Saturday, June 28, 2014

Five Star Fiction's Hero Gets Beaten Up - Again. I loved it!

North of Nowhere (Alex McKnight, #4)North of Nowhere by Steve Hamilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I gave each of the first three titles in this series four starts. It's time to be honest and admit, "It was amazing." His craft is such that his artistry is subtle and "off screen." Hamilton gets better and better. The satisfying conclusion left questions hanging about the fate of a couple of the characters. I find myself willing to live with that uncertainty, and curious if their fate will unfold in one of the future volumes. I can tell you this: I am leaving for the library after writing this, to return the book and get my hands on the next one in the series. This is an excellent series, one in which our hero continues to get the heck beat out of him, yet moves on because that is the least important (which is not to say the least painful) consideration as he chooses to do “the next right thing.” Steve Hamilton has given us, in Alex McKnight, a hero we can be proud to “know.”

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Risk and struggle frighten parents but enable children to GROW!

This short article makes me want to stand up and cheer - or maybe just go outside and play! As I said in my "Handwritten Notes vs. Laptops in Lectures: Ease vs. Effectiveness!" post, I will soon talk more about the disaster for a bird if you help it break out of its shell, or let it remain snug in its nest, or for a caterpillar if you interrupt its struggle to emerge.

the Boston Globe
Let kids take risks when they play
By Peter Gray | JUNE 20, 2014

IT’S THE start of summer, and many parents are wondering: What will the children do? When I was a child in the 1950s, the answer was easy. The children would play. We played freely with other children, in our own chosen ways, away from adults. We got bored and overcame boredom. We embarked on adventures, took risks, sometimes hurt ourselves, got into trouble, and figured out how to get out of it. We played in ways that our parents never knew about or wanted to know about.

In such play we acquired knowledge and skills that cannot be taught in school. We learned how to take initiative, make our own decisions, solve our own problems, get along with peers as equals, experience fear and manage it, experience anger and overcome it. We also discovered our passionate interests, pursued them, and became skilled at them — interests that for many of us later became careers. In short, we learned the attitudes and skills essential to a satisfying adulthood.

Free play, without adult intervention, is nature’s way of teaching children how to be adults. Everywhere else children are directed and protected by adults, but in play children are the adults. That’s play’s primary purpose, but we undermine that purpose when we supervise or intervene.

Over the past 60 years, we’ve seen a huge decline in children’s freedom and opportunity to play on their own. Over this same period, we’ve also seen a dramatic increase in the rates of depression and anxiety disorders among young people — five to eight times what they were in the 1950s, based on standard clinical questionnaires given to normative groups over the decades.

Our children — and the young of other mammals — love to play in moderately risky ways. Through such play, they acquire the physical, social, and emotional capacities required for healthy development. They learn to get along with one another by playing socially, and they learn to deal with emergencies by playing in ways that entail risk. For example, young monkeys playfully swing from branch to branch, high enough up that a fall would hurt; goat kids run along cliffs and leap awkwardly into the air, so that landing is difficult. Young mammals of many species playfully fight and chase one another, and they occasionally get hurt in the process.

Why is such play so attractive? It can cause injury, so why hasn’t natural selection weeded out the innate desire for it? We have some clues from laboratory experiments.

Researchers have found that when young rats or monkeys are deprived of play during critical periods in their development, the animals grow up as emotional cripples. They are psychologically paralyzed when placed in novel, slightly frightening environments to which normally raised animals would adapt. They alternate between incapacitating fear and inappropriate aggression when placed with unfamiliar peers. So it is no surprise to me that play-deprived human children grow up lacking the social and emotional skills required to deal well with life’s inevitable stressors. They may also grow up deficient in the abilities to think creatively, take initiative, and assume responsibility.

We have deprived children of free, venturesome play, presumably for their own good, but in the process we have denied them the opportunity to learn how to be resilient by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways.

Our children need more freedom, not more adult control.

Peter Gray is a research professor of psychology at Boston College and author of “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.’’

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Who pays when nonprofits don't?

The article below, from the Globe South section of today's Boston Globe, raises thought-provoking questions. As Library Director for the "City of Champions," I watched the same men drink themselves to oblivion outside the library - on a daily basis - until they passed out. The EMTs and Firefighters were on a first name basis with them. Each incident, per this article, "cost about $1,000 a call." That's a lot of books and computer access!

Ward 2 City Councilor Tom Monahan calls Brockton “the social services capital of the state." Perspective is important in this discussion. People helping others may feel, "We are doing The Lord's work" or "this is not for ourselves," and thus should be exempt from the burden of taxation. However, the particular mission does not reduce the burden, or lessen the cost to the municipality, of ambulance calls, police and fire protection, water and sewer and other public services. Americans continue to be among the most generous people on our planet, and the working poor and disappearing lower middle class, who can barely get by, give most generously. This does not liberate them from paying their taxes and supporting the "general welfare," and the same standard needs to be applied fairly, to all of our enterprises, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit.

The Boston Globe
Brockton mayor wants nonprofits to pay
By Michele Morgan Bolton | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | JUNE 15, 2014

Sticking to a campaign promise not to raise taxes, Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter released a $375 million budget last week that omits a 2.5 percent increase allowed under the tax limits of Proposition 2½.

Instead, the new mayor said he is on a quest for new revenue to fill in gaps, and in addition to selling about $700,000 worth of municipally owned properties in recent weeks, he has asked 21 of the city’s major nonprofit organizations to forge voluntary payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with the city.

In negotiating such agreements, Brockton would join a number of other area communities, including Easton and Bridgewater, that receive similar annual payments.

Brockton has $5.4 billion in total property values, according to John Condon, the city’s finance director. Of that, about $1.01 billion is tax-exempt, he said.

Carpenter said he is only looking for “a piece of a piece” of what an organization would pay if it was not tax-exempt. Agencies on Carpenter’s list own at least $500,000 each in real property and do not include churches and small groups that are struggling.

Under the plan, said Bob Buckley, Carpenter’s chief of staff, the nonprofits would contribute 10 percent of what they would normally be assessed in taxes the first year, 20 percent the second year, and 30 percent from then on.

“We need to generate revenue; it’s as simple as that,’’ Buckley said. “You are seeing a budget crisis in full swing.”

Still, it is unclear how much of a difference such payments would make. According to a 2012 study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a Cambridge-based think tank, only a fraction of the state’s 32,000-plus nonprofits make such payments and the average amount collected is less than one-quarter of 1 percent of their general revenue.

In Brockton, targeted agencies include Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a homeless shelter and housing advocacy group; Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital; High Point Treatment Centers Inc.; and the Old Colony YMCA.

Ward 2 City Councilor Tom Monahan said nonprofits make meaningful contributions in Brockton but they also drain public resources at a time that fire and emergency services cost about $1,000 a call.

Brockton’s Fire Department, for example, answered 294 calls from the Father Bill’s & MainSpring shelter last year, he said.

“At $1,000 a call, that’s almost $300,000 right there,’’ Monahan said.

There were also 143 calls from High Point and 104 calls from the Neighborhood Health Center, Monahan said. Some nonprofits like Brockton Hospital make money but opt to reinvest in themselves, he said.

“We are the social services capital of the state,’’ Monahan said, “and we aren’t getting anything in return.’’

A hospital spokeswoman did not return a request for comment, nor did executives at High Point or the YMCA.

Father Bill’s & MainSpring executive director John Yazwinski said part of the organization’s mission has been to reduce the number of people sleeping outside on city streets.

And while the agency shelters 255 people a night, the state has not raised its reimbursement rate in 14 years, Yazwinski said, adding that he fields ongoing requests for more services and beds in Plymouth and Wareham.

Father Bill’s does not make payments for its North Main Street shelter, but it does pay $10,000 a year in lieu of taxes on a 32-unit housing facility on Spring Street, officials said, and another $2,710 annual payment goes to the town of Hingham for the six-unit Commander Anderson House for veterans.

“Eighty-seven cents of every dollar goes right to the people we assist,’’ Yazwinski said. “We feel we are helping the community.”

Bridgewater Town Manager Michael Dutton said the town has received a $51,000 gift the past three years from Bridgewater State University, and last year the institution offered another $115,000 to be split among highway, police, and fire needs.

The town also receives about $279,000 from the Bridgewater Correctional Complex, he said.

“These efforts greatly depend on how good an agreement the town can make,’’ Dutton said.

Nearby, Stonehill College contributes about $40,000 a year to the town of Easton, according to college spokesman Martin McGovern.

It is appropriate for nonprofits to make payments to their host communities but it has to be within reason, said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association, a business-backed organization focused on state and local fiscal, tax, and economic policies.

“If you can raise a little more money it’s helpful, especially if you’re not going to raise taxes at all,’’ he said. “But some of these groups are barely holding on.”

Carpenter is doing the right thing by setting the bar at properties valued at $500,000 and up, he said. But seeking 30 percent of that worth is ambitious, Widmer said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How wonderful to see an author succeed in these traditional ways!

Laurie Cavanaugh's interview in today's Brockton Enterprise gives author Patry Francis a chance to praise Brockton pizza and Brockton Public Library, where she is speaking this afternoon. If not for already having tickets for this afternoon's Red Sox game, I would be there. I plan to "check out" (library pun intended) her books. Her second novel, “The Orphans of Race Point,” has been selected by The Boston Globe as a summer read and by the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club as a featured alternate. How wonderful to see an author succeed in these traditional ways!

The Enterprise
Author mines Brockton roots in new novel
'The Orphans of Race Point' author Patry Francis to speak Saturday at Brockton library
By [sic] Interview with Brockton resident Laurie Cavanaugh
Posted Jun. 14, 2014 @ 12:01 am

Author and Brockton native Patry Francis says the city has influenced her writings in many instances. Francis, who is scheduled to speak Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Brockton Public Library, discusses her recently released novel, “The Orphans of Race Point” and her Brockton ties:

QUESTION: Your second novel, “The Orphans of Race Point,” came out on May 6 and has already been selected by The Boston Globe as a summer read and by the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club as a featured alternate. How surprised were you by the book's reception?

ANSWER: It has been so fantastic to see the response. My editor told me the novel had been selected for Literary Guild and Book of the Month before it was announced, but the Globe pick was completely unexpected. My aunt, who lives in Bridgewater, was the first to spot it as she was perusing her Sunday paper. It was a thrill for both of us. The best part, though, is hearing from readers who are moved enough to respond personally.

QUESTION: Author George F. Higgins, who wrote “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (published in 1970), was also from Brockton originally. What are your Brockton connections?

ANSWER: I was born in Brockton, attended the old Shaw School, East Junior High, and graduated from BHS when it still had double sessions. After graduation, I left the city for college, but my parents, Richard and Eleanor (Heney) Doody, stayed in our house on a little dead-end road off Crescent Street until they retired. It has always been home.

QUESTION: What part do your Brockton years play in your writing?

ANSWER: The tight-knit Portuguese fishing community I write about in “The Orphans of Race Point” reminds me of the hardworking people I knew in Brockton, which is probably one reason I was drawn to them. When I was growing up, most of my extended family lived in the city or nearby; and until my grandmother’s health failed, there were usually a group of cousins running around my grandparents’ house on Belcher Avenue on Sundays. My parents were active in their church and community; they loved to entertain and they taught by example what it meant to be there when others needed you. In that way, they weren’t different from many people I knew as a child – or the characters who appear in my novels.

QUESTION: The trade paperback edition of your first novel, “The Liar’s Diary” (Dutton, 2007), came out in January 2008, just as you were facing a serious health challenge. How has the experience of writing, publishing and promoting “The Orphans of Race Point” been different?

ANSWER: 2007 was one of the most exciting years of my life and one of the most challenging. When the novel came out in hardcover in February, my publisher sent me on a national book tour. It was particularly wonderful because neither my husband nor I had ever been to the West coast. Then, in late November, just as I was gearing up to promote the paperback, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Once again, community, like the kind I’d known in Brockton, stepped in to help, but this time, it was a group of writers and bloggers I’d met online. They put aside their own work to organize, promote and write about my work on publication day. With “The Orphans of Race Point,” I’m keenly aware of what a privilege it is to get out and speak to readers. It may sound like a cliche, but every day is a gift.

QUESTION: For readers wondering whether to read it, how would you describe “The Orphans of Race Point?”

ANSWER: The novel connects two savage crimes, separated by 20 years, and explores the lifelong affect on the children involved. There’s a strong element of mystery and suspense, but at its heart, it’s a tribute to family, a powerful love story that evolves in unexpected ways, and a journey of forgiveness.

QUESTION: “The Liar’s Diary” was recently optioned for film. Any details yet?

ANSWER: The last I heard a well-known actress had read the novel and was considering the lead, but I’m not allowed to say more until she signs on. It’s an exciting prospect, though I try not to think about it too much. These things tend to happen very slowly.

QUESTION: You will be talking about “The Orphans of Race Point” at the Brockton Public Library on Saturday. Any memories of the library or Brockton to share?

ANSWER: My mother was a great reader and from the time I was very small, we visited the library regularly. I have vivid memories of her putting her finger to her lips before taking my hand and opening the heavy door. It was like entering a church. When I was older, I often spent overnights at my cousins’ house on Winthrop Street, and after we walked downtown on Saturdays, we would stop at the library on the way home. In my novel, the young protagonist is seen reading a biography of Amelia Earhart. I can still remember taking that book home from the Brockton Public Library.

QUESTION: How is the pizza in Provincetown?

ANSWER: We have many terrific restaurants on the Cape and in Provincetown, but there’s nothing like The Cape Cod Cafe for pizza. I used to love Christo’s, too. Before they closed their doors, we came up for one last Greek salad and pizza. I hope the rumors that they’re planning to open a small take-out place are true.

About the interviewer: Brockton resident Laurie Cavanaugh is director of the Holmes Public Library in Halifax. She blogs about books at Bay State Reader’s Advisory (

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bank on YOURSELF? Not Exactly...

The Bank On Yourself Revolution: Fire Your Banker, Bypass Wall Street, and Take Control of Your Own Financial FutureThe Bank On Yourself Revolution: Fire Your Banker, Bypass Wall Street, and Take Control of Your Own Financial Future by Pamela Yellen
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found the title captivating and brought it home from the library. It is on its way back now. I have made several attempts to read it, starting with my usual from-the-beginning endeavor, then jumping around chapters, particularly "Bank on yourself for Seniors." I could not get excited or even interested enough to find out what policies are recommended. This plan is based on using dividend-paying whole life insurance policies, but you have to contact her representatives to get any actual recommendations. No thank you.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Complicated and rewarding - this novel is the total package!

The Hunting Wind (Alex McKnight, #3)The Hunting Wind by Steve Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Complicated and rewarding. (Series) protagonist Alex McKnight is complicated (though not so much as some of the characters he encounters) and so is the plot, but letting Steve Hamilton lead us through its convolutions is a rewarding experience. It has love, treachery, gore and violence, pain and suffering, a bit of hope and a very down-to-earth hero to root for - it's the total package. Within a day of finishing it I tracked down a copy of North Of Nowhere, the next title in this wonderful series.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

A Million Donated to Public Libraries and Millions worth of Publicity!

Thanks to The Boston Globe for today's article in which Alec Baldwin spoke about the enduring role of libraries. “Even though the technology has changed how we consume material . . . libraries are still very important in the life of the community,” he said. “Me, I still like to carry a book around.”

Plagued by publicity in which "you are measured by who you are on your worst day... he lamented that such acts carry no weight in the public profile drawn by the media." His acts included donating well over a million dollars to public libraries. Thank you Alec Baldwin!

Alec Baldwin travels to Central Falls for library
Actor draws raves in struggling town
By Jenna Russell | GLOBE STAFF | JUNE 09, 2014

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — They would seem, at first glance, to have nothing in common: the small, struggling Rhode Island city of Central Falls and A-list Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin.

Central Falls is the city that declared bankruptcy three years ago, watched its mayor plead guilty to corruption, and became a symbol of government gone wrong. Baldwin is the actor who issued a dramatic “goodbye to public life” earlier this year, after his escalating conflicts with aggressive tabloid photographers led him to be accused of homophobia.

Somewhere in the midst of their own very public ordeals, the actor and the municipality found each other — and found common ground — in a quest to protect a public library from shutdown.

Baldwin, who donated $15,000 to the Central Falls library in 2011 and 2012, stood on the front steps of the small brick building Saturday afternoon and accepted the key to the city from Mayor James Diossa. “You believed in us, Alec, and we appreciate it,” Diossa told him.

A native of Amityville, N.Y., and the son of a social studies teacher, Baldwin, 55, spoke about the enduring role of libraries. “Even though the technology has changed how we consume material . . . libraries are still very important in the life of the community,” he said. “Me, I still like to carry a book around.”

Then he headed inside for a VIP reception with Rhode Island’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, and about 100 library supporters who had donated between $500 and $5,000 each.

The main walkway outside the building was decked out with a swath of bright red carpet, while inside, the library’s checkout counter was transformed into a wine bar for the occasion. A French restaurant in Providence, Chez Pascal, provided fancy hors d’oeuvres including asparagus panna cotta with bacon jam and rhubarb compote and marinated beets with smoked bluefin mousse.

The festive atmosphere was a far cry from the mood three years ago, when a state receiver took control of the city’s ruined finances and swiftly shut down the library to save money. It remained closed for just one month: A determined coalition of supporters refused to let it go quietly, and took over running the place on a purely volunteer basis.

They hung a banner outside, proudly declaring, “Welcome to YOUR library.” A loophole made the residents’ takeover possible; the Adams Memorial Library building is held by a private trust, not owned by the city.

When a story about the library’s plight appeared in The New York Times, Baldwin read it and sent $10,000 to help. He sent $5,000 the next year, and also helped out the highly ranked chess team at Central Falls High School. (Hollywood actress Viola Davis, who grew up in Central Falls, has also supported local schools, and persuaded Meryl Streep to do the same, said city officials.)

The high-profile help drew headlines, which spurred other donations. In time, the library was able to rehire a few paid staff members. It is still a lean operation, but it opens six days a week.

Joel Pettit, the library’s director, wrote a letter to Baldwin to ask if he would headline a library fund-raiser this year, and he agreed. The city hoped to raise $100,000 over the weekend with the reception and a larger event, a program of dramatic readings, in Providence, and has tentative plans to transform an unused Victorian house on the library property into a modern media center.

It is an example of a confident, creative new way of thinking about the future here, an approach that city leaders — many of them, including the mayor, still in their 20s — describe as “Government 2.0.”

Baldwin, coincidentally, played a working-class father in the movie “Outside Providence.” His attempt at a Rhode Island accent was unconvincing, and his battles with the tabloids have fired controversy, but in this blue-collar spot, population 19,000, he has won residents’ respect.

“You would think he would go to Newport, but instead he comes here, to the tiniest, poorest place in the state,” said Andrew Shotts, 44, owner of Garrison Confections in Central Falls. “That says a lot.”

Shotts also approves of Baldwin’s feisty attitude, when dealing with critics on Twitter or with the NYPD, which arrested him last month for riding his bike the wrong way down Fifth Avenue.

“I’m like, ‘You go, man,’” said the local candy maker, whose handcrafted chocolate bonbons, filled with fruit-infused ganache, were among the delicacies served at the library reception.

Stephen Larrick, the city’s youthful planning director, said Baldwin’s visit inspired particular glee “among women of a certain age.”

Around town, many were aware that he was there, even if they weren’t sure exactly why. “I don’t remember what movies he’s in, but I think he’s handsome,” said April Castonguay, 37, sitting on the steps of the group home where she lives, across the street from the library.

Brian Perez, 24, was walking his dogs, Nino and Diamond, when he noticed police cars blocking the street and a TV truck parked near the library. He figured something bad had happened.

Surprised to learn it was something good instead, he lingered to watch, keeping a safe distance in case the dogs started barking. (They did.)

Baldwin gave $250,000 to four libraries on Long Island in 2012, and recently donated $1 million more to build a new children’s wing at one of them. But in an essay in New York magazine in February, he lamented that such acts carry no weight in the public profile drawn by the media.

“In the New Media culture, anything good you do is tossed in a pit, and you are measured by who you are on your worst day,” he said in the essay.

Still, a pack of photographers showed up at the library to capture his good deed.

Jenna Russell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Should a Writer Hate Amazon?

Alex Beam's Boston Globe article, below, provides food for thought when he reminds us that, "...the interests of authors and publishers do not always align....authors have literary protect them against publishers, not against booksellers." Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Prime buyer, a very small scale Amazon bookseller ("harrywill") and purchase electronics from them.

Writers love to hate Amazon, but why?
By Alex Beam | The Boston Globe | JUNE 05, 2014

WRITERS ARE an excitable lot; like skittish colts, they can be easily stampeded in one direction or another.

On May 10, just as the dispute between the world’s third-largest publisher Hachette and Amazon was warming up, bestselling author and then-president of the Authors Guild Scott Turow declared: “I stand with my publishers at Hachette in standing up against the Darth Vadar [sic] of the literary world, a.k.a. Amazon.”

A few weeks later, Turow’s successor as guild president, Roxana Robinson, said on TV that trying to deal with Amazon was “like trying to negotiate with Tony Soprano.” As in the Mafia; geddit?

Let’s do a little experiment. I want to buy a paperback copy of Robinson’s wonderful 2009 novel, “Cost.” Two of the area’s five premier independent bookstores carry the paperback for about $17. Robinson’s website asks you to buy the book from, Barnes & Noble’s online home. With shipping, that costs about the same. (The book is out of stock at the B&N stores at the Prudential Center and Burlington, so you can’t opt for in-store pickup.)

Amazon will offer you a similar deal, except its Prime customers get free shipping, as well as access to streaming movies and TV shows. And for less than half the paperback cost, you can read it on its Kindle, which has decisively trumped B&N’s de-funded Nook in the e-reader wars.

Amazon is competitive, to put it mildly.

I’m a member of the Authors Guild, and I accept that Amazon is a fact of life in the bookselling trade. Just a few years ago, Amazon accounted for 30 percent or less of a writer’s sales. Now, if you include Kindle sales, it often accounts for 50 percent or more. Of course I love bookstores. But it behooves me to love Amazon, too.

(I do love how Amazon has enriched my social interactions. As a recently published author, I’ve learned that “I’m going to download your book” actually means: “I have no intention of buying or reading your book, and — short of searching my Kindle — you’ll never know.”)

The anti-Amazon crowd frames the current debate as authors and publishers versus Amazon. But the interests of authors and publishers do not always align. The reason authors have literary agents, for instance, is to protect them against publishers, not against booksellers.

By coincidence, I met three writers last week who all used Amazon to publish books. Amazon printed Stephen Davis’s fascinating mini-book, “William Burroughs/Local Stop on the Nova Express.” Ellen Leopold used Amazon’s CreateSpace program to publish her collection of essays about breast cancer, “My Soul Is Among Lions.”

Amazon’s famously impenetrable algorithms detected some sales strength in Tom Waite’s self-published novel, “Terminal Value,” and twice offered it as a “Kindle Daily Deal” — at no cost to him. For a while, he was selling more e-copies than “The Hobbit” or “Gone Girl.”

Be careful what you wish for. Waite’s forthcoming novel, “Lethal Code,” will be published by Amazon, which has an execrable record as a publisher, as opposed to a seller, of books.

Could Amazon be a better citizen of BookWorld? Of course. It should pay to advertise in newspapers’ floundering book review sections, which channel plenty of business its way. (The Hachettes of the world hardly ever do this.) Amazon could even invest in a high-quality book review, such as the Barnes & Noble Review.

I hope you buy every book mentioned in this column. How you do so is your own business. Boycotts are for the birds.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

exhausted...yet satisfied...reading as a carnal experience

The RuinsThe Ruins by Scott B. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wrestled with giving it five stars, but "It was amazing" seems so extreme that I went with four stars, "I really liked it." I really did, and read it at every opportunity, eager to see what would be the next horrific development. By the end, exhausted (and startled with terror when a blanket wrapped around my ankle during an afternoon nap shortly after finishing the book) yet satisfied (gee I'm making the reading of this book sound like a carnal experience!) I felt I had gotten to know these young travelers, their weaknesses, pettiness and occasions of heroism. I rooted for them. (Pun unintended but apt.) I mourned those who were lost (no spoiler in hinting that some are lost) and resolved to savor the comforts of my simple life in the good old USA. Thank you Scott Smith!

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Commitment to funding operations - Chinese concert halls, American Public Libraries

I started this Boston Globe article because of the Brockton Symphony Orchestra's need for a proper venue, then had deja vu reading "the government’s larger willingness to build such spectacular new facilities without a commitment to funding their continued operation is a major problem." Having built both new and renovated/expanded Public Library buildings I often lamented that is was much easier to get people excited about something as tangible as a building - you could even show donors the exciting architect's model. Generating the support for staffing, maintenance and materials so it could serve the community was much more challenging.

Culture under construction: China’s new concert halls
By Jeremy Eichler | GLOBE STAFF | MAY 31, 2014

BEIJING — China’s National Center for the Performing Arts has a way of holding one’s gaze as it floats on the local skyline, a giant titanium dome hovering in a pool of water. Its look is futuristic, its scale enormous. And it is only one of a wide array of concert halls, opera houses, and other cultural centers that have sprouted up across China in the last 15 years, as part of a construction boom unparalleled in the modern history of the art form.

In classical music, architecture may not exactly be destiny, but it sometimes feels close. Halls and the orchestras that reside within them tend over the years to resemble each other. There is, for instance, no symbol more illustrative of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s history and present-day ethos than Symphony Hall itself, the very cauldron in which its sound has been forged.

So what exactly can China’s new crop of concert halls tell us about the state of classical music in that country? Certainly from the street, the facades are gleaming and brilliant. So too, often, is the view of China’s entire classical scene as pictured from the United States, where we often hear reports of new audiences, zealously cheered Western orchestras, and the tens of millions of Chinese children studying piano or violin. How easy it is for anyone concerned about those perennially graying and shrinking American audiences to project onto China their own hopes and dreams for the art form’s future.

All of this said, unfortunately, the view from inside China’s concert halls today has a far less consistent gleam. After a week of covering the BSO’s recent tour of China, seeing and hearing a handful of the country’s newly built venues, and speaking with the administrators, musicians, and government officials who make their lives within them, one emerges with a more complex set of impressions. What the country has achieved already in this realm is astonishing, and the most encouraging aspect is the sheer energy, curiosity, and openness of Chinese audiences. But let’s be clear: China’s classical music scene is not coming to the rescue anytime soon. It is too busy and bogged down by the hectic, messy, and sometimes dissonant work of becoming itself.

The example of Beijing’s NCPA, at the heart of the country’s newly erected performing arts infrastructure, is illuminating on many levels. Designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, renowned for his airports in Europe and far beyond, the Center stretches a staggering 2.4 million square feet, its mass of suavely rounded titanium suggesting some kind of sci-fi-meets-classical-music fantasy. Surely when Wagner’s gods take a jaunt from Valhalla to Tiananmen Square, this is their flying saucer.

Within the dome are three performance spaces: an opera house, a concert hall, and a smaller theater often used for Peking opera. The lobbies are on the scale of China itself, so vast they seem designed to hold every last piano student in the country. The architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, in her 2012 book “Site and Sound,” found the space “more reminiscent of a transportation hub than of a cultural center.” The labyrinth of corridors backstage connecting the three halls, rehearsal space, and administrative offices is also so complex that even local Beijing musicians speak of getting lost. And perhaps most surprisingly, the acoustics of the 2,000-seat concert hall, where the BSO opened its recent tour, are rather dry and unflattering.

Still, the place holds a certain fascination as a window into the country’s performing arts world. Most of the staff running it seems at first blush to be remarkably young, and, curiously, almost no one I met had actual experience as a musician. My first night in China, I attended a group dinner at the NCPA hosted by Patrick Ren, a director of programming, a youthful man wearing a crisp blue suit and designer eyewear. Trained in computer science and information management, he has spent most of his career working for the Chinese government in various capacities, including a posting at the country’s embassy in Damascus, and another on the organizing committee of the 2008 Olympics, where he worked closely with the director Zhang Yimou. He speaks English comfortably, and between courses quoted, with just a hint of hesitancy, from Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy.”

Two days later I met Chen Ping, president of the NCPA, a government bureaucrat in his 60s, and a man who formerly served as a party chief in the large Dongcheng district of Beijing. He appeared to speak not a word of English, but was intent on explaining to me, in long and emphatically delivered paragraphs, the full list of the visiting Western orchestras that had performed at his venue, rattling off names like accomplished line-items on a five-year plan. As conveyed through a translator, the list seemed to include just about every top-tier ensemble in Europe and America. I tried to broaden the discussion, asking him multiple times about the deeper meanings of China’s embrace of Western classical music in China. He replied with a friendly expression, and more lists.

A gulf far larger than the NCPA’s enormous reflecting pool would seem to separate the mentalities and world views of Ren and Chen. And indeed, veteran observers here note a larger disconnect between a new generation of nimble, relatively Westernized administrators and the old-school unreconstructed government bureaucrats above them still holding the levers of power.

“It’s always been like that,” a Beijing-based arts administrator named Tu Song, who studied clarinet in Boston with the BSO’s William Hudgins, later told me. “The Chinese people started to go abroad 100 years ago, but look who has been in charge of the country? It’s none of those people.”

Tu added, “The only thing that has changed in China these days is the material [conditions], what you can see on the streets, the buildings. The hardware is now different, but the software has never changed.”

Interestingly, Chen’s list of prestigious Western ensembles that have visited the NCPA — and his determination to keep them coming — is linked to a more controversial and politicized aspect of the Center’s mandate. Despite the facility’s enormous size, not one of Beijing’s four top orchestras has a home there. The China Philharmonic, regarded as one of the country’s best, must rent its own rehearsal and performance space.

Meanwhile, to keep its concert offerings robust, the NCPA receives 30 percent of its annual budget from the government, but it is one of the very few halls to do so. Most others struggle. According to several insiders I spoke with, the government’s larger willingness to build such spectacular new facilities without a commitment to funding their continued operation is a major problem. Newly built halls sometimes sit for a period unused, without even the funds necessary to open. And once they do, not only attracting audiences but keeping them coming back can be extremely difficult.

Attendance figures are hard to obtain, but Newhouse reports that at the Hangzhou Grand Theatre, seating capacity has been at an average of 50 percent. And at the stunning Guangzhou Opera House, designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, only 70 percent of the seats were sold for the first 280 performances.

“Where do you think an instant Boston Symphony subscription audience would come from?” Wray Armstrong, a Canadian-born arts manager based in Beijing, asked me in a phone interview. “Every city that starts [with Western classical music] is essentially starting from zero.” He explained that much of the disconnect between the lavish construction budgets and meager programming funds stemmed from deep misconceptions about the art form’s commercial viability — a belief that ticket sales themselves should sustain these halls. He also pointed out that Chinese tax code offers no incentive for private arts philanthropy. “And there is no tradition of giving,” he added, “because we went straight from the Emperor, through a few complicated republics, into the Communist era.”

After the BSO’s performances in Beijing, the orchestra traveled to Shanghai, where it set up shop at another sleekly futuristic venue, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, designed, rather improbably, by the same French architect that built the NCPA. Shanghai appears to have gotten the better deal from Andreu, with a hall that is more approachable in scale, and slightly more acceptable — though still far from ideal — in its acoustics.

During my visit, however, the buzz among Shanghai’s musical insiders was centered roughly 6 miles to the west, in the elegant low-rise neighborhoods of the former French Concession, where the finishing touches were being placed on China’s newest venue, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall, set to open this fall. I was given a tour by the orchestra’s president, Chen Guangxian. Designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki with the renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, the hall is, refreshingly, more understated than its two older siblings, with seemingly less to prove. It also promises to have acoustics worthy of the city’s cultural aspirations.

“In China, there has been no real concert hall design, only the design of ‘grand theaters,’ where the government will often bring in acousticians too late,” Chen told me, standing in the lobby of the new building, its ceiling a striking midnight blue. “This is the first hall in China where the acoustics were [addressed] before the architectural design.”

Inside, the hall boasts dedicated space for educational outreach, and a 1,200-seat concert auditorium with a stage built in part with pine from Hokkaido, Japan, prized for its resonance. Even with construction still underway, it seemed like a space destined for serious listening. It was also striking how quickly lessons appeared to have been learned from the other recently built concert halls, and not only in the acoustics department. Most notably, this will be the first hall in all of China to be self-managed by its resident orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony. “That is a beautiful thing,” Tu told me.

Among the other concerns circulating in these newly erected musical corridors is the future of native folk and classical traditions. The vogue for learning Western instruments like piano and violin may well be siphoning interest away from China’s own music, according to Wu Man, a Chinese pipa virtuoso based in California. Wu recently returned to perform in Beijing and Shanghai, meeting with colleagues at the conservatories in both cities. She confirmed that numbers of students applying to study traditional instruments are declining. “There is now an image of traditional music — that it’s so old, like it’s my grandmother’s or grandfather’s music,” she told me. “But here is this new thing, the violin or the piano — so cool!”

On her recent visit, while passing through the Shanghai airport, a security officer mistook Wu’s pipa for another traditional instrument, the erhu — an error no one had ever made in all of her years of traveling through China. (The two instruments look about as similar as a violin and a guitar.) Wu did not take this to be an encouraging sign.

But ultimately the biggest challenge here, as China’s cultural leap forward has coincided with its massive economic expansion, may be the disentangling of art and commerce. Back at the NCPA, as audience members filed in through surreally tight security to attend the BSO’s first performance, Patrick Wen sat in a small lobby cafe, surveying the crowd. He leaned in and spoke quietly above the background hum of the throng.

“People’s awareness of what art is all about here, its social meaning, still needs to be changed,” he said. “I would really hope that in the future, art, including classical music and dance, can be recognized as a great way of spreading sweetness and light, and not as a commercial business. With an orchestra, you have 100 musicians. They are not supposed to be sitting on stage to drive the GDP of the country, or to create 100 job opportunities. They are supposed to play great music, to tell people what the world is all about, what life is all about.”

“That’s the true social meaning of classical music, theaters, and other forms of great art,” he continued. “That may seem simple, but it takes time for more people to change their ideology. It’s difficult, especially when this country has 1.3 billion people.” He laughed with a hint of weariness, and added: “So much of this is new. We are really just getting started.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at