Monk); and Samba De Orfeu ( Luis Bonfa).
In addition to Pat Loomis and Eguie Castrillo, the musicians playing their hearts out were: Angel Subero (trombone); Antonio Loomis (guitar); Joseph Rivera Sánchez (piano); Fernando Huergo (bass); David Rivera (drums) and the remarkable Julia, on flute.
The next concert in Library Park will feature the acclaimed New York-based composer and pianist, Kevin Harris, on Tuesday, July 30, at 6:30 PM.
At the moment (three days in advance) the prediction is for a hot and dry summer night, another perfect evening for outdoor music. Listen fro your roof decks, your patios or from inside the park. Bring your own chairs and refreshments. FOSEL serves watermelon.
The Local/Focus display in June and July featured the social-justice enterprise, More Than Words, a bookstore that sells second-hand titles at the same time that it offers job training and jobs to young adults who have been clients of various agencies of the child welfare system. The East Berkeley Street store opened as a compliment to the original More Than Words bookstore in Waltham, MA, and at first only occupied the second floor of the former Medieval Manor building. But now it also has attractive street-level frontage while the upstairs used for the books’ warehouse space and training classes.
The July window display featured the range of items More Than Words sells, that is, lightly used books in every category, vinyl LPs, as well as local crafts and vintage furniture that MTW customers ask the enterprise to take from them for resale. The company will pick up anything they can sell, including gently used clothing and shoes, books, CD’s, DVD’s, and video games, VHS tapes, audio cassettes, or magazines/periodicals.
All donations are fully tax deductible and can be dropped of at either of their stores. For further information, click here.
The July/August installation in the Local/Focus window will feature Scenes of Boston painted by members of the Newton Watercolor Society. The juried exhibit will be featured in a 2020 calendar, available at email@example.com in August, the proceeds of which will benefit NWS. The artwork on display is for sale, as well. Ten percent of each item sold will go to to South End Library for its programs.
In late August/September, FOSEL will feature the United South End Artists (USEA) organization. USEA is the moving force behind the local September art fest, South End Open Studios, held this year on the weekend of September 21 and 22. For details, click here.
South End author Russ Lopez found a room full of admirers and some local luminaries at the library on May 25, all ready to hear about his latest work of urban history, The Hub of the Gay Universe: An LGBTQ History of Boston, Provincetown and Beyond. The reading took place close to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, the event that provided the fuel for the civil rights battle that led to the legalization nationwide of gay marriage.
David Scondras was there, the first openly gay Boston City Council member, elected in 1983, now living in Worcester. Open Source radio host Chris Lydon found a seat up front, preparing for his own show commemorating the 1969 Stonewall uprising, Beyond Stonewall: From Power to Pride. State Rep. Jon Santiago, the freshman legislator from South End’s 9th Suffolk District, who succeeded Byron Rushing earlier this year, introduced Lopez, and reminded the audience of the important role his predecessor played in making gay marriage legal in Massachusetts.
Lopez, whose earlier books include Boston’s South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood and Boston 1945-2015: The Decline and Rose of a Great World City, worked on the Hub of the Gay Universe for five years. Compiling facts for the region’s LGBTQ history was a challenge. The lack of written records from before the first Europeans arrived made establishing prevailing gender norms tricky, although some native nations welcomed what we now call LGBTQ people, he said. But nothing is known about how Boston-area tribes treated LGBTQ people before those arrivals. “Another major challenge for any LGBTQ history is who to include in it,” Lopez said. “Even those who were regularly having relations with people of the same sex, did not consider themselves to be gay or lesbian.” That is because the idea that someone who has sex with members of own gender was a “distinct type of person,” i.e. gay or lesbian, emerged only in the 1890s, according to Lopez.
Facts about accepted gender norms were further skewed by class and educational differences among LGBTQ people. Those who could write described their relationships in journals and letters, accessible to researchers now, but those who could not left no trace. “That is why my regional history of LGBTQ people begins with the arrival of the Europeans in the 17th century,” Lopez said.
Lopez commented that it sometimes seems as if the LGBTQ community consisted of “newcomers” to the region, and that in the early days of the colony there were no LGBTQ people. But they were always here. How does he know? Laws prohibiting sodomy and cross-dressing, occasionally punishable by death, existed from the time the first Pilgrims set foot on the shores of what is now Massachusetts. “If nobody was doing it, there wouldn’t be any laws against it,” Lopez postulated. Moreover, Pilgrims and Puritans had left England, in part, because they frowned upon the “rollicking pleasures of seventeenth-century England, with its ribald entertainments, sensuous lifestyles and conspicuous consumption; excess that guaranteed damnation.”
Yet, even though homosexuality was considered a grave sin, the definition of homosexuality was flexible and relationships among men (and for that matter, women) could be far more intimate and intense than today’s heterosexual norms would suppose. For example, Daniel Webster referred in his letters to male friends as “dearly beloved” and “lovely boy” and described his close friend, James Harvey Bingham, as the “partner of my joys, griefs and affections.” Others shared a bed and slept in each others’ arms. Painter Washington Alston, moreover, had a romantic relationship with Washington Irving when in Rome in the early 1800s.
From the 1800s on, it was acceptable for the LGBTQ community to meet in numerous places, including poetry readings on Beacon Hill and the Back Bay and, later, in various private venues and places in Bay Village where popular gay venues attracted large crowds from the mid-1900s. Bostonian class distinctions kept apace, according to Lopez’s research, because those cruising in the Public Garden reportedly wouldn’t stoop to getting intimate with those “lower-class types” from around the Common.
Police records provided another source of information about prevailing attitudes, from comments that “we don’t have those kind of people here” to the time around World War I when gay venues were raided and many arrests were made on street corners in and around Scolley Square and East Dedham Street. “But until the advent of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, no one fought back,” Lopez observed; It took a while for the news about Stonewall to even get to Boston. The Boston Globe didn’t report it until 1972.
People of Massachusetts nevertheless became the pioneers of nationwide gay marriage and early supporters of civil unions. As was the case with the abolition of slavery in MA, Lopez says, the change in attitude toward tolerating the LGBTQ community began with the lack of enforcement of certain laws discriminating against them, just as laws protecting slavery had become unenforceable when the idea that people were not property and couldn’t be owned had become accepted.
Duncan Will is a FOSEL board member and part of the FOSEL Local/Focus window installation team. Retired after a career in independent school administration, including 25 years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Will was inspired to take up painting by his mother and grandmother, who were artists. He paints in oil at his home studio in the South End and takes weekly classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he also volunteers on Sundays on the information desk.
Will loves the creative process of facing a blank canvas, having only a vague idea of what to do next, and going through the experience of how “the painting itself just takes over.” He composes sweeping images of landscapes, seascapes and clouds while refining his drawing skills for more detailed compositions. Several of his works are in private collections.
The art work is on display at the South End library through June. Prices range from $250 to $500 with 100 percent of sale proceeds to be donated to the SE library for programming sponsored by the library staff.
The difference between a Boston mayoral administration that loves libraries and one that doesn’t so much is this: As little as six years ago library budgets had been cut every year by millions of dollars, branch renovations were few and far between, and new hires for a library system that could barely handle growing demand for Internet and other services were almost unheard of. By contrast, today, the Walsh administration’s FY2020 budget proposes to spend more than $127 million over the next five years to rebuild Boston’s branch libraries, as well as critical departments at the Central Library. This is on top of $30 million already spent this year. “A good news budget,” is how a city financial manager described it.
The proposed FY2020 operating budget is almost $50 million (from $32 million some six years ago); a handful of new positions are included, for project management focused on the branches and teen and children’s librarians. Equally important, the administration and the BPL have created a revamped fundraising arm, Fund for the Boston Public Library, to tap Boston’s private wealth and help sustain the growing demand for expanded public-library services. (Its predecessor, the anemic Boston Public Library Foundation, in its final years raised just enough to pay its employees’ salaries.) Even State funding for the BPL has increased, though minimally for now. That will likely be the next task members of the Boston Delegation to the Massachusetts Legislature are asked to consider when they get a visit from BPL’s board of trustees, one of whom, Rep. Chynah Tyler, is expected to begin a term serving on that very board very soon.
The enthusiasm and upbeat tone of president David Leonard testifying about his budget, and the grateful response to his presentation by city councilors at the May 13 budget hearings (where they heard about their constituents’ new or to-be-renovated libraries) is a marked change from earlier days. Boston’s long-neglected library infrastructure is now on the upswing and here is what that looks like: The Adams Street branch renovation has an appropriation of $19.2 million; Uphams Corner, $17.9 million; the Dudley branch, $17.2 million; Faneuil, $12.6 million; Fields Corner, $12.1 million; Roslindale, $10.2 million; lesser amounts are set aside for smaller improvement projects at other branches, including the South End library. At the Central Library, moreover, the site of previously lost, misplaced, fungus-challenged and water-damaged prints and manuscripts, some $15.7 million is being spent to safeguard the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department.
Alongside the rebuilding program, the BPL is looking into mixed-use possibilities for their library renovation projects, including combining them with low-income and affordable housing (Fields Corner, Eggleston and West End). Another possibility is to make libraries part of an arts and culture district (Uphams Corner, where the Strand Theatre is located), or even to build libraries in consort with separate commercial developments, including perhaps a permanent location for a Chinatown library (now in temporary quarters in the China Trade Center) that could be part of one or another BPDA-sponsored development project over the Mass Turnpike.
Collaborations between the BPL and other major Boston cultural institutions is another exciting change, exemplified by the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. More than 100 prints owned by the BPL are on loan to the MFA, which assisted in restoration and preservation work of the BPL’s Toulouse-Lautrec prints collection, and agreed to offer free admission to the museum for the month of June to anyone who owns a BPL library card.
Services for homeless patrons at the BPL are still in their infancy, compared to, for example the San Francisco Public Library, but important progress is being made. A pilot project with the Pine Street Inn has brought a full-time social work navigator to the Main Library to work with homeless patrons, and have assisted them with obtaining housing. The BPL hopes to “add capacity” to this effort, said president Leonard. In addition, a program between the BPL and Simmons University is in process of being established, for their social-work faculty and students to work with “vulnerable patrons.” Another one-year pilot program launched last fall is for library users to borrow a “hot-spot” kit for free Internet service elsewhere. Each kit contains a hotspot device, Micro USB cable, adapter, and instructions in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole.
Sustaining and expanding these initiatives and services will be expensive which is why the April launch of a new and improved BPL foundation, called the Fund for the Boston Public Library, is so important. Their opening event will be a June 7 Gala at the BPL, which expects to raise $8 million. A new executive director was hired recently, Mary Myers. The last director brought on by the Walsh administration four years ago for what was then called the Boston Public Library Foundation concluded within a very short time that the foundation was beyond salvation after years of well-meaning but incompetent leadership and patronage appointments. No-nonsense BPL trustees, after doing an in-depth study of the teetering organization, closed the BPL foundation down three years ago and began to envision a new, effective and more muscular one, from scratch.
Let’s hope they succeed. So far it looks good. The June 7 Gala will also be be the night when Mayor Marty Walsh will receive the Bates Medal for making significant contributions to the advancement of learning. From my perch of years-long Boston public-library advocacy, he has earned it.
Carol Schweigert is a Boston-based painter who explores terrain both inside and out. A former resident of the Piano Factory on Tremont Street, she now has a studio in Charlestown and paints “plein air” all over Boston, from the Arboretum to the Zakim Bridge.
“My passion is painting from direct observation in both oil and gouache, indoors and out, sometimes in the rain, occasionally in the ice. I like the vitality and physicality of plein air painting. It hints of extreme sport, with police encounters, slippery slopes, lightning storms, and chats with skinny-dippers,” she says.
Schweigert returned to oil painting from the world of child rearing. “The abstract expressionism of my earlier education seemed so last century,” she says. “So I leapt back even further taking a wooden French easel and heading out into the fresh air.” She is intrigued by visual contradictions, carrying a 19th-century art kit into the 21st century, wondering what it is that makes a piece “of the moment.”
She received a BFA from Syracuse University, and has shown her paintings locally in a number of locations, including the Danforth Museum’s Off the Wallexhibit; the Hunnewell Visitor Center at Arnold Arboretum; and the St. Botolph Club. She takes continuing education classes at Mass College of Art, where she enjoys participating in a vibrant arts community.
A price list of her work is available inside the library, ranging from $250 to $1,200. The artist will donate ten percent of any art work sold from the Tremont Street window to the South End library staff for programming and supplies.
Last fall, it was not clear whether it was a good idea to plant spring bulbs in Library Park as their bloom time would most likely coincide with the Library Easter Egg Hunt. Should we not plant or not have the Easter Egg Hunt?
Neither was a good option, so FOSEL planted AND had the Hunt. The enthusiastic crowd of hunters carefully tipped around tulips and daffodils, knocking down only a few. Their spree to collect more than 1,700 eggs was over in minutes.
Nearly a dozen FOSEL volunteers had filled the eggs with chocolates, poems and knock-knock jokes the weeks before. Chris Fagg, our talented Easter Bunny, did a great job waving and giving hugs to whoever wanted one.
The sun came out after a long rainy spell. Parents and children were happy. They took pictures. They chatted. They consumed all the refreshments. A little girl noted, “the bunny has a costume on,” but agreed to keep it a secret for the littler children.
A new season in renovated Library Park has begun.
Book Award Winners is a program sponsored by the Friends of the South End Library to connect local residents to a diverse group of organizations that recognize outstanding literary work in a broad variety of categories.
THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION
Written by Women. For Everyone.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly known as the Orange Prize, is one of the U.K.’s most prestigious literary prizes. It is awarded each year to a female author of any nationality for the best full-length novel written in English, and published in the U.K. in the preceding year.
First awarded in 1996, its creation was in response to the selection process for the 1991 Booker Prize. That year, no women authors were short-listed for this prestigious award, even though 60 percent of the books written in 1991 were authored by women. Past Women’s Prize for Fiction winners represent a Who’s Who of the world’s female authors, including Boston area novelist Suzanne Berne, who spoke recently at the South End Library about her latest novel, The Dogs of Littlefield. She won the Orange Award in 1999 for her first novel,A Crime in the Neighborhood.
Previous winners include: 2018:Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie; 2017:The Power by Naomi Alderman; 2016:The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney; and 2015: How to Be Both by Ali Smith.
The 2019 prize will be announced June 5 and the nominees are: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker; Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton; My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite; the Pisces by Melissa Broder; Milkman by Anna Burns; Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi; Ordinary People by Diana Evans; Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott; An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li; Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn; Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli; Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden; Circe by Madeline Miller; Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss; and Normal People by Sally Rooney.
FAREWELL TO ZEITGEIST STAGE COMPANY:
The award-winning South End-based fringe theatre group has operated for eighteen years out of the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) on Tremont Street, where it is a Resident Theater Company. Frequently, Zeitgeist Stage was nominated for Elliot Norton and Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) awards, and over the years won many of them. Due to lagging ticket sales and lack of adequate funding and grant support, Zeitgeist will close its doors for good in May.
The theatre’s focus has been on social and political issues that play out in our culture today, and included last year’s Vicuna, a devastating satire of the Trump phenomenon. This year’s final production is the world premiere of Trigger Warning, a play by Jacques Lamarre about a mass shooting, presented from the point of view of the gunman’s family. It runs from April 12 to May 4 at the BCA.
Zeitgeist’s artistic director, David Miller, has lived around the corner from the South End library for many years. He is proud to have supported the South End community with free tickets to the Boston Public Schools, the AIDS Action Committee, Hostels International, and the Boston Living Center. Every Wednesday, tickets are “pay-what-you-can” with a $10 minimum.
Director David Miller’s farewell words to the South End community are: “We wish you well as we say goodbye – or in a Zeitgeist frame of mind, Auf Wiedersehen. Please continue to support small and fringe theater companies in Boston; there are many deserving companies worthy of your attendance. And we look forward to seeing you in their audiences in the future!”
Prize-winning novelist and South End resident, Chris Castellani, returned to the South End library on April 9 to read from his widely praised latest novel, Leading Men, about the relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and his lover and muse Frank Merlo, as it may have played out in Portofino, Italy, in the early 1950s. The novel, for which Castellani researched the personal letters and journals of the playwright, received stellar reviews from the New York Times and and the Boston Globe, among other publications. The Boston Globe calls it a “seductive, steaming novel.” The New York Times book reviewer, Dwight Garner, describes it as a novel that casts "a spell right from the start” and “vividly reimagines” the relationship between Williams and Merlo, while offering “intricate thoughts about the nature of fidelity, the artistic impulse, and estrangement.”
Aaron Lecklider, Professor of American Studies at UMass, and author of Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture, introduced Castellani and remarked upon the unique richess of personal archives the novelist drew upon. Lecklider described how, when doing research himself in a trove of personal letters in an archive in Delaware, he found a feather hidden between some pages. The feather, placed there by someone many decades before, erased for him the distance between past and present, an experience that he suggested in our age of instant communications and Instagram may be lost forever. Lecklider, also a South End resident, described Castellani as a novelist who writes about “emotional truths and competing desires,” and someone who also is the “unstoppable force” who reinvented writing in the city of Boston as the artistic director of Grub Street, the independent creative writing center on Boylston Street.
In going through the personal letters and journals of Williams, Castellani discovered there was a gap in journal entries from the end of July until August 11 of 1953. He knew Truman Capote had invited Williams and Merlo to visit him in Portofino in 1953, by which time Williams had established his reputation with A Streetcar Named Desire, but he and Merlo were going through a rough time in their four-year relationship. Castellani wondered what might have taken place during the time of that hiatus in the journal when other characters also visited Portofino. These included John Horne Burns, the bestselling author of the first great post-war novel The Gallery, an alcoholic who passed away on August 11, the last day of the “gap’ in the Williams journal. Imagining what the answers to those questions might be formed the spine of the plot in which Castellani explored the emotional turbulence and shifting social undercurrents experienced by a post-war generation of mostly gay men in the seaside town of Portofino.
For his library talk, Castellani presented a slide show of real and imagined characters who inhabited the Portofino of his novel, which he described as “an idyllic place fraught with peril.” One of them, part of a Swedish mother/daughter team that always dressed alike, reminded him of he actress Liv Ullman. Castellani asked himself, “what if Williams was writing a play just for her?” This is how Castellani ended up writing a one-act play in the style of Tennessee Williams embedded in Leading Men. The author also used that literary maneuver to try and get at the relationship between Williams and Merlo, and the guilt Williams felt after Merlo died of lung cancer in his early forties. Williams, who had become estranged from Merlo, did not visit him until the day he died, although he paid for Merlo’s care. After Merlo’s death, Williams, who had been at the peak of his career, fell into a long depression and did not write any more hit plays, a relief for Castellani who read the less-than-stellar late plays to fortify himself trying to write a Tennessee Williams-inspired play for Leading Men.
Castellani said he was “in love with the character of Frank Merlo,” a working-class Italian-American truck driver who was the beating heart of the relationship, where Williams was more mercurial and sardonic. He was Williams’s muse, Castellani said, someone who organized Williams’s life and got him to where he needed to go. “He brought him down to earth and created space for him so he could write.” But, Castellani found out, he was never able to tell Tennessee Williams, “I love you.”
Castellani received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council to write Leading Men. He is on the faculty and academic board of the Warren Wilson MFA program and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. His previous work includes All This Talk of Love, part of a trilogy of an Italian-American immigrant family and The Art of Perspective: Who tells the Story.
Suzanne Berne, who won the U. K.’s Orange Award for her 2014 novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, took a firm hand in talking about herself as a writer when she came to the South End library on March 19 to talk about her latest work, The Dogs of Littlefield. She didn’t really want to read from her latest book of crime fiction, but instead hoped to make the case for why novels matter.
“I could have done any number of things in my life, and done them fairly well,” she told the audience. “But I decided to devote my life to being a novelist.” One reason to celebrate novels is that they offer privacy, she said. “When you read a novel, It’s between you and the writer. There’s no intermediary. As soon as you turn the page, you become ‘them.’ You’re alone in your chair with ‘them’ in a mysterious collaboration. You, the reader, dance to the writer’s words.”
Berne, who is the fiction editor of The Harvard Review, acknowledged that, nowadays, novels face stiff competition from other forms of storytelling, including the many excellent television productions. “Unlike novels, they offer fine transitions, swift character development, easy flashbacks and efficient productions. You don’t have to sit through long passages about dress and place and time,” she explained.
“Art is inefficient,” Berk countered. “It takes a long time to make and to understand.” She added that in fiction “the process of perception slows down the acquisition of information so you slowly build up sympathy for the characters’ flaws and terrors.” The New York Times reviewer of A Crime in the Neighborhood described Berne as a master at the craft of psychological menace.
Berne was influenced in her literary life by the 19th-century Russian writer and theorist, Viktor Shklovsky, who spoke of art as a technique that would complicate that very easy and quick perception of things we now expect. He favored slowing down speed and efficiency of the story-telling, resist the cliches and habitual ways of describing our lives that we, said Berne, in our times have come to rely on. Shklovsky spoke for the kind of writing that makes “the stone stoney.”
Viewing her own work from the perch of the editor, Berne brought copies of the first couple of pages of a draft that eventually became The Dogs of Littlefield. The story is a social satire about a near-perfect place close to Boston where dogs are suddenly found poisoned to death. The Boston Globe said the novel was a near-flawless satire of middle-class America. And Berne agreed her early draft wasn’t “terrible” as opening pages go: It had something to set the reader on edge, an ominous ‘it’ and an ‘attitude.’ “The sentences were smart and clever,” she added somewhat ruefully, “but this came at the expense of telling a story: The narration was not ok.”
So she began to think of how to “unmuffle” the opening pages. She wanted it to be a social comedy about a perceived menace that exists in a place like Littlefield that everyone considers ‘ safe.’ To narrate it for that effect she created characters who could judge the residents from the point of view of an outsider, including locals who were seen as outsiders for not fitting into the local corset of norms, or those who felt like ‘the other’ for a range of reasons. “I am intrigued by matters that locals are absorbed by, which are big to them but small to the world,” Berne said. “Certain places can be seen as safe, but can any place be safe, and is trying to feel safe a good idea?”
She wrote six drafts of the novel. “Things are never finished,” she said. “They are abandoned.” Berne is currently working on a novel set on a remote New Hampshire lake that involves a reclusive and difficult elderly woman from Amsterdam who summons her estranged daughter and her daughter's unhappy college-age son to help her when she sprains her ankle. The visit does not go well.
A Crime in the Neighborhood, was a New York Times Notable Book and a Book of the Month Club and a Quality Paperback Book Club selection. Berne’s earlier novels are The Ghost at the Table and A Perfect Arrangement. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in magazines such as Ploughshares, Agni, The Three-penny Review, Mademoiselle, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and The Quarterly. She teaches creative writing at Boston College and the Ranier Writing Workshop.
Here is how it began, in the words of South End author Alison Barnet:
“1n early 2015, Mel King said to Alison Barnet—both had new books coming out—“We should have a South End book festival.” It sounded good to Alison so she began compiling lists of authors who lived in the South End, or used to, or wrote about the South End. A committee was formed: Anne Smart, Russ Lopez, Charley Caizzi, Paul Wright and a USES staff member. South End Historical Society director, Lauren Prescott joined us later.
The First South End Author’s Book Festival was held at the Harriet Tubman House on November 16, 2015. Sitting at long tables with their books for sale were: Blackfoot Warrior, Gary Bratsos, Charley Caizzi, Thom Donovan, Philip Gambone, Jean Gibran, Ralph Kee, Mel King, Steven Kinzer (made an appearance), Bill Kuhn, Aaron Lecklider, Russ Lopez, Bonita McIlvaine, Ife Oshun, Mari Passananti, Florence Potter, Lynne Potts, Matt Regan, Hope Shannon, Sylvie Tissot (represented by Tony Piccolo), Gabriel Valjan, Bessel Vander Kolk, Lydia Walshin with her Little Free Library, and Paul Wright.
By the Third Annual Book Festival we had moved to the Harry Dow room at Tent City. Among authors who now joined us were: Stephanie Schorow, Sue Miller, Karilyn Crockett, and Lorraine Elena Roses. Fred Dow (son of Harry) was an impromptu speaker, giving us the idea of inviting Fred back and having other speakers as well at our Fourth Book Festival in 2018.”
Titles by current participating authors are on display in the library window and are part of the digital presentation on the flat screen.
Some of the surprising details that came out during a captivating talk and PowerPoint presentation on March 12 about the architectural history of the South End library: Now located on West Newton Street’s corner, the building could have been sited on the Rutland Square side; the library entrance might have been on Tremont Street; the proposed design included a lower-level Children’s Room (now the basement) that overlooked a sunken courtyard; and there could have been two large reading rooms instead of the one cramped space the library offers today. What might have forced the decision to go for the current, arguably lesser, design? The 1960s budget, for one, suggested architect Dan Kelley in his presentation called Beyond City Hall. It was a grand total of $225,000.
Kelley, a principal in MGA Partners, who worked closely with Romaldo Giurgola, the library’s architect, traveled to the South End from Philadelphia at the invitation of FOSEL’s advisor (and assistant professor of architecture at Northeastern) Michelle Laboy. Kelley’s talk focused on the genesis of the library’s architecture and the Philadelphia School, based on research he did in the Giurgola archives at the University of Pennsylvania. The award-winning architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, which in the 1980s built the Parliament Building in Canberra, Australia, was part of a group of architects of he 1960s and 1970s that helped rebuild the city of Philadelphia. .
How Giurgola got the assignment for the South End library is a matter of some speculation, said Kelley. Giurgola, who was awarded the AIA Gold Medal by the American Institute of Architects in 1982, came in second in the competition to design a new Boston City Hall in 1962. Some think that the South End library assignment a few years later was the consolation prize. Progressive Architecture magazine wrote in 1963 that the Giurgola proposal should have won the City Hall competition as it succeeded better than the winner in proposing a design that was “an intimate part of the restructurization of the area, and not an isolated monument.”
In his talk, Kelley compared Boston and Philadelphia as two cities dating from America’s Revolutionary era that were similar in their once-upon-a-time history of wealth and glory followed by urban decline during the 1950s and 1960s. The Philadelphia School architects were recruited by George Holmes Perkins, dean of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. They were assisted in the realization of their so-called Post-Modern approach to urban architecture by Edmund Bacon, Philadelphia’s city planner, who wanted to rebuild the city in a progressive way. That meant, among other things, to take into account the context, surroundings and social needs of where the buildings were located, as if they were “a fragment” of a larger whole, rather than an isolated structure imposed on an urban environment, explained Kelley.
The tight budget for the construction of the South End library probably reduced the chances for the more attractive but expensive options of the sunken courtyard and the two large reading rooms on top of a dug-out lower level. Deficient site preparation led to the collapse of a trellis that surrounded the green space in the final design, making it unstable within a short period of time. An abutter to the library attending the presentation reported that refrigerators and other debris were thrown “down there.” In the 1990s the green space was replaced with a park surrounded by an iron fence, which is still there, today.
The presentation was well attended by a number of local architects, as well as David Leonard, president of the Boston Public Library. Leonard commented that three ideas struck him: First, the centrality of Library Park to the building’s design; second, the evolution of the library’s architecture and the possibility that the final version of the proposed designs was perhaps not the stronger one and, finally, the question of how the form that suited the function of the library then, is different from what would be the case today, now that libraries have changed so dramatically in how they provide services to library users. Other architects in the audience also expressed interest in Giurgola’s initial designs for the library, especially the ones that included the sunken courtyard, lower level windows overlooking green space, and a library entrance on Tremont Street.
The South End branch of the Boston Public Library is on track for a major renovation and expansion in the next five years, which will begin with a $100,000 Programming Study sometime after July 1, so the history of its current design comes at an appropriate time. In the immediate future, the library will receive a so-called “refresh,” with new carpeting, fresh paint, additional electrical outlets, a reconfiguration of the furniture and new seating arrangements paid for by FOSEL’s private fundraising last year.