Lurie: a local legend releases a new book

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Alison Lurie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, “Foreign Affairs,” has published 10 books of fiction, four works of non-fiction, and three collections of tales for children. She is a Professor Emerita of English at Cornell University and lives in Ithaca with her husband, writer Edward Hower. Her hobbies include gardening, needlepoint, and the collecting of contemporary folklore and ghost stories.


Now, in of itself, there is nothing scary about that paragraph. It is, in fact, something to be proud of, in Ms. Lurie’s case of course for her accomplishments, and in the case of Ithaca being the home of a renowned author.


The scary part comes when I am contacted by Ms. Lurie’s people from Meryl Moss Media with an invitation to speak with Ms. Lurie and write up an article about her for Tompkins Weekly.


This is, after all, a writer who is described by The New York Times Book Review as “one of this country’s most able and witty novelists.”


So, I pull myself together and grab this opportunity by the horns, and set out to write something that Ms. Lurie would approve of, and would, at this particular time, share information about her newest release out May 14, “Words and Worlds, From Autobiography to Zippers.”


This has been so exciting! I received in the mail my “advanced reader’s edition,” reading it from the first page to the last so as not to miss anything that I had been lucky enough to be privy to before the book was ready for release to the world.


I very timidly dog-eared numerous pages to refer back to and highlighted Lurie’s take on certain things that absolutely stuck in my mind. I felt comfortable reading right from the preface, where Lurie wrote about those people who “love telling stories” and that they “really like to write about practically anything.” I know she was not writing about me, because we did not know each other, but I fall quite completely into that category of people she said “are curious about the world, even nosey, and if you tell somebody, even a perfect stranger, you want to write about them, they are usually happy to talk!”


My phone interview with Lurie started with her asking me first about my own writing! After that we easily talked about such diverse topics as her meeting actors Joanne Woodward, Brian Dennehy, and Eric Stolz, who starred in the movie made from her book “Foreign Affairs,” and how when she first wanted to teach there were very few opportunities for women college professors, and how fashion has evolved for women thankfully away from all those buttons, which made it necessary to put aside plenty of time to get dressed! Of course I asked her about the “The War Between the Tates” which has always been considered a story modeled after Cornell and Ithaca. Lurie told me, “Actually, that book was a composite of many different places I have lived and many different people I have known.”


This latest book, written by Lurie at the age of 92, begins with her description of herself as a “skinny, plain, odd-looking little girl, deaf in one badly damaged ear from a birth injury.” We all know that one kid, the last one chosen for any team, but we also often hear that same kid, many years later, has become a smashing success in his or her chosen field.


Oh, that is not to say that rejections, writer’s block, bad luck, or any number of stumbling blocks along the way do not exist. They almost always do. It took the death of Lurie’s friend, V.R. Lang (“Bunny”), a poet, playwright and actress, to get the writing back on track after a creative drought. She did not want her friend to be forgotten, so she began to write down everything she could remember about Bunny, not expecting that anyone else would care about those remembrances, much less that this work would be published. However, 13 years later the memoir appeared as the introduction to a collection of V.R. Lang’s poems and plays.


As the new book continues, we read about the times Lurie spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a student attending Radcliffe. Cambridge in 1945, as she remembers, was a leisurely college town, as most of the commercial development around Harvard Square had been halted by the war.


Having been enchanted by England and English literature ever since she was a child reading Winnie the Pooh, she was delighted to spend time in England in 1994, as the wife of a Cornell professor on sabbatical. She discusses in her book what it takes to put a play together, what the actors are like, and to never, ever put your shoes on a table or whistle in the dressing room. Nothing but bad luck will result from doing either!


Up next are Lurie’s thoughts on feminism, such as whether or not a Bill Gold and an Ann Fish should hyphenate and share each other’s names after marriage, which could result in something less than ideal, such as Ann and Bill Gold-Fish!


Witchcraft, a doubtful guest, famous people, Pinocchio, Tom Sawyer, Babar the Elephant (who knew there was a book in which Babar teaches the classic poses of yoga!), Narnia, fashion, Rapunzel, and some thoughts about a young single mother living on welfare in Edinburgh, England, sitting in a café writing because there is no heat in her apartment (J.K. Rowling’s wish that her Harry Potter stories be read by children all over the world came true in the most amazing way!). All these subjects and more (and yes, including zippers), get a shot at being addressed by Lurie in her own unique way.


Written with humor and candor and deep respect for the written and/or spoken word, this new book of reminisces by Alison Lurie can only add to the fact that we are lucky indeed to call this much beloved and admired writer “a local treasure.”


Ms. Lurie will be the guest of honor at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca’s Dewitt Mall at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, May 16. Please visit the author’s website at alisonlurie.com.

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