Review of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age

Old Age Prime Time for Creative Work: Review of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age by Priscilla Long

By Nicholas O’Connell

Dancing with the Muse in Old Age
Review of Dancing with the Muse in Old Age for The Writer’s Workshop.

Aging is not supposed to be pretty: Depends. Geritol. Nursing homes. Alzheimer’s. Loneliness. Isolation. Dementia. Walk in bathtubs.

But such a negative view of aging is false insists Seattle author Priscilla Long in her fascinating new book, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age ($15.95; Ebook, $6.99; Coffeetown Press). She demonstrates that old age can be a time of great creativity and happiness, using examples of aging artists, scientists and others to show the wonders of old age.

“Old age is a prime time to flourish in creative productivity. It is also a prime time to begin creative work. As the National Institute on Aging recently reported, ‘participating in the arts creates paths to healthy aging.’”

At a time when 16 percent of the United States population is 65 or older, aging has become a timely topic. Unfortunately, ageism and negative perceptions of aging remain prevalent in American society.

“Ageism poisons creativity. And ageism–the deep and often unconscious prejudice against old age and against the old–is, in our American society, rampant. We are saturated with it. Otherwise, why would people be so reluctant to state their age?”

The book argues for the virtues of old age: wisdom, patience, experience, judgment—virtues often neglected in our youth obsessed contemporary culture. It illustrates these virtues through examples of famous and not- so-famous artists, writers, dancers, and others.

“I think of dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, who revolutionized dance; who continued to dance into her 70s; who created 181 original dances, twelve of them in her last decade; who choreographed her last work, ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ at age 96. I think of the painter Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021), actively painting in his late 90s. ‘What keeps you going,’ Thiebaud said, ‘is the thrill of experiment and expectation. You live on hope…that next picture.’”

Long acknowledges the challenges of old age, whether health, financial or social but insists these can often be overcome provided the person doesn’t indulge in negative stereotypes of aging which has been shown to cause decline.

“Ageism hurts us all. As we’ll see, it hurts the young. And self-inflicted or internalized ageism is an important cause of decline.”

Against the ageist backdrop of American society, Long highlights the lives of extremely productive, inspiring older figures like Henri Matisse.

“The painter Henri Matisse lived for 84 years. After being operated on for intestinal cancer at the age of 71 (in 1941), he could no longer leave his wheelchair or bed–and this is when he began his amazing cutout series. He constructed the group of works comprising Jazz by cutting shapes out of painted drawing paper, and, with the aide of assistants, pinning and repinning them to his wall, endlessly adding and shifting components.”

At the end of each chapter, Long includes such as: What are your own negative and positive attitudes toward old age, toward old people, and toward your own old age? These questions help focus and personalize the discussion. They also serve as great writing prompts for writing classes.

This is a refreshingly contrarian and readable book, but I wanted more detail. How did Matisse navigate the limits of old age? How did he and Martha Graham and others channel their creativity to make old age such a productive time? Long gives us some detail on this, but I wanted more. Perhaps that’s the subject of her next book?

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and founder of The Writer’s Workshop.

Book Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro for The Writer's Workshop.
Review of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro for The Writer’s Workshop.

Review by Kate Jackson for The Writer’s Workshop

“Do you believe in the human heart?…….Do you think there is such a thing?  Something that makes each of us special and individual?”  These profound questions are posed to Klara, an AF (artificial friend) who was chosen to be Josie’s companion, by Josie’s father.  It is ironic that a human expects the product of technology to tell him what it means to be human.  The reader will discover why these questions are important and decide if or how these questions are answered.

As with other Ishiguro’s books, the reader enters on a gradual journey of discovery where complex relationships among the characters inhabiting his world are revealed.  Ishiguro effectively uses first person narration to build his story.  Klara, the narrator, always refers to humans in the third person and through keen observation, she learns more about humans than they may know about themselves.  She is a constant presence in Josie’s household but, almost like the butler in Remains of the Day, is not really a part of it.  She does form strong relationships with Josie and her childhood friend, Rick.  Klara also has an almost personal relationship with the Sun, the center of our solar system and center of her “life”.

As with some of Ishiguro’s other books, the main character has a mission to complete.  In Klara’s case, it is her quest to save Josie from the effects of her mysterious “illness.”  It is never clear what this is, but we know that it is somehow related to her being “lifted,” which we may conclude is a type of genetic engineering.  The father, the mother and a friend all provide differing perspectives on this topic but there is no resolution.  Is Ishiguro making a social commentary on entitlement or is he sounding a warning bell of what may be coming?

This thought-provoking novel is another demonstration of Ishiguro’s skill at captivating the reader’s imagination.  He is a master of detail and direct dialogue so that what may seem fanciful becomes real.  For example, as Klara watches a street scene where a man and a woman embrace and says, “and the Sun, noticing, was pouring his nourishment on them.”  We care about Klara as much as any human character in great literature. We ponder what it means to create an altered human or to fully embrace artificial intelligence.  In the end, Ishiguro leads the reader to an enigmatic ending, ripe for discussion about human nature, the power of love, and the limits of technology.

Oak Flat Book Review by Kate Jackson

Oak Flat Book Review by Kate Jackson for The Writer’s Workshop.

Oak Flat:  A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West

By Lauren Redniss

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

This is a stunning visual nonfiction book written by an award-winning author with the eye of an artist and the voice of a journalist.   From the opening pages with their vivid illustrations interspersed with text to the final black pages with white print, the reader is introduced to a clash of cultural values of immediate relevance.

Oak Flat is part of the Tonto National Forest, about 65 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona.  It is a popular hiking, birding, and camping area 15 miles from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation and near the town of Superior.  The land also sits above a large copper deposit worth billions of dollars and coveted by Resolution Mining Company, LLC.  Apaches consider Oak Flat to be sacred ground where they gather medicinal plants and acorns and continue to pray and perform ceremonies passed down by generations.  The proposed mine would eventually create a large crater to replace the land and make the site unrecognizable.  Residents of the town see jobs and increased economic activity from the mining operation.

The book provides rich visual representations of Oak Flat while weaving a narrative based on interviews with members of an Apache family, the Nosies, and descendants of early settlers of Superior, the Gorhams.  Wendsler Nosie served on the San Carlos Tribal Council and was tribal chairman before forming the Apache Stronghold, an alliance of Apaches and others determined to stop the copper mine.  The Sunrise dance which reenacts the Apaches creation myth at Oak Flat, is seen through the eyes of his granddaughter, Naelyn Pike.  The Gorhams represent the perspective of workers in the mines and community members who have experienced the boom and bust of previous mining operations.

The fate of Oak Flat has not been resolved as the Forest Service recently rescinded the environmental impact assessment necessary for the mining project to proceed.   Pressures for increased copper production will continue to mount as the movement towards “clean” energy solutions to reduce carbon emissions are advanced.  Large amounts of copper are necessary for solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and battery storage.  Where do sacred spaces fit into the equation of costs and benefits?

The Writer’s Workshop Book Review regularly publishes reviews of fictional and nonfiction narratives from traditional publishing houses. If you would like to write a review or have your own book reviewed, please let me know.

A View from Two Sides: Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann in The Writer’s Workshop Book Review.

By Kate Jackson


Two fathers, two daughters, Israeli and Palestinian, woven together by two tragedies: this is the substance of Colum McCann’s latest novel.  Published in February 2020, the characters and events are based on actual people and events.  The word, apeirogon, means “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.”

The novel begins with Rami, an Israeli man on a motorbike, entering Palestinian territory.  His yellow license plate signals his nationality to the border guards.  The reader is immediately brought into the divided world where Palestinians and Israelis live separated by walls, barbed wire, barricades and checkpoints.  Only the many species of birds, occasional characters in the book, have freedom of movement.

Soon we are introduced to Bassam.  He has a distinctive limp as a result of childhood polio.  He has a broken heart as a result of the untimely death of his ten-year-old daughter, Abir.  She was near her school when she was shot in the back of her head with a rubber bullet.

Midway into the novel, Rami and Bassam meet. They join a Parents Circle.  By then, we know their respective stories and the anguish both experienced when their children were taken from them.  Rami’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, died in an explosion set off by Palestinian suicide bombers near a café ten years before Abir died at the hands of an Israeli soldier.

Both fathers have ample reason for bitterness and enmity but over the course of the narrative, form a strong bond of friendship and support.  Together and separately, they travel outside their borders to tell their daughters’ stories and confront the futility of violence while demonstrating a way towards healing deep wounds.

As the title suggests, this is a multifaceted tale.  It explores the depth of human pain and loss that transcends nationality and time.  It reveals the results of policies set by the rulers over the ruled who have no political voice.  It is a story of ancient cultures so close in proximity and history and so far apart in attitude.  It is the story of two men who found voices to spread messages of peace and hope born out of tragedy.

The book is written with 1,001 sections, some only a sentence or two long and others with many paragraphs.  The narrative travels back and forth in time, place and character.  It seems repetitious at times.  But it is a powerful and unconventional story of and for our times.

The Writer’s Workshop Book Review is published by The Writer’s Workshop. Let us know what you think and if you’d like to contribute a review. We review books of narrative fiction and nonfiction. Please be in touch!

Review of Lawrence Wright’s Novel The End of October

The End of October reviewed by Nicholas O'Connell of The Writer's Workshop.
The End of October reviewed by Nicholas O’Connell of The Writer’s Workshop.


Video interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright


By Nicholas O’Connell

Talk about prescient. Lawrence Wright’s new novel, The End of October, appeared in April, 2020, right as COVID-19 exploded across the U.S. and world. A medical thriller, the novel tells the story of a fictional pandemic caused by a mysterious new virus, Kongoli, which spreads like wildfire, threating to bring the world to its knees. Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winner and best-selling author, Lawrence Wright, it tells the tale through the eyes of Dr. Henry Parsons, a microbiologist and epidemiologist, who travels to an internment camp in Indonesia where 47 people have died from acute hemorrhagic fever.

Like few others, Parsons understands the magnitude of the potential pandemic. Working on behalf of the World Health Organization, he wracks his brain to figure out how to combat the virus. By choosing a main character like Parsons, Wright is able to explain virology in all its complexity. Like his previous book, The Looming Tower, the novel displays amazingly skilled reporting, yielding surprising observations: “For Henry, the most surprising feature of viruses was that they were a guiding force behind evolution. If the infected organism survived, it sometimes retained a portion of the viral material in its own genome. The legacy of ancient infections might be found in as much as 8 percent of the human genome, including the genes that controlled memory formation, the immune system, and cognitive development. We wouldn’t be who we are without them.”

As readers follow Henry’s attempts to stop the virus, we learn fascinating lessons about viruses, including Kongoli, and COVID-19 the current scourge.

Despite Parson’s best efforts, he fails to prevent an infected Indonesian man, Bambang Idris, from joining the annual Muslim Hajj to Mecca. Wright describes the man’s journey in rich, colorful, and terrifying detail, as the Bambang unwittingly infects millions of others. The novel throws into relief the varieties of global cultures, from Muslim Saudi Arabia to contemporary United States, and how the virus infects all of them.

As the pandemic rages, Parsons seeks to return to his family in the United States. He hitches a ride on a nuclear submarine to head back to the U.S. Predictably, the pandemic erupts in the close quarters of the vessel. Using his wits and expertise, he discovers an important breakthrough about the virus.

By the time he returns home, American civilization is collapsing. The novel paints a credibly dystopian picture of the destruction such a virus might cause. Though characters like the Parsons’ wife Jill are insufficiently sketched and some of the dialogue is stilted, overall, the novel is a riveting page turner that warns what our future might look like if we don’t get COVID-19 under control.

Nicholas O’Connell is the founder of The Writer’s Workshop, a creative writing program that teaches writing classes.

Video interview with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright

Author Lawrence Wright interviewed by Nicholas O’Connell of The Writer’s Workshop about his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, (2006) about the events leading up to 9/11, the novel, The End of October, (2020) about a fictional plague, and recently, “The Pandemic Year,” a nonfiction piece in The New Yorker about COVID-19 which he’s turning into a book of the same name.