FOR TWO DECADES, PARK SLOPER PAM McALLISTER has dedicated her musical gifts to a fortunate pair of Slope churches and the many Brooklyn students who received her private tutelage in piano.
“I inherited my love of music, a piano and 10 boxes of music from my maternal grandmother, Mabel Guinn,” she says. “Music was her life. She played background for silent movies, accompanied soloists and always had a job as a church organist.”
Twenty years ago this month, McAllister was hired as music director at both the Park Slope United Methodist Church, where she plays the organ and directs a thriving 30-voice choir, and the Presbyterian Church of Gethsemane for former prisoners and their families.
“Gethsemane is the most class-mixed group I’ve ever experienced — from homeless people struggling with addictions to upper-middle-class professionals. I love that every week we read aloud names of people hidden away in death row cages all across the U.S. and pray for them. It takes 18 months to read every name, then we start again. I consider Gethsemane to be a cherished experiment, one I’m proud to be part of.”
These experiences have overlapped into other parts of her life. McAllister (whose parents read to her from Longfellow, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Frost at bedtime) has authored and co-authored books about what are, for her, central topics — feminism and nonviolence, the death penalty and prayer. McAllister was invited by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson to contribute to a commemorative anthology, “World Without Violence,” for the 125th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
But most recently, and with gusto, she tackled some lighter, universally beloved material: the life and times of Mark Twain.
“Of my 10 published books, this was the most fun to research and write. I have been a ‘Twainiac’ since my teen years. My book is a tribute to the world’s first global celebrity, ‘the People’s Author.’”
McAllister wrote most of this book, one of the “Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion” series, down the street from her apartment at Cocoa Bar. Day after day the counter staff greeted her with, “Hey, Ms. Twain, how’s it going?”
“Writing is a lonely venture, and the Cocoa Bar is a sweet oasis,” says McAllister. “It’s strangely inspirational and reassuring to be surrounded by so many intently focused latte drinkers typing madly hour after hour.”
She tells how in the late afternoon, when the coffee shop became overrun by parents with lively, chattering kids, the writers, practically in unison, would pack up and silently slip out into the twilight. “It’s very funny,” she says.
The box of author’s copies was delivered to her apartment on March 25, the day her father would have turned 91. (He died at the end of February.) “Talk about a day of mixed emotions!” she says. “I was so happy, seeing my book for the first time after four years of research, writing and editing, and yet for the first time in my life, my father was not here to help celebrate this accomplishment. My parents have always been enthusiastic supporters.”
One endorsement comes from highly respected R. Kent Rasmussen, author of “Mark Twain A to Z”: “Of the growing number of literary ‘companions’ to Mark Twain, this lively labor of love by Pam McAllister must surely be the most companionable. It’s both thorough and reliable. Better still, it’s consistently full of fun and surprises.”
Robert Morton, president of the academic journal “The Mark Twain Forum,” wrote, “Anyone can summarize the plot elements of Twain’s major stories, novels and traveler’s tales, but only a devoted gourmet like McAllister has the broad palate and diverse tasting background to serve up these flavorful side dishes.”
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BROOKLYN SCULPTOR TARA DONOVAN is one of the lucky 25 U.S. residents who received an unexpected call last week from the MacArthur Foundation informing her she is the recipient of a $500,000, no-strings-attached grant for the next five years, first spotted by OnlytheBlog KnowsBrooklyn. The official list was released yesterday.
From the MacArthur web site: “Sensitive to the specific needs of her materials and the nature of her exhibit spaces, Donovan’s installations are often arranged in ways reminiscent of geological or biological forms. “For her 2003 installation entitled ‘Haze,’ Donovan stacked over two million clear plastic drinking straws against a 42-foot-long gallery wall. The resulting effect, with its shifts in color, form, light, and surface, was that of a fog bank or a diaphanous cloud, providing the viewer with a compelling, perceptually transformative experience.
“This singular artist is creating a dazzling body of work that will enrich the fields of contemporary sculpture and installation art for years to come.”
Donovan is in the company of a fiction writer, urban farmer, plant geneticist, infectious disease physician, astrophysicist, violinist and more. All fellows are chosen for showing “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”