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Madonna Badger: ‘I go to wherever the light is, because anything else is darkness, and it can be a deeply black darkness.’

You may not remember her name, but you know her story: On Christmas Eve, her house burned, and her three daughters and her parents died in the fire. Now Madonna Badger has written a piece for Vogue. It’s a tough read; prepare to weep. Prepare also to be surprised by what she has learned — and by what you can learn from her. Like this, about her trip to an orphanage in Thailand:

The garage behind the house in Stamford hadn’t caught fire, and I had stored old boxes of toys there that my girls had outgrown and a bunch of things I had saved for them for when they grew up. I took a bag of it all to Thailand, and on Christmas morning I gave the girls presents, and they were so excited. Thirty or so of them came and stood in front of me and prayed for me in Thai. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them we were all crying. When I looked into the girls’ faces, I saw my children. It broke me open in a way I still can’t fully explain. But if these little girls were living their lives with joy and happiness, I realized — and if they could give their love to me after all they had been through — how could I possibly feel sorry for myself? What they showed me was that what had happened to them had just happened. It wasn’t “done” to them, just as none of this had been “done” to me. I wasn’t being punished; I had not been singled out.

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Josh Ritter’s Acoustic Tour: Step right this way

Did you seriously think I wouldn’t slip Josh Ritter into my novel? If so, silly you. Here’s what I wrote:

I set my iPhone for random music, inserted my ear buds, and listened as I walked. There was even some striding — give me a crisp drummer and a bass player with wit, and I have to resist the urge to dance.

Then I was served a song I knew well: “Joy to You Baby,” by Josh Ritter.

The song came with a story, and because it was one of Blair’s favorites, I knew it. Fourteen months after he married another musician, Ritter was on tour, in some godforsaken hotel in some second-tier city, when his wife called and ended the marriage. He was crushed. All he could do was write, and that he did: bitter, angry verses, boxes of them.

I don’t know how he fought his way out of that gloom, but he did, and in this song, his only wish is joy — joy to the city, joy to the streets, the freeway, the cars, and “joy to you baby, wherever you are tonight.” Joy to his ex-wife? Yes. Even her.

I thought: We can set the rope down. It has been done. It can be done. Even by me. Certainly by me.

Josh will surely sing this on his Acoustic Tour. Info here.

And here’s ‘Joy to You Baby’ more as less as you’ll hear it in concert.

Paul Simon: ‘Over the Bridge of Time’

Paul Simon just turned 72, and he has a new release. Actually, a new/old one: the first single disc compilation of the best of Simon & Garfunkel and Simon’s solo career. If you collect Simon’s CDs, you probably have all these songs. If not, "Over the Bridge of Time" isn’t a bad place to start. Or you could get it simply because, once again, I wrote the introductory notes.

How much do I admire Paul Simon? Like this: "In ‘Hearts and Bones,’ he wrote of ‘the arc of a love affair.’ The songs on this record trace a larger, longer arc — the arc of a life. Professionally, it is the stuff of legend: 12 Grammys, early induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The artist who has described himself in a song as ‘an ordinary player in the key of C’ is clearly joking; Paul Simon is the master of the popular masterpiece." [To buy the CD — and get the MP3 download free — from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

MixxCentury.com: a good idea, a good deal

“Who’s your decorator?” friends ask when they visit us in our new digs. The answer surprises them: King’s Lane and eBay. Too bad we finished the apartment before our good friend Holly Palance and Dawn Moore launched MixxCentury.com. They really do the mix: antiques and collectibles from their homes, antiques shops and more. Prices range from the no-brainer to the better-think-twice — but because MixxCentury has no physical presence, most treasures are as much as 60% off. And Holly’s blog is sharp and surprising — like her account of the old Spanish wood-carved Retablo that Jack Palance (yes, her father) acquired from a Spanish church when he was on location in a spaghetti western.

The Droid ‘Opera’ commercial: Color me obsessed

The child mocks me for talking back to the television (“You’re sooo critical”) but how can you not react to this?

The setup: two attractive people at the opera. He’s hot, in the Jon Hamm way (black tie but unshaven). She’s hot, in the Mika Brzezinski way (blonde and chilly). He’s seated in the middle of the theater, she’s in a box above him and on the side. They text photos back and forth, then leave together.

The commercial is called “Have We Met?” The clear suggestion: they haven’t. In that case, he doesn’t have her phone number and she doesn’t have his — so how can they text photos back and forth? And it’s the theater. Surely there was an announcement before the performance to turn off all electronic devices — why didn’t they? (Small point: they leave at 8:20; the performance had just started. And already he was napping?) Final question: Whose apartment do they go to — or do you think that’s not the point of the commercial?

I’m a huge fan of exchanging glances at a dull cultural event and leaving early — in my lost youth, I had some memorable nights doing just this — but that was pre-technology and required modest skills in hand and facial gestures. In this version, the phone must be magic: just point it at someone and the device makes the introduction for you. Really? If so… get a Droid.

‘Love is an angel disguised as lust.’

That line is the quote at the start of my book. It’s not casually chosen — it’s pretty much what the novel is about. The source: ‘Because the Night,’ written by — here’s a trivia tidbit — Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. A  stunning performance, don’t you think?

A Week Away

You get to North Captiva Island, Florida by flying to Ft. Myers, taking a half-hour cab, then making a fifteen-minute crossing by boat. On the island, it’s golf carts. No cars. And… nothing. No shopping. No people. Think: the Hamptons, if a neutron bomb hit. Seriously, at night we saw lights in only two houses. At one of the three restaurants on the island, the cook also served dinner. No waitress? "If you’d reserved, I would have called her." I read 2.5 books and wrote a lot, but mostly I played games in the pool with the child, floated in the bathtub-warm gulf, had monosyllabic chats in the hot tub with my wife. And then we returned to our new apartment, cranked up the new CDs and moved a gazillion books from boxes to bookshelves. Glorious, all of it.

‘Blue Jasmine’ — a minority view

Almost every critic flipped for “Blue Jasmine.” Most of my friends swooned. My wife was moved. I must have seen a different film, because I winced early and often at Woody Allen’s recreation of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The story in brief: Jasmine has fled New York, where her husband was convicted of financial fraud and she lost both her marriage and his fortune. Now she’s in San Francisco, staying with her sister, who works as a grocery cashier and has a predictable blue-collar boyfriend. It’s hard going for Jasmine until she meets the next man who might take care of her, an attractive widower contemplating a political career. He has an empty house. She claims to be an interior decorator. You know what follows.

Set aside the dialogue that covers the same ground over and over and over (“Your husband was a crook!” “You never had time for us when you were on top!” “They found you talking to yourself on the street!”) and consider just the romance with the politico. Her lover — or a shopkeeper — never suggests that she use her resale number to get a discount. And considering that her fiancé literally casts Jasmine for the role as Campaign Asset, it seemed odd — very, very odd — that he never bothered to Google her.

But I think I understand why otherwise critical people cheer this movie, which is on its way to becoming Allen’s biggest commercial hit. Two words: Cate Blanchett. Always amazing, she outdoes herself here. If you had to read Woody Allen’s screenplay, you’d say it was lazy and cliché-drenched. But Blanchett breathes life into clichés. You actually believe that she has a chance of making a new life for herself. As everyone says, she gets an Academy Award nomination for this role.

Blanchett is so remarkable and Allen’s satiric scenes in the Hamptons and the East Side of Manhattan are so diverting that it’s easy to miss the message of the film: Jasmine never had a chance. She’s lost her money. Her illusions are all she has left. A 1 percenter becomes a 99 percenter. And then she’s ground down again.

A tragic story? In other hands, perhaps. But the way Woody Allen has set it up, you’re too busy sneering at the film’s rich East Siders and Hamptonites to care deeply about the woman they’ve cast off.

Joan Schenkar on James Purdy: The Oddball of American Literature

Joan Schenkar, author of The Talented Miss Highsmith, champions a long-neglected writer, now back in print.

James Purdy (1914-2009) is the Oddball of American Literature — surely one of the oddest ever to be lobbed over the National Net. He writes in a style entirely his own: that of a lavender uncle who decorates his closet with the corpses of the American Dream. His antique vocabulary accoutres these noirish creations with fanciful foulards and beautiful braces. He is nothing if not unsettling.

Purdy belongs in the company — though not exactly in the presence — of writers like Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, and Patricia Highsmith: writers who brought back from the ends of their nerves strange new terroirs with which their names are now associated. (In other work, I have given Miss Highsmith’s imaginative terrain a local habitation and a handle: "Highsmith Country." Mr. Purdy’s territory, which mixes races as well as sexual offenses, is waiting for its place-card.)

Eccentricity, wit and excellence are the private clubs to which Purdy’s clawing peculiarity and fanged approach to phrasing admitted him — and his fellow club members welcomed him extravagantly. Dame Edith Sitwell said Purdy would "come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language;" Dorothy Parker opined he was a "writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power;" Gore Vidal called him "an authentic American genius."

Purdy’s short stories have been collected and published for the first time by Norton/Liveright in "The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy." [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.], accompanied by a snappy introduction from another witty eccentric, John Waters. With this volume, and with the reissue of his 1965 novel, "Cabot Wright Begins," 

James Purdy’s publishers have done us all a favor. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Two American Families: How do they manage?

Did you watch the Frontline documentary? (You still can, online.) It tracks two Milwaukee families, one African-American, one white, over 20 years, as they struggle to stay in the middle class. Weird timing for me; I’d just finished writing about one of the richest families in Milwaukee. So watching this documentary wasn’t like watching another part of town. More like another planet. A planet of people with remarkable tenacity. Over and over I thought: How do they keep on? I couldn’t.

Marcie lives in Milwaukee. She was kind enough to watch the documentary and comment: “I’m still reeling. I was teaching in the Welfare to Work program started in the 90’s by the Clinton administration with the best of intentions. (It failed.) Last night’s program miraculously, brilliantly, captured the truth. Heartbreaking in how we’ve colossally failed hard-working American families and heartbreaking that the mother of the Stanley family believed she had personally failed. Watching ‘Two American Families’ made me think about our fragility, how hard it can be to raise a family, even with the most basic expectations – it made me think about love.”

Andre Aciman: “Have I ever felt at home at Harvard, at home in America?”

André Aciman, an Egyptian exile, came to Harvard in the late 1970s for a Ph.D. Now Aciman, one of our most stylish writers, has published “Harvard Square,” a novel about an Egyptian exile who comes to Harvard in the late 1970s for a Ph.D. What gives? I explain all in Harvard Magazine. [To buy the book, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]