Wednesday, January 20, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Making Toast

Ecco: Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

Ecco: Just Kids by Patti Smith

Ecco: Letters to Jackie by Ellen Fitzpatrick

Ecco: My First New York edited by New York Magazine

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Making Toast

With this issue, Shelf Awareness is publishing its second Maximum Shelf, a monthly feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. This edition focuses on Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt, which Ecco is publishing February 16. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. Ecco has helped support the issue.

Ecco: The Whale by Philip Hoare

Books & Authors

Making Toast: Beyond the 'Tragedy Memoir' Genre

Roger Rosenblatt's essays for Time magazine and PBS have won two George Polk Awards, the Peabody and the Emmy. He is the author of six Off-Broadway plays and 13 books, including bestsellers Rules for Aging and Children of War, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has written two satirical novels, Beet and Lapham Rising, also a bestseller. In 2008, he was appointed Distinguished Professor of English and Writing at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y.

Of his latest book, Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern writes, "I don't publish books of nonfiction that are too sad. I'm overly suggestible and immediately make what I'm reading what I'm living. As much of a fan as I am of Roger's, I didn't imagine Making Toast was going to be a book for me. As the flap copy will outline, the story is family tragedy, exactly and inexactly. But I'm paid to read my authors, so I began to read. Is it painful? Yes, it is. Is it depressing? No.

"Making Toast goes beyond the 'tragedy memoir' genre. It becomes a celebration in the face of sorrow, and every emotion will surface as you read this testament to what love, in the hands of an extremely talented writer and true father, can accomplish."


Ecco: The Whale by Philip Hoare

Roger Rosenblatt: Getting On with It

We greatly enjoyed Making Toast, although "enjoyed" is not quite the right word. We were moved by the book, and appreciated its spare style. How did you find your voice for this remembrance? How did you avoid sentimentality? Making Toast seems to be remarkably un-clichéd.

I often write nonfiction this way; in this case, finding an inverse proportion of fancy writing to the importance of the subject. If you have the goods, there is no point in dressing it up, no need to get fancy, to create a subject out of language itself. The story itself brings readers to their knees. I was compelled to write simply and directly.

At what point did you decide to write about your daughter's death, and why? Why share it?

I wanted to share it to be useful. I didn't initially intend to make it into a book. I wrote a New Yorker essay to get it out of my system; it was the only way I knew to feel better. The editor, David Remnick, said the piece was wise and urged me to write more. He also said, "When you write this, write with more grace than pain." If you write only from pain, you write standing on your feet rather than on your knees.

You say that you had grown weary of your anger. How do you feel now?

The holiday season is a crummy season for my family, so the anger is greater right now. It flared up in December when we went to the cemetery. The anger goes up and down. It's futile to be angry at God--the God I believe in doesn't care. He set the world in motion and left it. But his not caring became a personal affront to me.

Where are you in your role of not quite grandparent, not quite parent? Are you and Ginny still part of the household?

We are, and it's now been two years. We know what we are doing--it's no longer a role, it's our life. It's very easy.

What has stayed with you? Any words of wisdom?

Yes. Life--get on with it. And I am kinder as a person, more alert to the feelings of others. I can use my wit liberally, but am more careful with it now. I'm more aware of the fragility of life, and want to make sure that the last word anyone hears from me is kind. Being smart is not special; being kind is. Everything has been a gift.

See the video trailer for Making Toast here.

Book Brahmin: Roger Rosenblatt

On your nightstand now:

Every children's book under the sun.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Sherlock Holmes stories. The scarier the better.

Your top five authors:

Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, George Eliot, Chekhov, Yeats.

Book you've faked reading:

The Magic Mountain
, though I'm an expert on the first 80 pages.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Autobiography of Edwin Muir
--one of the best autobiographies of a poet or of anyone I've ever read. Equal to Nabokov's Speak, Memory, though written in a quieter voice.

Book you bought for the cover:

When I was in high school, I bought Little Women so that I could cover my dirty books under it.

Book that changed your life:

The Great Gatsby. It showed me how writing can be both luscious and clear.

Favorite line from a book:

Huck Finn's "You can't pray a lie."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Magic Mountain
, especially the first 80 pages.

Book Review

Mandahla: Making Toast

"The trick when foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps," Roger Rosenblatt recommends, his experience based on the new life he and his wife, Ginny, found themselves living since December 8, 2007. On that day, their daughter, Amy Solomon, died unexpectedly. Thirty-eight-year-old pediatrician, wife and mother Amy collapsed at home--her death later attributed to an anomalous right coronary artery. She left a husband, Harris, and three children: Jessica was seven; Sammy, five; and James (Bubbies) was two.

Ginny and Roger moved from their spacious five-bedroom Long Island home to a suburban Maryland bedroom with a connected bath, and from a comfortable, settled life to one of initial disarray. Before Amy died, their biggest question of the day was where to have lunch. Now the questions were myriad. Who pours whole milk on his cereal? Who drinks soy milk? Who wants water? Where are the extension cords, the Scotch tape? And just what happened to that tooth?

The family was supported by friends and by Bubbies's nanny, Ligaya, who altered her schedule to be with them more. She gave them dispassionate advice: "You are not the first to go through such a thing, and you are better able to handle it than most."

Handling Amy's death and creating a new family in her absence form the heart of Making Toast. Rosenblatt writes in a straight-ahead manner, unsentimental yet with delicate, spare sentiment, like Amy herself--clear, tart, loving and kind. He says, "We will never feel right again. No analysis or therapy will change that." But they get on with life, they start to mend and Rosenblatt "confronts the long haul"--counter to his nature, but necessary now for the survival of his family.

He gets up early to perform the one household task he has mastered: making toast. He posts the morning's word for the day (maybe "equestrian," maybe "poopies"), empties the dishwasher, sets the table for breakfast and starts the toast. "Harris usually spends half the night in Bubbies' little bed. When I go upstairs, around 6 a.m., Bubbies hesitates, but I give him a knowing look and he opens his arms to me. 'Toast?' he says. I take him from his father, change him, and carry him downstairs to allow Harris another twenty minutes' sleep."

Rosenblatt, known as Boppo to the children, is a loving grandfather who creates songs and dances for them, takes them to appointments, shops for groceries. He has assumed the role of chief worrier. He notes that, at family events, Harris "cannot conceal his longing. His face is taut. I will not be his father. He has a perfectly good father of his own. But I worry about him helplessly, like a father." Simple events create anxiety. When Ginny has a short choking fit at breakfast, Jessie freezes and Sammy runs from the room. The equilibrium is delicate, the suffering deep.

"The trouble with a close family is that it suffers closely too." But in portraying their sorrow, Rosenblatt also renders a family filled with love and determination: Amy's brother Carl, capable, always looking out for others; her brother John, witty, gracious; husband Harris, stoic, a hand surgeon, who has lost weight and stopped eating toast, but is still able to carry all three children at once up the stairs. "The sight of his back makes me sad," Rosenblatt laments. And Roger's wife, Ginny, who tells him she thinks her whole life has led up to this moment. She loves being a mother, and he says selflessness is part of her character: "And now, in sorrow, she is in her element." He realizes after 46 years of marriage that he is getting to know his wife, and that he seems to know Amy more completely in death than he did when she was alive. "The distance of death reveals Amy's stature to me. My daughter mattered to the histories of others."

Roger Rosenblatt says that he and his family have chosen getting on with it over a cathartic expression of sorrow, and yet, Making Toast combines both. Billy Collins wrote them when Amy died, "Sometimes there are no words." And while it is true that there are never enough words to express sorrow and mourning, Rosenblatt has found the right ones to convey the essence of a well-loved and loving woman, the warmth and devotion her family, and some hard-won wisdom: "As far as I can tell, this is how to live--to value the passing time."

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