Trying to tame the sugar jones

Last night I made a pan of oat squares from a recipe a friend gave me that uses mashed bananas and chopped dates as sweeteners. It turned out pretty well, kind of a cross between banana bread and granola bars. I’ll definitely make it again, since my husband and I are cutting down on sugar but both like desserts.

Going gluten free, as I did over a year ago, didn’t put an end to my sugar jones. True, I can’t eat Entenmanns anymore. But so many other temptations lie within reach.

For starters, there’s candy. I love dark chocolate, and feel entitled to consume it as compensation for giving up cookies and cake—and anyway, it’s said to be a heart-healthy choice. Meanwhile, a cornucopia of GF pastries, both packaged and bakery fresh, now exist to satisfy anyone with a sweet tooth. And I am that person.

Alas, I’ve always loved desserts. When I was very young—probably 4, since it was before my brother was born—my parents as a treat would take me to a convenience store called the Friendly Shop, a dark little place with a small soda fountain on the banks of an industrial river. (We lived in a New England mill town, and the water sometimes took on the color of that day’s dye lot.)

I always ordered a hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream.

My mother hated to cook but loved to bake. She made the flakiest pie crusts from scratch (the secret, I learned, was not over-handling the dough), and the best brownies and banana bread. She made an apricot ring at Easter with a dough that had to rise, and a similar sweet bread that had a chopped-date filling and a drizzle of white icing on top.

When we weren’t noshing on Mom’s homemade treats, we had junk food. We baby boomers were the first generation to test-drive convenience sweets like Twinkies, Yodels, Yankee Doodles and Oreos. In the summer came Popsicles, Fudgsicles and Eskimo pies.

There was a penny-candy store near my elementary school where you could buy wax lips, red hots and Mary Janes, and wash them down with a nice cold Coke. I hate to think of how much high-fructose corn syrup I consumed.

It’s not easy to come back from a sugar addiction, but my husband and I are trying, heeding the warnings that too much sugar will ruin your health while expanding your waistline. I’ve already experimented with some of the workarounds, like chia pudding and a chocolate mousse based on mashed avocado. No, really.

Applesauce can replace sugar in some recipes, but you have to be careful about which applesauce you use. Most supermarket brands are loaded with sugar.

I don’t know if the anti-sugar drumbeat will turn out to be another nutrition fad gone wrong, like the hysteria over saturated fats that once kept people from eating eggs. But in the run-up to Valentine’s Day, we are stockpiling fresh fruits—and testing oat bar recipes.

 

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Countdown to Downton’s end

We’ve reached the halfway mark. Sunday’s episode signaled the midpoint of the final season of “Downton Abbey.” Just four more shows (including a “Christmas special”) and we will bid farewell forever to Lord and Lady Grantham, their family, friends and servants, as well as the fictional Yorkshire estate that gives this British series its name.

Viewers in the U.K. already know what happens. Does Lady Mary find love? Does Thomas Barrow land a new job? Will the Bateses have a baby?

But I, for one, am glad to remain in the dark. No DVDs for me, thank you. I look forward to seeing the show every Sunday on PBS and rehashing it the next day around the virtual water cooler. In an era of DVRs and streaming video, when you can binge-watch a full series on Netflix in a weekend, “Downton” proceeds at its own stately pace—one of the few shared cultural experiences we have left.

It’s easy to see why “The Sopranos,” “M*A*S*H” and so many other TV series became hits. They tell us something about ourselves as Americans. But why the fascination with a BBC program about English aristocrats before and after World War I?

The simple answer is that it’s just a good show. The plot keeps moving (some seasons are better than others, of course) and the characters are varied and interesting. You alternately love and hate them, just like real people.

Then too, there’s something in the stratified, “upstairs, downstairs” world of the Abbey that speaks to us today. It’s an alien atmosphere, to be sure—there are no butlers and house maids anymore. But we too live in a culture in which an elite few (the infamous 1 percent) enjoy the privileges of wealth while the rest are left to scramble. Daisy and company, we can relate!

I don’t have a favorite character; I adore and abhor so many of them. Violet, the dowager countess, is all tart remarks and snappy comebacks, but she’s such a snob that I can’t say I like her. I’m fond of Lord Grantham and was appalled when his bleeding ulcer erupted—in the middle of a dinner party with Neville Chamberlain, no less.

I’m touched by the friendship between Lady Mary and Anna, her maid. They are more like sisters than Mary and her actual sibling, Edith. The latter, meanwhile, has become a working woman—a magazine publisher. She also has an out-of-wedlock child. Edith may be the most modern character in the bunch.

Below stairs, we have connivers (Thomas), strivers (Daisy) and sad sacks (Mr. Molesley). Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is both wise and funny. You can count on her to keep her feet on the ground.

Then there’s Mr. Carson, the butler with the Darth Vader voice, deeply loyal to the family and to tradition. This season, he married Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, in a plot line I’ve especially enjoyed. It’s nice when an older, unglamorous couple can take center stage for a while.

Whatever will we watch when Downton is over?

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They won’t stay kittens forever

The kittens are six months old now. Moe, the tuxedo, weighs almost 8 pounds, the size of a (smallish) full-grown cat. His ginger-colored sister, Sassy, is still a wood sprite—dainty and petite at just 5 pounds.

Whatever their respective sizes, they are no longer babies. They suddenly look like miniature cats, though their behavior is definitely immature.

Life is full of bustle when you have a pair of kittens. Small as they are, Moe and Sassy make an outsize racket racing around the house at breakneck speed, chasing each other or a toy.

If you hear that I’ve had an unfortunate accident, it will probably be from tripping over kittens on the staircase. The two of them shoot down the stairs as if fired from a cannon, skipping steps but caroming off my legs. I always grip the railing now, in self-defense.

At the same time, what amazing grace! These little cats are so lithe and agile. Would that I could do the yoga moves they perform without a thought. Sometimes they appear to levitate—especially Sassy, a limber and leggy ballerina who can jeté to the top of the bedroom window in an eye blink, in pursuit of a ladybug who had the audacity to overwinter there.

Moe, meanwhile, is muscular, bold and athletic. He reminds me of Gene Kelly, in white tie and tails. Moe makes daring leaps between far counters and sometimes jumps right onto my shoulder when I’m not expecting it. He runs vertically up the kitchen door in order to snatch a tote bag I keep there on a hook. He loves to pull it down and trounce it.

When they’re not playing, they sleep, seeking out a lap or else cuddling up together. If we’re in bed, they nuzzle our faces, give us kisses and crawl under the blankets, emerging moments later to nuzzle and kiss some more. Their purrs are more soothing than any white-noise machine.

For the most part, the other cats have accepted the little stinkers. They might grumble if the kittens get too manic, but that was the reason we took the pair instead of just one—the two of them play with each other, sparing the big cats from their chasing, pouncing and wrestling games.

Bobcat, the big Maine coon, grooms the wee ones and naps alongside them. But Lulu, our longhaired tabby, doesn’t like them. She no longer expresses her distaste with outright aggression, as she did when Moe and Sassy first joined the household. But she makes it clear that as far as she is concerned, life would be better if they left.

That’s not going to happen. Unfortunately for Lulu, I’m completely besotted with the kittens. Even when they noisily play with their ball-in-track toy when I’m trying to sleep; or wake me in the morning by pawing my face or pouncing my toes; or dance all over my computer keyboard while I’m working—I can’t imagine life without them. Lulu will just have to deal with it.

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Tough to quit smoking, whatever your age

We’ve been binge-watching “Nurse Jackie” on Netflix, and I can see why the made-up word “dramedy” is the only way to describe it. There’s comedy in this series starring Edie Falco as a nurse in a busy ER. But there’s drama too.

Jackie is addicted to prescription drugs and will do anything to get them. She seesaws between recovery and relapse as her addiction tears apart her family and professional relationships. Falco—she played Carmela on “The Sopranos”—makes us alternately love and hate, applaud and condemn, this flawed, infuriating character.

I have a horror of prescription drugs and avoid even antibiotics when possible. But I can relate to Nurse Jackie because of a different addiction: tobacco.

Both my parents smoked, so my brother and I grew up immersed in it. My father gave up his Chesterfields cold turkey in his 40s, but died young anyway. My mother kept smoking into her 80s. She loved her cigarettes.

It’s a wonder I didn’t light up early. Instead, for years I sporadically cadged other people’s cigarettes and only began smoking in earnest at age 35, after my divorce. I smoked for 10 years, then quit when I met my second husband.

But I fell back into the habit around the time Mom moved in next door. She had suffered a series of (smoking-related) strokes, but they didn’t scare her clean. In a misguided gesture of solidarity, I joined her, the two of us puffing away side-by-side on the porch. After a couple of years, I quit for good. I haven’t touched a cigarette in over a decade.

My mother couldn’t quit, though she made a few halfhearted attempts. One memorable time she told us kids to hide her butts and not say where, even if she begged. But the jones got so strong that Mom became a she-wolf, and we caved. It was as if Dr. Jekyll had us hide the pack and Mr. Hyde demanded we pony up.

Mom smoked a moderate half a pack a day for years, but as dementia took hold her intake rose. She would forget she had just put one out, and light up another. Sometimes she lit a cigarette even as one lay burning in the ashtray.

We feared she would set the house on fire. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But once she left Pennsylvania and moved into assisted living near my brother, she managed to set a tissue-filled wastebasket ablaze. That got her evicted.

It’s not easy locating senior housing for smokers, but my brother found a great place and the whole family moved Mom in over a long Thanksgiving weekend. Ironically, she then stopped smoking. A medication from her doctor helped, and so did the dementia. She seemed to just forget about smoking, ending a tobaccothon of almost 70 years.

I loved smoking when I smoked. But I know that if I had one cigarette now, I’d be hooked again, like Nurse Jackie with her pills. The tobacco-related health problems my mother endured have scared me straight.

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Time to tackle taxes

I have a friend who enacts the same ritual every New Year’s Day. It’s not a champagne brunch, a movie date or a plunge into icy waters with the Polar Bear Club. Instead, my friend sets aside January 1 as the day to get her taxes in order.

I so admire her discipline. I’m usually weeks, if not months, behind her, since going through documents, invoices and other shreds of paper that have accumulated over the course of a year is a job I tend to put off.

This year, I’m a bit ahead of myself. I’ve begun leafing through 2015 receipts, bank statements and other records, ferreting out data that will be of interest to the tax man.

My husband is paperwork challenged, so tax prep is my job. Because we itemize, our return is somewhat complex. Therefore, I don’t actually fill out a 1040 myself, the way my mother used to and certain of my friends and family still do.

All I do is assemble the paperwork, compute the deductions, wait for the appropriate forms to arrive from work and financial institutions, and then pass the mess along to our accountant. Dave is a genial guy who has been handling my taxes since I moved to Pennsylvania—probably 30 years. He does the final arithmetic, files electronically and tells me how much to put into my IRA to offset the damages.

To get him the information he needs, I begin by upending a basket into which I stuff the year’s receipts as they arrive. Dumping out the contents and going through them one by one, I set aside anything tax related, tossing or shredding the rest.

We have a rental property—the house my mother used to live in—so repairs count as a deduction. Likewise, because I’m a freelancer and not on staff anywhere, I can write off professional expenses, like office supplies and printer ink. I have a boatload of Staples receipts testifying to those purchases. Donations count too, and there are lots of them—never too large, but the many small ones mount up.

I am terrible at math, but I can use a calculator and that is how I add up the deductions, toggling back and forth between the receipts at hand and my checkbook register. No Quicken software for me—just a pen, a yellow legal pad and a bunch of paper clips and rubber bands to assemble the piles into categories.

It’s an old-fashioned, low-tech system. But it works.

Many years ago, my old boss Howard said something very wise about taxes. Like some kind of New Age guru, he told me to be grateful to be paying Uncle Sam, since earmarking money for the IRS signified that I had made money in the last year.

You have to have an income to pay an income tax. And isn’t that a blessing? Think of all the people who don’t.

Every tax season, I remember Howard’s Yoda-like advice. It takes away some of the sting.

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Star Wars Reloaded

Raise your hands: Who saw “Star Wars” over the holidays? Catching up with “The Force Awakens” seemed like an obligatory rite of the season for many of us, if only to see what the fuss was about.

This movie, No. 7 in the series, reconnects us with people and places from the original Star Wars films of the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s like going home, cinematically, to the same weird mix of post-apocalyptic junkyards, medieval dungeons, wookie bars and gleaming, high-tech spaceships so pristine you could eat dinner off the deck.

Han Solo is back, with the same crooked smile and wry delivery, along with his his squeeze Princess (now General) Leia and—briefly—her brother, Luke Skywalker. Solo’s hairy sidekick Chewbacca is here too.

Of course, it’s more than 30 years later (the original “Star Wars” debuted in 1977), and whatever the supernatural powers of the Force, it can’t stop the actors from aging. Seeing the movie felt like attending a high school reunion and wondering who all the old people were. You peer into the faces trying to find the person you knew.

Carrie Fisher had a lot to say about women and aging on Twitter, in response to Internet trolls who criticized her looks in the film. Ageism is especially insidious in the movie industry, of course. But every woman experiences some form of the same phenomenon, if only in our own heads as we peer into the bathroom mirror and wonder how those wrinkles got there.

Some viewers apparently can’t square their memory of Fisher at 19, in Princess Leia’s metal bikini, with the mature woman they see today. “I tried to stop her (from aging),” Fisher told Time magazine, “but apparently that includes death so that didn’t seem like a good solution.”

Last week, Fisher admonished fans to to stop obsessing over her looks. “Please stop debating about whether or not I have aged well,” she tweeted. “It hurts all 3 of my feelings.”

In fact, Fisher at 59 looked terrific as the adult Leia, now a general leading the resistance against the First Order, the bad guys who are trying to stamp out the Jedi. She’s trim and wears her hair in a neat braid crown, like Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama.” Gone are the signature buns over the ears.

Ford, meanwhile, is spry and appealing, even with gray hair and wrinkles. Hamill looks his age too, complete with a white beard. But no one has sniped at the male actors the way they have at Fisher.

“Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they’re the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA,” Fisher tweeted. You don’t have to be a movie star to applaud that sentiment.

Despite the star power this trio delivers, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” belongs to the young actors—especially Daisy Ridley, as the feisty junk scavenger Rey. Rey is shrewd, fit and powerful—someone capable of moving the franchise forward. It’s great to see a woman in the hero’s role.

 

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Of online civility, and other hopes for 2016

Do people still make New Year’s resolutions after they turn 60? Have we not learned by bitter experience that we probably won’t stick to a diet-and-exercise program ardently undertaken in the wake of the Christmas cookie barrage?

Nor are we likely to take piano lessons, learn C++ or do any of the other worthwhile, life-enhancing things that seem like such a good idea every December 31. We start our quest for self-improvement in earnest but somehow, our good intentions hit the skids around February. Maybe sooner.

Nevertheless, there’s something about the changing of the calendar year that gets me thinking about past, present and future—and hoping that the one might not be completely predictive of the other. New Year’s presents a clean slate, at least momentarily—an opportunity to reboot.

So in the spirit of new beginnings, I find myself contemplating what can only be called New Year’s resolutions, starting with the ever popular diet.

I haven’t weighed myself; I don’t want to. My jeans still fit. But I feel fat, and I hate that.

Most likely, I will count Weight Watcher points yet again, as I have so often in the past, doing battle with the same 10 pounds that continually creep back like a habit you can’t break. But maybe I’ll try a different diet, like the one involving fasting or another centered on greens, beans and mushrooms—actually, all foods that I like.

As for exercise, my goal is to add a second yoga class to my schedule. I love my weekly beginner’s class but sadly, I rarely practice at home. I need the discipline of a formal class. That’s a resolution I might actually keep.

Meanwhile, I’m sure I’m not the only one who dreads the coming year in social media. With a presidential election coming up in November, 2016 will be ripe with rants, diatribes and jeremiads of every stripe.

I have friends on the left, on the right and in the middle. Therefore, my Facebook feed is bipolar, if not downright schizoid.

The cacophony can be upsetting, and I know of more than a few friendships that ran aground over harsh or hateful views broadcast on Facebook. I still don’t completely understand why people feel free to say on social media things they are too polite to utter in person.

So how about this for a group New Year’s resolution: Let’s think before we post.

Go ahead and critique the candidates’ backgrounds and positions. That’s our right as Americans. But let’s not call them names—even the ones we seriously disagree with.

Let’s not mock anyone’s hair or wardrobe. Let’s not call them stupid, crazy, evil or any other name you would be shocked to hear your grandchild yelling at a schoolmate.

Let’s dial back the noise and concentrate on the content. As an exercise, we can pretend the “other guy” is an actual person, with flaws and feelings just like our own. Because, you know what? They are.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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Scrooge: a hero for our time

Ebenezer Scrooge has gotten a bum rap. His name is synonymous with “miserly curmudgeon,” according to the dictionary. And you wouldn’t want to work for him. He’s like my friend’s boss, who closes the company the week between Christmas and New Year’s but expects his employees to work some unpaid hours nonetheless.

But that was Scrooge before the transformation he experiences on a fateful Christmas Eve, courtesy of the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, and three visiting spirits. Ebenezer accomplishes overnight what many of us spend years in therapy trying to do: change.

I’ve always loved “A Christmas Carol” (and once played Mrs. Cratchit in in an elementary school production), and I reread it most Decembers. This year, I couldn’t find my favorite antique volume, so I downloaded an e-book. Maybe it was the 21st century format, but the story seemed fresher to me, and very modern.

Scrooge is a workaholic so obsessed with money that he excludes everything else from his life in its pursuit. Not that the money does him any good, as his nephew, Fred, points out. Scrooge does no good deeds for others, and he himself lives frugally, not using his wealth for his own pleasure or comfort.

This guy hardly seems like a candidate for enlightenment, but that is what Marley’s ghost has in mind when he shows up on Christmas Eve, soon followed by three other ethereal beings.

Once you get past the weirdness of Dickens dishing up a ghost story for Christmas, you start to see that these spirits are not necessarily separate entities, but aspects of Scrooge’s own mind as he meditates on his life.

The scenes he remembers with the Ghost of Christmas Past range from the good—Fezziwig’s merry party for Ebenezer and the other apprentices—to the bad: Scrooge’s lonely Christmases as a schoolboy. Ebenezer “wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.” He has developed compassion.

Likewise, in witnessing the suffering of others in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge is “overcome with penitence and grief” at his own harsh attitudes and lack of generosity. He has learned empathy.

Finally, with the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge contemplates his own death. This is an exercise recommended by Buddhists as a spiritual corrective, a kind of reality check that inspires us to live rightly.

At the end of all this soul-searching, Scrooge emerges a new man. He accepts the difficult truths he has discerned about himself, always a painful thing to do. But he doesn’t wallow in guilt, shame or regret. Instead, he picks himself up and begins to live a more authentic life.

For me, the most touching scene is when Scrooge walks about London on Christmas Day, “and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” He is delighted at each thing he sees—happy to be alive. Very Zen.

Scrooge has undergone a profound spiritual awakening. If he can do it, so can we. God bless us, every one.

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Florida dreaming, on such a winter’s day

If you’ve ever watched “Seinfeld,” you know the name Del Boca Vista as the Florida condo where Jerry’s parents live. We are never told whether this fictional over-55 community is on the Gulf or Atlantic coasts or in the center of the state, near Orlando. All we know is that there are lots of retirees there, taking advantage of the mild winters, the golf and the early-bird specials.

Even though I know plenty of people in Florida and have been there many times, I long held the Seinfeld view. I saw Florida as a setup for comedy, a place where old people drive too slowly on the freeway and eat dinner at 4 in the afternoon.

Then I entered my 60s and suddenly, friends my age were moving down. As Pogo Possum might say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are just back from a trip to see family and friends in the Tampa area, and not for the first time, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live in Florida myself. The summers, I’m told, are brutal—and long. Our niece Cynthia advised us not to visit in May; it was just too hot.

But oh those winters. Here it was, December, and warm enough for the kids to swim in the ocean. Of course, we are enjoying an unusually mild fall in the Northeast this year, but you know it can’t last. Once the snow falls, that Florida sun and sand will seem even more enticing.

We started our trip in the charming, artsy town of Safety Harbor, where our friends Ann and John own a little bungalow with a banana tree in the backyard. They spend summers in Vermont—the best of both worlds, for sure.

Then we drove an hour north to see Cynthia, Rob and the children—including a new baby, Calvin, whose arrival was the reason for our visit—and my sister-in-law, Audrey.

We spent one day at the beach and the next day at the mall, so that the kids could visit with Santa Claus. Malls are the same everywhere. We could have been in Las Vegas or Ohio. Why does America homogenize its built environment like this?

Nevertheless, we had so much fun with the little ones that we couldn’t help wishing we lived closer so we could see them all the time. And then Ann texted to tell us the house across the street had just gone up for sale.

It’s tempting. But realistically, I don’t see us moving to Florida any time soon. We are too entrenched where we are. We live in such a beautiful area—we love the mountain scenery, historic architecture, distinctive shops.

I’m used to cooler weather; don’t know if I could handle Florida’s heat. And I would miss the changing of the seasons. You don’t see spring bulbs or autumn leaves in Florida.

Of course, I may change my tune once the snow flies. A girl can dream.

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Carly Simon tells all

I’ll admit it. I’m hooked on celebrity memoirs—but only a certain, particular type. I don’t care much about actors, authors and politicians. But give me a musician or songwriter who meant something to me in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I’m there.

Keith Richards’ “Life,” Patti Boyd Harrison’s “Beautiful Tonight” and Sheila Weller’s “Girls Like Us,” a group biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, have spots on my bookshelf, alongside a couple dozen other tomes about the Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other artists I love.

The latest addition to this collection is “Boys in the Trees,” Carly Simon’s new memoir. It covers her childhood in the dysfunctional family of publishing icon Dick Simon, her rise to fame and her marriage to James Taylor, ending when the marriage does, when the author is about 35.

Simon seemed to know everyone who was anyone back in the day, so there’s plenty of dish in these pages, including encounters with Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Kris Kristofferson, among others.

She had flings with some of those men, and confirms here that verse two in her blockbuster hit “You’re So Vain” was written with Warren Beatty in mind. Simon knows how to write sex scenes, and she describes a magical night when Beatty showed up at her Murray Hill apartment at 1:30 in the morning and left at 5:30 for an early film call.

Later that morning, a glowing Simon visited her psychiatrist and told him all about her night of romance. Dr. L blanched and looked so alarmed that Simon was concerned. She finally pried out the reason: She was not the first patient that morning to describe having sex with Warren Beatty the night before!

Simon also writes about her stutter, her stage fright and her insecurity at being the youngest—and in her view, plainest—of three gorgeous sisters. She is forthright about her bouts of depression, her phobias and even a weight problem in her early 20s—surprising for someone so famously willowy.

I’ve taken pains to call the author “Simon,” since it’s the journalistic convention to use last names. But I think of her as “Carly,” as if I knew her. And in a way I do—through her music and her public private life, especially the storybook marriage to Taylor and its not-so-happy ending. John, Paul, George and Ringo are friends in the same way, as are Jerry, Janis, Jimi, Arlo, Aretha and so many others.

These folks spoke for us. Their struggles were our struggles. Their music sustained us, and their lyrics and guitar chords are indelibly imprinted on our brains. I can still recite every verse of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by heart. Can’t you?

To my mind, the best memoirs of the period are Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” which won the National Book Award, and Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles.” Smith has a new memoir out, “M Train.” I will have to add it to my reading list.

 

 

 

 

 

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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