Category Archives: The Writer’s Tower

All about writing: trends, old media, freelance, editing, new media.

Impressions Before and After Ukrainian Best Selling Author Andrey Kurkov’s Speech at PEN World Voices Festival (Part I)

Novelist and PEN Ukraine President Andrey Kurkov, Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, PEN America World Voices Festival (Carole Di Tosti)

When I was in London and Oxford, UK in 2019, I stopped in a bookstore, my favorite haunt as a writer, and saw on a display table Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I was completely unfamiliar with his work. I don’t know why I picked up the book. But in a bookshop’s interesting, curious world of uncertainty and adventure, something aligned. Perhaps because I was close friends with a Ukrainian women years ago when I lived in upstate New York and ruefully allowed time and distance to separate us. In recent years with Putin’s invasion of Crimea, that association often comes to my remembrance, so I bought it, flew with it across the Pond and forgot about it swept up in NYC activities and my writing career, such as it is.

A blurry picture of Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, UK (Carole Di Tosti)

The same curious uncertainty happened to me when I picked up C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at the NYU bookstore when I was going for my Ph.D. Unfamiliar with the author, it was an association with his last name that prompted me to pick up the slim volume and read it, laughing aloud, then subsequently devouring everything else Lewis had written. (I will probably do the same with Kurkov after hearing him speak at the World Voices Festival). For me bookstore display tables are all about serendipity and whimsy picking up a book, briefly perusing its back cover, then taking it or putting it back.

(NYU Bookstore moved to its present location)

Diverted from reviewing plays three or four nights a week when the pandemic shut down Broadway, I watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on my computer (I am not a TV watcher), then stumbled upon my forgotten copy of Death and the Penguin while looking for something else. I read it, and as with The Screwtape Letters, I found myself laughing out loud. Kurkov’s sensibility dovetailed with mine; his irony, inherent black humor and the existential plight of Viktor, the protagonist and penguin Misha his alter ego or avatar that Viktor takes in from the Kyiv Zoo evoked a mixture of emotions. In the novel the zoo gave away its animals to those who could afford to care for them.

Perhaps there is an alignment if we consider what was done with the zoo animals in the besieged northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, as officials attempt to evacuate large predators from the facility and are forced to put down others. Unfamiliar with what happened to facilities like zoos, right after the USSR collapsed, perhaps this was generally done, giving the animals homes. The US rejoiced at the USSR collapse; many did not; it was a catastrophe for those impacted. And what to do with the animals? The metaphor is incredible. Now, with Putin’s war, what to do with the animals in the zoo, especially the large predators? The Russians don’t even want the bodies of their dead soldiers. The Ukrainians are caring for them and for the big cats. There is something to be said for this truth. I’m not sure if it is ugly. It just is.

Though Death and the Penguin takes place in post Soviet Ukraine, in the 1990s, there is always the lurking darkness of the ethos of what “post-Soviet” means, the chaos, the vying for power between factions, criminals and thugs. My Ukrainian neighbor told me the moment the Iron Curtain was down he picked up his family and left. The Russian communists were hovering as were those schooled in thuggery from the KGB oppression units. Displaced, they were looking for a new way to employ their skills. Any moment they might pop up en masse in the future and pull their shenanigans. Turns out my friend was prescient; but he knows the history of Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.

Program for the PEN AMERICA World Voices Festival

A former member of PEN AMERICA whose membership lapsed, I still receive information. On Facebook I saw the advertisement for PEN America’s World Voices Festival at NYU, my old Ph.D. stomping grounds. The headline piqued my interest: Ukrainian Novelist Delivers Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at PEN World Voices Festival. The stars aligned; I had to attend.

I wanted to hear Kurkov’s comments about Putin’s genocide of Ukrainians and his war crimes. Who doesn’t admire President Zelensky’s heroism in defense of his country, and his standing up to Donald Trump’s blackmail (javelins for dirt on Hunter Biden)? These are events none of us in the US should ever forget. Nor can we forget the hideous impact of Putin’s interference in the 2016 election and installing his US puppet which deceased Representative John Lewis believed was a Putin/Republican/Cambridge Analytica conspiracy.

Vladimir Putin in a more recent photo (courtesy of the news site)

Since April of 2020 as the pandemic raged, I have asserted in articles (on my The Fat and the Skinny blog) that Putin duped the US into making deals while he was dreaming of his new world order, a Stalinistic communistic empire (Russians have mentioned that communism is dead…yeah, well maybe not) with new gulag jails filled with journalists, protestors, freedom fighters, Alexei Navalny and others like him. Is Communism in Putin’s New Regime designs? Just because the word was “banned” in Russia doesn’t mean it ever left the mind of Putin who Kurkov suggests is so nostalgic for the “good old days” that state TV has even created a Nostalgia channel of old movies, etc. pleasantly reminiscing about the old USSR. Putin is not your kindhearted granddaddy; how Russians negotiate Alexei Navalny, the news blackout, millions of young Russians leaving, leads of Ukraine butchery is mindboggling.

As Kurkov said in his introduction Putin’s War and his truth lies are out of George Orwell. Of course, the puppet presidency of Trump, that no one in the nation was ready for except salivating billionaires, was the same hellish psyops war for the minds of the American people. As Putin does in Russia, Trump did to America. It was out of a surreal GRU playbook. Thankfully, Trump is gone, but Putin is screaming and kicking against the kicks of Biden’s presidency and sanctions. Putin’s attempt to conduct psyops through truth/lies reality to gather communist support for his new regime whether from French loser Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s winner Prime Minister Viktor Orban or other hyper right-wing governments is for truth watchers, a useless endeavor. Regardless of the lies told, the truth is about usurping then consolidating power.

Mariupol before and after the shelling, the truck has the word children written on it (courtesy of the site)

At this point actions speak loudly; justifications are meaningless. Importantly, those who oppose Putin’s criminality and his criminal puppets like Belarus’ Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, the former Ukrainian puppet ousted in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, or orange puppet Donald Trump ousted by Democratic President Joe Biden are what matters. If Putin opposes the leader or individual, you can guarantee he/she/they are not backed by his criminal enterprise. Likewise, if individuals oppose Donald Trump’s attempt to run for President in the future, they are not supported by his criminality.

in keeping with my compulsion to understand and publicize Putin’s psyops and serial killer behaviors, I have reviewed plays about Russian journalists, like Putin assassinated writer, whistleblower and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. Also, I am enamored of those who have the courage to speak out like Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. I reviewed her in Burning Doors at La Mama (2017). I spoke to Alyokhina before her performance and praised her for her bravery. She looked at me like her courage was “nothing.” I interpreted her attitude to mean, if you are a human being, you stand for human rights against killers and oppressors. Her performance was riveting; she was amazing in 2017 and is even more amazing in 2022. She escaped from Russia, Friday May 13th, the same day that Andrey Kurkov delivered the lecture at NYU.

Maria Alyokhina in Burning Doors at La Mama (2017) (Alex Bremer)

Alyokhina had been jailed in Russia six more times since last summer. They put her in for 15 days for truth lies, like Alexei Navalney’s made-up charges. The fabricated “crimes” get them off the streets and shut them up. That messages sneak out from prison is a testament to the fact that there are many who oppose Putin’s tactics, but can only stand against them surreptitiously.

Alyokhina realized the danger she was in when authorities announced that her house arrest would be converted to 21 days in a penal colony (gulag). She left disguised in a food delivery outfit to escape the “woman hunt,” and nearly didn’t make it out. She is 33 years old; she was 22 when Pussy Riot was formed as an anti-Putin protest band. She’s been at this for 11 years and will continue her activism from outside Russia, something devoutly to be appreciated by Putin who has blacked out all media, theater, anything that is a protest, as he vitiates the Russian constitution by dissolving it into tyranny and despotism.

Like Alyokhina, many journalists/activists (including an Independent news organization I covered, Rain) have been forced to flee Russia and continue their news activities from neighboring countries. Putin imposed a 15 year jail sentence for those speaking about the war in Ukraine which he lies about as a “special operation.” He doesn’t want to disturb the remaining passive Russian people into activism against the horror that has been snuffed out in Russian media about the butchery, shelling, bombing, razing of buildings, rapes, murders of innocent civilians: women, children, older men.

According to Putin these pictures do not exist or Mariupol before and after (courtesy of the site)

Thus, Putin is redefining his “truth” of his war crimes and atrocities. “Special operation” is a euphemism for Ukrainian extinction, cultural eradication, and cleansing. What does war mean for Putin that he truth lies about? Disintegrating Ukrainian’s freedom of choice. Dissolving their sovereignty. After all, they are Russians. So his acts are just examples of Russian brotherly love. Right is left, war is peace, hate is love in the “ministry” (it’s a religion of Putin worship) of Putin’s “newspeak” truth.

“Newspeak” is from George Orwell’s 1984. Its function is to “limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate ‘subversive’ concepts such as personal identity, self-expression and free will. Such concepts are criminalized as “thoughtcrime” since they contradict the prevailing Ingsoc orthodoxy. (English socialism-it should have been Ingcom for English communism).

When you stop someone’s freedom to choose, you are a tyrant; for that there is no justification, unless of course, individuals choose to intentionally or negligently kill you with their plague. Then that’s a consideration for National Security and at the least a charge of manslaughter or negligent homicide.

(L to R): Andrey Kurkov, Gary Shteyngart discussion after the speech (Carole Di Tosti)

Interestingly, in his speech Kurkov discussed the curious nature of truth following Arthur Miller’s legacy in his writings standing against injustice and inhumanity to tell the “ugly” truth. With straight-faced irony Kurkov implied truth is without descriptors like ugly or pretty or inconvenient. Stripped away, it is and thus, must be recorded and chronicled. The descriptors are given by the one seeing it; the perspective of the one taking it in. Thus, one can be unemotional seeing or hearing about Russian soldiers’ rape, slicing off tongues, executing civilians, mass graves, burning of bodies, if one is Putin and those genocided are Ukrainians. That is Putin’s pretty truth, but it must be whitewashed, alchemized for the Russian populaces’ consumption, sweetening what is to make it easy to swallow.

I would add that since judgment comes from one’s upbringing and surrounding cultural influences (or brainwashing) in a culture where the ethic and law is “do no harm to others,” and “others” means any race, creed or color, then atrocities warrant censure. In Putin’s truth/lies, soldiers’ atrocities warrant rewards and medals.

(L to R): Putin, Oleg Deripaska before punitive sanctions and the genociding of Ukraine a long range plan of Putin (courtesy of the site)

Putin’s war and Kurkov’s being shelled the first few days until he left Kyiv, displaced him internally. Peter O’Toole, who was in London around the time of Germany’s bombings during WWII said something to the effect that there’s nothing like being bombed to set your priorities straight. The bombing and war dislocated Kurkov who said during the lecture:

“I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context, novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime. Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.”

“Ukrainians are determined to win,” he said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.”

Documenting the war crimes and genocide of Ukrainians in Bucha (courtesy of the site)

The Russian people simply don’t have to think about it. Putin has whitewashed the truth, prevented recordings of it, news articles, commentary on Social Media, all of it. Russian state media doesn’t televise or podcast discussions or reports about the butchery and bombings of the dust of Mariupol again and again, as remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still defy Putin by staying alive and resisting in various basements and the steel plant.

Russians don’t know this. My Russian neighbor in NYC doesn’t know this or swallows Putin’s sugar: the Nazis are being overrun. Thus, Russians are not upset by the “ugly” truth. It doesn’t hurt them. Is that moral? Well, Putin is protecting himself from their fury and protecting them from unspeakable pain and torment. It’s a “good” thing, until they realize when their sons don’t come home, the greatest betrayal in history has happened to them as they have been consciously or unconsciously, wittingly or unwittingly swept up in Putin’s national criminality.

Kurkov’s lecture should have been packed. It wasn’t. However, in the audience were Ukrainians and Russians familiar with Kurkov’s novels, screenplays and his writings as an intellectual and journalist. Kurkov was enlightening. IN PART 2, I comment on his lecture and quote from it.

‘After Image’ Poetry Book by Mary Turley-McGrath

In her fourth collection of poetry After Image, Mary Turley-McGrath focuses on reflections about her natural surroundings as they stir the soul in inspiration, and provide peaceful meditations and kernels of wisdom to feed the spirit. Mary Turley-McGrath’s lyricism is lush. Her images crystallize feeling and leave one in evocative remembrance of places, perhaps never seen, but hazarded by her luminous figures, i.e. “avian sky etchings” (“Mumuration”) “…then beamed a chaos of dappled, flickering shadows on alders, beech and birch, like disco strobe lights” (“Diorama”).

These illusive images of sight and sound, fleeting fragments, sift and ping one’s thoughts. They are savory spice on the tongue, at once striking and delectable. Her work must be revisited for these gem moments, satisfying and complete, a textured whole unto themselves.

The poet has organized her poetry collection bringing together disparate, yet familiar thematic and human elements in ‘Tesserae,’ ‘Annaghmakerrig’ and ‘Winter Poems.’ In the first section there are poems of loss supplanted by what is found, and history’s movement estranging one from his or her life, until revelation comes. Mary Turley-McGrath also references war and dislocation, of the desecration of the familiar into a dissolved identity that refugees struggle to overcome. And she contemplates works of art and ancient architecture as they land in powerful images she crafts beautifully. I particularly enjoyed “The Cordoba Scrolls.”

In the ‘Annaghmakerrig’ section the poet encapsulates the feeling evoked by the amazing Tyrone-Gutherie Centre, its shimmering lake, the shy wildlife, the lush environs, captivating in all seasons. It was there Mary Turley-McGrath stayed during a residency awarded to her as the winner of the Trócaire/Poetry Ireland Competition in 2014. And it was there, pursuing my own journalistic writing, that I connected with Mary and we exchanged information and discussed our work.

Bennu Bird (courtesy of the site)

Because I am familiar with the lovely environs, this section particularly resonated. Her poems brought the visions of the Big House and cottages set against the 500 acre wooded estate and alerted me to the varieties of birds that I did not see when I was there, because I focused on other activities. Her specificity and well drawn figures of speech align me with new eyes as I read this section. I see the gorgeousness of the gardens and grounds, the many varieties of trees, the effects of the light on the lake, the shadows and darkness. Above all, with each of her poems I retain the comfort and peace that encourages artistic inspiration, enlightenment and wisdom.

Heron (courtesy of the site)

I particularly loved “A Heron” enlarged to philosophical ruminations about the Bennu bird of Egyptian myth. Yet, all of the poems are profound in their meaning. In wisps and fragments they remind me of the Tyrone Gutherie Center, Annaghmakerrig in that time I visited. Every time I pick up After Image, I revisit beauty in my mind’s eye, in the rereading of this glorious section.

‘Winter Poems’ is a collection of impressions of darker feelings, bleaker tones, absence, loss and evacuation caused by war’s devastation. Some of these poems, as in the other sections, reference art. ‘In Black and White’ is a nod to the photographic work of Josef Sudek, who captured Prague and its environs after the two wars. And ‘Evening’ is a fitting close in remembrance of the inequity of those casualties of war thrown into conflicts and the darkness, displaced from their homes as the poet references a new age Aeneas.

After Image is a quiet read that comforts with its beauty and airy, yet profound quality. Nevertheless, its undertones remind us there is so much work to do to soothe those terrorized by present upheavals. Amidst the loveliness of the natural landscape, humans have made their impact. It must be for the good. We cannot afford anything else.

‘Leyna Gabriele,’ Sonnet in ‘Light Shifts’

Leyna Gabriele (courtesy of Leyna Gabriele

Upon the release of my second book (the first, a novel released a year ago-Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers) I decided to post selected sonnets from the In Memoriam section. The individuals I wrote sonnets about impacted my life. Whether I knew them or not, I felt a deep kinship to their work. In some instances, like Anthony Bourdain, I was able to connect in brief interviews at Tribeca Film Festival where he was promoting two films. (see my YouTube Channel). For Light Shifts, go to

The most personal of connections in this section of Light Shifts was with my cousin Leyna Gabriele. Leyna was my mother’s niece; they adored each other and my mother gave her the non-judgmental love she needed. She was devastated when my mother left the family in Fairmont, West Virginia, got married and moved to the New York City area. However, when Leyna pursued her opera career in New York City, she practically lived at our house on various weekends.

NYT Obituary of Leyna written by Sam Roberts (2019)

Leyna Gabriele died at 95 years old, thankfully, before the pandemic in 2019. Considering that our family would not have been able to be together to say goodbye to her, she selected the right time to leave us. Leyna was amazing to family, friends, work colleagues and all who made her acquaintance. And she was a Diva.

A lyric coloratura soprano who lived and worked in New York City, in 1954, she married Vito Pisa of Chez Vito, a Manhattan supper club (circa 1950s-1960s). At Chez Vito she and other professional opera singers performed opera and pop numbers, accompanied by violinists. In between songs she and Vito were host and hostess to Metropolitan Opera stars and celebrities of the theater world, politics, Hollywood and even notables of the scientific community (Werner von Braun).

Leyna’s voice was perfect for the role of Baby Doe in the Ballad of Baby Doe, an opera based on the real-life romance between silver magnate Horace Tabor and Elizabeth McCourt, known as Baby Doe. John Latouche wrote the libretto. Leyna helped Douglas Moore while he was composing the music at Columbia University. Her exceptional voice was capable of reaching the silvery notes that the role of Baby Doe required.

Douglas Moore, composer of ‘The Ballad of Baby Doe,’ and Leyna Gabriele, in her costume for Baby Doe (courtesy of Leyna Gabriele)

Dolores Wilson and Leyna alternated in the role of Baby Doe which she starred in the second night and subsequent performances after the opera opened in Central City Colorado in 1956. She was a fan-club idol for the DoeHeads (website: They are opera lovers who appreciate that The Ballad of Baby Doe is an American opera, written in English and conceived by an American librettist and American composer.

The DoeHeads frequently get together when The Ballad of Baby Doe is performed. They hope to see The Ballad of Baby Doe eventually presented at The Met. Leyna met with the DoeHeads one last time. Cousin Jim Gabriel accompanied her and together they watched the performance of The Ballad of Baby Doe and afterward, Leyna was lauded for being the first to work with Douglas Moore on the songs.

My poetry book Light Shifts is dedicated to Leyna. In the In Memoriam section, I included a brief account of my experience with Leyna growing up. She was there for my brother’s and my birth. I was by her side the day before she passed.

NYBG orchids at the 2020 Orchid Show ‘Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope’ (Carole Di Tosti)


All beauty, glamor, striking majesty,

You shined on paths you walked through light and dark,

And people noted, turned to look and see

Who was this presence bold, brave, vibrant, stark.

Most gracious, kind and loving with your kin

And friends alike who visited from afar,

But your competitive spirit’s ambition to win

Was gracefully tempered not to be a star.

Though star you were when we beheld your face,

As youngsters, Gabe and I admired you.

We felt your impact on our lives. Your Grace

Bestowed with laughter and Light, what’s real and true.

Oh Leyna. I pray God’s loving arms will keep,

You safe, secure in New Life. Rest in Peace.

Banned, ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegleman, a Travesty That Ridicules Itself

A panel from the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus I A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (courtesy of Art Spiegelman)

I taught a Holocaust unit years ago when I was teaching High School English. Maus I and Maus II were among the books I gave my classes who were at various skill levels, from Advanced Placement to Inclusion. We discussed the background elements of WWII and Nazi Germany. And in some classes we compared those events to what was happening during the rendition of “terrorists” who ended up at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush Jr. Cheney administration. We discussed censorship, rights and freedoms under the constitution and how Nazi Germany was guilty of human rights violations and crimes against humanity. We also discussed how the United States was guilty of human rights violations at various points in its history under both political parties.

The themes represented in Maus I and Maus II are universal and timeless. The story is historical and authentic in its evocative drawings and spiritual infusion of truth, as hard as that might be to recognize and acknowledge. It is because it is horrific to understand and difficult to acknowledge that Spiegelman’s graphic rendering of his father’s and mother’s experiences is in the cannon of great works of artistic and literary merit.

That those who have seen “fit” to ban it from their curriculum is puzzling. For it is these very individuals who would declare themselves patriots and free thinkers which Maus, in all of its graphic text and subtext uplifts and supports in the context of WWII Nazi Germany and Nazi oppression of religious freedom and human rights.

The only “human right” enjoyed in German occupied Europe was to support Hitler’s vision of Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. If you didn’t and publicly declared that you didn’t, you lost your human right to live and have your being in Germany or your occupied nation (France, The Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Belgium, Russian occupied territories, etc.). Publicly supporting or saving the enemies of Hitler (resisters, Jews, communists, Poles, Russians, handicapped, Romani, gays, etc.,) would land you in Auschwitz or another camp where you went to the gas chambers. Or to save money and food, you might be shot where you stood as many thousands were.

Austrian citizen Franz Jägerstätter, a devout spiritual Christian believed in the first two commandments (Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength; Love your neighbor as yourself). He was a conscientious objector and believed that killing another human being was not worthy of Christianity. He believed that one should lay down one’s life as Christ did, not take a life to keep Hitler usurping power over others.

A panel from the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus I, A Survivor’s Tale, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (courtesy of Art Spiegelman)

Thus, the Nazis and his frightened townspeople who came to hate Jägerstätter declared him an enemy of the Third Reich. He was sentenced to death and executed for his refusal to fight for Hitler’s ultimate cause. That cause was to subject all nations who did not follow Hitler’s religious beliefs, a combination of paganism and occultism that adhered to the idea of a Master Race.

Indeed, Hitlerism and Nazism was and is a repudiation of the Old and New Testaments and the foundation of three global religions. To think otherwise is a distortion of the occult basis of the Nazi’s beliefs. Nazis were never Christians; that was a blind. If they were, they never would have taken the monstrous stance to act against God’s chosen people and human rights. They never would have committed crimes against humanity.

On a thematic level Spiegelman’s Maus contains the authentic testimonies of how the eradication of human rights as a systematic organizing principle destroys the destroyers and elevates those they attempt to destroy. In the name of power we see annihilation and suffering; the criminal losers cannot win with ideas whose basis is lies, for there are always witnesses who will survive to tell the truth.

The wisdom expressed as Spiegelman conveys with skill and emotional power “how his father bleeds history” is as old as humanity and worthy of reviewing at any age, the younger the better. Such wisdom saves lives and encourages hope. Banning wisdom and hope is an impossibility. Light always leaks into dark rooms. The tighter the doors are locked, the more folks struggle to open them. Banning these great works is a travesty that ridicules itself.

Nevertheless, I agree with Art Spiegelman that this is a “red alert” and more will follow. In this tide of times, that this country founded with the intention and hope of amending freedoms generationally to include every race, creed, color, gender should ban such a work in the 21`st century is not only a travesty, it is a tragedy.

The Faulkner Society’s BIG READ Events at Words and Music, NOLA

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square in New Orleans, near the world famous Cafe du Monde. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square in New Orleans, near the world famous Cafe du Monde. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit one of my most favorite cities on earth, New Orleans, Louisiana. The occasion was cover the 2014 Words and Music, a Literary Feast which is sponsored by The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and organized by the Society’s Co-Founder, Rosemary James. The Faulkner Society is a nationally recognized non-profit arts organization. As such it is a literary and educational institution. It receives grant donations, membership contributions, and contributions to their fundraisers all of which are fully tax deductible.

As I sat in on Master Classes and Workshops, networked with Editors and Publishers and Presenters, I noted in the catalog for Words and Music many events listed as a “BIG READ EVENT.” I knew that The Faulkner Society created and supported outreach programs for high school and college students and literacy projects for at-risk teenagers. As I networked with individuals at the Words and Music “literary feast,” I became apprised about how BIG READ projects funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were integrated seamlessly in Words and Music. I further learned how The Faulkner Society embraces the BIG READ in its mission and integrates BIG READ projects in its endeavors.

Joseph J. DeSalvo, Jr. (owner of Faulkner House Books) and  Rosemary James, Co-Founder of The Faulkner Society, organizer of Words and Music. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Joseph J. DeSalvo, Jr. (owner of Faulkner House Books and on the board of The Faulkner Society) and Rosemary James, Co-Founder of The Faulkner Society, organizer of Words and Music. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

What is the BIG READ?

The National Endowment for the ARTS (NEA) identified the tremendous need in our modern technological culture that reading in part had fallen by the wayside. Indeed, Gore Vidal had mentioned in numerous interviews before he died in 2012 that “Americans don’t read.” The BIG READ is a program created by NEA to bring back reading to the center of American culture. This program provides competitive grants to support innovative reading programs in designated communities.

A typical street in New Orleans' French Quarter where the Hotel Monteleone is located toward Canal Street. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

A typical street in New Orleans’ French Quarter where the Hotel Monteleone is located toward Canal Street. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

As a former English teacher and professor I saw students struggle through reading literature. I worked tirelessly for 33 years attempting to improve students’ reading and appreciation of literature from 9-12, from Special Ed students to college level English and Advanced Placement Literature students. I taught in a district on Long Island where over half of the students were on reduced or free lunch. They often did not grow up in a reading household as I did; their parents often worked two jobs to put food on the table, if there were two parents. Sometimes parents or single parents did not encourage reading because their own reading skills were limited and it was painful to read. This situation happens nationally in many districts and certainly in New Orleans. So I was doubly thrilled to learn that wonderful literacy programs are alive and well. I felt a complete synchronicity as a former educator and professor and current writer and journalist when I discovered that a mission for The Faulkner Society’s was literacy and that they had exciting BIG READ projects encouraging literacy and appreciation of literature.

I became familiar with BIG READ during Words and Music and I must say I am impressed. Every day during Words and Music, there were a number of BIG READ events. Each of them was integrated into highlighting and revisiting the themes and experiences of the characters in the 2014 BIG READ focus book, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. Some of the events were on site at the Hotel Monteleone in the Queen Anne Ballroom. One example was the session that featured successful screenwriters and novelists, Carleton Eastlake and Loraine Despres. The workshop was on Creating Compelling Characters for Books, TV, and Film. Participants in the workshop were to have read Mengestu’s book. Eastlake’s and Despres’ discussion centered around how Mengestu created memorable characters and distinguished them through specific details, for example, their will to power, their conflicts with others, their backgrounds, their desires and goals.

The Words and Music catalog featuring the schedule of events, many BIG READ events. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The Words and Music catalog featuring the schedule of events, many BIG READ events. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Some BIG READ events occurred off site of Hotel Monteleone. One was held at Loyola University, Dana Hall. This was a BIG READ and PAN AMERICAN connections event. The title of the session was Immigration: It’s Human Toll and Its Inspiration for the Arts and Cultural Enrichment. The event was free and open to the public. This session was a joint venture with Loyola’s Center for Latin American Studies and Caribbean Studies directed by Uriel Quesada, Ph.D. The session featured Luis Alberto Urrea, Mexican-born American poet and bestselling author of the non-fiction book The Devil’s Highway and other works. The former Louisiana Poet Laureat Darrell Bourque open and closed the program with poems related to the migration of Acadians from Nova Scotia to Louisiana and how that migration greatly impacted Louisiana and enriched the culture.

Words and Music 2014 included many other BIG READ events which can be seen online at The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society website. There you will be able to browse through the Faulkner Society, note its mission and endeavors and gain an understanding of how innovation should be at the heart of literacy. It is vital that we who adore the written word and find reading an easy facility encourage this skill especially for those at-risk, young and old and not just those who are uneducated, but those who have an education and who do not read longer works but read short bursts online.

We live in an age that requires we read extensively and widely if we are to keep our vision of a democratic society viable and manifest in our political system. As part of this reading we need to be able to read critically and hone our critical thinking skills to differentiate the unsupported blather and straw man arguments from those works that are well supported with rational argument and facts. Worthy literature and non fiction are what inspire us to live and get through to the next day. It is paramount that BIG READ continue and that organizations like The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society continue to make magic for others.

If you are interested in reading more about the annual endeavors of The Faulkner Society in New Orleans, then check out their website linked in the first part of this sentence. Or contact to ask questions and learn more.


Writers! Regardless of Where You Stand in the Publishing Game, Enhance Your Social Media Presence.

dim sum, writing article, spiegleman 011

A Spiegelman fan,I purchased this copy at a used bookstore.

Brilliant best selling graphic artist and Pulitzer prizewinner Art Spiegelman of Maus I and Maus II fame struggled to get his work out there in the early 1970s. It was a process and there was even rejection of his incredible, iconic work. (Words cannot describe the graphic artistry and meaning of what he has done with Maus I and Maus II. You just have to check it out for yourself or not.) When he was attempting to get his book Breakdowns  published (before he created Maus I) it didn’t go swimmingly. Decades later, after his many awards, global recognition and other publications, his editor at Pantheon was all for re-issuing Breakdowns and this time, Spiegelman was surprised and hesitant. But things had changed by 2007. You mean publishing and the cultu1re had galactically shifted from the days that Art Spiegelman was first establishing his career? Duh!

In those days, for Spiegelman, getting published was not unimportant. To many today, it is golden. It is the dream of established writers who may have faced writer’s block after years of success. It is the dream of those who have fallen off the charts and out of the hearts of former readers. It is the dream of the published whose first, second and third books have middling sales that  tapered to .001% so that literary agents and editors won’t go near them. (Low percentages? Nil profit margins? Are you insane? How can the media  CEOs sustain tremendous salaries and bonuses with such schlocky sales numbers?) It is the dream of the working writer who has written and published one book and is working on another in the hope of changing publishers/ agents and getting a better deal, though the first book sales were abysmal. The variables of situation are endless, unless of course, one is a hot name with an extensive platform, i.e. Bill O’Reilly (in which case the greatness of the work is immaterial, as long as there is name recognition and a ready mega platform).

The irony has been that for the last century, concepts and particular literati who have been favored by elites, the wealthy or politicos have been highly publicized. This creates an inherent censorship. The gatekeepers, the literary agents, the large presses have kept it that way to fuel ideas that elitists wanted the public to believe and be bound in by. So traditional media has worked in concert with the very wealthy. (Perhaps it is why Spiegelman was rejected for publication until he found an intelligent, prescient SMALL publisher who took a chance on him.) In many instances the middle class and general public’s reading tastes have been tailored to what elites have deemed, “great,” though their standards are merely opinions and predominately skewed to their agendas. Their concepts of great craft, writing and artistry often beggar the imagination.

Salman Rushdie 001

Salman Rushdie tweets with his fans on Twitter and actually did battle last year with Facebook, winning with his great humor, irony and wit. Social media is one of the best ways to connect and keep in touch with your readers.

Needless to say, European publishers, more intellectual, knowledgeable in breadth and scope, courageous and less censoring, have allowed titles in that NEVER WOULD HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED IN THE US. And yet, we think we are a free and open democracy?  (We are told that by traditional media hirelings though many medical books and controversial political content find publishing friends overseas or in Canada.) Well…traditional publishing has relied on TV to gather its stable of often un-meritorious but profitable properties.  Writers, unfortunately, have been at the mercy of these “experts” in the field who often consider the art and craft of a work last, and consider the saleability first.

apple 003

Apple was one of the companies sued by the DOJ for price collusion.

This former “state of the art” for the industrial media complex has been upended by Google. It has been overturned by Amazon, undercut by Facebook and thwarted by Twitter and other social media platforms and growing spheres like Storylane.  How? Subtly and not so surreptitiously. When traditional media realized it had lost its edge and destroyed the bee hives producing their honey, their fear and greed and inability to ADAPT or wrap their brains around what was happening spurred them into old paradigm interventions that worked before: lobbying and price collusion.

Mistake.  They’ve been held accountable and have been sued by the DOJ and a few have had to settle while others collude with the government for the best deal which may not be forthcoming since their profitability is much lower than Google’s and Amazon’s. You see traditional media became so comfy with their century long oligolopoly that they were caught up short without a chamber pot when Amazon undersold them. That’s all they could come up with to compete? While they were riding out the waves of the past, their navigation misdirected by the old paradigm, the innovators, like a huge roller, a mammoth tidal wave, a mega tsunami, capsized their hopes and dreams of profits. Now, they are paddling slowly while growing social media networks and companies like Google continue their innovations, investing money in R & D to create better product and to entice readers, writers and developers to improve.

Bottom line? Google is swamping the media that was!  I will not refer to the traditional publishers by name. Unless they begin to accept mid-list and beginning writers, offering them credible crumbs, the writing community will eschew them completely in favor of working with e-publishers, small publishers, Createspace, et. al, and those in the online publishing paradigm. I give these censoring publishers who will have to spend more and more on costly promotions and PR campaigns less than 20 years. Unless they begin to innovate to create the “next best thing,” or unless they merge with Amazon or Google (Why would those companies want to merge with inefficient, ineffective, archaic and intractable platforms?) they will have disappeared, become a ghost memory, a ridiculous faux nightmares of elitism from which we have awakened. What was the name of that book seller that went bankrupt because its innovations were too little too late? Innovate or perish. Big name publishers are slowly writhing in the mud as their hand maidens, the agents, the PR personnel, the editors struggle, sucked downward with them, sinking further into the shifting, miry clay soon to be swallowed up in a sinkhole of their own making.

The diminishing present trend is that,unless you are President Obama or a politico or a faux or worthy celebrity, a salable commodity, a publishing company will not market you. You have to market yourself. Even if you are President Obama, you have to market yourself, appearing on old media, TV, etc. Wasn’t it Michelle Obama I saw ripping open the envelope for the Best Picture Oscar last night, via a feed from the White House? Folks, the President is savvy enough to have his social media hordes and teams busy marketing him online. It’s why the Republicans have been doing unmentionables in the dark. They can’t get into the light of Twitter/ Facebook, et. al. and sound rational.

dim sum, writing article, spiegleman 013

Kristen Lamb, author, blogger and a member of the online writing community who inspires and nudges writers to get on with the craft and be persistent in achieving their goals.

So, writers, if it’s good enough for the Prez, it should be good enough for you. Kristen Lamb, social media maven and author, in a recent blog post discussed the hard work it takes to position yourself on social media platforms to establish a working, interactive community from which you can promote and sell your books. If you think it will take too much time, then hire a team to help you. Using hashtags, and signings and promotions and launches, you will be able to promote yourself on social media and continue to do so, long after a traditional publishing company has left you to ROT.

nina amir 001-001

Nina Amir is a motivational coach who helps writers and non writers achieve their goals and live inspired lives.

How do you do this if you have been out of the loop for some time and find Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube and Reddit loathsome? GET OVER YOURSELF! SNAP OUT OF IT! Swallow, take a deep breath and sign on for social media classes online. If you are a woman writer, then check into WOW  Women on Writing. If you prefer live and hands on, there are many Continuing Ed. courses at various universities or colleges near you. Hopefully, you are not in this dire condition.

To help yourself and your writing career regardless of where you are…pick up the bullet at your current situation:

  • Read about social media and take classes to learn how to post and interact on the most powerful sites (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.)
  • Start a few blogs and blog about subjects related to your writing, making sure to increase your readership and followership daily. Read other blogs faithfully and post comments on them, inviting them to guest on your blog.
  • Be willing to spend at least 3-4 hours a day on social media and the same on your writing. Alternate this according to a schedule you make for yourself if you can’t spend the time.
  • Once you’ve created a viable interacting platform and joined writers’ groups including those on Linked In and elsewhere, create your book pages and invite your followers.
  • Somewhere in between all of this, you are writing your book, editing it or sending it out to be edited or working with an editor or an agent you get along with; one who is a friend and one you can trust.
  • If you have done all of the above years ago and are in a slump, change it up and do something different. Shut down all online interaction for a day or a number of hours. Then review what seems to be working and what isn’t and jettison both for another day or period of hours. Go back and reassess and research. The change up will spur you on and revitalize you. If it doesn’t, seek a coach or someone to help you get out of the funk or open this up to your online writing community. Share, ask for comments and advice. Eventually the watershed moment will come. (Skip below as needed and move to the last paragraph.)

This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with your online writing community and your team of writing friends who are intelligent, creative wordsmiths. You will keep many; you will lose many, but the journey is amazing, and eventually what was the hard work, when you look back after a year of doing this, will not appear to be so arduous after all.

dim sum, writing article, spiegleman 012

The following 2 sources might be helpful for those who are beginning, or those who have taken a hiatus and need to get back into it especially if you feel overwhelmed. I apologize for not including many more, but these should whet your appetite and they are easy.

Online writing source with classes: WOW Women on Writing.  (Men can take these classes as well. They are not maternalistic.) I took classes with WOW and found them to be what I needed. I also had to put in the time to learn by trial and error. I have writing friends who refuse to do this and their many publications languish, but they are trying to use other venues to get going. (traditional media venues)

Helpful BooksHow to Blog a Book  by Nina Amir

We are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb

Your successful publishing career can take years, but so can publishing via the traditional way, which may never come to pass as the industry is reeling in a downward spiral toward doom. I have a friend who self-published because he said he was getting old and he wanted to see his books in print. That was his dream. What is yours? Are you using your social media presence to achieve it?

My Bite of the Apple Part I (Redacting Steve Jobs)

Apple, the forbidden fruit

Excited to buy my first iPhone? I guess. but it wasn’t an outer body experience as buying Apple products has been for some.  Maybe that’s because I’m a techie fail, a black hole when it comes to understanding mother boards and code and building cloud infrastructure and sequencing networks.  I can figure things out if directions are given to me? But that’s it. I am one step above tech illiterate doggie doo with a single digit IQ. So if you are an uptown geek, then you will probably stop reading right about now.

After I got the iPhone, was I ebullient, addicted, umbilical corded? Nah. Actually, since I had a Motorola as well, can you believe my iPhone became my secondary phone to use in case I needed to reference something online? I preferred my old MO, my laptop, my Motorola for calls, the iPhone for referencing. I didn’t like the touch screen so much and since I type at the speed of light, slowing to one finger “tough” could never approach any viable functioning beyond snail pace to input type. That made me  pissy. So, I hobbled along in the comfort of the tech semi-dark ages. But I was acutely aware of the awe this gadget produced in others whenever I pulled it out to reference something. Swoons, gasps, exclamations of approval filled the air as if this thing  gave me character and substance and not the other way round. Frankly, I thought it amusing at the time and felt somewhat flattered that I was almost “in.” (I had never been “in” in HS. In college as a hippie, yes…but HS has its own sting and that poison was difficult to expurgate.)

iPads I lusted over but balked at purchasing.

Was it this faux flattery that percolated my appetite to lust for another bite of the forbidden fruit? I thought about buying an iPad. Did I need it? Do I need another piece of jewelry (Most of it is in the safe deposit box.)? I thought, well, I could compose  my news articles easily without dragging my laptop around. Granted my laptop was small, and it worked well…everything there that I needed. I admit it. The super hype about the iPads was irresistible and the reveal had my heart and head feening.  And at times there were visceral urges that I just had (I mean short of waiting in line for three days. I’m not insane.) to have one of those fabulous, incredible, virtual portals that professionals would be sashaying around with them like progeny.  But when I was up close and personal with an iPad my friend (a line waiter) had, I thought, but I love my laptop.  Why do I need two cameras?  Taking pictures with an iPad is so pretentious, like you want everyone to know it’s an iPad you are taking a picture with. Big deal. (I know, I know. I can hear the geeks moaning about my fecal cephalic lack of appreciation for the iPad’s prodigious design and flawless tech perfection.)

But once you have that first bite, you become hooked. Like a confused obeser who doesn’t know she’s full (I used to be obese; I can say that word.) I had to indulge and buy another Apple product.  Maybe I’d even join the holy crowd and worship at the shrine of awesomeness, becoming an owner of Apple, you know, get a few shares?  The company’s earnings were spectacular, market share flying high like a dirigible with iPhones and iPads selling so rapidly the company couldn’t keep up production. Global sales…mega, mega.  I like, thousands of others, regretted not buying the company when it nearly went belly up and Jobs came back in glory to take it over again after the board kissed his feet and became his willing slaves. I wouldn’t buy a lot of stock, just enough (100 shares) for it to be a symbol that I endorsed everything Steve Jobs stood for as an enlightened, Renaissanced, man of goodness, a shining glory.

So I went to Apple and I looked at the iPad. But I balked at the point of purchase. I had a headache. Over the next few days, I looked at other tablets and smaller laptops. I discussed the iPad with as many geeks as I could. I hesitated. Like a hunger pang that abates, my lust fled. Not sure why. Maybe because I would have to pay for a lot of stuff I needed, buying from the iTunes store, cha ching? I was sick of doing that on the iPhone. The interface with Mozilla that was paramount, I would have to tweak. And I had issues with my iPhone which was slowing. And two cameras? What for two cameras? I had enough cameras I wasn’t using: 35 mm beauties and digitals (top of the line when they first came out).

So instead, I went for another Apple product, their top of the line wireless router that I could stream with from Montauk (I live in NYC). My uncontrollable appetite did rear her fat head, you see? But this bite left me with a  bitter taste:  it was unappetizing and I got indigestion. The router was really pricey and weird to put together. And I had a hell of a time configuring it to my PC. Annoyed at my tech incompetence and blaming my bad gut, I returned it and bought a well reputed router that  a one-year-old could set up. And I left the rising market share of Apple stock for the birds of the air to pluck. But since my phone contract was up, I purchased the next generation iPhone, knowing I would use it minimally, relying on another phone. My appetite for this next bite, though not particularly nourishing or filling was vital to my ego, cultural sensibilities and ethos. I indulged my lust.

Apple Store, Grand Central Station

And then Steve Jobs died. I wrote an article for Technorati and saw the TV programs about his genius, reheard his Stanford speech for the hundredth time and admired the man who was like a mastermining god, the new savior who walked on tech waters.  Again and again it was repeated, his ambition, his “drive for perfection” and his “we’ll never see his like again,” and his business acumen and ruthlessness, all wonderful praise for an icon that geeks wept over, no exaggeration. (There were folks unrelated to his family who sobbed over his loss.) It was only a day later after I muted all the static that it came to me. The geeks who owed their changed lives to Jobs? The change was all theirs and had little to do with the man or the gadgets and in fact, they might have become someone greater if not someone else despite him not because of his Apple. But irrevocably, they had tied their own identities with Jobs; they were him and he was them. And they rued the days ahead because how would they be able to function without him to market the wonder and the magic of their addiction and keep their lives meaningful?

And then after Jobs was in the ground a few months, the dam broke and the waters roiled. What had been dredged up in secret and silted and drained away with each reveal of the next generation iPad and iPhone product could be stemmed no longer. Enter Foxconn. And slowly by revelation of a different kind, we began to understand the identity of the king serpent who delivered the Apple to us to eat.

%d bloggers like this: