And The 2014 Oscar For Best Picture Goes To....

As my good friend Charles Osgood (I don't really know him, but I feel like I do) says on CBS' Sunday Morning, here's the Academy Awards, by the numbers. Today is February 5. The Academy Awards show is on March 2. I have seen 5 of the 9 nominated films. I have 25 more viewing days to see them all by Oscar night. 

I will review them in the order I viewed them

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and featuring Barkhad Abdi and other native Somalis, tells the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-Flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years. 

My expectations of the movie were more or less neutral. Upon coming out of the theater, I held it in high regard.  I cared very much about the characters. I knew that the captain was going to make it through, but I did not know how and I knew nothing about the other crew members, if and how they would survive. It speaks well of a movie when you care about these things. 

The other aspect of the film that was most riveting was the portrayal of the so called pirates by this group of previously unknown, non-actors who had been recruitedwell, actually they auditioned for the parts, from a Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Barkhad Abdi and the others played the parts so well, they were so captivating that you felt like it was really happening, as though it had been videoed. I give the film a B+

Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (he also directed the movie), tells the story, based on the book,The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, of a world-weary political journalist (Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book) who half-halfheartedly decides to pick up the story of a woman's search for her son, who was taken from her decades before, after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. My only complaint about the movie was the way Philomena was initially portrayed, as if she were in the thralls of early dementia. She appeared somewhat dim witted and lacking nuance in her comprehension of Martin's dialog. As the movie progressed, it became clear that she in fact had a sense of humor and was in complete control of her faculties. 

In any case, the film is filled with feeling, yet not at all sentimental. It is a well told story with excellent performances, perhaps award worthy for "Dame" Dench. I give it a B+

American Hustle, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Brad Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. (I would have seen it, if for no other reason than to see him in a movie) was a movie I did not expect to like. Just the 1970's clothes and slick and greasy and tightly curled and combed-over men's hairstyles were enough to turn my stomach. The story is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, of the late 70's, early 80's, in which the FBI employed con artists to carry out sting operations. I really was not that interested to see this played out.

Well, was I ever surprised to leave this movie thinking it may be the one to win that coveted Oscar. The film far exceeded my expectations. One description I read called it "delicious debauchery" and that just begins to tell the story. 

American Hustle was at one moment so intimate and real, that you felt yourself imposing by watching and then at another, so totally crazy, like zonky crazy, that you can't believe they are doing what they are doing, but they are and you can't take your eyes off the screen. I think every one of the main actors (female and male) is deserving of a prize. We'll see. I give this one an A. 

Nebraska, starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb (not very well known until now) was a movie that I expected to love, after seeing coming attractions and having read and heard several interviews of a few of the actors. I did not love it, quite the opposite. It was for the most part dreary and, dare I say it, boring. It was in Black & White, which often adds a special dimension to a movie, but in this case, I think some color may have added a much needed dimension. 

The 'road trip' scenes were long and tedious. After all, there's just so much one can watch the flat prairie land going by, before finding one's eyes closing. The 'father-son' scenes missed the mark. And the people scenes made Nebraskans look like a bunch of dead-heads (and I don't mean as in The Grateful Dead), at best and less than intelligent, at worst. If they were not sitting immobile faced in front of sport TV, they were trying to beg, borrow or steal the money they thought their otherwise uninteresting relative or friend had supposedly won in a sweepstakes.

In fairness, Bruce Dern played the part of Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic, overly-trusting and mostly catatonic character to a 'T'. However, he'd already played the part in the HBO series, "Big Love". There was one saving grace in the movie. The actress's name is Angela McEwan and she plays the part of Peg Nagy, the owner of the town's small newspaper, who tells Woody's son, Will Forte as David Grant, about the relationship she had had with Woody before he married. She was soft spoken and completely real. She  totally drew me in to her character, though she was only on the screen for a few minutes. I would have liked to have seen more of her. It may have changed my opinion of the movie. I give it a C-.

Her, stars Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johanson as the voice of the "operating system".  It is about a lonely writer of email letters for special occasions, who develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that is designed to meet his every need, by being programmed with intuition and desire to know and understand it's owner. 

I start this review with a question. Why did the main character, Theodore, wear his trousers high-waisted like a nerd from the 50's? And why did the fly on these pants start all the way up where the belt hoops ought to be, but were not, because there was no belt? OK, I think I may already know the answer or at least an explanation after the fact. I just did a bit of research and found this... "Joaquin Phoenix's high-waisted Her Trousers go on sale. The sci-fi pants worn by the hero of Spike Jonze's Oscar-tipped romance form the centerpiece of a new fashion collection inspired by the film. They are destined to be the legwear of choice for the hipster cineaste in 2014". 

I went into this movie wondering what it was about and more importantly, why? I knew it was directed and written by Spike Jonze (not to be confused with Spike Lee) and I'd done some homework on him before I went to see the movie, Where The Wild Things Are and I became interested in him from that. So, this movie, Her, had Spike Jonze in its favor.

The coming attractions looked, well, silly. And parts of the movie were silly, like when Theodore is running through a courtyard with a huge smile on his face and so happy to be alive because he's finally found his soul-mate, even if she is only virtual! Who doesn't want a significant other who really gets you, who truly likes, even loves you for exactly who you are. We all want that "perfect" someone, though in reality no one is perfect. Samantha (the name Theo's virtual love gives herself) is perfect, well she starts off perfect. 

What I liked about the film was that it made you think about relationship in general. I found myself thinking a lot throughout, like for example, how it's so much easier to know a person via emails and messaging than in person because you can be so smart and witty and you never have to actually smell a person's breath or be annoyed by a stupid expression on their face or...well, you get the idea. Going back to silly, or maybe not so much silly as predictable, the relationship with this gorgeous, sexy voice (a la Johanson) goes the way of (Spoiler Alert!) most relationships with flesh and blood; in that real emotions get in the way, like jealousy and fear and selfishness (is that an emotion?) and feeling abandoned. Amy Adams, who plays Amy, a neighbor and good friend of Theo, is one of the best things about the movie. She is one hell of an actor and it's no surprise that she's in two of the nominated films  and she herself is nominated for actress in a leading role in American Hustle.

I would not say I did not like this movie, as I expected not to, but I also didn't really like it a lot. I give it a C+. 

So, that's the 5 movies I've seen to date. Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave...await me.

Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is a movie that must be seen at the theater and preferably in -IMAX 3D. It's just that kind of movie. I believe, seen any other way, will lose what makes the movie so totally engrossing. Although it's always nice to keep your eyes peeled on the beautiful George Clooney, it is Sandra Bullock who makes the film amazing, well Bullock and all of the special effects. I loved seeing a space movie where the female astronaut was central and key to the meaning of the movie. It was one of those "I'm lost, but now I'm found" experiences, but this time done in outer space. 

I read a critique criticizing the direction and writing, both done by Alfonso Cuaron, better known for Y Tu Mama Tambien, for making Bullock's character, Ryan, not strong enough, not able enough and not nuanced enough. I might agree with the lacking of nuance in character development overall, but I found myself relating to Bullock's character because she was not a hero astronaut, but she got through it through her own tenacity, which at times seemed limited, but it pulled her through. The camera got so close to her face and it was here in her face, that you could see nuance. I loved her performance in this movie. 

Some may, and have, found fault with the movie, Gravity, but two things are for sure. One is that it has to win for best cinematography. Two is that despite any fault, I did not take  my eyes off of the screen for one second. It was that compelling. I give it a B+. 

Last evening I saw the 7th of the 9 movies nominated for Best Picture of 2013. The movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, was not an easy one for me to watch, but I watched it with absolute attention. It affected me on a visceral level and after the credits, I got up and shouted, “I hated that movie”, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of my movie-mate, Haim. In talking about the film, just after viewing it, I had a hard time thinking of it as merely a movie because I wasn't sure if, to some degree, it wasn't justifying the debauchery that it portrayed.

The film was an adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir chronicling his rise and fall on Wall Street and his hard-partying, addiction-fueled personal life, spilling and overflowing into his professional life. If the intent of the movie is to show the “American Dream” on Quaaludes, then it hit its mark. But what bothered me was that though the main character, who is the epitome of greed, lust, drunk on power, money grubbing, conceit and worse, he never really gets his just desserts. Yes, (spoiler alert!) he is ultimately found guilty of money laundering and some other financial misdeeds, but because he agrees to “cooperate” with the feds (who for me were the good guys here) and name names of his former close friends and associates, his punishment is minimal and in the end he still, to some extent, succeeds to succeed. Belfort's lack of comeuppance for his misdeeds, serves to highlight what is wrong with the economic world of America.

Many people will see The Wolf of Wall Street as a thoroughly entertaining movie. It is filled in excess with nudity, sex, profanity and drugs up the yin yang, to such an extent that it loses any shock value it may have had the first or second or third or fourth time around. Maybe that’s the point. 

From the point of view of movie making, I did think Leonardo DiCaprio was extraordinary. His face and body go through so many different permutations, I thought he was a chameleon. Jonah Hill was very good, but his teeth annoyed and distracted me. He reminded me of some other past actor that I couldn't and still can’t place.
Maybe it’s not fair to say, but I hope this film does not win any awards. I give it a C.

 Here's my updated analysis of "Wolf". I just watched the interview of Leonardo DiCaprio by Lee Cowan on CBS Sunday Morning and having learned why and how DiCaprio got the movie made, after 7 years trying, my opinion was altered. “Because the world that we live in seems to be very surreal sometimes," DiCaprio said, "The incessant need for more is a part of our culture, and I see it all around me. And you know, doing this movie we wanted to put that darker nature of humanity up on screen." I see the intention was not to laud the sickening excesses, but to expose it. I maintain that there was an excess of the excess...girls parading around nude and seducing the boorish men, having sexual intercourse on any available surface...point made, taken...move on!!! But, still I up my grade to a B.

I have been knocking my brain about to figure out who Jonah Hill reminded me of with those overstated teeth of his in "Wolf of Wall Street" and it just came to me. Alan King, the comedian and actor who I liked, but he too had that look of a mouth full of newly CAPPED TEETH!

Dallas Buyer's Club is the 8th of the 9 nominated films I have seen. Unfortunately I viewed this one on my TV via Amazon Instant Video. I say unfortunately because I don't think one ever gets the full effect of a movie by viewing it outside of the movie theater. I paused it a few times and I became distracted. But since the Academy Awards is next weekend, I am making exceptions to  my own rule.

My initial reaction to this movie was enough already with America's excess of decadence, enough alcohol abuse, enough drugs and enough illicit sex. I have seen enough degeneracy in the past few months of movie viewing to last me a life time. As the movie progressed, however, I understood why it was nominated for best picture, and Matthew McConaughey for best actor and especially, Jared Leto for best supporting actor. 

The film takes place in 1985 Dallas, where an electrician and hustler, Ron Woodroof (another movie based on the real character), is filled with anger when diagnosed with AIDS (must be a mistake, "I'm not a homosexual"), and works around the system to get the medications he needs, by any means. He eventually starts a "buyers club" to help other AIDS patients get medications not available in the US, while, of course, filling his own pockets. Talk about hard to watch, viewing the good looking actor, Matthew McConaughey as a stick thin sickly looking victim, one must give him credit for his total lack of vanity in playing this role. He plays it beautifully (in the broadest sense of the word). 

If eliciting tears is an indication of greatness, this movie will win for sure. But, then crying is one of my strengths, some might even say easily elicited. Once again America's foibles take center stage, greed, stupidity, lack of compassion and over-bureaucratizing .  This time it is seen in pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment and the FDA. The movie isn't always easy to watch, but it's easy to see why you should. I give it a B+.


♫♫♫ I'm A Middle Aged Woman ♫♫♫ - Sherril's 60th Birthday Party October 2011


Today is a blustery cold day, Sunday, January 26, 2013, over two years since my 60th birthday, which means now I have to get my head around the age 62, instead of that younger age of 6o. I'm procrastinating going outside with a heavy basket of laundry and walking around my building to the laundry room. So, it came to me to watch this video of me singing the very funny and clever song written by LISA KOCH "I'm a Middle-Aged Woman" - YouTube, a song that women around the world, experiencing menopause, peri-menopause or post-menopause can relate to. A friend of my daughter filmed it and it is my daughter you see near the beginning coming up to help me with the microphone. My "backup" group are some of my friends all of whom were either fanning themselves or feeling like they wanted to and all Beautiful Dancing Babes! The party signified a passage in my life into years and ages I never thought I'd be, but now that I am there, I'm trying to "be here now" and be me!


Classic Movies Not Always B&W

I haven't always liked classic old movies, but it seems the older I get, the more I do. The day I wrote this was a snowy, blustery day, I'd been watching them on the Turner Classic movie station (TCM). It started with "On the Town", a corny musical with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin as three sailors who dock in New York City and proceed to "do" the town and meet some pretty ladies, all of whom sing and dance and say corny lines and make corny dance moves and the more I watched, the more I could appreciate the corniness, the dance steps, the music and think about the times the movie was made in. I"d never heard of Jules Munshin before and wondered why his name was unfamiliar, even though he'd played such a significant role in such a famous movie.

Two actresses singing the song, "For the Boy I left Behind". The blond in the pink pj's that look like long underwear, shows her nipples. Never, in a 1940's movie, but there it is. The PJ's themselves very unusual for the time. 1945 movie, Tonight and Every Nigh, takes place in a seedy old music hall, which never misses a performance even at the height of the "blitz" a previously unknown movie to me..another strange thing that caught my attention...a young German dancer is auditioning for the show which I assume is a German show made for the enjoyment of the Allies. He is dancing to the "tune" of Hitler's voice and the roaring sound of the audience cheering him on and it ends with the dancer doing the Heil Hitler sign. It gave me the chills and as far as the movie was concerned, it had no significance, well, it did contine the plot. OMG, the color in this movie was spectacular, at times too spectacular...a little to red in the face.The film was used as a Technicolor vehicle for Rita Hayworth after her success with Cover Girl. The Blitz...London was burning, but the show must go on.


I finally saw Amour  at the movies yesterday (it's only playing at a few theaters in NJ; we caught it at the South Orange Clearview Cinemas). I had read much about it, so was prepared to have a ton of strong, sad feelings. For most of the movie, I did feel deeply, but the extraordinarily and tortuous slow pace of the movie, conflicted a bit with emotion and overall appreciation. Then something happened that left me feeling, well, nothing. The movie went to my head and left my heart. For those who haven't seen it yet and plan on it, consider this a "spoiler alert". After the husband smothers his wife with the pillow (which I found as a huge relief), from that point on, I did not understand clearly what the rest of the movie meant. For example, what was the reason for cutting off the heads of the stemmed flowers into the sink of water? My friend suggested it was akin to what the Hindus do with flowers in water after death. But, there was no religiosity up to that point in the film. When he taped up the door, which door was it? I thought it to be the bedroom door, in order to hide the smell of a putrefying body. My friend said it was the front door. But then, why? I didn't get that he also killed himself. My fellow movie goer said that he put on the gas to do so. That never occurred to me. When the daughter comes in at the end, I expected her to call for her parents, before I realized that she must have known already that they were dead (I thought it was only the mother, however). Of course, I remember how the movie started with the police coming into the house, with hands up to their noses and some wearing masks over their mouths and noses. Again, I read this as means against putrefaction. One may get the idea that I have a smell obsession, and this is true. Still, I think it was the movie itself that led me to these conclusions, not my funk fixation. My co-movie viewer said it was the gas, and that's why they opened the window. One last point, about the pigeon that twice got into the apartment. The second time, when he threw the blanket over the bird, I expected him to throw his body over it, as he had his wife. I thought that somehow killing the bird in that "gentle" way, would give him some solace. The real point here is not the details, but that because it became confusing for me, I only thought about it and I no longer felt anything. For me, this was a mistake on the writer's and director's part.  A movie so important about growing old, family and mostly about love itself and how powerful love can be, should not leave the viewer thinking. It should leave the viewer “feeling” as it did through most of it’s long, sometimes tortuous, 120 minutes.


Revisiting My Ode to New Orleans

It is Autumn, 2012 and the HBO series, "Treme", has begun its 3rd Season. It seemed an opportune time to revisit the blog I originally wrote on September 10, 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina. If you have been to New Orleans, reading this will bring back the memories in which you will recognize and feel the adventure I am about to unfold. If you have never had the privilege of visiting New Orleans, a unique and astonishing city unlike any other in the United States, then reading this should motivate you to go. 

In December of 2001, I took my daughter Rachel with me for a New Orleans adventure during the week between Christmas and New Years. I wanted Rachel to experience the city of New Orleans as I had done two times before. I wanted her to know that this incredible city offers everything a person could possibly want to satisfy all of her senses. 

I was hooked on the Crescent City for life. My plan was to return again and again. But then Hurricane Katrina came and devastated my lovely, exciting, delicious, extravagant, naughty, funky, live-and-let-live city of a myriad of music, a delicacy of tastes, a profusion of colors and accents and sights and sounds like no other place in the world. And worse, it profoundly devastated its people. Sadly, since Katrina, I have yet to return to my beloved city.
I vow that I will. In the meantime, I offer my "ODE TO NEW ORLEANS: A Return Visit with My Daughter in December of 2001.

  Our Accommodations were made at a hotel, which was THE best buy of the century. Since Christmas is the slow time in the Crescent City, we stayed at the rather luxurious Chateau Sonesta on the corner of Iberville and Decatur, with a Canal Street entrance, and one block from Bourbon Street, at the extraordinarily low price of $79/night. The room was large and the service was friendly and efficient. I highly recommend it.

FOOD Food in New Orleans is not what you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but rather an adventure in eating each and every time you sit down at a table. Having a sweet tooth the size Canada, the first place we headed on our first day was Cafe de Monde for their world famous Beignets (deep fried dough smothered in very white, very powdery, very sweet sugar) and  Cafe au Lait (made with chicory, a root first grown in France, that makes the brew taste stronger and smoother). I was determined not to leave New Orleans this time around without 
eating certain indigenous foods. Top on the list was Jambalaya (essentially Creole paella, but with sausage or ham). In case you failed to notice, I made little attempt to adopt either a Kosher or healthy eating style on this trip. The next on my “not to miss” list was a Mufalatta sandwich (some may say equivalent to a hoagie or sub sandwich, but some would be wrong). This sandwich, with its incredibly yummy olive salad, is far better than any hoagie I've ever eaten. I got mine at the Central Grocery (home of the original Mufalatta), while Rachel got her sandwich, next door at an even better grocery than Central. What she ordered was something between a Mufalatta and a Po'Boy sandwich, made with turkey, not roast beef, oysters or fried shrimp, and of course served on a baguette-like New Orleans French Bread, known for its crisp crust and fluffy center. I could  go on indefinitely about the food, but suffice it to say that we ate Rice and Beans (on Monday of course), Rachel took the leap and slurped an Oyster, and we both chanced tasting Fried Alligator (yes, it tasted a lot like chicken).

Rachel ate Gumbo (a seafood stew/soup with among other things crayfish) and we both had some of the best blackened, Creole-style fish we'd ever eaten... (onions, green pepper and tomatoes make the sauce and usually served over rice), though our was  served with sweet potatoes and collard greens (incredibly delicious!). If your mouth is not watering at this point, well, mine is watering enough for both of us. Did I mention my sweet tooth? I sampled a few Pralines (caramelized and hardened sugar and pecans) before I bought a box to bring home. So, as you can see, the trip was an epicurean's delight and believe it or not, eating was NOT the only thing we did

MUSIC Though Bob Seeger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" has for many years been my musical mantra, I would now have to say, the times they are a'changin. Since New Orleans, the music 
that most moves me (literally and spiritually) is Jazz, Blues, R&B and Funk or some combination thereof.

While strolling the Farmer's Market, we met a man selling music CD’s and asked him for some music locale suggestions. He proceeded to take our OFFBEAT magazine and rate the contents of the music menu from one to six stars for each night we would be in town. He made great choices, but I have a feeling that there were no bad choices. We went to Bars called "The Maple Leaf" and "Donna's" and "Le Bon Temps Rouler." At each bar, the music got better and funkier, the environment got smaller and smokier, and the number of people crushed in, rocking and bopping to the vibes, grew larger. For the most part, I loved it and I stood and bopped with the best of them, but on one occasion you could find me on the other side of the window....that would be outside, which any other menopause mama would totally relate to, given the excessive body heat and smoke inside. We came home with two new CD's and a whole new appreciation for what it means to participate in music as opposed to just listening to it or, God forbid, have it on as background. I will definitely be looking for "blues buddies" to accompany me to New Orleans style clubs at home.

So, that's Accommodations, Food and Music. What else? Ah, yes...

SIGHTS and SEEING We did our share of sightseeing. We saw the Bayou on a Swamp Tour, in which the guide designed his boat and made his living on it. He was very cute and an excellent guide to boot.


There were no alligators to be found, as they hibernate in winter, but we did see  herons and other lovely birds, and one animal whose name escapes me, but it resembles a beaver. 
We wondered at the canopies of Spanish Moss surrounding the swamp. We watched as the guide fished and caught crabs, which I’m pretty sure he ate with his family that night.

Another outing took us to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum where we watched an hour-long video on Voodoo. We left with a Gris-Gris bag and perhaps a bit more skepticism then we’d entered with, but it was fun, though Rach thought it was pretty much a bunch of hooey (the museum, that is, not necessarily the practice of voodoo).

We went to the De Gas House, which I found to be fascinating. There is a long, involved history of the French painter, De Gas, and how he came to have this house in the Garden District named after him. It turns out his maternal grandmother was born in New Orleans and the story of his family reads much like a Soap Opera. The house has copies of many of his paintings, 17 of which he painted during his brief stay in New Orleans. As it happened, the guide at the De Gas House also gave tours of the city and had a tour scheduled of the French Quarter that very afternoon, to which he invited us. We learned that New Orleans is rich in history and the home of many cultures. Though its history is representative of the South in some ways, it is unique in other ways because of its diversity and liberal motto of live and let live.

We managed to do our fair share of shopping in New Orleans. One of my favorite purchases was a signed and numbered, beautifully framed lithograph entitled, “Royal Street – 1890” by Al Federico, 1996.

I must mention another of our walks in the French Quarter. We went to two bars of note. One, by chance, we stepped in for a drink and found ourselves to be the only women at the bar. The men were happy and gay (or gay and happy) and served our drinks, as well as took pictures with us to bring home. The other bar, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, was a "return trip", as I had been there once before on a "Vampire Tour" of New Orleans. It is dark and dingy and makes the BEST BLOODY MARY in the world, with a delicious pickled pepper, instead of a piece of celery, sticking out of the glass. I thought it was well worth the return trip. Rachel agreed.               

Creole vs. Cajun The city is a complete blending of Spanish, French and French Canadian, with some Irish added to the mix. As a side note, there are several synagogues in the city proper, the
most well known being Touro Synagogue...yes, there is an association with the famous Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. Interestingly, we met the proprietor of a little eatery near our hotel who, as it turned out, was Jewish, from Morocco and knew our family name, Kessous!!!
It’s a small, small world. But I digress. Cajuns are basically descendants of French speaking people from Acadia, Nova Scotia, forced out of England to Canada and then to Louisiana in the mid 1770s. One of my guidebooks said that a Creole, from the Spanish word criollo meaning colony-born, is a native-born New Orleanian of French and/or Spanish extraction. It seems, however, that there are many different definitions of Creole and different outlooks as to who is rightly considered one. In any case, the word, Creole, has come to describe almost everything indigenous to New Orleans.

In conclusion, my intention here was to give you "Lagniappe" (Lan-yap).
That is to say, I wanted to give you a small taste of New Orleans,
while for the same price, "a little something extra”. I hope I have succeeded.

My Prayer for New Orleans


Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler! MAY THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!



5771 - For a Sweet New Year

~Revisited 5773

Today is 9/26/2012, 5773, two years since I originally wrote this post. I was reminded of it by a fb friend who messaged me, asking for a little clarification as to my belief in the divine. Rather than respond directly and immediately to him, I decided to revisit and once again share this post. He was  confused, because he noticed that I had shared many comments on my facebook  page regarding the Jewish High Holy Day Season. I can understand the confusion, which is why I'd written this post in the first place. I think being Jewish is more confusing than being Christian in America. The majority of Americans are Christian and I think, for the most part, they take their religion more or less for granted, perhaps because the American calendar is influenced by the Christian calendar. That is to say, the year is based on the Gregorian calendar, i.e. the "year of our lord" or the time of the birth of Jesus. Also, holidays tend to be the markers by which we define the progression of the year. Interestingly, I assumed that the Christian holidays greatly outnumbered what I call the "All American holidays, but I was mistaken. They are actually equally divided, 6 Christian to 6 All American. I have delineated them by color, All American are red, (white, between the words) and blue and Christian are green:  New YearsMartin Luther King DayValentine's Day,  President's DaySt. Patrick's DayEasterMemorial dayIndependence Day (July 4th), Labor DayHalloweenThanksgiving and Christmas. I love the All American holidays and am grateful for them. I think many other Western nations delineate their calendars solely or mostly by the Christian holidays. The fact that whatever our religion, in the United States, we are all very much American and that is one of the things that makes us great. Having said that, it is still noteworthy that much of the year, we as a nation, are celebrating Christian holidays. Which brings me back to the "Jewish confusion".
Rereading what I wrote two years ago, I realize that I could and would write the same thing today, so I am revisiting it. I will concede one thing. Although I continue to consider myself an agnostic, the presence of a divine spirit or the notion of God is more credible to me in these Jewish High Holy Days than at other times of the year, which should be of some solace to my "believing" friends (and you know who you are...wink wink).

Original Post: 9/10/2010
I am Jewish, but not religious, in the way that most Americans seem to define religion. For example, I am an agnostic. I do not capitalize agnostic, because I don't see agnosticism as a religion, nor a confirmed ideology, but rather a belief based on a myriad of feelings and thoughts on the subject. Unfortunately I also find that religion in general divides us rather than unites us as an American people, not to mention how divisive it is in the world at large.

However, in my case, and I believe, in that of many Jewish Americans, I do see my Judaism as a part of what makes me, Sherril, me.Judaism is a cultural thing, an educational thing, a language thing, an historical thing, a minority thing and on some level, a "national" thing. I believe the last "thing" is a direct result of the one before it, which is to say that Jews, having been historically despised and discriminated against as a minority in most every community in which they lived, have needed a refuge from the bigotry, i.e. a homeland in which they could live with the promise of safety and acceptance. Thus, the state of Israel ant the attachment to it is also a part of being Jewish. 


Part of my family's tradition has been observance of what is considered the "High Holy Days" on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, rosh=head, hashannah=the year, thus the name means Head of the Year or New Year. The greeting at this time of year is "L'shanah tovah", which means "for a good year", often shortened to simply "Shanah Tovah". This traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting is actually a truncated or shortened version of a longer Rosh Hashanah greeting which is: "L'shanah tovah tikatevu", meaning "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year". Yet another way would be to say

"Shana Tova Umetukah", which means, for "A Good and Sweet Year".

My contribution to the R.H. culinary feast, a "kugel" orsweet noodle pudding.

There was a time that all members of my extended family attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the synagogue, back when my parents were alive, but alas, only members of my immediate family (me, Haim, Rachel and Jeremy) continue to go today, and I must admit, that our attendance is limited, given the many hours of services at our synagogue (Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark, NJ).. Still, we make the effort and I give us credit for this.

The Rosh Hashanah service consists of many prayers that are chanted only on this holiday and a small number of them are what gives the service meaning, for me. Most of the service is chanted by the Cantor or other single congregants, mainly because they are numerous, long and complicated. I would be lying if I didn't say it is, for the most part, boring. I spend much of my time either with my mind wandering to more profane matters and/or reading different parts of the prayer book in English, to find my own meaning, where I can. However, there are a handful of prayers that are representative of the holiday service and many of us learned them as children in Hebrew School, and chanted them year after year, so that they became familiar, enabling us to sing them in unison to this day.

One of these prayers brought me to tears this particular Rosh Hashanah. It begins, in Hebrew (transliteration) with "B'rosh ha-shanah yika-teyvun. U-v-yom tzom kippur yey -ha-teymun".
The English translation is: On Rosh Hashanah it is written. And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

It goes on, and here I will write only the English translation of the prayer....How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; (At this point, the leader and congregation again chant the first line in Hebrew, B'rosh ha-shanah yika-tey'un...etc.,) after which the leader goes on...Who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by a wild beast; (the refrain is again chanted and again after every semi-colonWho by by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall rest and who shall wander; who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted; who shall be impoverished and who enriched, who shall be humbled and who exalted.

It is enough to say that my tears appeared due in large part by a sadness I have been experiencing for the last few months, perhaps making the words, who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before, and who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted, felt a little too close for comfort this year. Also, most of the other descriptions like who shall perish by earthquake, plague, fire, water, sword and who shall perish by stoning? Well, if those means of death were not taken out of today's headlines, I don't know what were? Perhaps for the first time, it felt so personal, so present and so powerful.
Another aspect of the R.H. service that maintains significance for me is the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is actually a rams horn. It is difficult to blow in order to make a squeak of a sound and all but impossible to blow in order to make the sounds that respond to the commands given in the Shofar service, which is dispersed many times throughout the RH service" TIKEYAH...SHEH-VARIM...TIKEYAH...TRUE-AH...TIKEYAH GIDOLAH!!! Give heed to the sound of the shofar.  It is a moving experience, partially because it is only heard on this holiday (and at the end of Yom Kippur, if you happen to still be around and not already at home "breaking the fast" with yet another feast) and partially because it is considered a mitzvah to hear the shofar blown, a mitzvah, meaning a commandment. I'm not sure why that makes it more significant for me, being an agnostic and all, but it does. Go figure!


Dear Author...

I have, more than once, written to an author of a book(s) I have read. There have been those who have not answered or sent a standard reply, but for those who do respond, I find it very,very gratifying. I thought it might be interesting to write a blog including these correspondences. I will post them, not necessarily in the order they were written. 

Gail Godwin is an author who I admire and I've read several of her books:  Queen of the Underworld 2007Evenings at Five 2004and my favorite to date,The Good Husband, 1995. 

I look forward to reading more.

Unfortunately, I can not find a copy of the letter I sent to Gail Godwin, perhaps I didn't even make a copy since it was in 1995, pre-computer days for me. Here's the response, sent on her cream colored personal stationery, from P.O.Box 946, Woodstock, NY 12498.

March 3, 1995
Dear Sherril Smoger-Kessous,
Thank you so much for writing such a nice letter to me about The Good Husband . It means a lot to me to hear why readers have liked my books. I'm glad you liked Francis. So did I.
Gail Godwin

The next is a letter I wrote to the author, Ann Lamott. Ms. Lamott did not respond, but I don't hold it against her.

   Dear Ann Lamott,
 I was looking for an email address in order to write you, but found instead a snail mail address, so I will take the time to  write an actual letter.

 I only recently became aware of you. If I'm not mistaken, it was from a forwarded email I'd received which contained a quote from your book, Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith. I loved the quote. You were at a panel discussion with two other Christian writers and speakers,one an evangelical, the other a Catholic.The subject of Abortion came up and this was the quote than won me over... “I announced that I needed to speak out on behalf of the many women present, including myself, who had had abortions, and the women whose daughters might need one in the not-too-distant future–people who must know that teenage girls will have abortions, whether in clinics or dirty back rooms. Women whose lives had been righted and redeemed by Roe v. Wade…I actually feel, and said that it was not a morally ambiguous issue for me at all….Then I said that a woman’s right to choose was nobody else’s goddamn business…Plus, I was–I am–so confused about why we still have to argue with patriarchal sentimentality about minuscule zygotes, when real, live, already born women, many of them desperately poor, get such short shrift from the government now in power [the symposium was during the Bush administration]. …But as a Christian and a feminist, the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women are a crucial part of that. It is a moral necessity that we not be forced to bring children into the world for whom we cannot be responsible and adoring and present. We must not inflict life on children who will be resented; we must not inflict unwanted children on society.”

Having won me over as a fan,I purchased another of your books, Plan B: Thoughts on Faith, to read later and I went to the library and took out Grace Eventually, unabridged on CD. I found the overall book quite compelling, making this Jewish girl (well, 56 year old woman), think anew about Jesus and Christianity. 

But it was this one line in the book that made me pull over, stop the car and play it over and then over again, long enough to write it down word for word. This was the line: 
"I woke up from a nap years ago to find my son gazing at me. He took my face into his hands and peering at me like an old Jewish relative he said, I love that little face". 
I don't know if my son, who is now 22 years old, had done the exact same thing or that I just wish he had, but when I heard this line, I was (am) filled with "nachas" and memory and love. I just wanted to thank you for that.

Sincerely Yours,
   Sherril Smoger-Kessous

                             Ann Lamott

I am almost always listening to a book in my car. I get several unabridged CDs from the library at once, so as to not be caught without something to listen to while I'm driving, which used to be a lot at my old job. Perhaps my favorite Audio-Book of all time was The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (which by the way is coming out as an Ang Lee movie in November, which worries me because it is rare that the movie can approach the greatness of a great book). This letter and the response I received from the author was, in my opinion, extraordinary. I made several copies of his and my letter to be sure I would never lose them. So, first, the email I sent to Yann Martel.

Wednesday, June 9,2003 America Online: Smogey69, Sent to Publicity Manager, http://www.canongate.net/, Canongate Books, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

My question for Yann Martel, in reference to his novel, The Life Of Pi, is the following. Among the many aspects of the book that were so pleasurable and fascinating was the notion of an Indian boy, brought up to be a Hindu, would consider and actually does find and follow the wisdom of three of the "great" world religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. After Pi met the Christian Priest, The Brahmin Priest and the Muslim Imam, I kept wondering and thinking about if and when he would meet the Jewish Rabbi. I would have thought that Kabbala would have also been included in his journey. So, in conclusion, my question is, why did you not have Pi meet a Rabbi and why not include Judaism in the mix?

In Grateful Appreciation of The Life Of Pi,

Sherril Smoger-Kessous
Parsippany, New Jersey

Pru, Martel's emissary, I suppose, sent me a response that he received my email and would forward it to Yann Martel, but that it might take some time for Mr. Martel to respond, as he is quite busy. 

To which, I wrote back..

  Thank you so much for your prompt reply. I understand that Yann Martel would be very busy and if he does find the time to reply, I will feel quite gratified. 

Here is Yann Martel's response.

Yann Martel, 6/11/2003, pru@cannongate.co.uk (Pru Rowlandson)

Dear Pru,
Please forward the following reply to Sherril Smoger-Kessous

Dear Sherril,

I didn't have Pi convert to Judaism for three reasons, two practical and one theological. First, there is no synagogue in Pondicherry. The closest synagogue (and I'm not even sure it functions as much more than a museum) is in Kochin, clear across from Tamil Nadu in Kerala. It would have stretched the bounds of credibility to have a Jewish community in Pondicherry. Second, to have Pi practice more than three religions would have become unwieldy. I felt if he also became a Jew, why not a Buddhist too? And then what about a Sikh? A Baha'i? A Jain? Where would I have stopped? I wanted to make a point, not to be encyclopedic. I figured that with Hinduism, I roughly covered Buddhism, since the latter has had a lasting influence on the former. The same with Judaism. Christianity being a very successful breakaway Jewish sect. I decided with Pi being a Christian, I covered the Holy Land corner of divinity.
Lastly and most importantly and deeply, you can't be an orthodox Jew and a Christian. You can't be waiting for the Messiah on Saturday and celebrating him on Sunday week after week. The two are incompatible. I know there are Messianic Jews, but as far as I can understand these are Jews who are abandoning traditional Judaism for Christianity. I don't think Orthodox Jews would recognize themselves in Messianic Jews. Perhaps quite the contrary.

But I missed getting in a Jewish angle. I'm well aware of the seminal importance of Jewish thought. So, not to miss out completely, if you remember, what does Pi study when he gets to the University of Toronto? I have a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim study Jewish mysticism, in this case, the Kabbalist, Issac Luria.

Which also explains the name of the ship that sinks the Tsimtsum, which comes straight out of Luria's cosmogony. 

So you see, I did include you, Sherril.


Yann Martel

Now, I must say that I did not agree with all of his explanations, however, this is besides the point. The point is that the author took my letter seriously enough to respond with a well thought out and serious reply. What more could a curious reader ask for? 

Pat Conroy is an author that I fell in love with when I read The Prince of Tides, a book that literally took me weeks to get over after finishing it. It was the classic feeling of having had a best friend visiting and when she left, it left me feeling bereft, which is what I felt when I finished reading The Prince of Tides. I don't recall if I wrote Pat Conroy a letter back in 1987 when I read his novel. If I did, I do not have a copy of it. But I do have a copy of an email I sent him on November 25, 2010. That was after I finished listening to his latest book, In My Reading Life, which is a book in which he makes references to other books, more specifically other authors, that have inspired and instructed him as a writer. I absolutely love when an author references a book in  his novel, or in this case memoir of sorts, especially if it is one that I have read, and even more so, a Book Club book. Here's a wonderful excerpt from My Reading Life...  "I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a whole country of the dead who will live for all time because writers turned them into living flesh and blood. There is Jay Gatsby floating face downward in his swimming pool or Tom Robinson's bullet riddled body cut down in his Alabama prison yard in To Kill a Mockingbird".  What really excites me is that two of the three references, Madam Bovary and The Great Gatsby were not only Book Club books, but ones that I chose and were discussed at my home, including foods inspired by the times of the books. 

So, this is the comment I wrote on Conroy's Community Guest Book Page. It is written on his web-site that Conroy is often moved and inspired by the comments of his readers but his writing schedule does not allow the time to respond personally. 

I am a Southern "Wannabe". Born and bred in the North (NJ), I have been enamored with all things Southern ever since reading Gone With The Wind in High School.There are so many Southern writers I love but I have read more of Pat Conroy's works than any others. The Prince of Tides remains for me a favorite book of all time, with Beach Music close behind.I read South of Broad and at present, the audio edition of My Reading Life is playing in my car. I am charmed and tortured by yours books. Like you, Pat, language feeds my soul. I only wish that I too, in my early life had met someone like Gene Norris, your beloved English teacher who forever positively changed your life and helped give you the strength and love of language, to become the writer you are today. In My Reading Life, someone told you that it is always best for the writer of a book NOT to be its reader, yet you are the reader of this audio book. Why so? 

In addition to the Conroy books mentioned in the email, I did not read, but saw the movies of The Water is Wide (movie called Conrack, starring Jon Voight. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association) and The Great Santini, starring Robert Duvall. The Great Santini and his following novel, The Citadel (did not read or see the movie) was autobiographical and demonstrated the violence and abusiveness of his father who was a career military officer. Conroy is quoted as saying that this father's biggest mistake was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home. Upon his father's insistence, Conroy attended the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina. I read, "writing The Great Santini took it's toll and not only did Conroy get divorced, but so did his parents, his mother presenting a copy of the book to the judge as evidence in divorce proceedings against his father". 

And now to a young new writer, Kathryn Stockett, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, where she places her first novel (also made into a very good movie), The Help. It is somewhat autobiographical and extremely readable and I found this address:
to which I wrote the following.

Sunday, June 20, 2010 
Can you either provide me with an email address for the author, herself or forward on the message and questions I have for her. Thank you so much.
Sherril Smoger-Kessous
I am still reading your book (actually reading it in it's audio rendition) and I love every word you have written. I read somewhere that as a white woman, you were somewhat hesitant to presume to take on black women's voices. My question for you is how did you get, what seems to me, such precision in these voices? Did  you study black English (Ebonics)? Listening to your story is like being in the theater watching a play about the black women working in white women's homes, with the added attraction of learning what was behind the scenes for these black women. I grew up in New Jersey and we also had "maids", though both then and now, I have a hard time using that word (saying "the help" is not much easier). The shame of it is that even today, I hear white people talk about the "shvartzes" (you can guess my "religious persuasion"), perhaps lowering their voices, and I want to cringe. On the one hand we've come a long way in race relations, on the other not nearly as long as we must.
I would love to hear back from you, if it's possible. I know you must receive many letters from readers, so I will understand if you don't get back to me. If not, I hope I will find the answer to my question about how you derived the black voices in your book through some online investigation.
Yours in Reading,

Sherril Smoger-Kessous
New Jersey

The Reply:

From:    Susan Ramer
Date:      Monday, June 21, 2010 11:33 AM
To:          Sherril
Subject:  RE: Kathryn Stockett - Help

Dear Ms. Smoger-Kessus,

Thank you very much for your nice note to Kathryn Stockett.  I am her literary agent and I am happy to pass it along to her.  Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming response she has had from readers, Kathryn is unable to respond to each letter personally at this time.  However, your letter will be forwarded to her and I assure you she will read it.  In the meantime she has asked me to convey her deep appreciation for your support and enthusiasm.

Susan Ramer

As it happened, my book club decided to read The Help in November, 2010, so I bought the book on Kindle and read it again. I can't say that I enjoyed one over the other (audio book vs book book). The advantage of a well read audio book is that every time I get into my car, is like entering a theater for one and experiencing  a dramatic and memorable piece of acting. I can  say that The Help joins the short list of all time favorite books.     

                         Kathyrn Stockett

My Book Club for Liberal Thinkers is currently reading The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevaleir. I had listened to it several years ago and I believe in this case, I enjoyed the audio book version better than the book book one. I believe Chevalier is a very good author, not a great one, although I really did love 2 of  her books, Falling Angels and Burning Bright. She has written 6 books and I have read all 6 of them (5 audio books and 1 both audio book and book book). They are all historical novels and she seems to do her homework before writing them. I found her web-page and there, sent her an email. 

From:  Sherril
Date:       Tuesday, June 16, 2009 12:02 AM
To:          hello@tchevaleir.com
Subject:   Driven to Write

Dear Tracy,
I find the Internet a source of great enjoyment and frustration. Why enjoyment is obvious. It opens up worlds upon worlds that would otherwise be unreachable. Frustration because even though I have to get up early tomorrow morning for corneal transplant surgery (yikes!) and ought to be in bed by now, I am instead here typing an email to an author, via a most circuitous route, being on facebook and about to respond to a message, wanting to mention the book, The Virgin Blue, but,  unable to recall the exact name, thus did a search, thereby coming across  your website and, WHEW, here I am!
I just want to tell you how much I enjoy your books and your writing.I seemed to have approached your work in reverse order and am only now reading The Virgin Blue, after having previously read all of your other books. In case you're interested, my favorite was Falling Angels. I hope it does not diminish my appreciation of your writing if I tell you that I have actually listened to the books (with the exception of Girl With a Pearl  Earring, which I read with my eyes). I always have a book on my bedside table and another one in the CD player of my car. I think because your books are historical fiction and many of the characters are British and French, the accents are so lovely to listen to and the stories lend themselves so well to a theatrical reading, that I have chosen them as audio-books. In any case my ears hear the language as well as my eyes read it.
I look forward to Remarkable Creatures, or whatever your current work turns out to be named. .
From a Grateful Reader,
Sherril Smoger-Kessous
New Jersey

Response from Tracy's associate.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 10:09 AM

Dear Sherril,
Thank you for your email and my apologies for not getting back to you sooner!  Tracy and I have both been insanely busy these past few months and have a considerable amount of catching up to do with correspondence!
Tracy has read your email and is glad to hear you have enjoyed her books.  We both hope that the corneal transplant surgery went well and that you’ve had a speedy recovery!
Following the recent publication of Remarkable Creatures, Tracy is already busy researching and writing her next novel and regrets she doesn’t have time to respond more personally to correspondence.                                                                              
Yours sincerely,
Alexandria Lawrence (for Tracy Chevalier)

                          Tracy Chevalier

In 2007 my book club read Dalia Sofer's book, The Septembers of Shiraz. I believe I corresponded with her on Amazon.com or B&N.com on an author's page, though I don't seem to find such a page on either site at this time. Anyway, fortunately, I emailed the correspondence to my book club members; so, first my message to the group, followed by my correspondence to Sofer and finally, her response to me.

You know, she actually helped me identify what was behind Isaac's wondering about who would say kaddish for him after he dies.  She hit the nail on the head for me.  Here is the correspondence......

Posts: 12
Registered: 09-18-2007 
Sherril Wrote:
I found it interesting that though the Amin family was far from being religious Jews, they were in fact quite secular and very much assimilated into the Iranian society, much like many American Jews in the United States. Still, in chapter 20, when Isaac is sitting in his drab, dank cell, staring at his hands and feet, he wonders to himself, should he die there in the prison, what will become of his body? He worries that it may well be thrown into a mass grave, rather than be cared for according to the rites of the Jewish tradition. And, what resonated most for me was when he wondered if anyone would say Kaddish for him? As a secular, yet "cultural" Jew, I think I understand this. But I would like to hear from you what you were thinking when you wrote it. 

Dalia Sofer's Response:

I think faith can be religious, but it can also be something less tangible--faith in goodness, in the future. Prior to his imprisonment, Isaac held this latter kind of faith. Later, in prison, his faith in goodness is shaken and he tries to replace it with religious faith, because to be left with nothing at all--with a complete void--is terrifying.

The idea of being thrown into a mass grave is also terrifying--as it accentuates the futility and arbitrariness of existence. Isaac therefore finds comfort in the prospect of his family mourning him, of someone remembering him and saying Kaddish for him. 

Imagining that he will be mourned helps assuage his terror, because it indicates that his existence actually mattered.

    Dalia Sofer

I used to think of reading Adriana Trigiani as my "guilty pleasure", but not anymore. I am currently reading The Shoemaker's Wife (audio-book) and I don't know if she is getting  more literate, or I just missed that part of her writing before, but she has joined the ranks of one of my favorite authors. I have read almost every one of her books including all of  the Big Stone Gap series, Brava Valentine and my favorite, Lucia, Lucia, among others. I  enjoy her style, her great sense of place, her readability and mostly that she is a "Donna Italiana", albeit an American Italian Woman. Anyway, I had a correspondence with her, which I recently found had and subsequently lost.  I have searched through miles of emails and Microsoft Office Word files, but to no avail. Should I ever come upon it,  I will add it on here. Meanwhile, some pictures.

And last, but hardly least an author that I became aware of at least 10 years ago in the Lake Hiawatha Library, while looking for an audio book that I hadn't already "read". It's a relatively small library with a limited selection,  so I was doing some serious searching. The year was 2007.  I am not sure what made me select one by James Lee Burke, but I did and I became an involved fan, involved in mutual correspondences and somewhat active  on the James Lee Burke.com Message Board.  Here's how it began.

To:         pamela@jamesleeburke.com
Sent:      November 25, 2007 9:15 PM
Subject: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submission

Comment_Question: I am happy to have found the James Lee Burke web site, Pamala. This email is meant for Mr. Burke and I ask that you please share it with him. If you can answer my question regarding Alifair, I'd appreciate it.

Dear Mr. Burke,

  Every time I listen to one of your novels on CD in my car, I find myself writing a letter to you in my mind. So,here I am finally putting it down on paper, well, virtual paper, as it were. I would assume I am not a typical reader of yours, but then again, I just may be.I have not read any other mystery or crime novels, nor have I read any other writers who serialize their main characters, as you do Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland. I can not bear to watch movies with sadism and will only read about it in non-fiction books, such as those about the Holocaust or the Killing Fields in Cambodia. And yet, I am drawn to your books. I am trying to make an analogy, like you might, but am coming up blank.  I am drawn to your books like ....... well, like a moth to fire, but that's more a cliche than a good simile, yes?

I liken my fascination and appreciation of you to what I experienced years ago when I regularly listened to Bob Edwards' conversations with Red Barber every Friday morning on NPR's Morning Edition. I have no interest in baseball whatsoever, but that didn't stop me from becoming a huge fan of "Captain Bob" and "Red's" weekly discussions. I inevitably called my father, who was a huge baseball fan and of course knew all about Red Barber, after the program to tell him what I'd learned about his favorite game. When Red Barber died, I felt like I was in mourning, though I'd never actually heard him announce a game.

And so it is with you and your books. I read them (well, listen to them being read to me by Will Patton, who I've grown to love as much as I do you and your writing; in fact if I ever met you and you didn't sound just like Mr. Patton, I think I'd be very disappointed) because I love how you describe Montana and Louisiana  and I love your use of language. There was many a time that I almost swerved off the road trying to write down a word  that I just had to remember. And, I really do love the stories you tell,sometimes in spite of myself. I do find I have to fast forward parts describing in depressing detail man's brutal inhumanity to man (or worse, woman). I think to myself how I wish you could eliminate those parts, but I guess they serve a function.  I wish you could just skip to when Robicheaux or Billy Bob bemoan and philosophize about the dregs of society, rather than describe them in sometimes agonizing detail.

These are the books I have read to date: In the Moon of Red PoniesLAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDSBitterroot, and now, of course, The Tin Roof Blowdown.  In your other books, I don't remember Robicheaux having a daughter. Perhaps I have just missed the books where she plays a part. I would love to have some background on Alifair. I get the sense that you find yourself in her, especially where her writing is concerned.
I just wish to thank you as a reader.  It amazes me that your books can be at once so literate and so grimy. Thank you Mr. Burke. I wish you many more years of good writing.

Sherril Smoger-Kessous
Parsippany, New Jersey

PS  I wrote a kind of tribute to New Orleans back in 2005 about the last time I was there, which was in 2001. If you ever have the chance, I'd love for you to take a look at it. My heart bleeds for the city, it's people and those of us who love it.  http://photosfollowingmyfootsteps.blogspot.com/2006/07/my-trip-to-new-orleansrevisited.html

Burke's response

From:    "Pamela Burke" pamala@jamesleeburke.com
Sent:      November 27, 2007 5:51 AM
Subject: FW: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submissions

Thanks for your thoughtful and eloquent letter. I appreciate your words very much and hope you keep on enjoying the books and short stories. Have you tried "Jesus Out to Sea"? I think you might like it.

Alafair first appears in the second book of the series, "Heaven's Prisoners".

Have a fine holiday season. 


My next message to James Lee Burke. 

From:  Sherril
To:   Pamala Burke
Sent:  November 27, 2007 1:11 AM
Subject: Re: Fw: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submission


Thank you so much for responding to my email. I will look forward to reading Jesus Out to Sea.

All the best to you and your family.


Jim's response.

From:    "Pamela Burke" pamala@jamesleeburke.com
To:        smogey69@optonline.net
Sent:      November 27, 2007 5:51 AM
Subject: FW: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submissions

Same to you. Best for the holidays.


My next email.

From:  Sherril
Sent: August 24, 2010 11:32 PM
To:  Pamala Burke
Sugject:  Re: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submission

Dear Pearl and Jim,

I am hopeful that this email will reach you. I wrote previously in November of 2007 and here it is almost three years later and once again, I feel compelled to write.

Jim, you had written that you hoped I would read Jesus Out to Sea, and I did so about a year ago. I enjoyed it immensely, but it is to the  Dave Robicheaux novels that I remain attached. It is through them that you, Mr. Burke, have insinuated yourself into my life.

 I am exceedingly attracted to and enamored of all things Southern, despite being a complete "Yankee", born and bred in New Jersey. I have been to my favorite city of New Orleans and more recently to the beautiful city of Savannah, but I would love to know better the lifestyle along the Bayou Tesche, the smell of the camellias, the sounds and sights of the South that you describe so eloquently, as to make the reader's five senses come alive.

I love listening to your books on CDs because  it allows me to experience your writing through the expert voice and theatricality of Will Patton and occasionally Tom Stechschulte.  But, as a writer, I wonder how you feel having your books read as audio books as opposed to book books? The books I have read visually are Jesus Out to Sea and Swan Lake, which I purchased. You continue to be the only author I read who writes crime and detective stories, as well as serialized novels. In general, they don't interest me, but what do I know, maybe there are others out there who are also as literate and talented as you.

My Book Club is now reading The Hamlet by William Faulkner. I wish I could say I love reading this obscure Faulkner book, but I would be lying. His run-on sentences and densely written descriptions are difficult reading and in the end, I don't care much about the characters or the plot, if one could say there is a plot. But what I have enjoyed is finding myself making the comparison of Faulkner's writing to your writing. There have even been some descriptive words that I could have sworn I remembered reading in The Glass Rainbow. I see the similarities in both you and Faulkner when it comes to your sensibilities regarding the unfair disparity between the desperately poor and disenfranchised and the rich and powerful, who so often make their claim to what isn't theirs and keep that stake for decades. Have you been influenced by William Faulkner? Reading Faulkner and then reading Burke, one sees how much and yet how little has changed in the South (and the North, East and West for that matter). 

Forgive me for chattering on so in this email. There are so many aspects of your novels and your writing that I think about as I read them, that I could "chat" with you  for hours. But before I close, allow me to express two more things. One is that I have written twice, one email and one snail mail to the folks at *CBS' Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood. I wrote them to ask that they feature you, James Lee Burke, on one of their Sunday Morning programs. I did not receive a response. In my research, I did find that you were featured in October of1977Now, more than a decade later, I think it's time  for them to revisit you. Don't you agree?  If you have any influence over this, please encourage CBS to do so.

Finally, I just saw the Broadway Musical, Memphis.  I know Memphis is not your "beat", but  still, watching it brought you to my mind. If you ever get to the NYC area, PLEASE go see this show. I absolutely loved it and I think you would too. And, if you ever are in the area, please let me know if you have a book signing or some other public event. It would be my great honor and pleasure to have the opportunity to meet you in person.

Wishing you and your wife well.

Sherril Smoger-Kessous
New Jersey

And finally, Burke's reply, the last of my correspondences....FOR NOW!

From:    "Pamela Burke" pamala@jamesleeburke.com
To:        smogey69@optonline.net
Sent:      August 25, 2010 11:32 PM
Subject: FW: James Lee Burke Contact Page Submissions

from JLB:

Thanks for your nice letter, Miss Sherril. I appreciate all your good words and thoughts. Regarding William Faulkner, he is probably America's greatest writer and in my opinion up there with Chaucer and Milton and Shakespeare. I don't think I was influenced stylistically by him, but as you say, my work contains themes that are similar to his, primarily because the southern story ultimately involves the issues you describe and they find their way into any southern writer's work.

I hope you keep enjoying the books.

Best Wishes,


Since these letters of 2010 I have gone on to read several more of Burke's books, from the most current:  CREOLE BELLE, July 2012 , RAIN GODSIN THE ELECTRIC MIST (movie)PEGASUS DESCENDINGCrusader's CrossWhite Doves at MorningSunset LimitedCimarron Rose,  In the Electric Mist with Confederate DeadA Stained White Radiance and Heaven's Prisoners (movie).

Feast of Fools is a book I've yet to read.  I'll be sorry after I've read them all. But I have several more to go.  Happy Reading.

September 29, 2009
Letter to CBS New: Sunday Morning With Charles Osgood:

To Whom It May Concern:

I would like to suggest that you have the writer, James Lee Burke on CBS's Sunday Morning. Watching the interview with T.C. Boyle, for the second time,I was reminded that I have never seen James Lee Burke on this program.I do not know if you have, in your thirty years, interviewed the author, but if you have or have not,I think it's time to do so now, before it's too late (he will be 73 this December). I am not a crime or a mystery reader and I have not read any other author who writes serialized books, but James Lee Burke has become an exception. I came upon him randomly, while looking for an audio-book to listen to in my car and since that first book,"In The Moon Of Red Ponies", I have  "read" at least 10 more, both of the Dave Robicheaux and the Billy Bob Holland series. I also read, Burke's book of short stories, "Jesus Out to Sea", upon his personal recommendation. Though I am put off by the violence, I endure it in order to enjoy his eloquent use of language, gorgeous geographical descriptions, great story telling and his thorough insight into human nature, all of which makes the violence go down a little easier.

I am a faithful viewer of Sunday Morning and it has been the subject of many a blog that I have written. I look forward to an interview with Mr.James Lee Burke featured on CBS Sunday Morning, hopefully in the near future. 
Thank You,
Sherril Smoger-Kessous
New Jersey

If you are reading this, I urge you to read James Lee Burke's books. It doesn't really matter in what order they are read, except that it's fun to find when the characters are first introduced and to witness the development of the characters and the relationships between them. Also, Robicheaux has several wives through the years, and it can be confusing keeping them straight. As for Alifair, she is based on his real adopted daughter, who after Law School, went on to write crime/mystery novels of her own.  What you will get from reading James Lee Burke's books is an experience of lyrical writing which includes a wonderful sense of place and description which bring you in and keep you there. If you happen to also like a good crime novel with some mystery, well, Burke's your man. 

This post, Dear Author, has turned out to be a lot longer than I expected and it's taken a lot longer than my average post to write.  I hope it will be as interesting to read as it was to write.