Posted by: Tom Owen | September 4, 2009

Indecision (2005) – Benjamin Kunkel, SPS 1991

A NYT Bestseller

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Benjamin Kunkel (born in 1972 in Colorado) is an American novelist. He co-founded and is a co-editor of the journal n+1. His first novel, Indecision, was published in 2005.

He grew up in Eagle, Colorado and was educated at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, studied at Deep Springs College in California, graduated from Harvard University, then got his MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University.

In addition to regularly writing for The New York Times, Kunkel has written for the magazines Dissent, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Believer, and The New Yorker.

Indecision begins with the acknowledgment, “For n+1.” Kunkel has written two short stories and one book review for the print journal he started with friends from college and graduate school. In the Fall 2004 issue, he published the short story “Horse Mountain,” about an aging man. In the Spring 2005 issue, he published a review of J.M. Coetzee’s works, imitating Coetzee’s recent novel Elizabeth Costello. In the Fall 2005 issue, he published a short story “Or Things I Did Not Do or Say,” about a man determined to kill another man.

Out of the billions of books in the world, only a handful have appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Even fewer have been an author’s debut novel.  Indecision was widely applauded in 2005, and arguably one of the most talked-about debuts in the last decade.  Jay McInerney dubbed it “the funniest and smartest coming-of-age novel in years,” and other critics awarded Kunkel similar praise.

Many have compared Indecision to The Catcher in the Rye – especially the NYT critic Michiko Kakutani, who wrote a review of the novel entirely from Holden Caulfield’s perspective.  Much of the groundwork is similar – disenchanted prep schooler refuses to grow up – but this is far from a remake.

The story follows Dwight Wilmerding – 28 years old, living in the city, and hopeless underachiever.  Kunkel describes stories from Dwight”s time at “St. Jerome’s” with details a Paulie would instantly recognize, but the flashbacks show a life filled with no sense of purpose.  Stuck in a dead-end job with a frustrating girlfriend and immature roommates, he recognizes that he is unhappy but is unable to take action.  Dwight realizes that he lacks the ability to make decisions – usually relying on flipping a Chinese coin for his daily choices – and ends up taking an experimental drug meant for people with chronic indecision.

With a firm resolve, Dwight flips his life upside down.  He spontaneously follows his former crush from St. Jerome’s to Ecuador, falls in love with her roommate, and has many revelations in the South American jungles.    The exact nature of the drug isn’t made clear, but placebo or not, Dwight’s new decisiveness allows him to finally grow up.

Critics have heralded Indecision as a defining book for Generation Y – the children of the baby boomers.  NPR, in an interview with Kunkel, asked him if indecision is a global problem for his contemporaries.  He replied, “Well, it’s obviously not an affliction for everybody in the world, it’s only a small segment of the world. But I think for a number of people of my generation, there’s been an explosion of freedom without any sort of similar capacity to handle the opportunities that spread themselves before us.”

Even without the “bigger picture” in place, Indecision is a heart-felt and often hilarious novel that readers will thoroughly enjoy.


Tee Time in Berzerkistan: A Doonesbury Book

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Garretson Beekman Trudeau (born July 21, 1948) is an American cartoonist, best known for the Doonesbury comic strip.

Trudeau was born in New York City, the son of Jean Douglas (née Moore) and Francis Berger Trudeau. He is the great-grandson of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who created the world-famous Adirondack Cottage Sanitorium for the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis at Saranac Lake, New York State. Edward was succeeded by his son Francis and grandson Francis Jr. The latter founded the Trudeau Institute at Saranac Lake, with which his son Garry retains a connection.

Raised in Saranac Lake, Garry Trudeau attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He enrolled in Yale University in 1966 and later became a member of Scroll and Key. Garry was confident that his major would end up being theatre, but he discovered a greater interest in art design. A drawing by Trudeau of famous Yale quarterback Brian Dowling for the Yale Daily News led to the creation of a comic strip for the paper, Bull Tales, the progenitor of Doonesbury. Garry continued his studies with postgraduate work at the Yale School of Art, earning his M.F.A. in graphic design in 1973.

In 1970, Garry’s creation of Doonesbury was syndicated by the newly formed Universal Press Syndicate. Today Doonesbury is syndicated to almost 1,400 newspapers worldwide and is accessible online in association with Slate Magazine at In 1975, he became the first comic strip artist to win a Pulitzer, traditionally awarded to editorial-page cartoonists.

He married the journalist Jane Pauley in 1980. They have three children – Ross, Rachel, and Thomas – and live in New York City.

Tee Time in Berzerkistan is the latest collection of Doonesbury strips, with a release date scheduled for October 20, 2009.

Doonesbury is one of the most recognizable examples of political satire in the world.  However, most people aren’t aware that its name has roots in St. Paul’s slanguage – in the 1960’s, the word “doone” described a clueless buffoon.  (The other half of the title comes from Pillsbury, the last name of his Yale roommate.)  Characterized by witty political criticism, pop-culture references, and the occasional crossing over into the surreal, it has become a newspaper institution over the last thirty years.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

The strip was originally about students at Yale, under the fictional name Walden College.  Main characters included Mike Doonesbury, the lovable everyman; his roommate B.D., the jock quarterback; Zonker Harris, the herbally-minded hippie; Boopsie, B.D.’s stereotypically blonde girlfriend; and Uncle Duke, a parody of Hunter S. Thompson.  As the story progressed, so did the characters – after spending some time living at the Walden Commune together in the seventies, characters eventually entered the real world.  Doonesbury is also noted for using real political and cultural figures in the strip instead of merely symbolically depicting them.

The title comes from the 50-hole golf course in the East European state of Greater Berzerkistan, built in a single night by persecuted ethnic groups.  Uncle Duke, who evolved from a Rolling Stone editor to a shady, behind-the-scenes figure of political corruption, is representing the U.S. in negotiations with president-for-life Trff Bmzklfrpz (pronounced “Ptklm”).  Since Berzerkistan borders Iran, Bmzklfrpz would be a good leader to have in the U.S.’s pocket – and Duke has no trouble spinning the state’s obvious history of genocide.

Another notable storyline is how traditional press is becoming increasingly involved in online media.  With newspapers going bankrupt, Rick Redfern, a longtime reporter at the Washington Post, is fired.  He heads to the internet as a blogger, but faces stiff competition from Roland Hedley, a Twitter-obsessed reporter who writes inane and narcisisstic posts.

Other topics covered are B.D. recovering from the loss of his leg in the Iraq war, race in Washington, Clinton administration alumni, and general chaos.  This is Doonesbury at its finest.

Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus
Winner of the 1943 Pulitzer Prize in Biography

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Samuel Eliot Morison, Rear Admiral, United States Naval Reserve (July 9, 1887 – May 15, 1976) was an American historian, noted for producing works of maritime history that were both authoritative and highly readable. A sailor as well as a scholar, Morison garnered numerous honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes, two Bancroft Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

Upon receiving his doctorate, Morison went to Berkeley to serve as an instructor in history, and, in 1915, returned to Harvard in the same capacity. After spending 1922–25 at Oxford as Harmsworth Professor of American History, he became full professor at Harvard in 1925. Morison was promoted to Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History in 1941 and retired from Harvard in 1955. Morison continued writing prolifically after his retirement.

Unlilke World War I, for which the US military had not prepared a full-scale official history of any branch of service, it was decided that World War II would be meticulously documented. Professional historians were attached to all the branches of the US military; they were embedded with combat units to witness the events about which they would later write.

Toward this end, in 1942, Morison was commissioned into the United States Naval Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. The result was the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, a work in fifteen volumes that covered every aspect of America’s war at sea, from strategic planning and battle tactics to the technology of war and the exploits of individuals during the conflict.

In recognition of his achievements, the Navy awarded him the Legion of Merit and eventually promoted Morison to the rank of Rear Admiral (Reserve). In addition, the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate, USS Samuel Eliot Morison, was named in his honor. A bronze statue of Morison is on the Commonwealth Avenue mall in Boston, Massachusetts, between Exeter and Fairfield Streets. The celebrated British military historian Sir John Keegan has hailed Morison’s official history as the best to come out of the Second World War. One of his research assistants on that project, Henry Salomon, went on to conceive the epic NBC documentary series Victory at Sea.

Morison advocated that writing history should be a combination of research and experience – not just facts.  This ground-breaking philosophy is perhaps best utilized in his Puliter Prize-winning biography Admiral of the Ocean Sea, in which Morison (an avid sailor) recreated Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the New World on his own boat.  The book has been critically acclaimed for Morison’s extensive historical knowledge combined with his vivid descriptions of his own journey.

Written for the 450th anniversary of Columbus’ 1492 voyage, Morison spent 2 years sailing the Atlantic in order to write this biography.  In a 147-foot schooner and a 47-foot ketch, approximating the dimensions of the Santa Maria and Niña, he recreated the voyage as best he could.  To make his expedition as accurate as possible, as well as dispel numerous myths about the event, Morison used an unprecedented amount of primary sources in his research.  Morison describes his experiences – the geography, the weather conditions, the monotony of the waves – and weaves them into his tapestry of stories and charts.  He describes everything in layman’s terms, and explains difficulties Columbus would have had sailing in the 15th century.

Until recent evidence cast new light on Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea was the be-all, end-all Columbus biography.The result of Morison’s years of work is a biography written with great authority – authority that only comes with having been there.  Few non-fiction books reach the level of excitement Morison reaches in his thrilling account of history’s most famous navigator.

Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time

Biographical Notes
Roger Shattuck was an eminent writer and scholar, with the bulk of his work concerning twentieth-century French culture.  After serving in World War II as a cargo pilot, Shattuck made documentaries for UNESCO in Paris, befriending artists like Cocteau, Braque, and Bacon.  He also met his future wife, who danced with Les Ballets Russes des Monte Carlo and Les Ballet de Paris.

Shattuck returned to the U.S., first as an editor at Harcourt Brace, and then teaching French, English, and Comparative Literature at Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virgina, and Boston University.  Despite his lack of a graduate degree, his teaching skills and published works were ample substitutes.

One of Shattuck’s most recognized books is The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (1958), a groundbreaking portrait of the turn-of-century bohemians responsible for major artistic, literary, and musical movements.  Often used as a college textbook, The Banquet Years is a lyrical description of the Parisians who redefined art.

Shattuck also received global interest for his book Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1996). He questioned if humanity is meant to know everything and applied myth and literature to topics like genetic engineering, nuclear weaponry, and violent pornography.  Critics have both strongly supported and argued against this unique work.

His 1974 biography Marcel Proust won the National Book Award.

In Search of Lost Time, the 3,000 page work by Marcel Proust, is an intimidating book.  Its extensive use of flashbacks and involuntary memory, as well as its astounding length, attribute to its well-deserved reputation.  Proust’s Way may be thought of as a highly evolved Cliffs Notes to the book – a walking stick for hiking through this Everest of literature.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and Shattuck guides you through all of it.  The basics are here – plot summaries, character analyses, and general theme discussions – but Shattuck

offers many more levels of analysis.  His extensive knowledge of Proust’s life gives insight into the author’s mindset and his contemporary environment.   Shattuck explores the numerous current interpretations of the role of time and memory without forcing his own opinions on the reader.  He also presents analysis in a balanced way – not too overpowering for first-time readers, but leaving more advanced scholars satisfied.  Readers will appreciate having Shattuck by their side while tackling Proust’s double narration – the story is told by a young Marcel and the older Narrator.  Near the end of the book, Shattuck places Proust in the modern world, discussing film adaptations, translations, and current debates.

The mystery of Proust’s oceanic work is considerably lessened by this “field guide,” and those brave souls willing to tackle In Search of Lost Time should strongly consider this accompaniment.

The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Baltzell was born to a wealthy, Episcopalian family. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. After World War II service as a naval aviator he earned his doctorate from Columbia University. He later became the eminent Penn sociologist credited with the popularization of the acronym WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). The term changed perceptions of American society and even American history, bringing forth new insight into the workings of the ruling elite of America.

Those who knew “Digby” describe him as a dapper figure in tweed jackets and bow ties, popular in a slightly aloof way, but always courteous and accessible. He could often be seen pedaling an old one-speed bicycle between his DeLancey Place home and Penn’s West Philadelphia campus. It was apparent to students in his classes that he disdained the use of mathematical and statistical models as crutches to support sociological hypotheses. During the Vietnam conflict he once asked a class of predominantly male students the odds of being shot if one were sent into combat in Southeast Asia. After dismissing a few statistical responses from students, he gave the answer. “Fifty-Fifty,” he declared. “Either you will or you won’t.”

After serving on the faculty of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1947 to 1986, he retired in 1986. Until his death in 1996 Baltzell was Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology. His accomplishments include being appointed to the Danforth Fellow at the Society for Religion in Higher Education of the Princeton Theology Seminary from 1967 to 1968, Charles Warren Research Fellow at Harvard University from 1972 to 1973, and Guggenheim Fellow from 1978 to 1979. He is member of the American Sociology Association, the American Studies Association, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

A group of devoted former students are currently working to raise funds for a carved stone gargoyle in Digby’s likeness which will be added to the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Quadrangle dormitory in preparation for a celebration of centennial of Digby’s birth in 2015.

In The Protestant Establishment, Baltzell is often mistakenly credited with inventing the ethnonym White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP; Baltzell was not the first to use this term, but his seminal work made the term commonplace.

Despite Baltzell’s own WASP-y upbringing, he makes it clear that rigid class segregation is contrary to our nation’s founding principles.  The general class structure is essential, but social mobility is just as vital.  He writes:

“Our own best traditions have stressed equality of opportunity in a hierarchical and open-class society… But at the same time I am convinced that these traditions are being threatened in our time by the divisive forces of racial and ethnic prejudice.”

In a democracy, Baltzell writes, there is an “open elite” – every individual has the equal opportunity to elevate their social status given enough effort. Therefore, in an ideal democracy, the ruling class will constantly be in transition and open to anybody. The WASP establishment is a “closed upper class” – members of the elite by birthright, preventing others from sharing their status.  It’s actually a good thing to have a ruling class when its membership is based on ability, because it ensures strong leaders for the nation.  It’s only a bad thing to have a ruling class that prevents upward mobility – one of the primary reasons for the French Revolution.

“We have remained a relatively free and stable society largely because we have maintained a balance between the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.  On the other hand, there is a crisis in American leadership in the middle of the twentieth century that is partly due, I think, to the declining authority of an establishment which is now based on an increasingly castelike White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant upper class.”

Approaching its 50th anniversary, this influential text is well worth another look.

Posted by: Tom Owen | August 29, 2009

Black Ice (1992) – Lorene Cary, SPS 1974

Black Ice

Biographical Notes
Lorene Cary is a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.  In 1998 she was awarded the Provost’s Award for Distinguished teaching at the University.

Cary is the founder of the non-profit organization Art Sanctuary.  Located in an historic North Philadelphia church, Art Sanctuary brings prominent members of the black community to give lectures and performances.

Cary has received the Philadelphia Historical Society Founder’s Medal for History in Culture and the prestigious Philadelphia Award.

Along with her husband and two daughters, Cary lives in Philadelphia.

Black Ice is both a coming-of-age story and an intimate treatment of race and gender in modern America.

In the Autumn 1971 Alumni Horae, the Director of Admissions Sanford R. Sistare wrote:  “It seems fair to say that St. Paul’s seeks a representative group from all parts of the country and the world, as well as from the various minorities in the country. Each of the students contributes to St. Paul’s, to the educations of those in the School, and the School, in turn, contributes to their growth as human beings.”

The 1970’s at St. Paul’s was the dawn of a new era.  The first girls arrived in January of 1971, and there was a steadily increasing minority population.  As Sistare wrote, these efforts served to further the education of all the students at the school.

Lorene Cary was a key part of these early days of diversification.  A smart and passionate black student from Philadelphia, she was given the chance to study at St. Paul’s.  At first, Cary was unwilling to leave her tight-knit community, but she soon viewed the opportunity as a challenge – could she make a name for herself at this ancient institution?  She states, “I hadn’t come to St. Paul’s to survive, I had come to turn it out.”

Upon entering the school, vulnerability and internal conflicts almost overwhelm her.  For example, would she further herself (and by extension, the black community) by following all the rules and achieving academic honors?  Or would she make a more powerful statement by refusing to live by the standards of the school?  Can she trust the kindness of her white teachers and colleagues, or are they merely putting on a show?  Did she come to St. Paul’s because of her strengths or because the school wanted to try something new?

Cary starts to feel like an outsider from both the white establishment and her urban community.  She is thankful for the educational opportunities her parents never had, but those gifts also drive a wedge between her and her family.  Cary begins socializing almost exclusively with other black students at the school, but her candidacy for student council representative becomes a problem with her friends.   How does she stay true to her race, and why does she have to choose between two very different sides?

Black Ice deals with conflicting adolescent emotions as well as issues regarding gender and race that are prevalent in today’s society.  The author is easy to identify with and her book is very insightful.

Posted by: Tom Owen | August 24, 2009

The Piano Teacher (2009) – Janice Y.K. Lee, SPS 1990

The Piano Teacher

A love story set in mid-century Hong Kong.  A New York Times bestseller and Editor’s Pick.

Biographical Notes
Janice Lee had planned to write a novel since elementary school.  Despite her dream, her first job out of college was not writing but rather as an assistant to the Elle beauty editor.  Soon after, she worked in the features department, and later at Mirabella.  Lee decided to return to writing fiction and enrolled in an MFA program at Hunter College, mostly writing short stories.

Pregnant and living at the famed artists’ colony Yaddo, she began to formulate the basic storyline.  She took a break from writing to be a mother, moved back to Hong Kong, and had a second child.  Five years after her first notes on the story, and pregnant with twins, Lee decided to finish the novel before she missed the opportunity.  The Piano Teacher was bought two months before the birth of her twins.

The plot of The Piano Teacher revolves around two intertwining love stories in 1940’s and 50’s Hong Kong.  It explores colonialism, invasion, prejudice, high society, and the conflict of modernity and tradition.  Most importantly, the novel questions if true love has a place in wartime.

In 1941, a dashing young gentleman named Will Truesdale comes to Hong Kong from England.  He finds himself passionately in love with a beautiful heiress named Trudy Liang, who introduces him to her life of glamorous parties and high-priced debaucheries.  The romance is cut short by the sudden invasion of Japanese forces, and the two become separated as quickly as they fell in love.

A decade passes and the war is over.  An English newlywed named Claire Pendleton is hired by a wealthy Chinese family to teach piano to their daughter.  Like Will, she becomes enamored with colonial society.  Her curiosity takes an intriguing turn when she falls in love with the family’s driver – a kind but cryptic man named Will.  Her lover’s secrets, her lies to her husband, and the incessant pull of the socialite’s life traps her into a serious web.

Readers will find themselves spellbound by Lee’s romantic description of a foreign time and place.  The alluring characters and the skillful weaving of their fate lines make The Piano Teacher a captivating read.

Posted by: Tom Owen | August 21, 2009

Goodnight Moon (1947) – Clement Hurd, SPS 1926

Goodnight Moon (adapted from Wikipedia)

Goodnight Moon is an American children’s book written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. It was first published in 1947, and is a highly acclaimed example of a bedtime story. The content depicts the process of a child saying goodnight to everything around: “Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight light, and the red balloon…”

(narrated by Susan Sarandon)

Biographical Notes
Clement G. Hurd (January 12, 1908-February 5, 1988) was an American illustrator of children’s books. He is best known for his collaborations with author Margaret Wise Brown, including Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny (1942). He also illustrated a number of books written by his wife Edith (a friend of Brown’s) as well as a children’s book written by Gertrude Stein, The World Is Round. He also wrote and illustrated the book Run, Run, Run

The son of a New York mortgage banker, Hurd was educated at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, studied architecture at Yale University and painting with Fernand Léger in Paris. On seeing two of his paintings, Brown asked him if he would consider illustrating children’s books.

His son Thacher Hurd is also a children’s book author and illustrator, and referred in an interview to the “wonderful aura of creativity” surrounding his father and the Vermont farm that was their home.

Goodnight Moon is classic children’s literature in North America. The text is a poem, written in simple feminine rhyme, describing a bunny’s bedtime ritual of saying “goodnight” to various objects in the bunny’s bedroom: the telephone, the bunny’s dollhouse, the bears, etc.

Goodnight Moon slowly became a bestseller. Annual sales grew from about 1,500 copies in 1953 to 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990, the total number of copies sold was more than 4 million.

Author Susan Cooper writes that the book is possibly the only “realistic story” to gain the universal affection of a fairy-tale, although she also noted that it is actually a “deceptively simple ritual” rather than a story.

One aspect of this book is the wealth of detail in the illustrations. Although the entire story takes place in a single room, the careful reader or child will notice numerous details from page to page, including:

  • the hands on the two clocks progress from 7 PM to 8:10 PM.
  • the young mouse and kittens wander around the room. The mouse is present in all pages showing the room.
  • the red balloon hanging over the bed disappears in several of the color plates, then reappears at the end.
  • the room lighting grows progressively darker.
  • the moon rises in the left-hand window.
  • the socks disappear from the drying rack.
  • the open book in the bookshelf is The Runaway Bunny.
  • the book on the nightstand is Goodnight Moon.
  • in the painting of the cow jumping over the moon, the mailbox in the right-hand side of the painting occasionally disappears.
  • in the painting of the three bears, the painting hanging in the bears’ room is a painting of a cow jumping over the moon.
  • the painting of the fly-fishing bunny, which appears only in two color plates, appears to be black and white (or otherwise devoid of color). It is very similar to a picture in the book “The Runaway Bunny”.
  • the number of books in the bookshelf changes.

How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at The World Series of Poker

Over the last few years, poker has exploded into the mainstream through shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown and the syndication of major tournaments like the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour.  Professional player Annie Duke has stood out from the crowd for breaking the gender barrier and her considerable playing skills.  Duke tells her story in this autobiographical book, co-written by David Diamond.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

Biographical Notes (adapted from Wikipedia)
Annie Duke (born Anne LaBarr Lederer; September 13, 1965) is a professional poker player and author who won a bracelet in the 2004 World Series of Poker $2,000 Omaha Hi-Low Split-8 or Better Event and was the winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, where she earned the Winner-Take-All prize of $2,000,000.

Annie went to Columbia University where she double-majored in English and psychology. Subsequent to her undergraduate years, Duke was awarded an NSF Fellowship to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania to study psycholinguistics, a field within cognitive psychology.

In early 2004, Duke received considerable publicity for tutoring actor Ben Affleck, who then went on to win the 2004 California State Poker Championship. Before that time, one of her claims to poker fame was her 10th place finish in the 2000 World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event — one position short of the final table — while eight months pregnant with her third child. In the 2004 World Series of Poker, she eliminated her brother, Howard Lederer ’82, from four separate events, including the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, where she took first place and her brother took third. During this same World Series, she won her first gold bracelet, in an Omaha Hi-Lo tournament.

Image: Wikipedia.

Image: Wikipedia.

In 2009, she appeared on the Donald Trump reality television show, Celebrity Apprentice. Throughout the season, each celebrity raised money for a charity of his or her choice. Duke raised more money for her charity, Refugees International, than any other contestant.

The narration alternates between her victorious run at the 2004 WSOP and the story of her life.  The book starts when she is young – the daughter of St. Paul’s School English teacher Richard Lederer – and her experiences growing up in a quirky, intelligent family.  Duke explains how she came to love poker and what drove her to leave her academic life behind to pursue a career in gambling.  She describes horrible losses and satisfying victories in her playing and her personal life.  The finale of the book, of course, is her two million dollar 20004 win, which she narrates with detail.

Poker tips are sprinkled throughout the book in side boxes.  Readers will probably have more interest in the book if they have poker experience, but Duke avoids making the book too technical.

How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at The World Series of Poker is a whirlwind tale of interesting characters, terrible hardships, a gradual rise to fame, and a very intelligent woman.

Posted by: Tom Owen | August 19, 2009

Love Letters (1988) – A.R. Gurney, SPS 1948

Love Letters (adapted from Wikipedia)

Love Letters is a Pulitzer Prize for Drama-nominated play by A. R. Gurney.

Biographical Notes
A. R. Gurney (Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr.) (born November 1, 1930) is an American playwright and novelist. The playwright is known for works including Love Letters, The Cocktail Hour, and The Dining Room. Gurney currently lives in both New York and Connecticut.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Gurney, a graduate of St. Paul’s School, attended Williams College and the Yale School of Drama, after which he began teaching Humanities at MIT. He began writing plays such as Scenes from American Life, Children, and The Middle Ages while at MIT, but it was his great success with The Dining Room that allowed him to write full-time. Since The Dining Room, Gurney has written a number of plays, most of them concerning WASPs of the American northeast. Gurney also wrote the musical: Love in Buffalo. This was the first musical ever produced at Yale.

In 2006, Gurney was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The play centers on just two characters, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Using the epistolary form sometimes found in novels, they sit side by side at tables and read the notes, letters and cards – in which over nearly 50 years, they discuss their hopes and ambitions, dreams and disappointments, victories and defeats – that have passed between them throughout their separated lives.

Melissa is portrayed as rich, spoiled, with a private nurse and private schools, artistic, certainly lascivious, divorced, eventually alcoholic, bi-polar, and suicidal. She hates writing “these goddamned letters” while Andy Ladd is square, destined for Yale, a naval officer, a lawyer, and a U.S. Senator, and says that “writing letters is what he loves most”. In his preface to Love Letters, A. R. Gurney suggests that his emphasis in this play on the importance of writing is more than coincidental. Many in the audience leave a powerful Love Letters performance with a tear on their cheeks.

The play is a performance favorite for busy name actors, for it requires little preparation, and lines need not be memorized.

It was first performed in 1988 at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut with Joanna Gleason and John Rubinstein.

Directed by John Tillinger, it opened with Kathleen Turner and Rubinstein on March 27, 1989 at the off-Broadway Promenade Theatre, where it ran for 64 performances. The play was performed only on Sunday and Monday evenings and changed its cast weekly. On October 31 that same year, a Broadway production opened at the Edison Theatre, where it ran for 96 performances. The play has been performed by Carol Burnett, Brian Dennehy, Mel Gibson, and Sissy Spacek at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, Colorado.

In 1999, Gurney adapted Love Letters for a television movie, directed by Stanley Donen, that dramatized scenes and portrayed characters merely described in the play. Laura Linney and Steven Weber starred.

On December 1, 2007, Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones gave a benefit performance of the play, to raise $1 million for Taylor’s AIDS foundation. Tickets for the show were priced at $2,500 and more than 500 people attended. This event happened to coincide with the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike and, rather than cross the picket line, Taylor requested a “one night dispensation”. The Writers Guild agreed not to picket the Paramount Pictures lot that night, to allow for the performance.

On July 26, 2008, Sigourney Weaver and Jeff Daniels performed Love Letters at the Detroit Institute of Art’s Detroit Film Theater in a benefit for the Purple Rose Theatre Company.

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