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Jackie Zollo Brooks
Photo: Adam Detour


author’s voice

The Older Heroine

From 1997 to 1999, Jackie Zollo Brooks, J57, worked with the Peace Corps, supervising English teachers in Madagascar. The beautiful but impoverished land and its people stayed with her, and her finely drawn novel, The Ravenala (Peace Corps Writers), features a fiercely independent sixty-something woman who leaves her life in Madagascar and returns to her aging mother and sisters in Massachusetts.

Older women have been largely absent from literature. They’re mostly either shadowy figures or just plain horrible. Older people often have vibrant lives, but in our youth-obsessed culture, women in particular cease to be of interest once they’ve lost their sex appeal. People act as though your life is over once you reach sixty or even fifty.

The ravenala palm tree of Madagascar is called the ‘traveler’s tree.’ A traveler cutting into the palm’s branches can get a drink of pure, refreshing water, and because its alignment is on an east-west axis, the ravenala will always point you in the right direction. Isn’t that what we all want as travelers—to be refreshed and directed toward something new?

I wanted to convey the idea that getting old is like going to live in a foreign land. I explained this to my daughter, who is gay, and she said, ‘Welcome to my world!’ Both the traveler and the person who wants to age well need to share certain qualities. Openness is important throughout life, and it’s essential in a traveler. A kind of flexibility is important, too, as is humor. You have to have a sense of humor as you age—it’s too grim not to be able to laugh at it. And, of course, love. I loved the Malagasy people. I loved their dignity, humor, warmth, and generosity.

When I went to Madagascar, I learned that they have no notion of human potential. They didn’t dare think about what they or their children would become, because it wasn’t even a given that they would survive. They were just living, and the most important question was, Can we endure? Endurance is a good thing to learn as you’re moving into old age.

Writing poetry has helped me with my prose. You get to the essence of something without even knowing you’re going there. It helps me sharpen my images when I’m trying to capture something in the world. Being an actor was also magnificent training, because all the disciplines of the theater—listening, responding, collaborating with others, being in the moment—are vital to writing.

I want to show that life is an adventure. Emerson said, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do,’ and that is what I’d like women to take away from the book. You find that your fears were mostly groundless. It’s wonderful to be able to look at things from a new perspective.


Negotiating Life (Palgrave Macmillan)

Have you and your new hire reached a stalemate on staff-meeting attendance? Is your daughter digging in her heels on a midnight curfew? Jeswald W. Salacuse, the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law at the Fletcher School, recommends taking a page from the 1979 Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel: ditch the assertive, my-way-or-the-highway approach for a more collaborative strategy. His lucid guide to negotiation in everyday life—some of it drawn from his Tufts Magazine column of the same name—explores the dance of diplomacy from every angle. Deciding whether to negotiate, probing motivations, honing your opening move, choosing the right venue, and closing the deal are just a few of the topics that Salacuse insists are as relevant in the office or home as they were at Camp David.

Trapped Under the Sea (Crown)

In 1999, five commercial divers entered a ten-mile-long tunnel hundreds of feet beneath Boston Harbor. Their assignment was to complete the final stage of a massive project that would transform the harbor from the nation’s filthiest to its cleanest. Neil Swidey, A91, spent five years immersed in every aspect of the Boston Harbor project, which ultimately turned into a fight for life in a pitch-black, air-starved, claustrophobic tube. His research covers everything from civil engineering, environmental science, and oxygen deprivation to the culture of tunnel-digging “sand hogs” and professional divers. The bracing narrative and compelling real-life characters will remind readers of The Perfect Storm, and the blue-collar lives discounted in pursuit of the latest engineering marvel will prick the collective conscience.

Breakpoint: Why the Web Will Implode, Search Will Be Obsolete, and Everything Else You Need to Know About Technology Is in Your Brain (Palgrave Macmillan)

We are culturally conditioned to think bigger is better, but according to the brain scientist and entrepreneur Jeff Stibel, A95, biological systems, brain science, and technology demonstrate the opposite. Human intelligence increases when the brain overgrows and then prunes itself. When users find themselves in a network that has grown too large to be useful (see your three hundredth friend’s latest post about her cat), the network reaches a breakpoint. Usage decreases, and people delete their accounts and start looking for the next network. Exceptional companies will follow the natural world’s example—the mosquito, not the lion, is the deadliest animal—and leverage the Internet’s brainlike capabilities to become more nimble, build more effective websites, utilize cloud computing, and engage social media more strategically.

What’s Important Is Feeling (HarperCollins)

With his debut novel, Flatscreen, Adam Wilson, A04, was lauded as a sharp and original literary voice. His latest contribution is a collection of short stories that have appeared in publications like Tin House, The Coffin Factory, and The Paris Review, which awarded him its Terry Southern Prize in 2012. With a heavy dose of sardonic humor, Wilson distills millennial ennui, longing, and disillusionment into gritty coming-of-age tales. A teenager handles his mother’s cancer and his sister’s promiscuity with insecurity and LSD, a debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential, and in the title story, selected for Best American Short Stories 2012, two friends experience the schizophrenic creativity of an indie film shoot.


Kind Hearted Woman

This remarkable documentary by David Sutherland, A67, aired last April on PBS. A co-production of Frontline and Independent Lens, the film follows Robin Charboneau, a 32-year-old divorced single mother and Oglala Sioux living on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation. Sutherland filmed Charboneau for three years as she struggled to take care of her children, further her education, and heal from the sexual abuse she endured as a child. Like his earlier films The Farmer’s Wife and Country Boys, Kind Hearted Woman puts a human face on often-overlooked rural poverty. It’s available on DVD at davidsutherland.com and viewable online at bit.ly/kind-hearted-woman.

Life According to Sam

Short-listed for an Academy Award, the documentary got rave reviews when it aired on HBO in January. The film shows us three years in the life of seventeen-year-old Sam Berns, who was born with a rare form of accelerated aging known as progeria. His aunt, Audrey Gordon, J84, heads the Progeria Research Foundation and appears in the film. Sam was diagnosed with the disease before his second birthday. His mother, Leslie, then a medical resident, decided to devote her career to studying the disease. Within four years, Leslie, Audrey, and Sam’s father, Scott, an ER pediatrician, had started the foundation, raising $1.25 million toward identifying the gene that causes progeria. Sadly, Sam died shortly after the documentary aired, but not before his humor and courage could inspire millions.


Sarah Malakoff: Second Nature (Charta)

Photographs of domestic interiors are usually aspirationalóthe carefully stacked art books beside the elegant four-poster bed are intended to make us long for a life of order, serenity, and understated luxury. Rather than projecting our own fantasies onto a room, this new collection of photographs by Sarah Malakoff, G97, invites viewers to contemplate the inner lives of a roomís inhabitants. Peeling wallpaper, a rec-room bar shaped like a shipís prow, card games and puzzles awaiting play, air-conditioning units, and Christmas lights create an intimacy that the cool stagecraft of the average interior design shot canít match. Dark wood paneling, a canoe turned coffee table, a wall covered in shaggy white fur, a large tree trunk bisecting a living room, and massive picture windows framing woodlands and seascapes capture the fragile boundaries between nature and shelter, domesticity and wildness.


After That (Tiger Bark Press), the latest collection of poems by KATHLEEN AGUERO, G71, treats subjects such as a mother’s dementia, a graveside ash-scattering, and a daughter’s teen pregnancy with a lightness that only strengthens their gravity. In one memorable cycle of poems, she traces the life of Nancy Drew, creating for the heroine a midlife surprised by a thoroughly changed world.

Sex, or the Unbearable (Duke) is a dialogue between Lauren Berlant, of the University of Chicago, and LEE EDELMAN, the Fletcher Professor of English Literature at Tufts. The two are leading theorists of sexuality, politics, and culture, and their fascinating exchange proposes that sex taps into a deep well of negative associations. Their interpretations of films, photography, literature, and critical theory texts inform their consideration of “the unbearable” and how it affects politics, theory, and intimate encounters.

HBO’s latest sexually frank blockbuster, Girls, now has its own guide to the Big Apple. Hannah Horvath and her millennial-generation pals call Brooklyn home base, but The Unofficial Girls Guide to New York (Smart Pop), by JUDY GELMAN, J84, and Peter Zheutlin, takes fans to cafés, clubs, and neighborhoods throughout the city, from restaurants in Greenpoint and warehouse parties in Bushwick to shops in the West Village and galleries on the Lower East Side.

NICK TROUT, resident in small-animal surgery at the Cummings School from 1991 to 1994, follows up his bestsellers, Tell Me Where It Hurts and Love Is the Best Medicine, with the warm and funny novel Dog Gone, Back Soon (Hyperion). Dr. Cyrus Mills returns to his hometown of Eden Falls, Vermont, to save the small vet practice he inherited from his estranged father.

The Time Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile (Hachette) is the latest in the series by BIANCA TURETSKY, J01, about a clothes-mad young woman who travels through history via period costume. This time Louise Lambert tries on a lavender Grecian gown and is whisked first to the set of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, and then to the city of ancient Alexandria, where she serves as a handmaiden to the real Queen of the Nile.

SARAH WAGNER, F02, draws on more than a decade of fieldwork in five countries for Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide (Cambridge). Despite the international community’s failure to intervene during the Bosnian war, a variety of postwar efforts, such as refugee return, war crimes trials, and election reform, are gradually redressing some of the wrongs of that dark period.

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