Category Archives: Uncategorized

Hip, Hippo Hooray For ‘River Of Teeth’


In 1909, the United States was suffering a shortage of meat. At the same time, Louisiana’s waterways were being choked by invasive water hyacinth. Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard proposed an ingenious solution to both those problems: Import hippos to eat the water hyacinth; then, eat the hippos.

Luckily for the United States in our timeline, the fact that hippos are ill-tempered apex predators not amenable to being ranched was pointed out, the American Hippo Bill failed to pass by a single vote, and consequently, we don’t have hippos casually chomping on passers-by due to a lack of their usual forage.

Sarah Gailey’s imagined United States, however, are differently fortuned.

Winslow Remington Houndstooth, former hippo rancher, current ne’er-do-well for hire, accepts a commission from the U.S. government to get the feral hippos out of a marshy, dammed up stretch of the Mississippi River. He assembles a motley crew of hippo wranglers — with ancillary skills involving demolition, poison, disguise, and murder — to assist with the job. Unfortunately for them, one man is quite invested in the hungry, hungry hippos remaining precisely where they are — and the bad blood between him and Houndstooth goes back a very long way.

I loved the atmosphere and dimensions of Gailey’s world. She conveys very well, in a very short book, the length of time since the hippos’ introduction, the ways in which hippo-wrangling has changed the character of regions and professions, and the relationship between federal and state governments. All this is deftly indicated in rich, cinematic setting work: the way people ride hippos in and out of waterways; the way hippos stalk and threaten the landscape; the way the world’s vices and virtues have bent to accommodate them.

That said, I found the characters somewhat ill-served at novella length. As much as the setting has cinematic scope, Houndstooth and his crew sometimes feel like screenplay-shorthand, their conversations as economical as a set design, but equally as stiff. Though wonderful and interesting as collections of seldom-seen traits — a cross-dressing con-woman, an agender demolitions expert, a heavily pregnant assassin, a queer British-Korean cowboy, a lovesick sharp-shooter — I wished they’d had more room to breathe as characters, more room to interact, change, develop, combust. As it is, the story moves from assembling the team to executing the caper with very little time spent dwelling among the dynamics that make heists and capers so much fun to read and watch. Against such a startlingly original and well-realized backdrop, I just wanted more of everything.

And yet, the book is fun — the what-if of the premise so excellent, the threat levels and betrayals so sharp, and several passages profoundly moving. Houndstooth’s love for his hippo (just look at that phrase!) is genuinely tender, and the trauma for which he’s seeking revenge is deeply affecting. Also, River of Teeth is the first half of a duology, with A Taste of Marrow coming out this September, and from what I’ve seen, I have firm hopes of it stretching its narrative legs a little further. In the meantime, River of Teeth is a wonderfully original debut, guaranteed to cast long, sinister shadows over beloved family board games for years to come.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

Hip, Hippo Hooray For ‘River Of Teeth’


In 1909, the United States was suffering a shortage of meat. At the same time, Louisiana’s waterways were being choked by invasive water hyacinth. Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard proposed an ingenious solution to both those problems: Import hippos to eat the water hyacinth; then, eat the hippos.

Luckily for the United States in our timeline, the fact that hippos are ill-tempered apex predators not amenable to being ranched was pointed out, the American Hippo Bill failed to pass by a single vote, and consequently, we don’t have hippos casually chomping on passers-by due to a lack of their usual forage.

Sarah Gailey’s imagined United States, however, are differently fortuned.

Winslow Remington Houndstooth, former hippo rancher, current ne’er-do-well for hire, accepts a commission from the U.S. government to get the feral hippos out of a marshy, dammed up stretch of the Mississippi River. He assembles a motley crew of hippo wranglers — with ancillary skills involving demolition, poison, disguise, and murder — to assist with the job. Unfortunately for them, one man is quite invested in the hungry, hungry hippos remaining precisely where they are — and the bad blood between him and Houndstooth goes back a very long way.

I loved the atmosphere and dimensions of Gailey’s world. She conveys very well, in a very short book, the length of time since the hippos’ introduction, the ways in which hippo-wrangling has changed the character of regions and professions, and the relationship between federal and state governments. All this is deftly indicated in rich, cinematic setting work: the way people ride hippos in and out of waterways; the way hippos stalk and threaten the landscape; the way the world’s vices and virtues have bent to accommodate them.

That said, I found the characters somewhat ill-served at novella length. As much as the setting has cinematic scope, Houndstooth and his crew sometimes feel like screenplay-shorthand, their conversations as economical as a set design, but equally as stiff. Though wonderful and interesting as collections of seldom-seen traits — a cross-dressing con-woman, an agender demolitions expert, a heavily pregnant assassin, a queer British-Korean cowboy, a lovesick sharp-shooter — I wished they’d had more room to breathe as characters, more room to interact, change, develop, combust. As it is, the story moves from assembling the team to executing the caper with very little time spent dwelling among the dynamics that make heists and capers so much fun to read and watch. Against such a startlingly original and well-realized backdrop, I just wanted more of everything.

And yet, the book is fun — the what-if of the premise so excellent, the threat levels and betrayals so sharp, and several passages profoundly moving. Houndstooth’s love for his hippo (just look at that phrase!) is genuinely tender, and the trauma for which he’s seeking revenge is deeply affecting. Also, River of Teeth is the first half of a duology, with A Taste of Marrow coming out this September, and from what I’ve seen, I have firm hopes of it stretching its narrative legs a little further. In the meantime, River of Teeth is a wonderfully original debut, guaranteed to cast long, sinister shadows over beloved family board games for years to come.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.

When You Need To Cut A Parent Out Of Your Life


Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars hear from two women, each of whom has cut a parent from her life. In the first situation, a 19-year-old writes about a father who left her mother for another woman. She calls him “emotionally abusive and toxic” and seems to be content with her decision to cease communication with him.

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A second writer describes her mother as manipulative and having “narcissistic personality disorder, alcoholism and some undiagnosed bipolar madness.” She knows she has to keep her mother away, but, she asks, “How can I live without her? How do I move out of a constant state of guilt?”

Dear Sugars,

I’m a 19-year-old from Canada. I’ve been backpacking around the States on my own for more than a year.

I left home after my dad left my mom for a woman closer in age to me than him. He had been cheating on my mom for months and left us all. My mom is kind and sweet, and even though I believe they were probably not meant to be together forever, there was nothing visibly terribly wrong with their marriage.

One day my dad just left. My mom was heartbroken and shocked. My dad spent months after this manipulating my mom, my sister and I to bend to his will. He tried to get full custody of me and my sister and tried to make us meet his girlfriend and move in with him. He completely disregarded my feelings and also my sister’s. His obliviousness to human emotion sickens me.

I could go on about the things he did, but I’ll just jump to the conclusion: I cut him out of my life because he is emotionally abusive and toxic. The last thing I need in my life is another middle-aged white male thinking he can tell be what to do and who to be — thinking he can use me against my mother. The only thing I could do to free myself from the incredible weight he pushes upon me every day was to stop contact with him for a while. I did it myself, so that I could feel OK — so that my life wouldn’t be bogged down by his negative impact on my well-being.

I haven’t spoken to him for more than a year, though he recently emailed me. I was shocked to read that he wrote to you, Cheryl Strayed, my favorite author, about his relationship with me. He said there is a podcast about it — all that went through my mind was, “My dad is in correspondence with Cheryl Strayed about me?!”

I could barely listen to the podcast. It disgusted me to listen to how, in his letter, my dad acts like he’s so perfect and innocent and that he wasn’t cheating and that his relationship with my mother was bad. You just need to know, Cheryl, I’m a huge fan of what you did. You’re human and you admit to your mistakes. My dad doesn’t do this. He erases all the bad parts and then contacts his daughter’s favorite author, acting like I’m the bad one for cutting him out of my life. I did what I needed to do.

My mom, my sister and I have a tighter bond than ever. My dad and his 29-year-old girlfriend are expecting a child soon. He’s moving on and soon he won’t have time for me or my sister.

I’m free and I don’t need my father right now. I guess I just wanted you to know that. Sometimes it’s better for kids to not talk to their parents, and sometimes fathers can send extremely deceiving emails to their daughter’s favorite authors just to get under some skin.

Sugar, how does a woman free herself from the heavy weight of the patriarchy when her father is a misogynist?

Oh wait, I already know the answer. Go to the woods, go away from society, go hiking. The trees will heal you.

Signed,

Daughter

Steve Almond: That’s a lot of pain and anger in a very short space. One thing that is curious about this letter is, the daughter says that we answered her dad’s letter in our parental alienation episode, but some of the ways that she describes her family structure in this letter don’t match the letter from the father in question. We wrote to her, and she clarified that her father hadn’t written the exact letter that we responded to, but she related so deeply to it that she felt compelled to write us this letter. It’s such a powerful indication of how people can be struggling with completely different lives, but the parallels are so eerie that she thought, my dad wrote to my favorite author.

Cheryl Strayed: This letter really stopped my heart. I feel an enormous amount of sympathy for Daughter. I am estranged from my father, and I chose to do that for some of the same reasons Daughter is talking about now. He’s toxic.

But one of the most healing parts of the story for me has been acknowledging that he has a right to his version of events. He feels betrayed by me. If you read a letter from my father about our relationship, he would say, “Her mother turned her against me.” Even though that’s not true, it’s what he believes. I’ve had to learn in my own heart to make room for his right to tell his story.

That’s what I wish for you, Daughter, and for your father — that you both can find a way, whether it’s in relationship with each other or not, to have a sense of peace and harmony and forgiveness about what is past. I think it’s too fresh to do that now but, speaking many years out from this, I can say that it’s possible.

Dear Sugars,

I am estranged from my mother. She is beautiful, wickedly funny, an accomplished artist and the mother of two children — neither of whom speak to her. She struggles with a toxic combination of narcissistic personality disorder, alcoholism and some undiagnosed bipolar madness.

My estrangement from her has come in phases. After a crazy night when she tried to strangle me when I was in my early teens, I did not speak to her for almost five years. I missed her. I had taken care of her for so many years. I was her therapist and trusted friend. I was never her daughter. Eventually, I caved to these feelings and I re-established contact with her. At this time, I was also actively seeking therapy and continue to. I tried to establish boundaries. I thought that I could manage her by making rules: only see her in public, always have a getaway car.

But a person like this is all-encompassing. She would manipulate me into staying the night at her house, or she’d come to my place and refuse to leave. I broke it off again in my early 20s for another stretch of years, but again it tortured me. I felt her pain. I felt her aloneness. I waited for an apology from her. I waited for her to come and find me and take it all back. It never came. She projected onto me and told me I was her abuser. She sent me vicious emails. I caved again, my heart swollen with blame. I was happy to relieve both of us of the silent agony we’d both been suffering. But she was always horribly, tragically and diagnostically the same.

Our estrangements left me feeling raw, paranoid and sick with guilt. I’d be walking down the street and I would see her in everyone. I felt her eyes on me everywhere. The guilt chewed on me like a rat. I dreamed of her constantly.

I am now approaching 30. I have an incredible relationship, and friendships and a family that isn’t sick with narcissism. This has taken me unimaginable work and time, Sugars. I have had my fair share of relationships with alcoholics, self-mutilation, anxiety.

Most of the time when I tell people of my estrangement, especially those who have lost a parent early, they are stunned. I’m judged for being too hard on her and for taking her for granted. People who lost their moms young tell me what they wouldn’t give to have their mother still here. I am told, “You will regret this.”

But death is different than estrangement. Death is permanent, this is chosen permanence. Hard-won freedom. Occasionally, I meet someone who is also experiencing the loss of a parent by choice and estrangement. We are a small, shameful group of people.

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Follow the Sugars on Twitter @dearsugarradio.

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My mother and I are now estranged again. This time I am resolving permanence. I miss her terribly. I am grieving her. But I’m trying to live a life that doesn’t include abuse, I’m trying to approach this in black and white.

I want to call her and have it all be different. Can I make it different? I think about her walking the earth, the woman that gave birth to me, and I am irrevocably heartbroken. How can I get beyond the loss of choosing to leave my mother?

My question used to be: Should I have contact with my mother? But I know that answer now. I should not. But my question to you is: How can I live without her? How do I move out of a constant state of guilt? This choice feels wrong in my bones, but it is absolutely the right decision in reality. How can I live the rest of my life without my mother, who is living in the same zip code?

Signed,

Motherless By Choice

Cheryl: Motherless by Choice, the first piece of grieving this loss is to forgive yourself. It’s a big deal to permanently cut off an essential person in your life. But you’re not doing it to be cruel — you’re doing it for reasons that run deep and are never going to change. The line in this letter that hurt me the most was, “Can I make it different?” because that tells me that, even though you know you can’t, there’s still a tiny piece of you that thinks, “but maybe.” Until you can teach yourself that it won’t be different, you won’t ever truly accept this reality and let your mother go.

I recommend that you begin there, and weed out the judgment you have absorbed from the culture. There are points we reach with our parents where there is no going back, and you need to end a relationship permanently so you can continue forward with greater strength, clarity and light. Find people who support you and a therapist who can talk to you honestly and openly about how to recover from such a profound and primal loss.

Steve: Motherless by Choice, you tried to heal your mother into being someone who would take care of you. That leaves you unable to rid yourself of the guilt, but also of the dream that if you can just be loving and empathic enough, you will be able to restore the good parts of your mother that exist between the shards of dysfunction and abuse. You have to get free of that, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the parts of your mother that were beautiful and illuminating.

Cheryl: For me, the process of estranging myself from my father was ongoing — until the final one, about 10 years ago. When that happened, I knew it was the final one, because I wasn’t in conflict anymore. I had made a decision, I felt peace and I had an expansive sense of goodwill towards my father.

Steve: Daughter and Motherless by Choice, I can see both of you locked into the dynamics of afflictive love. The process of estrangement is about not letting that pattern continue and about finding a way to manage the crushing disappointment of having a parent who is unable, in one way or another, to live up to what you deeply desire and what you deserve.

Cheryl: And forgiving yourself for the time you’ve stayed locked in it, too. This is part of you learning how to make good choices for yourself. If that choice is letting go, you are on the journey of discovering that. I also want to say, Motherless by Choice, you got the mother you got. You ask us, “How can I live without her?” What you do is what you always do when things feel impossible: you just keep going.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear about troubled relationships with parents.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

Not My Job: Singer-Songwriter John Prine Gets Quizzed On Amazon Prime


John Prine performs at Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival on April 27, 2014.
John Prine performs at Stagecoach: California's Country Music Festival on April 27, 2014.

John Prine was once known as the Singing Mailman, because that’s exactly what he was as a young man. Since he quit his route, he’s put out more than 20 albums, and has now published a book of lyrics, photographs and memories called Beyond Words.

We’ve invited Prine to play a game called: “The Singing Mailman Delivers … My New Toner Cartridge From Amazon!” Three questions about Amazon Prime — a service that offers super fast shipping for all the stuff you don’t actually need.

Fresh Air Weekend: Aziz Ansari; Harry Styles And Dan Auerbach Go Solo; Pamela Paul


In the second season of the Netflix series Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s character falls in love with his Italian friend Francesca, who is already engaged.

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In the second season of the Netflix series Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s character falls in love with his Italian friend Francesca, who is already engaged.

Netflix

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

Aziz Ansari On ‘Master Of None’ And How His Parents Feel About Acting: Now that the second season of his Netflix series is out, the comic is looking forward to some down time. “Forget season three of Master of None,” he says. “I’m … doing season 34 of Aziz Ansari.”

Harry Styles And Dan Auerbach Strive For Authenticity On 2 New Solo Albums: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Styles’ self-titled solo album, as well as Waiting on a Song, by Auerbach of The Black Keys. Tucker says the new albums “meet in a middle-ground of forced humility.”

‘Times’ Book Review Editor Shares Her Love Of Reading In ‘My Life With Bob': Pamela Paul of The New York Times talks about her own new book, which chronicles every book she’s read since she was 17 years old. Even if a work isn’t great, she refuses to brush it aside cavalierly.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Aziz Ansari On ‘Master Of None’ And How His Parents Feel About Acting

Harry Styles And Dan Auerbach Strive For Authenticity On 2 New Solo Albums

‘Times’ Book Review Editor Shares Her Love Of Reading In ‘My Life With Bob’

In ‘Shtum,’ A Portrait Of Autism Drawn From Real Life


Shtum is a Yiddish word that means silence. It’s also the title of a novel that centers around three generations of men who get thrown together in a small space and can’t talk to each other. Jonah, the little boy, has the best reason: He’s profoundly autistic and can’t speak. The story has a personal resonance for author Jem Lester, who says that while he bears no resemblance to the father in Shtum, Jonah’s story has parallels to his own son. “A lot of the behaviors and the feelings that he inspires in the book, Jonah, are very very close to my feelings, because I couldn’t really see the point of reinventing an autistic character when I had one so close to home.”

Interview Highlights

On the portrayal of autistic people in popular culture

Things are improving, but certainly, down the years — I think my first introduction to autism, really, along with a lot of people’s, was Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in Rain Man. And I think since then there has been this perception that an autistic child has some kind of special gift … well, that’s just a tiny tiny percentage of the thousands of millions of autistic people in the world. It doesn’t in any way reflect the 30% of autistic people who have no language, and sit in a very very different place on what people like to describe as the autistic spectrum.

On Jonah

Jonah is ten when we meet him in the book, with no language. And because of that, and because of the frustrations, he can suffer from bouts of self-harm — he will bite down on his hand, and has a big scar on the base of his thumb where he bites down through frustration. He is doubly incontinent, which means he’s a ten-year-old that has to wear nappies during the day, and at night. And yet, there is such a level of innocence to him. There is no anger in his face. There is something pure about the way that he looks, and the sparkle in his eyes …

He posesses, as a lot of autistic children do … an almost superhuman strength. And so when he does have a meltdown he is virtually impossible to control. This is something I know very well. And people have asked me questions about, did you really need to provide that much detail? Was it really necessary? And I say, to be honest with you, I toned it down.

On what he’s learned from his own son

My son Noah has taught me patience, compassion. He’s taught me to understand the things in life that really should be important to everyone. And they’re the kind of life lessons that you only really learn by being around people that have no axe to grind. So it’s made me far more aware of just how many things in this world that have no bearing on my life and should not upset me or drive me mad, just are worthless and pointless and not worth thinking about. And on that basis I suppose, despite everything else, there is — I find a contentment in my own life that doesn’t require me to search after goods and services, and all the other things that maybe at some point when I was younger, I’d have been trying to fight for. Now I understand, and that’s through someone who’s never actually told me that. He’s never sat me down like a wise old man and given me the talk. He hasn’t had to say anything, he’s just had to be him. And I think that’s a massive gift.

Art You Can Wear On Your Arm? For Judith Leiber, It’s In The Bag


Nearly 100 of Judith Leiber’s handbags are currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan.

Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design


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Jenna Bascom/ Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber’s handbags are meant for wowing — not schlepping. They’re shaped like penguins, fruits, zebras, streetcars and firecrackers. First ladies and movie stars have carried them, and now they’re the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan.

Judith Leiber’s career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years.

Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design


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Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber’s career making extraordinary handbags spanned 40 years.

Judith Leiber/Museum of Arts and Design

“I wanted to make something that was more interesting and more special than what other people made,” explains Leiber, now 96.

But that also meant they weren’t cheap.

“I wanted to make the most expensive bags that anybody could make,” she adds. “That’s what I like to do.”

Leiber initially planned to make her fortune in cosmetics. Her family sent her to college in London to study chemistry, but World War II broke out and she returned to her native Hungary. Completing her education was no longer an option and the Jewish teenager became apprenticed to a handbag company — rising to master craftswoman. But as the war escalated, the business closed.

Her family was moved from their home, her father sent to a camp, and Judith, her sister and mother were forced to live in the ghetto. They all survived the Holocaust and Judith met Gus Leiber, an American soldier, and moved with him to New York in 1946. There, she worked in the American handbag industry and, at her artist husband’s insistence, founded her own company in 1963.

“Every night she would cut patterns,” Gus Leiber says. “She was simply a genius with a knife. She worked night and day — it was remarkable.”

Rhinestone-encrusted minaudière after Faith Ringgold’s “The Purple Quilt”

Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design


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Jenna Bascom/Museum of Arts and Design

Gus Leiber taught art by day and, in his spare time, made deliveries and did whatever else his wife’s fledgling company needed. After an iffy line of green handbags that weren’t so popular, the company grew rapidly, from four employees to 200. All told, in her four-decade career, Leiber designed 3,500 bags. There are about half that many in the museum next to her house. Collections manager Ann Stewart says Leiber’s ideas could come from anywhere — paintings she’d seen, a piece of pottery, photographs, nature, even grocery produce. Leiber’s food series — sparkly fruits and veggies — is “really fun,” Stewart says.

The blood red tomato looks tempting enough to eat. The eggplant is a perfect specimen. And the bunch of asparagus? That was a favorite for sculptor Larry Kallenberg. It was his job to make many of the 3-D wax molds used to cast Leiber’s bags.

“This asparagus has always been the favorite thing I ever made for her,” Kallenberg says. “Lions, peacocks, ah, every day, but an asparagus pocketbook? How crazy is that? And how wonderful that she would think of it.”

Click To See More From Leiber’s Food Series

Leiber called him her buddy boy.

“I was her hands,” he said. “They were all her ideas; what I did was to modify somewhat, every once in a while I’d come up with a design. But basically everything was run by her. … I just did what she told me to do — magnificently — but they were all Judith Leiber.”

Now, nearly 100 of them are in New York’s Museum of Art and Design, in the first major museum exhibition of her work in more than 20 years.

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design


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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Original chatelaine with crystal rhinestones, 1967

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Show curator Samantha De Tillio says no woman would have carried an asparagus on her arm before Leiber came along.

“She, I think, introduced the idea that handbags could be whimsical and fun and that kind of humor could be appropriate for the red carpet or for a First Lady,” De Tillio explains. “So I think she created the environment where women wanted something more, or different — and then filled it very successfully.”

Leiber is now retired. She likes to sit in a comfy chair in her spacious, light-and-art-filled Long Island home and read murder mysteries.

“I was very happy with all the bags I made,” she says. “I made all kinds of things, some of them were very classic, some of them were kind of crazy, but we did all kinds of things that I thought were very good.”

Plenty of others agreed — and some spent several thousands of dollars to own one of her works of art. They’ve become not just collector’s items, but family heirlooms. In homage, many visitors arrive at the New York exhibit with Leiber bags on their arms.

Kashmiri embroidery-inspired minaudière with rhinestones, 1982

Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design


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Gary Mamay/Leiber Collection/Museum of Arts and Design

Radio editor Tom Cole and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.