Category Archives: reading

Gina To Teach Blogging Workshop at San Miguel Writers Conference February 2011

I’m teaching a workshop called “Introduction to Blogging: Finding You Blogging Voice” as part of the San Miguel Writers Conference on February 21 and 22, 2011. Click here for details and here to register (scroll down to green button). Below is the general press release about the conference.

The fountain at Cafe de la Parroquia is one of my favorites in San Miguel. It's always decorated with flowers.


Sandra Cisneros to Headline 6th Annual San Miguel Writers Conference

Conference is fully bilingual and geared to writers and readers

San Miguel de Allende Mexico. Sandra Cisneros, author of the million-copy best seller, The House on Mango Street, and a widely acclaimed authority on Chicano/a and bicultural issues will keynote the Sixth Annual San Miguel International Bilingual Writers’ Conference, to be held February 18 to 20, 2011 in historic San Miguel de Allende,  MX. Her keynote is entitled, ” Living in los Tiempos de Sustos.” Cisneros heads up a faculty of forty-two distinguished writers that includes Elinor Lipman, author of nine much-beloved novels, and Mexican author Mónica Lavín, who recently received the prestigious, $500,000 peso Elena Poniatowska Prize – awarded by the Mexico City government – for her novel, Yo la peor (I, the Worst) about Sor Juana de la Cruz.

“San Miguel has long served as a writer’s muse and thus is the perfect setting for a writers’ conference,” noted Susan Page the bestselling author of If I’m so Wonderful, Why am I Still Single? and the founder of the conference.  “Writers have long been drawn to the magic here and San Miguel has seduced everyone from Tom Robbins to the Dalai Lama.”  “After last year’s conference,” Page continued, “featured speaker and author of The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver said, ‘San Miguel is full of unexpected riches, different from any other place in Mexico, and the conversations inspired by this conference were exceptional.’”

For Writers

Topics geared to writers at this year’s conference will include among the 36 sessions  discussions on travel writing, crime fiction, feature articles, personal essays, screen writing, and poetry.  Writers may also enter the manuscript contest. The winning ten writers receive a free individual consultation with top literary agent, Kristin Nelson.

For Readers

Readers also will find much to savor with sessions on everything from Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, to an Introduction to Chicano literature, to appreciating modern poetry, to a whole workshop on the important African American book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. ” For the annual San Miguel Big Read, during December and January, everyone in San Miguel will be encouraged to read the featured novel for the conference, Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, and to join one of many book discussion groups around town.

Conference is Bilingual

The need for literary events in Spanish was dramatically presented in a 2005 UNESCO report outlining the low numbers of readers in Mexico. According to the report, Mexicans read on average just over two books per year, while Swedes, for example, finish that many every month.

Since its inception, the San Miguel Literary Sala, which produces the Conference, has been committed to including Mexicans in its literary offerings, and encouraging them to discover the pleasures of reading.  All conference general sessions are simultaneously translated with earphones, and many of the workshops are offered in Spanish.

Additionally,  the conference will include an intensive workshop in creative writing for thirty San Miguel high school students, who can also participate in the entire Conference for free.


The cost of the entire three-day Conference is only $325 USD until January 20, when the price goes up to $375. This includes seven meals, a carnitas fest in the country, and the spectacular Mexican Fiesta. Last year’s keynote speaker, Barbara Kingsolver, was so enchanted by the Fiesta that she wrote about it in an essay in the paperback edition of her novel, The Lacuna, and called it ” . . . one of the ten best parties I have attended in my life, and I’m sure I can’t remember the other nine.”

More information on the conference can be found at

Leigh Hyams's New Book

I’m delighted to report that my mother’s book, How Painting Holds Me on the Earth: Writings from a Maverick Painter and Teacher is now available via amazon. It says temporarily out of stock, but I’m quite sure that when one orders the book, prints a copy right up on demand.

Here’s an excerpt:

by Leigh Hyams

Painter Philip Guston used to say “Frustration is one of the great things in art. Satisfaction is nothing.” That’s true, but not quite true, because satisfaction can be downright dangerous to a working artist. Glorious moments of ecstatic joy are permissible from time to time. Momentary relief comes in flashes of ‘knowing’ that this time your painting ‘works’—flashes that come with anxious pride and quiet joy but strands of doubt always linger under the surface. The pleasure seldom lasts overnight and by the next morning Dissatisfaction is operational again.

It’s really what keeps us going all our working lives, though. Each painting we make teaches us more about painting and more about what we DON’T know about painting. And this is lucky because facility for artists is a trap. Unless we take chances we die in art. Facility comes with the territory, whether we want it or not if we work hard enough and long enough, but it can get in the way of being truly creative.

Attitude is everything. We have to put away our half-baked ideas about what is acceptable, forget our previous experience or lack of it. Curiosity and fearlessness are the essential ingredients, plus a willingness to Do The Work—not just study it or talk about it. We must give ourselves permission to fly with paint, to work freely, openly, dangerously, to follow our hunches, act on irrational thoughts. And also to take time for quiet critical study of what we are doing. We become more adventurous and, at the same time, more discriminating, able to discern areas in our paintings that need clarification, color or shape changes in sections (usually background areas) where our attention wavered, where we were not wholly present.

Occasionally we paint beyond our understanding and work comes out of us that’s different from anything we’ve done before. It may or may not be opening a door to a new way of working, but we must not automatically ‘judge’ it with the same set of parameters we’ve been using until then. Note its strangeness, its unfamiliarity and see what’s there to learn from it. We have to trust the creative process, knowing that with each drawing or painting we make with our whole hearts, our understanding of the richness and profundity of visual language—non verbal language—will deepen.

Enrique Martinez Celaya says “The meaning of art is embodied in the way it is made. It must pass your test of authenticity, of being real. There must be nothing that looks false in a painting. The difference between a good painting and a bad painting is that level of conviction which a painter can bring to a canvas.” It’s easy to drip or scribble or get a painting of a watermelon to look like a watermelon, but it’s really hard to do it in a way that means anything.

It’s impossible, of course, to make a drawing or a painting without using visual language—space, color, line, texture and value—but it is the rightness of their relationships on the canvas that makes a work of art in any era, any style or media successful, that gives the images involved the strength to move us.

Many people, however, while studying a painting are only decoding the symbolism of the images, experiencing nostalgia, or personal memories and associations, unaware of the passion and complexity of the visual language which forms the painting. There are museum visitors who look for ten seconds at Rembrandt’s portrait of himself as an old man and think “That looks like my grandfather”, and then pass on to the next painting on the wall. They are telling themselves stories, experiencing memories, nostalgia, not experiencing art—non language reality.

If you genuinely, deeply look at a real flower the reality of it is a non-language reality. It is simply, uniquely what it is, and can’t be described in any language. When a botanist tells us the species it belongs to that’s not the flower, it’s only information.

The large flower images in my paintings are not flowers. They are paintings. They exist as works of art but they are also a vehicle that can point beyond art work. It’s true that some of the shapes can be named—that’s the stem, there’s the stamen—but if you are open and keep looking at the images themselves, words stop having any meaning.

A painting of worth is far more than a surface to be seen on a wall. (Think about that Rembrandt.) It deals with another kind of reality. The true experience of a painting can’t be represented. It’s not visible in the painting itself, yet it is there. It’s FELT. The experience itself exists somewhere in the space between the canvas and ourselves. It doesn’t take place on the canvas. It becomes visible only when we understand that it’s not there on the canvas. Once I saw a man staring at one of my paintings on a museum wall. He didn’t move when I came up to him but said, with his eyes still on the canvas, “Will that painting ever let me go?”

Artists make drawings and paintings and they make us. If we are working from a clean true need to paint, not trying to get rich and famous or get into the Museum of Modern Art, there’s a kind of focus in the process that forces us to be honest. Drawing, for instance can sear you, strip away everything that’s not essential to you. The process changes us, affects choices we make in the way we live our lives, makes us try to live with the same excitement, awareness and integrity our work demands.

But week after week, year after year, many of the images on canvas or paper which carried our passion, skill and sensitivity when we made them, eventually lose much of their personal significance for us. The power they held during the making has transferred itself into us, has become part of who we are as artists and human beings. But the power itself remains intact in the paintings, the good ones, and can enter and affect attentive viewers for centuries after they are made. Consider the frescoes at Pompei, the cave paintings at Lescaux, Mayan murals at Bonampak, canvasses by Agnes Martin, Anselm Keifer, Picasso—not to mention the Benin bronzes, the Elgin Marbles, Mancha Pichu, the Unicorn tapestries, and centuries of vital art-making from the entire continent of Africa.

The Celtic people in northern Scotland and Ireland believed, and probably still believe, that there is an exact moment each day when twilight ends and night begins whe
there is an opening between the worlds for a split second that one can slip through and enter the “other” world. Many artists search for a way to create this kind of opening in their work—an entrance that viewers can slip through into a non-verbal private internal experience, a jolt of awareness that wakes them up, takes them out of an everyday state of being, a reminder, perhaps, that right now they are actually breathing and alive and part of an immense mysterious universe.

It takes courage, fierce honesty and a little madness for artists to make paintings that are alive and meaningful irrespective of subject matter, style or media. And irrespective of the commercial art world—the lure of money and fame. A life in art is a journey not a destination, and painting, far from being a commodity, is a necessity of life.

Festival of Books at Spencertown Academy Art Center

September 5-7 and 12-14, 2008

The third annual Festival of Books at Spencertown Academy Art Center (located just over the border in Spencertown, NY) is a celebration of books and reading for the whole community. The theme this year is “The Immigrant Experience in American Literature and History.” Over twenty distinguished writers of memoir, poetry, fiction, and journalism will read and discuss their work within a larger conversation about previous generations of immigrants who came seeking the American Dream and the experience of more recent immigrants in the post 9/11 world.

The stellar lineup includes Yassin Aref, Russell Banks, Da Chen, Laura Chester, Stephen Downes, Mary Gordon, John Fass Morton, Rebecca Flowers, Alan Gelb, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Elizabeth Hess, Lucia Nevai, Julia Pomeroy, Ariel Sabar, Sadia Shepard, Carl Strock, Mark Teague, Lily Tuck, and Shelia Weller.

There will be panel discussions, readings, and book signings, a gallery exhibition of book art by Buzz Spector, children’s events including a visit from Clifford, the Big Red Dog, and a giant book sale of over 10,000 new and gently used books. Lots of free events. Click here for the full schedule.

Current Reading: Submersion Journalism, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, plus Dinner

A smart, psychic publicist at The New Press sent me a review copy of Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine edited by Bill Wasik as she thought I might want to blog about it. She was right; investigative reporters are my heroes. I can’t wait to read it.

But first I need to finish Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger by Amy Wilentz.

And before that, I need to make dinner. There were squash blossoms at the farmers’ market, so I’m thinking squash blossom quesadillas (minus the epazote and made with cheddar rather than queso blanco, but still: yum).

Nani Power's Feed the Hungry: A Memoir with Recipes

Nani will be visiting this blog soon for an interview. In the meantime, I have an extra copy of her new memoir to give to anyone who’d like it. The first person who posts a comment or sends me an e-mail requesting it, gets it.

Nani on cooking and writing: “These impulses, cooking and writing come from the basic seed of love. We have been moved, touched, by the sensual experience of a great meal, a moving book. We would like somehow to harness this power and give it to others…stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely sensual world we live in…”

You can read more excerpts and see family photos on her father’s blog.

Inspirational Quote of the Day

“…I believe that if there’s a God — and I am as neutral on the subject as is possible — then the most basic proof of his existence is black humor. What else explains it, that odd reliable comfort that billows up at the worst moments, like a beautiful sunset woven out of the smoke over a bombed out city.”

Wallpaper Murder Mystery

Karen Templer’s obsessive rant about Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O’Neill made me laugh.

“…Broadhurst was a pattern designer famous for her wallpapers, and she was also mysteriously murdered. So the book is some sort of crazy cross between a wallpaper catalog and a murder mystery — and I’m quite certain I’ve never encountered a book that meets that description before. (Who knew that description could be so enticing?)”

Now I want this book, too.

Next up: James Collins

Yesterday I had the good fortune to spend the night on assignment here. I took a bubble bath in the clawfoot tub, then curled up and finished David Samuels’s fascinating book, The Runner.

Next up on my bedside table and eventual blog interview subject: Beginner’s Greek: A Novel by James Collins.

Next up: David Samuels

I’m slammed with work (check out the theater’s new website…and please let me know if you find any bugs in it as I’m still tweaking), three magazine assignments due this month, and trying and mostly failing to make time for my fledging novel, but I’m excited to announce that David Samuels’s The Runner is next up on my bedside table and his publicist tells me he’s game for a blog interview.

We’re in the midst of figuring out what to do with the child this summer. Any suggestions for east coast camps?

Interview with Chandler Burr

Chandler Burr is The New York Times‘ perfume critic. His new book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, tells two parallel stories–the first about a year Burr spent in Paris behind the scenes at Hermès watching legendary perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena create the Hermès scent, Un Jardin sur le Nil, and the second about a year inside Coty with Sarah Jessica Parker as she directed the making of her perfume, Lovely.

He speaks around the world on scent and perfume and hosts interactive master classes in gourmand scents; this series explains perfume for the lay person and shows fragrance’s structure and artistry, with food-based scent raw materials (absolutes of cinnamon, clove, pepper) and gourmand perfumes like Angel (which uses the scent of cotton candy) and Shalimar (the scent of vanilla) reflected in a seven-course gourmet meal.


The Perfect Scent is based on two magazine articles that you wrote for The New Yorker and T: The New York Times Style Magazine. In your acknowledgments, you say that you composed the book during one intensive October in Rome. How on earth did you do that? What sort of strategies did you employ to expand the articles? The book ends with the August 2007 launch of Sarah Jessica Parker’s second perfume, Covet. Did you write the book in October 2007 for January 2008 publication? I’ve never heard of a book publisher being so nimble. Why the rush?

Chandler: I had done a huge amount of work on both of the two tracks in the book–Hermes and SJP– by September 2006– both The New Yorker and The Times pieces had been published, and I had big chunks of text finished and knew what my stories were–but I needed a quiet, remote place to work. I have a very good friend, Laura Tonatto, an Italian perfumer (with, and I say this with the pride of a friend, a terrific collection; I’m not able to review Laura in The Times for obvious reasons, but here I can say that you should definitely smell her creations), and she has an apartment in Rome opposite a terrific restaurant called Il Corallo. So she called and invited me to assemble the book in Rome, and I basically hung up and called Delta and got on a plane as fast as I could. It turned out to be the perfect place to create the first full draft of the book.

In a sense I suppose I “expanded” the articles, but in another sense I contracted them. I had a vast amount of material, and my editor, George Hodgman, was a taskmaster on cutting, shaping, pruning, cutting some more. I just got an email last night saying, “Wow, it’s a page turner! Who knew the process could be so exciting!” and I’m of course very pleased that people perceive it this way– and it was, in a real sense, a page-turner for us living it–but that sensation is a very carefully-crafted effect gotten from a lot of hard work writing and a lot of hard work editing.

The fact that the book ends with the August 2007 launch of Sarah Jessica’s second, Covet, creates the illusion that the book is amazingly timely and the publisher amazingly nimble. Remember that the entire book was completed and in production. It’s actually very easy to put in that last piece right before it goes to the printer.

Gina: You say that perfume as a true art form has only existed since 1881 with the first use of synthetics in a French perfume and you make a very strong case for the virtues of synthetics — how they’re actually safer and healthier than naturals. Your rationale makes sense to me, but it’s so counter-intuitive in this era in which all things natural are considered to be best. Please talk about why you think synthetic scent molecules are great. And how do you feel about transfat and nitrates in food?

Chandler: The most important thing to point out is that perfume is not food. I’ll repeat that: perfume and food are two different things. The difference is that perfume is made up of molecules that do not interact with our biochemistry except in the most superficial way–there is a small interaction with pH balance, for example–and if it’s found that they do interact in any serious way, they’re banned. There’s a long and growing list of banned materials. Food, on the other hand, obviously goes directly into us, and the naturals argument is absolutely, indeed emphatically logical for food. Food by definition is something that must contain nutrients that evolution has designated necessary for our bodies, and you want it as natural and wholesome as possible. Perfume is art. Not food. And to demand nutrients and naturals in this art is about as logical as demanding them in the paintings we see or the music we listen to.

Gina: I was intrigued by your description of Jo Malone‘s fragrances as being “solidity shot through with light.” Also, that you said her scents were sometimes criticized as being more aromatherapy than perfume. Why is it a criticism for something to be called aromatherapy? What’s your favorite Malone fragrance?

Chandler: My personal favorite Malone is the French Lime Blossom. And “aromatherapy” is a criticism when it comes to perfume because aromatherapy is to perfume what John Grisham is to Ian McEwan; it is a much simpler, easier, more accessible form of the art, perfume in one case, literature in the other. I said this to Jo herself, and she sort of resisted it but on the other hand sort of accepted it. When you’re putting out scents that you explicitly say can be mixed with each other, you are by definition saying that they are less “worked” works of art, less finished, less elaborate, less singularly conceived, than others. Take Paris, by Sophia Gojsman for YSL. It’s an exquisite work, one meant to be shown off like a jewel. It’s no more created so that you can “mix” another perfume with it any more than the painter Lucian Freud would intend you to “mix” one of his paintings with another of his paintings. Each painting is a work, complete in and on its own terms. So are perfumes. Malone does scents, and they’re wonderful– they really are– but she’s set out consciously to create a world of products different in kind from traditional perfume and has done a very good job of it.

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