South End Writes

Odyssey Opera Backer, Randolph Fuller, Delivers Another Passionate Talk at the South End Library about his Favorite Subject: Great Opera in Boston

  Randolph Fuller,  Odyssey Opera  founder (with composer/musical director Gil Rose), ready to treat the audience to a talk about his favorite subject

Randolph Fuller, Odyssey Opera founder (with composer/musical director Gil Rose), ready to treat the audience to a talk about his favorite subject

South End resident Randolph Fuller, whose unflinching enthusiasm for opera in Boston was on full display in an October 9 talk, described the mission of the Odyssey Opera company he founded with conductor Gil Rose as “staging important but unheard masterpieces by famous composers,” or by others who are not so well known. ”There’s no Grand Opera’ House here In Boston,” said Fuller, a longtime financial backer of local opera, “so you can’t hear them live other than at Odyssey.” Fuller graciously replaced Gil Rose, who had been scheduled to speak, but was unable to due to an unexpected scheduling conflict.

  19th-century French composer Charles Gounod

19th-century French composer Charles Gounod

Rose and Fuller began the Odyssey Opera series in 2013, the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth, with his opera Rienzi, inspired by the tale of rebellion by a 14th-century army officer against the nobility. Rose and Fuller like to have a theme for the season, such as was the case in 2016-17’s Wilde Opera Nights, when three of the five operas that season touched on the life and work of Oscar Wilde: Lowell Liebermann’s semi-staged The Picture of Doran Gray; Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s sung The Importance of Being Earnest; and the Arthur Sullivan/W.S. Gilbert fully staged Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride. Last year’s season, Trial by Fire, focused its five operas on the life and trials of Joan of Arc.

This year, Odyssey Opera features two works by Charles Gounod in what they call the Goun-Odyssey, on the composer’s 200th anniversary of his birth. For the well-reviewed October performance of The Queen of Sheba, months of detective work was required by Fuller and Rose to get the original score, including a search of the archives Library of Congress. “The last piece was found in a trunk in Italy,” Fuller reported.

  An illustration of the final scene of Charles Gounod’s  Faust , with the Devil, Faust and Gretchen (or Marguerite).

An illustration of the final scene of Charles Gounod’s Faust, with the Devil, Faust and Gretchen (or Marguerite).

Gounod, who Fuller described as the greatest French composer of the 19th century, produced twelve operas, including what was perhaps the most popular ever written, Faust, the subject of Fuller’s library talk. “The Faust legend had been irresistible since the late Middle Ages and was reflected in all aspects of art,” Fuller said, including literature and the visual arts. However, the greatest impact of the Faust legend was in music and opera, as in the Franz Liszt symphony, Faust; Wagner’s Faust Overture; Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Faust, and in the operas of, among others, Hector Berlioz The Damnation of Faust and Gounod’s Faust. At the library, Fuller played the Gounod orchestral prelude of Faust for the audience, pointing out the unresolved harmonies and not-quite-clear melodies at the beginning of the piece, resolving themselves into Gounod’s most famous melody at the end when sung by the trio representing Faust, the Devil and Gretchen.

On November 9 and 11, Gounod’s comedic opera will be staged at the Huntington Theatre, based on Moliere’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself.

The Acclaimed Author of "The Widow of Wall Street," Randy Susan Meyers, Says her Little Branch Library in Brooklyn, NY, Is the First Place Where She Lied...

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Randy Susan Meyers, known for her novels of domestic drama (Accidents of Marriage; The Murderer’s Daughter; The Comfort of Lies), told the audience at the South End library in late September that she was “raised by a library” and “worshipped at its altar.” It was an old, shabby public-library branch in Brooklyn, NY, “as small as my hand,” she recalled. But that’s where she discovered Betty Smith’s 1943 coming-of-age novel about Francie Nolan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “I must have read it 10 or 20 times,” she said. Herself the daughter of a single mother with a challenging history of domestic violence, Meyers felt she was not alone any more.

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That little library was also the first place where she lied, Meyers confessed: She would get a ‘smart’ book that she knew she’d never read and put it on top of the pile of books she really wanted. “I didn’t want the librarian to think I was a dope,” she said. “But I didn’t really read smart books.”

It was perhaps the first step on a long road of better lies and other misdeeds like regular shop lifting when a teenager. This was followed by years of working with families impacted by violence, counseling convicted criminals out on probation and coming to terms with a father who tried to murder her mother that helped her write the fictionalized character of her latest book, The Widow of all Street. Based on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, the novel’s character, Jake, was a nasty guy. “I had to find a way to get into his head,” Meyers said. Focusing on her life experience, including her own transgressions, made that possible for her.

Meyers published her first novel at fifty-seven, her version of winning the lottery. The Widow of Wall Street, her fourth, is told from two points of view: Jake, a man with a criminal lust for money, and Phoebe, his wife, who had no idea. What would it be like to be Madoff’s wife? Meyers asked herself, to be married to a man who pulled the wool over the eyes of the Securities and Exchange Commission and many captains of industry? “What I learned is how different one spouse’s idea of a marriage can be from the other, and how often the children are collateral damage,” she said. The arc of her fictional themes represents her personal long journey from idolizing “bad boys” to “loving a good man.”

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The Widow of Wall Street, was called an “engrossing emotional journey” by Kirkus Review, and “compelling” by the Associated Press. Library Journal wrote it was  “full of deceit, scandal, and guilt" and that it "expertly explores how rising to the top only to hit rock bottom affects a family. The consequences will leave readers reeling.” Meyers, who describes her latest book a roman à clef, in which real people or events appear with invented names, is a form of fiction she enjoys reading herself. The author won the 2015 Must Read Fiction Massachusetts Book Award for her earlier work, Accidents of Marriage. The Boston Globe reviewer said Accidents, which explores emotional abuse in an educated but stressed-out family living in a Jamaica Plain Victorian, a 'complex, captivating tale.'  It was chosen by People Magazine as "Pick of the Week."  

In the New Era of #MeToo, Author Karen Day Describes her 2018 Debut Novel, "I'll Stay" as a 'Testament' to a Time when Girls Stayed Quiet

  Author Karen Day signing copies of her debut novel,  I'll Stay.

Author Karen Day signing copies of her debut novel, I'll Stay.

Karen Day, a successful author for middle-grade readers (A Million Miles from Boston, No Cream Puffs, and Tall Tales), spent the better part of the last decade writing a novel about close friendships between young women and young women and their mothers. Day's 2018 debut novel for adults, I'll Stay, examines the relationship between Clare and Lee, college friends who on a vacation experience a traumatic event that negatively changes Lee's life forever, while Clare, the daughter of a famous mother, is able to flee to safer grounds. In the novel, the friends went back to school. They didn't talked about the event. The story is narrated by Clare at three different times, 1983, 1986 and 1991.

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The plot was based very loosely on an incident in Day's own life when she and three college friends went backpacking. They found themselves in a scary situation, surrounded by men, but were able to escape unharmed. They returned to school and never talked about it, either. "It was as if nothing happened," said Day, who ever since wondered why not. "We didn't do it because in those days we didn't do things," Day says now. "We blamed ourselves:  We said it was our fault because we flirted with those guys. We questioned our behavior."

Enter the #MeToo era, when Day's book, written before it was okay for women to publicly point the finger at men behaving badly, but published after. Day, a frank and engaging speaker who appeared unafraid to re-examine the premises of her own work, told the audience at the South End library in June that in writing I'll Stay, she explored where stories come from beyond the words on the page, looking to discover who she and her friends were, and how conflicts between them affected their friendships. She now sees her novel as "a cautionary tale about the impact of split-second choices" and a "testament to how easy it is for girls to stay quiet." 

  Novelist Day describing her search of where stories come from and how they evolve.

Novelist Day describing her search of where stories come from and how they evolve.

Day has been writing since she was a child growing up in Indiana, and came East to go school. She was a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the 1990s, and among other articles secured the last interview with tennis champion Arthur Ashe. She has a BA in Journalism, an MA in English Literature and taught undergraduate composition when studying for her doctorate at NYU. With her husband, she raised three children, getting up mornings at 4:30, often with her kids next to her in the beanbag chair, she said. It took her twenty years just to learn how to revise.

I'll Stay was the 2017 winner of BUZZ  Books; a  previous speaker at South End Writes, Jenna Blum, the author of Those Who Save Us, and The Lost Family, called it a “smart, compassionate, psychological spellbinder” with “one of the scariest scenes you’ll read anywhere.” The novel got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.



Acclaimed Novelist and Short-story Writer, Allegra Goodman, Delves into the World of Teachers and Gamers, the Focus of her Latest Book, "The Chalk Artist"

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When the acclaimed author of short stories and novels, Allegra Goodman, came to the South End library in May, she pointed to a list of 20 names at the beginning of her latest novel, The Chalk Artist. "These are all my teachers," she said. "The first one was Dana Izumi, my Kindergarten teacher; the last, Stephen Orgel, was my dissertation advisor at Stanford." Listing them wasn't just because she ran out of relatives to thank, she joked: "Think of who was your best teacher: probably the one who was toughest on you," she said. "I was not a good student. I was left-handed. I had terrible handwriting. Miss Izumi used her blue pencil freely but she never gave up on me. Actually, I was in love with her. She had a page haircut. She was beautiful."

  Author Allegra Goodman with FOSEL board member, Maura Harrington

Author Allegra Goodman with FOSEL board member, Maura Harrington

Now a prize-winning author whose Kaaterskill Falls novel about a reclusive Orthodox-Jewish community summering in upstate New York was a finalist for the National Book Award, Goodman's research for The Chalk Artist took her to public high schools in Boston, where she found classrooms that were chaotic and problematic with overwhelmed teachers. She saw the demoralization of the teachers, which was also reflected in the students. "No one wanted to be there," she commented. One of the characters in the novel, a young teacher from a wealthy family who wanted "to give back" finds herself having to teach students obsessed by gaming, lured away from 'real life.' To explore that angle of The Chalk Artist, Goodman studied gaming, even creating her own graphics for invented games. As a traditionalist who, when interviewed by The Boston Globe, said her favorite app is a book, and, no, she doesn't text, she was an unlikely person to dive into that world. She concluded that gaming is more social than anything, with a massive audience and multi-game players. "Gamers look for community on-line and engage in elaborate role-playing on-line," she observed. "My book is not about 'literature is good and screen time is bad," she added, "but about the importance of imagination and the push and pull between words and images." 

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Goodman grew up in Hawaii, in a conservative Jewish family of academics who taught at the University of Hawaii. She attended the same exclusive school as did President Obama, though at a different time. Her early stories about intricate family dynamics were published as The Family Markowitz. Her recent ones, Apple Cake and F.A.Q.s came out in The New Yorker, as she focuses her attention on different members of the fictional Rubinstein family of Boston, in clear-eyed but compassionate and often hilarious descriptions of long-buried grudges and unexplored conflicts that can surface unexpectedly at inconvenient times. 

How belief systems are challenged by life's changes is the recurring theme in Goodman's books. Her earlier novel, Intuition, delves into the world of cancer researchers whose particular belief systems are challenged by the 'professional betrayal' of a post-doc whose girlfriend  thinks his data are too good to be true. "The book came about when I was considering the various aspects of marital betrayal and began to wonder, 'what about professional betrayal'?" she explained.

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Goodman described herself as an American Jewish woman writer, but elaborated that "we all own the language we share." She pointed to George Eliot wrote about doctors and Jews but was neither. "It's true that you need to know what you write about," she said "but you need to expand what you know." 

A resident of Cambridge whose fourth child is about to leave the parental home, Goodman is about finished with another novel. A textbook she co-wrote with a colleague about the craft of writing will be published in the next year. Charmed by the South End where she now takes her youngest child to dance lessons, she promised to be back with her new book. 



Lauren Prescott, the Dynamic New Leader of the South End Historical Society, Is Looking for Ways to Make the Organization a Vibrant Local Institution Relevant to All

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Since she arrived in 2016 as the new executive director of the South End Historical Society, Lauren Prescott has immersed herself into projects that would make the organization broadly relevant to as many South-enders as possible. She is working on using social media to connect archived stories in the SEHS collection. She wants to enlarge the SEHS  oral history archives. She has agreed to install a Local/Focus display in the library's Tremont Street window with historical images of the South End on a continuous loop on a flat screen.

Judging from the standing-room only crowd that came to hear her present her first book and watch the slide show, Boston's South End, a Post Card History, Prescott may have succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. All the copies of the book she brought were sold. Many people had to leave for lack of space. And numerous  comments from the engaged audience made it clear that there is a large group of 'old-timers' living here whose memories and personal stories about growing up in the South End are needle sharp. "My father used to take me to the stables on Shawmut to see the horses," said one. "I got my first job at the First National Store where Foodies is now," said another. "There was a fudge room next to the library in the Franklin Square Hotel," reminisced a former occupant. 

 Lauren Prescott, executive director of the South End Historical Society, signing copies of  Boston's South End, a Postcard History,  at the South End Library

Lauren Prescott, executive director of the South End Historical Society, signing copies of Boston's South End, a Postcard History, at the South End Library

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Prescott, who was born in New Bedford, MA, is a public historian who received a B.A. in History at UMass Amherst and M.A. in Public History at UMass Boston. She was introduced by one of the South End's three district councilors, Frank Baker, who told the audience that many of the postcards date from what is called “the golden age of postcards,” the period from the late 1890s into the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1905 alone seven billion postcards were mailed around the world. In 1907, the postcards’ popularity may have skyrocketed further after Congress passed an act to allow senders to use the left side of the back of postcards to write personal messages. Those were the days when, in a number of cities in the United States, there were up to seven mail deliveries a day; in New York City, nine. (In London, England, there were twelve.)

For an interview with Prescott by FOSEL board member Kim Clark, click here. 


Local Historian Russ Lopez, Author of "Boston 1945-2015," Fears Adding 50,000 Amazon Employees May Displace Thousands of Bostonians, as Happened During the Calamitous Urban Renewal Days of the 1960s

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Russ Lopez, who came to the South End library in February to talk about his latest dive into Boston's history with, Boston 1945 - 2015: The Decline and Rise of a Great World City, told the audience that the best thing Boston did for its neighborhoods to preserve housing was 'linkage,' establishing affordable housing units as part of the development of luxury housing. But, he added, having grown up in Southern California and watched the impact of eBay, Netflicks and Apple on his family's neighborhoods, he feared that 50,000 new Amazon employees coming here threatened to displace as many people living in Boston now. "We don't have room for 50,000 wealthy residents," said Lopez. "Those 10,000 jobs require schools and 10,000 housing units." And Boston can't do it alone, he pointed out. The Federal government needs to step up to assist in building the infrastructure needed for new housing, including transportation and schools.

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Lopez was introduced by the South End's new District 2 Councilor, Ed Flynn, who said that one of the biggest challenges in the newest Boston district, the Seaport, is transportation. "I can't explain to people how to get to where they want to go," Flynn said. "If people want to relocate there, the question is 'what about public transportation?' There is no way for the workforce to get there." Lopez described the Seaport development as a 'massive failure of urban planning." He explained that the Seaport area was set up for the automobile as an industrial park, with big streets and big bocks for big buildings. By the time it was laid out under the Menino administration, there was no longer much demand for industrial use. Instead of revisiting and rethinking the original zoning, office and residential buildings were simply built on top of the industrial site plan. "It's pedestrian hostile, and a failure of lands and design," Lopez commented.

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Lopez, whose earlier work, Boston's South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood, focused on the disastrous impact on neighborhoods when urban planners ignore public processes, documents in his recent book how the apparent unstoppable downward spiral of Boston since the 1920s somehow righted itself into something new and vastly better. He maintains that Boston's business class was simply 'out of ideas.' There never was a 'roaring Twenties' in Boston, nor a 'baby boom,' Lopez recounted and a survey by the Brooking Institute in the late 1970s listed Boston as in worse shape than Detroit and Baltimore. But it somehow turned around because, Lopez said, 'everyone in Boston stayed.' Even during the catastrophic  conflicts over busing, mostly people stayed because they felt this is where they lived and wanted to make a stand. 

  Author Russ Lopez, listening to newly elected Councilor Ed Flynn, who said he wanted to work hard for the library and would be there as a strong leader for the South End

Author Russ Lopez, listening to newly elected Councilor Ed Flynn, who said he wanted to work hard for the library and would be there as a strong leader for the South End

Lopez is an adjunct assistant professor in Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health and received his Master of City and Regional Planning degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He worked at the State House and City Hall for, among other people, Mayor Ray Flynn, the father of the current District 2 councilor, Ed. Lopez recalled that when Mayor Flynn asked him about his background, Lopez said he was Mexican, Italian and a little bit Irish. "You'll go far," Flynn said, "but the next time someone asks, say you're 'Irish, Italian and a little bit Mexican.'" 


Jody Adams, Award-winning Chef and Daughter of Two Librarians, Prepares a Delicious Campanelle with Slow-braised Tomatoes, Arugula Salad, and Meze Platters at the South End Library

  Award-winning chef Jody Adams cooking Campanelle at the South End library

Award-winning chef Jody Adams cooking Campanelle at the South End library

While the South End Writes author series has hosted culinary luminaries before (Chris Kimball, Joanne Chang, Gordon Hamersley), and some brought gifts from their kitchens (Kimball: cookbooks to sell to benefit the branch; Chang fabulous chocolate-chip cookies), none actually prepared a meal for library patrons at the South End branch until Jody Adams did so on December 5. The induction burners she brought to the beloved but outmoded branch had to be powered by extension cords, and one electrical circuit --dating from the 1970s-- quit altogether, but somehow a fabulous campanelle pasta with slow-roasted tomatoes was produced, accompanied by an arugula salad with shaved celery root, minced celery, baby kale and a champagne-based dressing topped with  Reggiano Parmesan cheese, the latter freshly ground by Adams's husband and partner, photographer Ken Rivard. The audience was thrilled.

  Adams's husband, photographer Ken Rivard, showing the audience the texture of the slow-braised tomato sauce

Adams's husband, photographer Ken Rivard, showing the audience the texture of the slow-braised tomato sauce

FOSEL board member, architect Michelle Laboy, who worked with Adams on several restaurant projects, described the Providence-born chef as a genuine and creative culinary star, dedicated not just to fabulous menus in expensive establishments but also as someone committed to working closely with local farmers and purveyors, using a finish carpenter from Pawtucket and a metalsmith from Western Massachusetts, for example. Adams, who ran Rialto restaurant in Cambridge for 22 years until it closed in 2016, was awarded four stars within months after it opened by the Boston Globe, is also dedicated to child advocacy and hunger relief organizations. She was made Humanitarian of the Year in 2010 by Share Our Strength, an organization engaged in fighting childhood hunger. "I cooked beautiful and expensive meals at Rialto," Adams said, "but it is important to recognize food is important for many people so I balance my work with my efforts at food banks and related organizations. It's scary to think you wouldn't have enough to eat so I am honored to do that work." 

  Jody Adams signing copies of her award-nominated cookbook,  In the Hands of a Chef.

Jody Adams signing copies of her award-nominated cookbook, In the Hands of a Chef.

Adams, who is currently is the chef-owner of Boston-based Porto, Trade and Saloniki (which has a second location in Cambridge),  met cooking pioneer Julia Child accidentally when she washed dishes for a fundraiser sponsored by Planned Parenthood. The daughter of two librarians (father at Brown University, mother in the Providence Public Library and later at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford), Adams had just quit her first career (as a nurse practitioner) and her first husband. Not having had a television in the family she grew up in, she had no idea who Child was but it was the start of her culinary career. She was hired by Lydia Shire at Seasons, where Gordon Hamersley was the sous-chef, and where she "burnt myself and cut myself" on the way to becoming a star chef herself. She opened up Hamersley's with Hamersley and his wife, Fiona. When she started at Rialto, Joanne Chang, of Flour, and now herself the owner --with her husband-- of a four-star restaurant, Myers & Chang, was her first pastry chef.  

  A first for the South End library: consuming a home-cooked meal by a celebrity chef

A first for the South End library: consuming a home-cooked meal by a celebrity chef

Adams described running restaurants as a "tough business," where navigating a very challenging labor market is critical. "A good manger is hard to find," she reflected. Creating a team that feels invested in their work environment requires her to spend a lot of time teaching her employees on the ins and outs of it, which she enjoys. "We are looking at educating our staff so they understand our business. We open our books to them so they know how their jobs have an impact on the business." In a competitive labor market, Adams says, "this is what sets us apart." 


Is Boston an Opera Town? "Emphatically, Yes," Say Odyssey Opera Conductor, Gil Rose, and Impresario, Randolph Fuller

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Randolph Fuller, a local philanthropist devoted to opera, and  Gil Rose, acclaimed conductor of Odyssey Opera, held a South End library audience spellbound last month with their take on Boston's  history of  opera. With glowing reviews for the first two performances of Odyssey Opera's fifth season under their belts, Fuller and Rose may not need to spend any more time dispelling the notion that Boston simply is not an opera town.  "If I hear this complaint one more time...," a somewhat exasperated Rose said,"...Boston is an opera town. It's just not like the others."

  Conductor Gil Rose greeting opera enthusiasts at the South End library in October

Conductor Gil Rose greeting opera enthusiasts at the South End library in October

Conductor Rose's decades-long relationship with his financial backer Fuller dates from the days of Opera Boston. When the opera company folded in 2012, Fuller and Rose (who is also the moving fore behind the award-winning Boston Modern Orchestra Project and an active international guest conductor) founded Odyssey Opera which, true to its name, is dedicated to presenting a voyage through an eclectic repertoire of well-known and lesser-known opera masterpieces, including contemporary new works and commissions. But without an actual opera house it is a struggle to find space for the performances, Rose acknowledged. This season, for example, the five operas of Trial by Fire, focused on the theme of Joan of Arc and The Hundred Years' War, are being staged in three locations, including NEC's Jordan Hall and the Huntington Avenue and Sanders theatres. The Boston Opera House, formerly located on Huntington Avenue, was torn down in 1958 to make way for the expansion by Northeastern University. "The lack of physical space dedicated for opera in Boston has a practical dimension that makes it difficult to produce opera," Rose explained. "It is related to how many tickets you can sell. By destroying the opera building, which had some 3,000 seats, a financial dynamic was erased. There is tons of opera, but you can’t have an opera company without an opera house and vice versa."  

  Longtime South End resident, local philanthropist and opera devotee, Randolph Fuller, showing the audience pictures of the demolished Boston Opera formerly located on Huntington Avenue

Longtime South End resident, local philanthropist and opera devotee, Randolph Fuller, showing the audience pictures of the demolished Boston Opera formerly located on Huntington Avenue

The popularity of opera in the 18th and 19th centuries inspired Boston's upper class, including Eban Jordan, Isabella Stewart Garner and others, to build the  Boston Opera House in the early 20th century on Huntington Avenue. With a simple design on the outside and lavish features on the inside, it was immediately baptized by the Boston press as “the first Unitarian Opera.” After decades of popular usage, the Boston Opera was demolished in the late 1950s, ceding to  Northeastern University's growing footprint. It was a few years short of the time when the newly established historic preservation movement in Boston would have stopped its destruction, maintains Fuller.  

  The Boston Opera House, built in the early 1900s, designed by Wheelwright and Haven, and demolished in 1958 to make room for Northeastern's dorms and facilities

The Boston Opera House, built in the early 1900s, designed by Wheelwright and Haven, and demolished in 1958 to make room for Northeastern's dorms and facilities

Fuller's passion for opera has been undiminished since his parents took him to Die Fledermaus, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, when he was nine, at the Boston Opera House. During his library talk, he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge about Boston opera history. He described how the first opera performance in Boston, Richard the Lionheart, by Andre Getry, took place in 1797, in a theatre designed by Charles Bullfinch, located at the corner of Franklin and Federal Streets. By the 1830s, opera was established as a popular form of entertainment and, even though opera was seen as an elite art form in Europe, the Americans saw it as a democratic institution that brought all kinds of people together under one roof, for everyone to enjoy. “It wasn’t so expensive,” Fuller explained, “about 40 cents a ticket for the working class man who'd make $18 a week. It crossed all barriers,” he added, with tickets for the best seats costing $12 to $15 to please what Fuller described as Boston's "codfish aristocracy."

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Opera in Boston also reflected America's epic history of immigration in the 19th century, said Fuller, with first Italians, then Germans, then Eastern Europeans and Russians taking the stage as performers, or buying tickets as enthusiastic audiences. Around 1840, profitable touring opera companies traveled to cities all over the US, including to Charleston, New Orleans, San Francisco and even Havana, Cuba. Until the 1860s, most operas were staged by Italian opera companies and sung in Italian, but after the failed revolution in Germany in 1848, many excellent German musicians and singers immigrated to the US, expanding the repertoire with German-language composers. By 1898, a big pool of American talent had been established, so that many operas could be sung in English, including at the South End's Grand Opera on Washington Street (since torn down). In the late 1890s, another  huge immigration wave, from Eastern Europe, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, brought their favorite performers and audiences, including the Hebrew National Opera Company, which programmed Russian operas as well as many traditional ones like Carmen, but sung in Yiddish. 

The first two operas of the Trial by Fire series, Tchaikovsy's The Maid of Orleans and Donizetti's Siege of Calaisreceived rave reviews. The next performances coming up are on December 1 (Dello Joio's The Trial at Rouen) at NEC's Jordan Hall; February 17, 2018 (Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Buecher) at the Sanders Theatre; and April 5 and 7 (Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco) at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. For details and reviews, visit the Odyssey Opera website, linked here.





Does My Toddler Have Bi-polar Disorder? Unlikely, Suggests Pediatrician Claudia Gold, Author of "The Silenced Child:" But Making Time and Space for Listening Is Critical for Their Healthy Development

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Claudia Gold, the author The Silenced Child, told an engaged audience at the South End library in mid-October that over the years she became increasingly concerned about the number of parents visiting her pediatric practice with a 15- or 18-month-old child who had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. It would be an unusual diagnosis at that age. But it fit with her other observation that parents seemed very anxious about something not being right with their children. Gold's stellar medical training at the University of Chicago and Albert Einstein and Montefiore in New York prepared her well for critical care of children and unusual childhood diseases, but she found herself frustrated in a medical practice where so many of her interactions turned out to be with parents who wanted to know whether their children were normal.

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They asked whether they were doing the right thing, at the right time, but were overcome by fear and anxiety when their children behaved badly or were uncommunicative. "I found myself living in two worlds," Gold said, "one of developmental science; the other in which parents ask for help in a general pediatric sense, expecting me to tell them what to do, but I was not telling them to listen to their child."  She realized that the time and space necessary for listening to young children was falling by the wayside in the fast-paced lives of too many families. Worse, she said, this critically important interaction in the child's development was increasingly being replaced by medical disorder diagnoses and labeling, followed by treatment with medication, behavior management of the child, and parent education to comply with time-shortened medical advice. "The trouble with the disorder diagnosis is that children often fulfill their labels," she remarked. "Moreover, our healthcare system requires a diagnosis to get reimbursed," she added, describing as weighted toward the use of medication, 15-minute doctor visits and, in general, profits. 

 Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Boston Trauma Center, and Ed Tronick, Distinguished Professor Director of the Child Development Unit at UMass,Boston, chatting at the South End Writes event

Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Boston Trauma Center, and Ed Tronick, Distinguished Professor Director of the Child Development Unit at UMass,Boston, chatting at the South End Writes event

Gold was introduced for her talk by South End resident Ed Tronick,  Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UMass where he directs the UMass Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program and the acclaimed Child Development Unit. After leaving her earlier practice, Gold was one of his first fellows, Tronick said. Having re-directed her career after this and other fellowships in the field of infant mental health, Gold joined a different medical practice to focus on behavioral pediatrics where, among other changes, she increased her time with patients to one hour from 15 minutes. Now the author of three books written for parents on early-childhood development, Keeping Your Child in Mind (2013), The Silenced Child (2016), and The Developmental Science of Early Childhood (2017),  she works with parents on developing skills to use time and  space to listen to their children. "Having that whole hour has a feel to it that even half an hour does not," she commented. 

 Caudia Gold, signing books, and South End resident and retired pediatrician, Ben Siegel

Caudia Gold, signing books, and South End resident and retired pediatrician, Ben Siegel

Answering questions from the audience, Gold agreed her approach, which includes looking at children's behavior as a form of communication, is also helpful for autistic children, particularly when they are young. "They have a different way of processing the world," she said,"we have to listen to them and be curious about what they express." In addition, she said, people organized around the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study were using her work, especially The Silenced ChildAnother audience member commented he was quite impressed by how many young parents organize groups just for parents to share information, to which Tronick added  that pediatrics does not need to be part of such conversations at all. Trauma psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author The Body Keeps the Score, said his observation is that young parents who had secure upbringings would join such groups but that others, who are ashamed of what happened to them in their childhood, “become silent.”  A South End parent who had raised her child in Boston asked whether the contemporary design of strollers, with infants and young children facing outward into the world instead of inward to their caregivers' faces, as had been the case decades ago, was ever studied for impact on developmental health. Gold pointed to a 2009 New York Times article written about a study on that subject by a Scottish psychology researcher, Suzanne Zeedijk, which suggested some negative consequences, such as higher levels of stress and a faster heart rate among children facing outward in strollers. "She received an enormous amount of hate mail after it was published," recalled Gold, who thought it might have something to do with the enormous financial investments in current stroller design. 

Lynne Potts, Poet and History Scribe from Holyoke Street, Tells the Audience She Looked for Years for "a Place to Belong"

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South End author and poet, Lynne Potts, had just published A Block in Time: History of Boston's South End through a Window on Holyoke, when she unexpectedly found herself interviewing Southenders for another book, one that became Faces of a Neighborhood: Boston's South End in the early 21st Century. "It was a curious process," explained Potts to a full room of interested listeners at the South End library in mid-September. "I only knew the people on my street, but they gave me some names and then I got some more names." Two years later, she had an amazing list of interviewees, including an octogenarian, a shop owner, a Villa Victoria resident, a concierge and an international arbitrator and mediator. "It was such an exciting range of people," Potts said. "I'd ask them, 'would you mind if I interviewed you about your life in the South End?' and most of them stayed with it." Faces includes twenty-five interviews of the Southenders about whose lives she began to speculate when walking through local streets and observed the various domestic scenes visible across the lit windows of early evening.

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Potts's other explanation for the genesis of Faces was, in part, that she didn't quite know where she herself belonged in the landscape of her life, but knew that she wanted to belong somewhere. From growing up in Michigan to a marriage that took her to Berkeley, CA, then to a farm in Vermont, and next to an apartment on West Rutland Square as a divorced mother of young children, she found a home on Holyoke Street --where she still lives-- but never quite knew what emotional geography she was a part of. "I found myself talking to people who were clear about who they were, who had found themselves," she said. "My project became a series of little sagas, explanations of who they were and who they became. Almost all those I talked with identified with the South End's amazing cultural history, its architecture, its art, the way it was accepting of diverse sexual identities." The South End's demography in the 1980s was a rich brew of the Irish, Lebanese, Jews, African Americans and Greeks. Fifty-six percent was Caucasian; 16 percent African American. "We were proud that people from so many different walks of life lived in close proximity to those who were so different," Potts commented.

 L Lynne Potts signing books and chatting with her audience at the September 12 author event

LLynne Potts signing books and chatting with her audience at the September 12 author event

The author, whose delicate stature belies an intensely engaged and observational presence, said she had written and published poetry for the last 15 years, after obtaining an MFA from Columbia University. She won several awards and edited poetry journals, including the Columbia Journal of Art and Literature and AGNI. Her curiosity about how a particular culture affects people's evolving personal lives plays out in her poems, too. Her interest was piqued when she came across a retrospective of the first American abstract painter, Arthur Dove, which led Potts to delve into his relationship with the American Modernist painter Helen Torr, both spouses of others at the time, but eventually married to each other. "Here were two painters, one male, the other female," notes Potts who studied Torr's letters, now archived at the Smithsonian. "It's about the tension of women wanting to do their own work, while men have ancient expectations," Potts said. "He shot ahead. He sold paintings. She sold just one or so. She did all the framing of his paintings. In the end, Torr quit painting herself, and was institutionalized. From there, she'd write letters saying things like, 'I'll try to be better, and help him more.'"

Some of Potts's poems are about the couple's life as she imagined it through the letters she'd scrutinized. She read aloud several poems from her collection Porthole View, inspired by the Dove/Torr relationship and their time spent living on a houseboat in Long Island Sound, including Gull with Telephone Wire, Flotsam and Tennis Ball over Gramercy Grass. And, at the request of a library audience hungry for stories about their beloved neighborhood,  also one chapter from Faces, the interview with Sebastian Alonso, of a Cuban-Peruvian immigrant background, who grew up on Shawmut Avenue in the 1980s and 1990s, and had been part of a gang.


Dramatic Reading by Author Stephen Kinzer Brought a 19th-century Debate about America’s Role in the World to a 21st-century Library Audience

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Who knew that the mother of Boston Globe foreign-policy columnist Stephen Kinzer was an actress? The family gene revealed itself when Kinzer, the author of The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the birth of American Empire slipped seamlessly behind the lectern at the South End library’s community room, filled to capacity by a history-hungry audience, and  dramatically performed parts of the great debate of more than a 100 years ago about what exactly America’s role should be in the world, isolationist or imperialist.  The US government had settled the West, and the end of the Spanish-American War opened up the opportunity for the US to control territories that had once belonged to Spain, like Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. What should be done with them? And what was the mission of America?

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For Kinzer, who scrolled endless hours through microfiche records of  late 19th-century newspapers and pamphlets in the Boston Public Library to research his book, the remarkable fact of what he calls  “the mother of all debates” was the sheer brilliance of the arguments by  intellectual and political leaders on all sides of the question. “All the speeches were printed in newspapers and reprinted. They were read around the world, he said. “I envy people of that era,. We don’t dare to discuss these important issues with senators today. We talk about whether we should have 8,000 or 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, but not why we are there.

radio host Chris Lydon

Previewing the importance of the 19th-century polemic while introducing his longtime friend whose arrival was slightly delayed, WBUR OpenSource host, Christopher Lydon, talked about his personal hero from the pacifist side of that debate, William James, brother of Henry,  “the greatest Boston brother act in history,” as he put it. Lydon, who described Kinzer as a journalist in the David Halberstram tradition for his in-depth and uncompromising reporting, had met Kinzer when the latter was New York Times bureau chief in Berlin and, later, in Turkey.  “There should be more of Henry James in your book, however,” he told Kinzer.

 Kinzer agreed, up to a point, but focussed his attention on the role of many others, like Mark Twain, who had traveled the world and developed empathy for those seeking freedom, and Theodore Roosevelt, who had traveled, too, but mostly to shoot large animals. Twain reportedly thought TR was “clearly insane;”  TR had said about Twain he’d like to “skin him alive.” Then there was William Randolph Hearst, who needed a “running story” for his newspapers to thrive: war stories about anti-colonial and anti-imperialist wars in the territories would best fit the bill. Henry Cabot Lodge, for his part, felt many nations were “unequipped to govern themselves.” In the end, President William McKinley used the Lodge rational when he asked the US Senate to ratify the Treaty of Paris. It passed. The US took control over former Spanish territories, and became an empire.

The 1899 debate preceding the ratification lasted 32 days and, as Kinzer pointed out, the very arguments first formulated then, primarily in Boston’s political circles, are the same we heard when debating Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  This led to a question by Lydon about whether President John Kennedy, at the midpoint between that 19th-century political fight and now,  would have stayed in Vietnam or  pulled out. Both Kinzer and Lydon agreed the Warren Commission report left out important information, but that Kennedy himself had told the editor of the Boston Globe at the time, Bob Healy, also a former Globe Washington bureau chief,  that he would pull out of Vietnam after his reelection.

Kinzer’s  hero in the fiercely debated question was the abolitionist Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who became a Civil War general, a US senator, Secretary of the Interior and a friend of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. The title of Kinzer’s book, The True Flag, was taken from a speech by Schurz in which he declared “the true flag” of America was of the one of “government of, for, and by the people,” and “the flag of civilization, peace, and goodwill to all men.”

Acclaimed Harvard Sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot Will Discuss her Latest Work, "Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers," on Tuesday, April 18 at 6:30 PM

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In March a year ago, the MacArthur Genius award-winning Professor of Sociology at Harvard, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, held the crowded room spellbound when, at the end of her talk about Exits: The Endings That Set Us Free, she SANG her goodbye to the audience with the Song of Jeremiah from Iliad. Will she sing us a farewell again on Tuesday, April 18 when she is back at the South End library with her most recent book, Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children become Our Teachers?

The longtime South End resident who, by her own count lives 142 steps from the library, has made the developmental process of child-rearing in which parents are transformed by their children the subject of her latest book. It is based on many in-depth interviews across the country, and highlighted by her own experience of raising a son and a daughter. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Lawrence Lightfoot suggests that what is generally assumed to be the one-way support system that parents provide for their offspring is more likely an exchange, wherein parents learn from their children about the future they represent, the world they experience, and how that often doesn’t quite jive with what the parents have come to believe. Keeping our hearts open, is the mantra for good inter-generational relationships, she counsels.

Lawrence-Lightfoot is the Emily Hargroves Fisher professor of Education at Harvard University, and a fellow at the Bunting Institute and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.  The renowned sociologist’ books include, among others, Beyond Bias: Perspectives on Classrooms (1979) (with Jean Carew); The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture(1983), which received the 1984 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association; Balm In Gilead: Journey of A Healer (1988), which won the 1988 Christopher Award, for literary merit and humanitarian achievement; I’ve Known Rivers: Lives of Loss and Liberation (1994); and The Third Chapter: Risk, Passion, and Adventure in the Twenty-Five Years After 50 (2009). Upon her retirement from Harvard University, the endowed chair currently held by Lawrence-Lightfoot will officially become the Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Endowed Chair, making her the first African-American woman in Harvard’s history to have an endowed professorship named in her honor.

The South End Library is fully handicapped accessible. Seating is limited. The event is free. We offer refreshments. Books will be available for sale, signing, and borrowing from the library. 



Jenna Blum, Best-selling Writer of Holocaust-themed Fiction (“Those Who Save Us,” “The Lucky One,” and her 2018 Novel, “The Lost Family”) to Talk on Tuesday, April 4 at 6:30 PM


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Jenna Blum, the award winning author of the  New York Times bestseller, Those Who Save Us (2004), and The Stormchasers (2010), will talk about her latest work: a novella called The Lucky One,  as well as  her upcoming 2018 novel, The Lost Family. The Lucky One was published in a 2016 anthology, called Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion, a collection related to the Holocaust by ten bestselling female writers. Blum’s contribution was one she had been reluctant to write as it meant returning to the subject of the Holocaust. She says on her web site that the research and writing of Those Who Saved Us, which explored how non-Jewish Germans dealt with the Holocaust, was a searing experience. But she remembered one story she had heard when she worked for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, where she interviewed Holocaust survivors. It had struck a cord with her, she said, and became the genesis for The Lucky One. It is set, like each of the stories in the anthology, on the same day in Grand Central Terminal right after the Second World War.

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Blum’s successful writing career began when, at fourteen,  her first short story, published in Seventeen Magazine,  won the third prize.  Another short story, The Legacy of Frank Finklestein, won first prize two years later. Since that time, Blum’s work has been featured in Faultline, The Kenyon Review, The Bellingham Review, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and The Improper Bostonian. Blum has taught creative writing and communications writing at Boston University, was the editor at Boston University’s AGNI literary magazine for four years, and led fiction and novel workshops for Grub Street Writers in Boston since 1997. The event is a reschedule from last year when the author had to cancel her booking due to a family emergency.

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The South End Writes is sponsored by the Friends of the South End Library. All the events are free. Books by the speakers will be available for borrowing, sale and signing by the author. The branch is fully handicapped accessible. We serve refreshments. Seating is limited.

The Avocado-pit Self of the West Versus the Flexi Self of the East: Author Gish Jen Suggests the More Communal Approach of the East Might Benefit the West’s Lone Ranger’s View of the World

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In a recent interview with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on WGBH radio, author Gish Jen commented on efforts by the show’s previous guest, Police Commissioner Bill Evans, to attract more Asians to the Boston police force. Jen, whose humorous view of life’s perplexing questions shines through much of her work, half-jokingly confessed on the show that she briefly considered becoming a police officer (“It’s a great day job”) but quickly added that not just her editor’s apoplexy would stand in the way but also the Police Department’s physical exam, which requires applicants to scale a five-foot wall.  It would be a barrier, she said, “for those of us who are only five feet tall.” These human differences  between East and West, of size, perception and approach to the communities we live in, have been the literary domain of Jen since she first dropped out of the Stanford Business School and entered the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in the 1980s.

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Now an acclaimed novelist, and the author of  The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East West Culture Gap, Jen drew a full room of people to the library on March 28, eager to hear her take on the divergent views between East and West and the importance of the individual versus the  society he or she is a part of. Jen, the winner of numerous prestigious awards and fellowships who has written five novels and two non-fiction books on the East-West cultural divide, suggests that, in the West, the individual sees the path to achievement and success as inextricably linked to the core self, as if it were  a “sacred avocado pit” to which one must remain true; it is second in importance to the needs of community or family. It is seen as a universal value in the West, even though in most of the rest of the world a more communal view of individual achievement prevails: the idea of a “flexi-self” tends to be the norm, and the ideal place to be is part of a group which, in turn, is associated with a sense of wholeness.

  Gish Jen patiently signing copies of her book for her admirers, including some who drove in from New Hampshire through pouring rain.

Gish Jen patiently signing copies of her book for her admirers, including some who drove in from New Hampshire through pouring rain.

To illustrate her point, Jen showed two short videos,  one a monologue by a young American man talking about watching video games where the story plot celebrates male fighters surviving in a world where “everyone is screwing you,” a  profoundly anti-establishment message, Jen pointed out. The second video was produced not too long ago in reaction to an incident at Columbia University, where  a group of Chinese students found their name tags ripped off their dorm doors one morning.  Titled “Say My Name,“ each student described what their Chinese names meant in English.  “My parents had great hopes for my future,” said one student whose Chinese name translated as Brightest Star in the Night Sky.  “My name reminds me of my roots,” said another, “the place where I came from, each time I say my name.”

Other examples of the East-West divide include the true story behind the title of Jen's book where the proverbial girl at the baggage claim, who turned out to be the sister of a young Chinese woman accepted at Milton Academy, showed up to take her place at the school, instead. The incident that led to accusations of fraud and caused changes in admissions rules at secondary schools. While Jen did not endorse the practice of attending a school impersonating a sibling, she explained that in Eastern cultures it is ok to help a family member because it benefits the group, even though it is seen as clumsy and wrong in the West, where individual achievement is preeminent.  The extreme focus on personal success has other negative consequences, Jen suggested, including for the American unemployed, for example, who believe not having a job is “their fault.” In Israel, she said, which is a more communally oriented society,  being unemployed is blamed on “the system.”

Herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen said she noticed that in the world of sports, winners of  Olympic medals from the West tend to describe their individual achievements as “showing what I could do,” while  non-Western winners generally make a point of thanking their coaches, friends and family, emphasizing, “I didn’t do it alone.” Jen, whose first book about the East-West cultural divide, Tiger Writing: Art Culture and the Independent Self, is based on the prestigious Massey Lectures she gave at Harvard University in 2012, made a point of complimenting New England Patriot football quarterback Tom Brady for consistently crediting his team for his achievements, even as it earned him the accusation of practicing ‘false modesty.’ “No false modesty,” she said, “He’s just Asian.”

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Jen's earlier novels, Typical American, Who Is Irish?, The Love WifeMona in the Promised Land and World and Town (winner of the 2011 Massachusetts Book Prize) were widely praised for their often hilarious but also profound and warm descriptions of Chinese-American families adjusting to suburban life and the racial and religious divides they navigate. A contributor to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, Jen’s work has been included in The Best American Short Stories of 1988, 1995 and 2013, as well as The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award and an International IMPAC Dublin Book Award, Jen was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She has been awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study fellowship, and numerous other awards. In 2003, an American Academy of Arts and Letters jury comprised of John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates granted her a five-year Mildred and Harold Strauss Living award.

Suspense Writer Wendy Walker Will Be at the SE Library on Tuesday, February 7, to Read from Her Debut Thriller, “All Is Not Forgotten”

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Wendy Walker’s first suspense novel, All Is Not Forgotten, is set in the small town of Fairview, CT, one of those irresistible locations for writers to explore because it seems so perfect but really isn’t. No one better to delve into this than an author who is a suburban dweller with a growing family herself, and who also happens to be a family-law attorney, likely to know some of the real-life complications simmering underneath the American suburban dream. William Landay (Defending Jacob), another attorney-turned-suspense-author who read for South End Writes in 2014, said Walker has “a polished writing style in a novel that blends suspense and rich family drama,” so chances are good you will have an enjoyable few hours with this psychological thriller, wondering whodunnit and why.

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The plot revolves around a family whose secrets and unresolved tensions become sharply articulated and inflamed when a crisis  occurs, in this case, an attack on the teenage daughter during one of those parties with too much liquor, testosterone and drugs. She is given a drug to reduce the trauma, but it leaves her with feelings of anger and despair over the assault that the memory-altering drug does not alleviate. Worse, she can no longer remember the facts of the assault, which also prevents the attacker from being found. As the plot twists and turns to an unexpected conclusion, the parents are divided over what matters most, revenge, justice or…staying in tune with their town’s country club mores. Walker published two novels with St. Martin’s Press and is currently writing her second thriller. She will be introduced by her colleague an FOSEL advisory-board member, Mari Passananti.

The South End Writes is sponsored by the Friends of the South End Library. All the events are free. Books by the speakers will be available for borrowing, sale and signing by the author. The branch is fully handicapped accessible. We serve refreshments. Seating is limited. Below are listed upcoming authors, whose bios will be more detailed as the dates of the talks approach.

Celebrated Author Junot Diaz, Drawing a Record Crowd, Praises Libraries, Cajoles the Audience to Become Actively Engaged Citizens, and Reads a Vivid Passage from "This Is How You Lose Her"

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The audience coming to hear Junot Diaz, the award-winning writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her, had filled every seat 45 minutes before the program started, yet more people kept streaming through the South End library's Tremont Street doors. The South End Writes author series fielded large crowds before,  (Jack Beattie, Jamaica Kincaid, Chris Kimbal, Police Officer John Sacco, Dennis Lehane, Joanne Chang, Edith Pearlman, Bessel Van Der Kolk and Steve Kurkjian) but this January 10 event felt different. More as if a prophet had arrived who also happened to be a literary icon, someone who might speak to the sense of political  foreboding many in the audience expressed, days removed from a controversial new President's inauguration. "Are you worried?" asked Diaz, holding a cup of coffee mid-drink, scanning the audience that stood layers deep in the stairwell, moving into the middle of the community room so all could hear him. Many affirmative sounds and groans ensued.

  Author Junot Diaz talking about the importance of libraries at the beginning of his talk on January 10/17

Author Junot Diaz talking about the importance of libraries at the beginning of his talk on January 10/17

Before launching into audience existential anxiety, Diaz eloquently expressed his deep gratitude for libraries. "I am a creature of the library," he said. It gives you access to everything poverty strips you of. Poverty is profoundly undemocratic. It narrows your world. The library's ethos is fundamentally democratic, fundamentally contemplative, a place that itself is concerned with citizenship and civic good--everything that poverty tends to strip from people's minds," he suggested. "I wonder if it had not been for libraries, would there have been anything left from the childhoods some of us have had?" Diaz, who reportedly often walked four miles to his public library to borrow books when he was growing up in a poor immigrant family in New Jersey, emphasized that "we are born in these places and certainly the part of me that led me here to this moment was born in my public library under the tutelage of my librarian."

  Junot Diaz reading a passage from  Nilda,  a story in the collection  This Is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz reading a passage from Nilda, a story in the collection This Is How You Lose Her

Introduced by author and poet Pablo Medina (Cubob City Blues), Diaz was described as one of the very few writers who use a particular voice to distinguish themselves from everyone else, much like Mark Twain, Toni Morrison and Faulkner did. “He opened a voice and way of life that had not been explored before and brought Latino life into the mainstream,” Medina said. Diaz, winner of numerous awards and honors including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, commented that the strange thing about being known as a writer in any way is that you are "standing in for better artists who haven't been given the acclaim they deserve," and thanked Medina and his contemporaries for the enormous influence and genius he received from them.

  Junot Diaz receives the traditional FOSEL gift of a FOSEL library bag and copies of his event poster

Junot Diaz receives the traditional FOSEL gift of a FOSEL library bag and copies of his event poster

Turning back to the moment of political gloom, Diaz asked what people in the audience themselves were doing about it. “I wanna know what are you gonna do,” said Diaz, who is active in the Dominican American community.“I’ve been doing my community work forever. If you feel you've been hit by a Mac truck, you can appreciate the life that many of us artists have been reporting, and the diabolical forces in American society that have plagued us and made us miserable for so long." He said he is “intentionally activist"  and not interested in his work as an artist taking the place of his civic responsibility. "Being an artist doesn’t excuse you from your civic responsibility,“ he said, observing that artists are "more inclined to the febrile excuse of ‘my art is my politics.' Investment bankers," he added, "not so much. You see them volunteering in soup kitchens."

  South End library's head librarian, Anne Smart, with author Junot Diaz, who described himself as a great admirer of librarians

South End library's head librarian, Anne Smart, with author Junot Diaz, who described himself as a great admirer of librarians

Answering several questions about his writing, Diaz, who is the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, described himself as a very slow writer, very 'avoidant,' 'wildly rewarded,' and having come of age reading giants of African-American literature like Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed as well as Sandra Cisneros, Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Families are great inspiration "for the spectrum of behavior,” he said but cautioned that stories have minds of their own. “You can have wild ideas about stories,” he said, “but the stories themselves have other ideas. They happen at the levels of the unconscious. The story is the boss. It is an enormous amount of work to decipher what the unconscious wants. Every draft brings you closer and closer to the mysterious story. Every version sucks."

With that, he picked up a copy of This Is How You Lose Her, and read a richly descriptive passage from the story Nilda.  When he was done, he patiently listened to, and talked with, his admirers waiting in a long line to be photographed with him and, with a cursive flair, signed all of their books. Within days, he and four other authors --Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead and Barbara Kingsolver-- would have lunch with then-President Obama, who admired them and described the writers as having helped him shape his presidency.

  Junot Diaz surrounded by admirers after his reading

Junot Diaz surrounded by admirers after his reading

Dina Vargo, Author of "Wild Women of Boston: Mettle and Moxie in the Hub," Will Describe a Parade of Reformers, Socialites, Criminals and Madams on Tuesday, December 6, at 6:30 PM


Dina Vargo writes in her introduction to Wild Women of Boston that filling two or three volumes with the stories of Boston's female firebrands is "almost a no-brainer." A tour guide for the Boston By Foot, Vargo became interested in off-beat walking tours that revealed a hidden history of people and places which led her to the stories about women not so well known but revolutionary in their own right. An African-American abolitionist, Sarah Parker, refused to give up a seat in a play about a hundred years before Rosa Parks did. Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall handed the Audubon Society leadership to men so as to not cross prevailing boundaries of female comity, but at the same time brought the fashion industry to its knees when they led a boycott against plumage in ladies clothing.  And then there was Rachel Wall, a pirate, and  Ann Hibbing, who dared to take on a contractor who she felt charged her too much. Both Wall and Hibbing were hanged. Fargo will tell you all about it, and more. Her books will be available for sale and signing. The South End Writes is sponsored by the Friends of the South End Library. All the events are free. Books by the speakers will be available for borrowing, sale and signing by the author. The branch is fully handicapped accessible. We serve refreshments. Seating is limited.

This will be the final author talk of the 2016-17 season. 

Gordon Hamersley Tells His Admirers Cambridge May Offer the Best Food Nowadays and Young Chefs May Be Opening Up Restaurants "Way Sooner Than They Should"

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Gordon Hamersley who, with his wife Fiona, put the South End on the map as a culinary destination at the dawn of the good-local-food revolution of the 1980s, told a packed room at the library that his many awards, honors and citations notwithstanding, the life of a celebrity chef was not for him. The tall, lean and voluble chef who now writes regularly about food for the Boston Globe, said that after more than two decades of a highly successful run of Hamersley's Bistro, where his wife created a fabulous wine list, they found themselves thinking about the next phase of their lives. They liked to do "other things," Hamersley said, like tying flies for trout fishing, training dogs, hunting grouse and woodcock, walking in the woods, writing, being a family. They had always agreed to wait for the other to be on the same page for any momentous decision about the Bistro. "Are you ready?" they asked each other one day in August 2014. "Totally," they both said. From that moment until they closed the restaurant, two months later, they were sold out each night. It had been their best year ever, financially. "But my kid still refers to me as 'my absentee father,'" joked Hamersley.

  Gordon Hamersley signing copies of his (out-of-print) book, Bistro Cooking at Home.

Gordon Hamersley signing copies of his (out-of-print) book, Bistro Cooking at Home.

  Gordon Hamersley describing hosting President Obama at Hamersley's Bistro while his friend, Ron Geddes, listens

Gordon Hamersley describing hosting President Obama at Hamersley's Bistro while his friend, Ron Geddes, listens

The financial pitfalls of opening a restaurant are many, and Hamersley credits the "Scottish blood" that runs in the veins of his wife, who also was  his business partner, for avoiding them. "Today, the South End is full," said Hamersley. "The best food by young chefs now is found in Cambridge." He cited Giulia's, run by another husband-and-wife team, Michael Pagliarini and Pamela Ralston, as a good example. Responding to complaints from a library audience member about so many mediocre meals served in newly opened restaurants nowadays, Hamersley commented that today's chefs start their own place as soon as they can, perhaps too soon. "I had ten years of experience before I opened Hamersley's, he said. "I am a big believer in experience. How many roast chickens I have done: I know how to mingle the flavors because of that experience. The culinary schools are remiss by not allowing for that. You have to teach cooking as you teach law: it requires experience. A culinary school can’t mimick the experience of a Saturday night at Hamersley’s when a cook doesn’t do so well at four but somehow by seven is on top of his game.”

  Longtime South End realtor, Ron Geddes,  introduced Gordon Hamersley for his talk  about his experience as a restaurateur

Longtime South End realtor, Ron Geddes,  introduced Gordon Hamersley for his talk  about his experience as a restaurateur

Those hectic but exhilarating Saturday nights at the Bistro is what he still misses, Hamersley says, but other than that he has no regrets. He never took the awards and honors he received too seriously, and dismissed the authority bestowed on him by some in the media to comment on a variety of subjects merely because he was an award- winning chef. "What do I know about the meal tax?" he asked, "or what the best knife is?" Hamersley's philosophy was to prepare good-quality but simple food in a casual setting, which was different from the traditional chef’s role in the 1980s where the chef always stayed in the back. Hamersley was enthralled by the South End’s diversity. “I stood on Tremont Street and watched what was going on, felt the vibe, and decided I was going to be comfortable for us there,” he said. “We wanted the restaurant to be a reflection of us, Fiona and I, as if you would ‘come into our house,’” he added. Their approach to running a restaurant was based on the old European chef’s notion that they were part of the community. “This is what we wanted it to be,” Hamersley said. “We fulfilled our dream.”

Louise Miller, Pastry Chef and Author, Will Present Her Debut Novel, "The City's Baker's Guide to Country Living," at the South End Library on Tuesday, October 25 at 6:30 PM

Poster design by Mary Owens
Poster design by Mary Owens

The South End Writes fall speaker season continues  with pastry chef and debut novelist Louise Miller who will talk about her work of fiction, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living on Tuesday, October 25. Miller received a scholarship in 2012 to attend GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, a year-long workshop. Her novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living, was picked up quickly for publication by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking this past summer. The story begins when its main character, a thirty-something pastry chef carrying a flambé dessert, accidentally sets fire to the swank private club in Boston where she works. She flees north to Vermont where she becomes enmeshed in a small town’s intrigues.

Miller grew up in the Boston area and attended Portland School of Art where she studied photography. She started her first baking job in 1994, at a little bakery in Cambridge, MA, where her baking mentor talked her into staying on by offering to teach her the art of pastry.  For the last twenty years Miller has been a baker/pastry chef, currently at The Union Club of Boston.

The South End Writes is sponsored by the Friends of the South End Library. All the events are free. Books by the speakers will be available for borrowing, sale and signing by the author. The branch is fully handicapped accessible. We serve refreshments. Seating is limited, so come early if you really want the best experience.