Posts by Ellen Rocco

The 2014 Winter Reading and Holiday Giving Booklist

Photo: Gerald Streiter, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Gerald Streiter, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Readers & Writers hosts Ellen Rocco and Chris Robinson, book maven John Ernst, NCPR staff and friends, and listeners share their picks for the best books to read by the fireside or to give to friends and family this holiday season.

Here’s our book list–for winter reading and holiday gift giving.

Please add titles in the comment section or email them to me:

Here’s what we’ve got so far.

From co-host John Ernst (full reviews for many of these coming after the show):

Nora Webster – Colm Toibin

A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek – Ari Kelman

Let Me Be Frank With You - Richard Ford

Off the Sidelines – Kirsten Gillibrand

Lila –  Marilynne Robinson

The Children Act - Ian McEwan

The Passage to Power, Vol. 4 of the Years of Lyndon Johnson – Robert M. Caro

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity – Andrew Solomon

The Patriarch – David Nasaw

Chris Robinson

The windows are closed and outdoor sounds are muffled by snow.  This quiet of winter leaves me feeling ambitious. I can take on more challenging reading assignments.  It is time for Proust, or fat Russian novels and multi-volume Nordic memoirs. The slowness and solitude of a North Country winter feels like a great gift.  But there is danger lurking too.  The other morning, I watched a panel on Book TV composed of Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Nicholson Baker and Walter Moseley. These are all formidable voices of and for literature. We’ve interviewed Patchett and Prose on Readers and Writers. They were asked a simple question: Why do you like to read?

I’m fairly certain I’ve never been asked this question. It has not been a question I have posed to myself. Immediately, I fell in love with its simplicity and elegance. I waited anxiously for the answer offered by these authors.  Moseley loved reading because his parents loved it. For Nicholson Baker and Francine Prose, they began their love of reading because of the relief it offered from childhood fears and boredom.  Ann Patchett’s response was less direct and exposed the danger of winter reading.  Indeed, she slipped the whole question of why she loves to read to admit that she loved reading above all else. She now resents invitations to parties or other social engagements because they   interfere with her reading time.

I found something of myself in each of the responses from the panelists. I know I read for information and to stimulate my own thinking. I read to write. I read for both comfort and for discomfort. The only thing better than picking up a beloved author, is picking up someone who I disagree with and even hate.  The works of those I conceive to be enemies demand a written response. They spur me to think for myself.  So leave me to it.

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:


  • Amy Bloom, Lucky Us.  I interviewed Ms. Bloom this past September, and you can find it archived at the Readers and Writers page.  Amy Bloom is a brilliant writer on the theme of love.  Lucky Us is a deep and moving exploration of how love works in a human life. It brings strangers together for lifelong commitments. It is a source of joy and subversion. It can lead to betrayal and the experience of loss so deep that you never recover.  Bloom is a major talent with a gift for recreating time periods. When you finish this book, turn directly to her earlier novel, Away and her story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
  • Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr,, A Novel. Iyer is a professor of Philosophy who has written two books on Maurice Blanchot.  Several years ago he turned to fiction, first with a blog, and then with a trilogy of comic novels that recall Samuel Beckett and Grouch Marx. Wittgenstein Jr is a different sort of novel. Yes, it is funny, in spots. But it is mainly an arresting character study of a philosophy professor who comes to be called “Wittgenstein Jr” by his students.  I was surprised by how moving this novel is. Iyer is capable of writing on the most central of emotions in human life with perspicacity and empathy. I loved this book.
  • Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I read everything that Jonathan Lethem writes.  I look forward to his novels like I used to look forward to Woody Allen movies, and with the same expectation that I would be enlightened in some way. Dissident Gardens is Lethem’s most ambitious book to date. You start with Rose Zimmer, loyal Communist in the forties and fifties, only to be corrupted by the civil rights movement in the sixties. Then you turn to Rose’s daughter Miriam, hippy and activist who married an Irish folksinger. Finally you skip to the contemporary era, the War on Terror, and experience the traumas of the past and the loss of liberty in the present through Miriam’s son, Sergius, and Rose’s stepson (it’s more complicated than this) Cicero Lookins.  What a fantastic world this book is.
  • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping to Gilead.  Last year, I interviewed the great essayist and memoirist, Richard Rodriguez.  We talked a lot about the literature of spirituality from St. Augustine to St. Theresa Avila, and from Tolstoy to Thomas Merton.  We could have included the writings of Marilynne Robinson in this list.  Robinson’s novels are works of great beauty in language. This quality serves her subject well.  It is nothing less than the uncanny sacredness of ordinary life. While reading her novels I kept thinking of Socrates’ great line about being kind to everyone you meet because they are fighting unimaginable battles within. These spiritual struggles are made visible in deceivingly simple and clear ways in Robinson’s work.
  • Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfast.  The path to contemporary sciences – robotics, virtual reality, quantum physics, and so on – were paved by science fiction writers from Asimov to Phillip K. Dick. In the same vein, contemporary examinations of justice in a world of genocide, torture, pre-emptive wars, terrorism and Apartheid have been paved by crime novels.  Neville’s novel is a thriller set in Dublin and Belfast.  It is a profound study of humanity, psychic trauma and legal systems in times of war.


  • Danielle Allen, Our Declaration.  Allen is a political theorist who writes on both ancient and modern political themes.  Her book on civil rights and equality, Talking to Strangers, is an extraordinary study of race in America and deserves to be considered a modern classic. Her new book, Our Declaration, is a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. When was the last time you read this document?  Allen offers you a thoughtful, scholarly and provocative reading of this founding document.
  • Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering, New and Collected Essays.  Prior to picking up this volume, I had read only one D’Ambrosio essay, and it was on “Hell House,” a Halloween treat constructed from the horrifying fantasies of punishment of fundamentalist Christians. This essay is included here. D’Ambrosio thinks of the essay in much the same way as Montaigne: it is a space for reflection and uncertainty to be explored. It is experimental ground for writing and thinking. D’Ambrosio is no cupcake.  He is a perfect representative of Seattle culture. He’s dark and rainy, wet and uncomfortable, but innovative and passionate too.  You can overdose on his world, so be careful.
  • Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. I can’t think of a more incisive and important social commentator working today than Naomi Klein. No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were stunning inquiries into marketing and economic theory.  Her new work is a study of climate change.  Klein takes on climate science deniers in the book, but her real target are mainstream environmentalists and environmental groups that express agreement with climate science, but fail to grasp and articulate the political and ecological consequences of that science.  If I could, I would put this book in the hands of every college first year student.  The study of global climate change should be central to their education.
  • Cornel West, Black Prophetic Fire. This book is a series of conversations between West and German scholar Christa Buchendorf on Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells.  It is a fine primer on these thinkers and activists.  I was ashamed to say that I knew very little about Ida B. Wells.  Her works in opposition to lynching are sadly timely today.
  • Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower. This is a work that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is a fascinating project.  The book opens with a story told by Wiesenthal.  While in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal is called to the bed of a dying SS officer.  The Nazi asks the Jew for forgiveness for his participation in an atrocity.  Should the Jewish prisoner forgive the Nazi?  This question is then answered by a sizable list of contemporary thinkers, scholars and religious figures.
  • Atul Gawande, Being Human. Medical science and technology have altered the line between life and death. Generally, this is a good thing. But the alteration of these categories has profound ethical consequences for doctors and patients alike. Moreover, it demands contemporary reflection on what it means to be human, today, and without resort to answers from past ages. Gawande is an especially thoughtful writer on that region where medicine, politics and philosophy intersect.
  • Barron H. Lerner, The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics.  Okay, so I admit that I will be teaching Medical Ethics in the Spring and so I had to read through a fairly large pile of new books. The Gawande volume above was the best of these. But I liked Lerner’s book too.  What Lerner offers is a comparison of the practice of medicine from his father’s practice to his own.
  • Lisa Bloom, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.  The issue of mass incarceration reveals an American criminal justice system infected by racism. Bloom studies the Trayvon Martin case closely, and then uses it as a window onto the distortions of justice that have engendered a growing protest movement.
  • Michael Nieto Garcia, Autobiography in Black and Brown.  Garcia has produced a fascinating reading of the role of ethnic identity – being black or being brown — in the works of Richard Wright and Richard Rodriguez. Sometimes, odd combinations of writers produce profound insights, and this is the case in this book.  What lies behind the form of autobiography and ethnic identity in the hands of literary masters is a liberated and experimental inquiry into the self that uses strictures to incite the imagination.  Thanks to Garcia’s study, I will be re-reading Wright and Rodriguez in the very near future.

Ellen Rocco

Short fiction–new and classic; some Man Booker finalists; and some western U.S.-based fiction I’ve revisited.

David Means, The Secret Goldfish stories (2005); Assorted Fire Events (2012)

Michael Coffey, The Business of Naming Things

Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, or Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov ($2 on Kindle)

Francis King, The Man on the Rock (set in modern Greece, protagonist a consummate manipulator and opportunist), Man Booker finalist

Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others (how Islamic extremism takes hold inside a moderate Calcutta family), Man Booker finalist

David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks (a life and a mystery, lived in England and Ireland), Man Booker finalist

Rabih Alameddine – An Unnecessary Woman (a Beirut spinster translates books into Arabic that no one ever reads), National Book Award finalist

Philipp Meyer, The Son, Texas settlement and conflict, Pulitzer finalist

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, and The Border Trilogy

Charles Haverty (a writer, and reporter Natasha Haverty’s dad), had this to share with us on Facebook:

The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s “darkly funny account of growing up in the shadow of an erratic and increasingly dangerous brother, an exhilarating and sometimes harrowing story that culminates in one unforgettable Christmas.” Also: So We Read On, Maureen Corrigan’s terrific book all about The Great Gatsby; Updike by Adam Begley; and The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum.  Two other recent reads (novels) that fall into the “Where Have You Been All My Life?” category: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.

Sam Donato posted this to Facebook:

I  love the book Endurance which is the account of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew trying to cross Antarctica in the early 1900′s. If you think this is cold, this will make the North Country seem warm! A great survival story.

Plus, all of these suggestions from our Facebook friends:

Frederick Kaselow — Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Ellen Beberman — Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford. And if you haven’t read Independence Day, read that one next.

Virginia Burnett — I am re-reading Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky , The Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. Not only are they excellent fun, they also contain some insightful social commentary that is particularly pertinent right now.

Sue Novak — I’m sure you don’t want to know about Communication and the Law, so how about Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half for some grins?

Bake This Cake — Searching for historic cake recipes in a lovely old recipe book, American Economical Housekeeper, 1845, (second edition) by Mrs. E. A Howland. Just delightful and so fun to read!

Rita Grinbergs — The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (audio download from the library).

Diane LeifheitThe Night Circus by Eren Morgenstern. Magical, memorable, sparkly writing.

Amy DiStefano — Loved Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent . Also, Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number 1 Ladies a Detective Agency series is great.

Stephen Trinder Urban Mass Transportation: A Dozen Years of Federal Policy by George M. Smerk.

Mary Sullivan SagerThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

C.J. RudyThree Soldiers by John Dos Passos.

Ben Hamelin Tibetan Peach Pie , Tom Robbins’ “True Account of an Imaginative Life.”

Rob SprogellGone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Linda Garrett The Unexpected Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Louisa Burnham Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves.

Tom KinslowMy Losing Season by Pat Conroy.

Marcia Clifton RobbinsThe Firebird by Susanna Kearsley.

Colleen Pelletier Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey. Excellent read. She takes fairy tales and gives them a whole new story and twist. This one is about Little Red Riding Hood.

Jennifer Chasalow VanBenschotenLight on Life by Ivengar.

Les Tuttle — Currently, One Basket by Edna Ferber; before that, Home Country by Ernie Pyle (which I loved). Got ‘em both in the Salvation Army thrift store.

William Bruce Matthews — I am re-reading Promises to Keep by north country author Jamie Sheffield. Other titles by him: Here Be Monsters, Caretakers, The Weaving.

Elaine L. LemieuxThe Wisdom of Jesus and the Yoga Siddhas by Marshall Govindan.

Nancy Linge Currier — Absolute favorite holiday book: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Read it every year.

Di Fineout  — An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama.

Deirdre O’CallaghanThe Hare with  Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Jim TracySycamore Row by John Grisham.

Jule BeileinA Good Marriage by Stephen King.

Wendy Purcell Saving Simon by Jon Katz; The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless; and Off the Leash by Matthew Gilbert.

Love ResilienceThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. As a recent transplant from NYC, I really enjoyed blowing through this book. I highly recommend it.

Deanna Suciu Heermann — I just started The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Loved Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler, and thought Factory Man by Beth Macy was a good read as well.

Paula Di BernardoWalkable Westchester by Jane and Walt Daniels, and in the evenings, Catching Fire (book 2 in the Hunger Games Trilogy).

Laura Cordts — Currently reading Cooked by Michael Pollan. Recently zoomed through The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

Vera LaRoeThe Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey. Chaucer and mystery.

Susan Washburn — Just finished Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Favorites of this year: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini,  and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt.

Kristin Rehder — Best book of essays I have read in a long time: Catherine Reid’s Falling into Place.

Arpad Gerster The World We Create by Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC and a Long Laker. Also, The 100 Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais.

Peter RowleyLila by Marilynne Robinson and All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Diane Blakey MinutilliStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, National Book Award nominee.

Dick Donovan — For political junkies: On His Own Terms-A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Norton Smith has written a richly researched bio that is a great story about an energetic life. Most interesting to me is Rockefeller’s determination to work around his dyslexia. Rocky was a flawed and fascinating guy.

Wendy GordonMansfield Park, for Austen completists.

Debbie Shonio MarshallThe Red Tent by Anita Diamant, before the miniseries begins.

Bob Maswick — My pick for non-fiction is Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Fiction? It’s been a long time since I found a really good book but Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland gets my vote.

Susan Therio — I just told someone the other night to make sure they read The Dirty Life by Kristan Kimball. I love the story……. It’s not a new one, but it’s a GREAT one.

Danielle EdwardsAngora Alibi by Sally Goldenbaum . I love those knitting mysteries!

Barbara Strowger — Currently, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Bill ShortThe Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Non-fiction.

Shari Barnhart City of Bones by Cassandra Clarke. First in a long series.

Ellen BrownHeaven, Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada.

Valerie Summer — My favorite book of the year: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. A great read heavy on nature and botany, strong female protagonist. The Orphan Train was wonderful, especially read aloud on the DVD.

Chris Bigelow — Too many books, so little time! These are some of the books I enjoyed this year:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, very different from Room, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This is nonfiction and a true story of determination, trials, and endurance. I have not started Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. I have heard great thing about this book. Thanks again for having this program each year. I love to know what your listeners are reading.

Valerie Moody

Here are my recommendations from this year:

Women with Altitude by Carol Stone White (stories of women winter 46ers)

Close Range, Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (one of my favorite collections to return to)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson (a feel-good Longmire holiday story)

* And for the horse friends we know:

The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts (great read, great gift!)

Barbara Phillip-Farley

Best new book: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

Next-best new book: One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

Most disappointing newer book: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Best old book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy  (trans. Magarshack)

Fine biography:  Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor

Barrie GilbertIn the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene, by Doug Peacock (Counterpunch) 2015

Kristin RehderFalling into Place by Catherine Reid; For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco. An old favorite of mine is a book of photographs by Mary Randlett called Landscapes.

Paul DuffeeThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Winner of the Man Booker Prize).

Bridget –By far, the most thought provoking, well written book I read in 2014 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Also, The Homesmen by Glendon Swarthout – now a movie starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. Both are books that stay with you.

Election fair play

Yard signs on a corner in Canton. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Yard signs on a corner in Canton. Photo: Ellen Rocco

It’s said that all politics are local and I think there’s truth in that. At the local level, people are more likely to vote for the candidate and not worry so much about the party. In my township, one of the most closely followed races every two years is for town road supervisor. The work accomplished by the road crew affects everyone, on a daily basis. (Don’t get me started on what I think is the foolishness of electing a road supervisor, rather than doing a bona fide search based on skills and experience…that’s for another post.)

Around here, the main tool for getting the word out about a candidacy is the lawn sign. I know, I know. We all love to hate the explosion of lawn signs during election season, but it’s inexpensive and gets the candidates’ names out there. It’s part of the free speech thing we all believe in.

Sometimes, I’ll pass a yard with half a dozen or more signs promoting candidates for every office on the year’s ballot. They go by in a blur and none of them register with me.

Defaced yard sign in DeKalb. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Defaced yard sign in DeKalb. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Turning onto my road the other evening, a sign for one of the (several) candidates running for town supervisor definitely caught my attention. Bold blue graffiti defaced it. As I said, I don’t much care for election lawn signs, but this troubled me. It troubled my neighbors, too. There is something angry, mean and unfair about the desecration of campaign signs–it felt as if someone had sabotaged a voting machine, or the First Amendment.

It makes me want to vote for the candidate whose sign was defaced–just to protest the bad behavior. I suspect it was not one of the other candidates who did the damage. Most likely, it’s someone who doesn’t like the candidate or has a grudge against him. Whatever the reason, my message to the person who did the damage: don’t mess with campaign signs because when you do you’re messing with my democracy…the little bit of it that’s left to us…at the local level.

Iconic places of childhood

The famous, albeit unglamorous, Katz's. Photo: Thomas Hawk, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

The famous, albeit unglamorous, Katz’s. Photo: Thomas Hawk, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Earlier this week I came across an article in the NY Times about the challenges facing the current owner–and descendant of the original owner–of Katz’s delicatessen in New York City. The oldest deli in the city. That alone earns it “icon” status.

I was born in Manhattan. My father was born in what he called Russia but what is now known as Ukraine. He came through Ellis Island just before World War I with his mother and younger sister. His father had already emigrated and was living on the Lower East Side. My mother and father didn’t have my brother and me until very late in life.

Pastrami on rye a la Katz's Delicatessan.

Pastrami or corned beef on rye a la Katz’s Delicatessan. Photo: Al Scandar Solstag, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Every Sunday when I was growing up, we’d visit my grandmother, or Bobbe, who was still living on the Lower East Side–and would until she died at about 90 (my grandfather had died decades before I was born). Grandma lived on Norfolk just off Delancey Street, the Lower East Side’s main drag.

My grandmother owned what was called a “candy store”–which sold magazines, penny candy, some dusty odds and ends of paper and canned goods. But the heart of the narrow, dark business was the six-seat lunch counter from behind which my Bobbe dispensed homemade chicken soup. When I was little, my aunt Jerry worked at Katz’s Delicatessan, two blocks down Delancey from Norfolk.

Back in the ’50s, NYC, like most of the country, still had “blue laws”– prohibiting most commercial and retail activity on Sunday. The Lower East Side at that time was populated overwhelmingly by Jewish immigrants and had a special dispensation to keep stores open on Sunday because virtually every store was closed on Saturday for the Jewish sabbath.

On Sundays, we’d arrive at grandma’s tenement building, climb the three flights to her apartment if Uncle Eli was minding the store, or cross the street to see grandma in the store and get served wide flat bowls of chicken noodle soup with a film of grease across the surface. Sometimes, we’d visit Aunt Jerry at Katz’s. There were delicatessans in every Jewish neighbor  in those days. Katz’s was king. The wellspring.

Photo: Mike Licht, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Photo: Mike Licht, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Salamis hanging in the window and from the ceiling above the meat counter. Glass cases were loaded with roast beef, pastrami,  knishes, stuffed derma (also known as kishka), chopped liver,and every other artery-clogging eastern European food group. We always sat at a table, the kids ordering cream sodas, the adults celery soda (I still go “yech” when I think of celery soda).  Over on Second Avenue, the Second Avenue Deli dispensed dairy meals; Katz’s was the meat deli.

A few years ago, I took my son to the Tenement Museum, and then to where grandma’s tenement and store had been located (replaced with newer apartment buildings about 15 years ago).

Then, we walked over to Delancey and Katz’s. I hadn’t been there in decades and it seemed–of course–much smaller and far less impressive. But we ordered two cream sodas, and some sandwiches, and I thought of Aunt Jerry and grandma, in a neighborhood that is now predominantly Latino. Katz’s keeps the feel of my childhood alive. Iconic.

So, tell me where you grew up and what iconic businesses or buildings remain (if only in your memory).


Motherhood, apple pie and the Red Cross


World War II poster, the mom and apple pie iconic image of the Red Cross. Photo: Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Icons of American life. Except the Red Cross seems to fall off its pedestal on a pretty regular basis in recent years. The current CEO Gail McGovern was brought on board in 2008 to help clean up the organization’s post-Katrina public image and public trust problems that surfaced during that disaster. She may have taken the image buffing charge a bit too much to heart, or too literally. In research and a story released on the occasion of the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, some disturbing priorities funded by the Red Cross under McGovern’s leadership:

Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by “diverting assets for public relations purposes,” as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was “politically driven.”

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.

And, this:

During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern speaks at a post-Sandy press conference on Staten Island with emergency response vehicles as backdrops. Relief workers were angered that the vehicles were diverted for public relations purposes. (Via ProPublica: Catherine Barde/American Red Cross via Flickr)

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern speaks at a post-Sandy press conference on Staten Island with emergency response vehicles as backdrops. Relief workers were angered that the vehicles were diverted for public relations purposes. (Via ProPublica: Catherine Barde/American Red Cross via Flickr)

This story has received a lot of attention following the coverage on NPR and via ProPublica. You may have heard the NPR coverage on the news programs this week. I urge you to check the extensive article at ProPublica if you’re interested in this story.

Certainly the Red Cross has done important, life-saving work over the years. But Ms. McGovern’s attention to branding and heavy investment in PR to elevate the organization’s image has been counter-productive. Everyone knows the Red Cross does good stuff. The best way to advance its image is to continue to do that work, and more of it–by spending far less on PR and at least 80% on the job of helping people.

I have a couple of dogs in this race. Back in ’98, during the ice storm that left huge swaths of the north country and eastern Ontario and western Quebec without power for as much as three weeks, the compelling takeaway was how quickly local volunteer fire departments and churches organized to provide relief to their communities. What they needed more than anything else was rapid response from the Red Cross to bring needed supplies into the region. That isn’t quite what happened. The Red Cross was relatively slow to respond and then the supplies had to be distributed on Red Cross terms, rather than allowing already effective and locally knowledgeable volunteers to proceed with their own methods. The Red Cross left a lot of ill-will in the wake of their presence in the north country.

As far as I'm concerned, this is all the branding the Red Cross needs...if it's doing its job well. Photo: public domain

As far as I’m concerned, this is all the branding the Red Cross needs…if it’s doing its job well. Photo: public domain

More recently, both FEMA and the Red Cross failed to deliver critical relief to the poor coastal neighborhoods outside of NYC. My son, who lives in Manhattan, has traveled to Far Rockaway every Sunday for the past year to help rehab housing, build pocket parks, playgrounds and gardens for the families who received no help in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Elsewhere in the state, politicians showed up to hand out money and promises to rebuild, while middle class or wealthier residents figured out how to access assistance from FEMA, and the Red Cross was visibly present. In Far Rockaway, it’s been crumbs–and the most help has once again come from local churches and community groups that just rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. No politically influential photo ops in Far Rockaway.

Mom and apple pie continue to hang in there without needing brand repair because they make their branding point by being what they are–Mom loves you regardless of your flaws and apple pie is just darn good to eat. Instead of spending time and money telling you what the brand is, maybe the Red Cross could learn something from mom and apple pie by simply doing what we all think the Red Cross does with its money.

The more love you give, the more you get

Photo: MTSOfan via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: MTSOfan via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

That’s how it felt during this month’s historic un-fundraiser fundraiser at NCPR. You asked for fewer program interruptions during our fall campaign, we gave you that, and holy cow! you gave back over the top. As I write this note of gratitude to all of you, we have surpassed our goal of $325,000 by more than $11,000 and we are still counting.

Needless to say, all of us at NCPR have been analyzing what we did right, what we could do differently or better in future fundraisers. We welcome your ideas on this, too.

Here are my personal takeaways from this game changing approach to raising money for the station.

1. It’s not about the thank you gifts or prizes, it’s not about what time of day we ask, it’s not about which one of us does the asking. It’s about the work we do and how much you value that work. Pure and simple: you care about the programs and all of the digital content NCPR makes available. That, my friends, is totally cool.

2. You are proud of NCPR. You take pride in this station as much as the people who run the station day to day do. At a party recently, I heard a station contributor and long-time listener telling someone who had just moved to the region how the Adirondack North Country has the best public radio station bar none. Like a mother hearing a teacher or neighbor tell someone else how wonderful or smart or friendly her child is, I puffed up with pride to hear a listener boasting about NCPR. That, my friends, is about as gratifying as it gets.

3. It’s all about respect. Specifically, you respect the work we do so you’re willing to contribute some money to keep it going. But the big epiphany for me: I think our new use of short messages with the phone number and web address shows our respect for you. No matter how (relatively) well we ran our old style fundraisers, we tended to talk to you differently during fundraisers than we do the rest of the year. Cajoling, admonishing, even lecturing a bit. With the new approach the implied message is that we respect you enough to trust that a simple reminder with the necessary contact information is all you need to do your part as a member of the public radio community. That, my friends, opened the heavens for me and leaves me convinced that together we can make this all happen for years to come.

Photo: BK via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: BK via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Thank you–for being there for NCPR in so many ways, for caring about the work we do, and for making it so easy to admire and respect the people we serve.

Still growing in mid-October


Photographed on October 14 in Rossie, NY by John and Liz Scarlett.

Photographed on October 14 in Rossie, NY by John and Liz Scarlett.

I received a couple of photos from our Rossie friends, John and Liz Scarlett featuring irises and morning glories flourishing against a background of fall foliage. There was a time when we would most likely have seen the first snowfall and certainly several killing frosts by mid-October. It’s a changing climate.

A whole shed wall covered with morning glories. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

A whole shed wall covered with morning glories. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

Irises against fall foliage. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie

Irises against fall foliage. Photo: Liz and John Scarlett, Rossie















I also heard from two regular contributors to the All In garden posts–Adirondacker George DeChant whose photos regularly grace this blog as well as our Photo of the Day; and Cassandra Corcoran of Monkton, VT who keeps in touch throughout the growing season with updates from her garden.

Outside the post office Long Lake. Photo: George DeChant

Outside the post office Long Lake. Photo: George DeChant

Over in Monkton, Cassandra planted some cannellini beans with 7.5 ounces of seed and harvested over a gallon of shelled dried beans from that investment.

The cannellini bean patch, from 7.5 ounces of seed. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton VT

The cannellini bean patch, from 7.5 ounces of seed. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton VT


The harvested vines. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran.

The harvested vines. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran.








Bucket of beans, prior to shelling. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran

Bucket of beans, prior to shelling. Photo: Cassandra Corcoran

Beans for the winter. Photo; Cassandra Corcoran

Beans for the winter. Photo; Cassandra Corcoran











After several years of sharing garden photos with us, I thought you’d enjoy seeing a picture of Cassandra herself. I think of this photo as The Dancing Gardener.

Gardener Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton, VT

Gardener Cassandra Corcoran, Monkton, VT

Still happy to see your late harvest and garden-clearing photos. Send to and remember: we’ll be getting those seed catalogues in the mail before you know it!

Soot, peppers and tradition



Roasting peppers on an open fire is not for clean-freaks. But, ooh, they taste so good. Isis, here, testing our work. Photo: Mary McCallion


For years, my friends Mary Harding McCallion and Isis Melhado and I have been getting together in the fall to roast peppers.  For this week’s garden post, I share a series of photos taken recently as we gathered  for our annual Roast of the Peppers, with friendly participation from Mary’s husband Jochen Sieckmann (who helps out even though he’s not a fan of garlic and our method involves a lot of garlic). We’ve been tracking your gardens all summer–great photos on an almost weekly basis from growers across the region. Now, it’s harvest and clean-up-the-garden time. Keep the photos coming! Send them to me at For the rest of this post, I’m going to let the photos tell the story.

It starts with peppers, an open fire, and lots of garlic.

Peppers roasting on our open fire pit. Photo: Mary McCallion

Peppers roasting on our open fire pit: yes, you want them totally blackened. Photo: Mary McCallion

Isis, chief pepper poker. Photo: Mary McCallion

Isis, chief pepper poker. Photo: Mary McCallion

Here comes the garlic. Photo: Mary McCallion

Here comes the garlic. Photo: Mary McCallion

Blackened peppers are cooled in brown paper bags before skinning. Photo: Mary McCallion

Blackened peppers are cooled in brown paper bags before skinning. Photo: Mary McCallion


Lots of bagged peppers away skinning. Photo: Mary McCallion

Isis and Jochen with lots of bagged peppers to be skinned. Photo: Mary McCallion

It gets pretty messy skinning charred peppers. Photo: Mary McCallion

It gets pretty messy skinning charred peppers. Photo: Mary McCallion


Soooo good. Photo: Mary McCallion

Soooo good. Photo: Mary McCallion

All four of us grab onto the biggest pepper of the day. Photo: Mary McCallion

All four of us grab onto the biggest pepper of the day. Photo: Mary McCallion


One of the largest ones, totally charred, before peeling. (That's the Oswegatchie River behind us, by the way.) Photo: Mary McCallion

The big one, after charring, before peeling. (That’s the Oswegatchie River behind us, by the way.) Photo: Mary McCallion

Adding the garlic to the peeled, cut up roasted peppers. Add olive oil, put in bags and freeze. Photo: Mary McCallion

Adding the garlic to the peeled, cut up roasted peppers. Add olive oil, put in bags and freeze. Photo: Mary McCallion

The day's work. Photo: Mary McCallion

A portion of the day’s work. Photo: Mary McCallion

Part of the tradition is an al fresco meal. This year, Jochen made squash soup and we roasted some homegrown potatoes.

Isis chowing down on Jochen's squash soup, and Ellen's bread. Photo: Mary McCallion

Isis chowing down on Jochen’s squash soup, and Ellen’s bread. Photo: Mary McCallion

Slightly over-roasted potato...another mess. But I love those fire-charred spuds. Photo: Mary McCallion

Slightly over-roasted potato…another mess. But I love those fire-charred spuds. Photo: Mary McCallion

Mary, Ellen, Isis with a bowl of roasted peppers. Photo: Jochen Seickmann

Mary, Ellen, Isis with a bowl of roasted peppers. Photo: Jochen Seickmann

Remember: send me those harvest and garden clearing photos, or photos of harvest meals.










Oil: are we crazy, optimistic or greedy?

Photo: Mike Psiaki, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Photo: Mike Psiaki, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

I’m no more an expert on the global oil industry than anyone else. I am old enough to remember the 1973 oil crisis–when Middle Eastern production was reduced to put pressure on Israel and its allies following the occupation of Gaza–which led to a U.S. ban on oil exports, a ban that has remained in place through multiple oil crises in subsequent decades. Until now, maybe.

NPR reported this morning that the President is favorably inclined to reconsider and remove that export ban, in light of increased domestic fuel production in recent years and the availability of expanded fuel resources, partially because of new extractive technologies like hydrofracking.

Since 1973, we’ve seen a brief public and corporate response to oil crises and then, each time the price of fuel at the pump declined, our national memory is wiped clean again and we’re back in the 1960s when fossil fuels seemed limitless, cars got 10 mpg, and “national security” was code for the cold war with the Soviet Union not domestic vs. imported oil availability. So through multiple fuel security scares, our long-term response has been relatively trivial, except for developing new extractive technologies. This brings to mind an old saying, which I’ll paraphrase: doing something the same way over and over without success is a sign of insanity.

But, maybe it’s good ol’ American “can do” optimism. Another story from NPR considers the current price decline at the fuel pumps. In recent years, with the growth in the Chinese, Indian and large emerging economies, with conflicts across the globe, we would expect a rise in demand and cost. Instead, prices have declined and there’s plenty of fossil fuel. This fuels our optimism about the future: we will continue to find reserves and ways to extract those reserves and, by the time those reserves may be depleted, we’ll have found new reserves or new fuel solutions. This makes economic growth possible, and economic growth is good.

Or are we just greedy when we accept 25 mpg SUVs as a good enough response to climate change? Can the planet handle our material greed? In developed and developing nations? In our own country? In you? And me? Is the extraction of seemingly limitless fossil fuels and the use of those fuels by billions of people something our planet can handle?

Just asking. Crazy, optimistic, or greedy?


Who’s the most different from you and me?


Howling wolf. Photo: Via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

My pug Guy. Yes, he is descended from the wolf and genetically a close relative. Photo: Ellen Rocco

My pug Guy. Both wolves and pugs bark and howl. Photo: Ellen Rocco












Them. Those other people. And, sometimes, friend, I gotta say, I wonder about you when you (fill in the blank here).

This week, NCPR is honored to host Keith Woods, NPR’s VP for Diversity, during his two day visit to Canton. In preparation for  the variety of events and activities he’ll be participating in (scroll to bottom of this post for details about what’s open to the public), I’ve been thinking about diversity and difference.

What better setting than an Amish barn-raising I was invited to earlier this week? In many ways, the Amish are the most different from the rest of us (we’re all the “English” to them) than any other cultural, religious, or racial group in the region. Your skin color may be different than mine, you may have grown up on a farm and I grew up in the city, or you may be agnostic and I’m a devout church-goer, but we all live in the same world of politics and government, media and entertainment, education and culture. Regardless of your political affiliation or favorite tv shows, regardless of the college you attended (or didn’t attend), collectively–including our differences–we create a common world or society called the United States.

Now, think about the Amish. Aside from local school and town levies, they pay no taxes; they do not vote in general elections; they send their children to one-room schools through 8th grade and no further; they build no churches, but their lives are unequivocally grounded in their Christian faith; they don’t drive cars (!); and, in a time when we “English” have abandoned small family farming and moved en masse to cities and suburbs, the Amish believe that a life on the land is inseparable from their Christianity.

Plus, they speak a dialect of German in their homes and among themselves, and English to the “English.”

So how do we even talk to each other?

Here’s the amazing thing. Over the years, with many Amish neighbors and friends, the differences seem less and less important in terms of knowing each other and caring about each other and working with each other. Don’t get me wrong, there are big differences. But, the proximity of our homes and the fact that we operate small farms gave us common ground. We use tools that most large farmers–not to mention non-farmers–don’t even recognize. (A teenage neighbor who helps out his grandfather on a very large dairy, gave us a hand haying. He was truly flabbergasted at how much time and work it took to put up hay in small square bales, compared to using combines and round-balers. My Amish friend Abe was helping me and we had a good laugh–both of us have also brought hay in loose, so square-baling seems kind of modern to both of us.)

We share small farming as a meeting point and a place to work cooperatively. We share a lot of similar values, too, though our Amish friends are quietly devout Christians and I’m a cultural Jew whose awe is directed toward nature and this planet, respect for the land is mutual and paramount. We all work hard at physical tasks, and respect those who use tools well.

We laugh at each other and our quirks; we share slightly off-color jokes (y’know, farmers are pretty earthy whether English or Amish); we take care of each other when we need help; and we trust each other.

Even a cat, a lamb and a dog can find cross-species trust. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Even a cat, a lamb and a dog can find cross-species trust. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Being invited to the barn-raising was a sign of friendship and trust. Here’s what it boiled down to as I see it: Abe and Lizzie knew that Mike (my “adopted” son) and I, without being told how to do so, would be comfortable ourselves and wouldn’t make uncomfortable the 150-200 Amish men and women there to help. We are not anthropologists. We were there as friends to pitch in and get the job done–me in the kitchen (mostly washing dishes and stirring stuff), and Mike on the building site (where he said he watched a lot and pounded a few nails once he got the drift of what is clearly well-established barn-raising procedure).

In the kitchen, the women spoke German almost exclusively, unless I asked something or someone was chatting directly with me. It didn’t matter. I’ve washed dishes and laid out food for big crowds. In this case, the entire house and main porch were filled with tables and benches to accommodate the midday meal (still called dinner by the Amish and other older rural people). The men washed up outside, were seated and served first, then the tables were cleared and the women ate.

Here’s another difference: the Amish still divide much of the day’s labor by gender, just as rural “English” families did a century ago. Men take on the bulk of the field and building work; women shoulder the house, garden, milking and childcare duties. This is not about sexism. This is about efficiency and lifestyle. Women know how to drive a buggy or a work team in the field, but their work is centered around the home, and taught by mother to daughter. Outside, it’s not unusual to see Abe’s oldest two sons, John and Levi, 16 and 14, go zooming by the window like any teenage boys…it’s just that they zoom by driving a team of work horses pulling a skidder or wagon.

So what’s the takeaway for me in the context of the upcoming visit from Keith Woods? I remember something Keith said to me when we were talking about how to shape the conversations he’d be leading. In spite of his title, VP for Diversity, Keith urged me to think of the challenge as one about difference. He considers this a better way to think about our complex make up as a society, a better way to find common ground and meaningful conversation.

For me, the key difference between talking about difference rather than diversity is that it levels the playing field. There’s some kind of hidden code in the word “diversity”–it’s been used for so many years, in so many ways, largely by those who have played a dominant role in our society (white, male, well-educated, affluent or simply more privileged in any specific setting). For those who have been more privileged and who have had their voices heard,  even when well-meaning and wanting to extend a kind of magnanimous message to those who are “the diverse peoples,” the language shapes our thinking: the dominant group is not part of the meaning of “diverse.” And that perpetuates a kind of imbalance, and wariness between different peoples.

So the barn-raising was a pretty clear place for me to begin my thinking about Keith’s upcoming visit. I was alert to the differences between my world and the Amish world but it wasn’t about them including me or me including them. It was about working across, through and with our differences.

This is not a cutesy or romantic thing to do. It builds community, it makes us all better, in all directions.

Here’s hoping you’ll join the conversations with Keith Woods. There’s the Great Conversation dinner event on Wednesday, at 6 pm at Eben Holden on the SLU campus in Canton. Here’s a link to more info about the evening and how to secure a spot at the table. (By the way, Keith suggested we call this Good Conversation, bring it down a peg. Not a bad idea.)

If you can’t make the evening dinner, plan to tune in f1om 11-noon on Thursday for an on air conversation with Keith, who will be taking your questions via phone and online.

Until then, how about your thinking on this: what are the differences between the people of the north country that strengthen or challenge our region?




September gardens

Still brilliant marigolds. Flowers and photo: Diane Romlein, Potsdam

Still brilliant marigolds in Diane Romlein’s garden. Photo: Daniel Romlein, Potsdam

The full moon last night felt like a corner turned into autumn. Still, some great flowers and vegetables flourishing in gardens across the region. Here’s the latest collection from the first few days of September. Keep these photos coming–there can never be too many photos of garden harvests and even clearing and prep for next year.

Here are four stunning photos sent by Jim and Virginia from The Hedges in Blue Mountain Lake. Beautiful, whimsical and creative flower-gardening.

The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

Beautiful, elegant porch garden at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

Beautiful, elegant porch garden at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings


Garden at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

Garden at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

More flowers at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

More flowers at The Hedges, Blue Mountain Lake. Photo: Jim and Virginia Jennings

On the other side of the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake, Betsy Folwell is growing vegetables. Here’s a basket of recently harvested fare:


Produce from Betsy Folwell and Tom Warrington's Blue Mountain Lake garden. Photo: Betsy Folwell

Produce from Betsy Folwell and Tom Warrington’s Blue Mountain Lake garden. Photo: Betsy Folwell

Our friend George DeChant captures the end-of-garden feel as the coreopsis go into decline:

The end of coreopsis. Photo: George DeChant

The end of coreopsis. Photo: George DeChant

But Martha Foley reports that the morning glories are in their, well, full glory right now.


Morning glories going gangbusters. Photo: Martha Foley

Morning glories going gangbusters. Photo: Martha Foley

Dead and dying flowers, cut back perennials, rows cleared of finished plants–all part of the gardening cycle. Let’s get some more harvest photos from our vegetable gardeners for next week’s post. Send all gardening photos to: