If you’ve never been to Printers Row Lit Fest in downtown Chicago, you need to get down there. Author sessions run throughout the weekend, each one lasting about 45 minutes. And some of the names are big. For example, there’s this Tony Romano guy who will moderate two panels.

1. JUNE 4, 2 PM. I will moderate a discussion (moderate makes this sound as if a fight will break out, but I assure you, all will be civil) with Benjamin Hale: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and Laurence Gonzales: Lucy . You won’t see my name in the program for this one because this is a last-minute addition. I just received the books yesterday, and I am devouring Hale’s book, which is smart and riotous—and how dare this kid, who just graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, write such a brilliant book that reminds me of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I love?

2. JUNE 5, 1 PM. I will interview Frank Cicero: Relative Strangers: Italian Protestants in the Catholic World and Jon Cavallero: Hollywood’s Italian American Filmmakers. These are two great books, both personal in their own ways. Cicero has done what many have dreamed of doing: he has trekked back to his homeland and pieced together the tapestry of his family’s history. The main question that arises for me: were people of previous generations simply tougher? Cavallero examines the work of Capra, Scorcese, Savoca, Coppoloa, and Tarantino. Two of these I would have never labeled Italian American directors, but Cavallero makes an intriguing case for that, showing how one’s background becomes integral to the work one produces.

I mentioned Jean Thompson in a previous post. I’m in the middle of her intimate novel about a family in Iowa, The Year We Left Home, which is exquisite—there are quiet gems on every page—but I’ve had to put that aside to get ready for the weekend. Anyway, she will be at Lit Fest on Sunday at 11 a.m.

Here’s a complete schedule: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/printersrowlitfest/

If you make it down, stop and say Hey. 
A few posts back, I highlighted my old man’s wisdom. A couple of weeks ago, on his 91st birthday, I snapped this picture, which I think is an apt accompaniment to that post. This is Pop doing his famous Richard Nixon pose.

I thought I’d offer equal time to my mom’s wisdom, which is a little harder to come by because most of the talking she does consists of doling out recipes or complaining about some lady in the neighborhood, never by name, just “some lady.” But it’s always a different lady, someone we’ve never met. We’re supposed to know.

She has offered up a few gems here and there. A while ago, when she heard that my late father-in-law was cremated, she recoiled in shock. The next time I saw her, she insisted that she didn’t want to be broiled. Months later, during one of my dad’s hospital stays, she looked me in the eye in the waiting room and informed me that she didn’t want to be outside. I knew what she meant—no broiling, no burying outside—but I didn’t necessarily want to have this conversation and played dumb for as long as I could but finally assured her that she would be in a temperature-controlled climate for eternity.

For their entire lives, in fact, they’ve been obsessed with temperature extremes. When I mention this to other Italians with older parents, they laugh because they know. I can be sitting at my parents’ house under an open window when it’s 90 degrees, and they’ll insist on closing the window because of the breeze on my neck. Smash the window, I want to tell them. And a ceiling fan? A whirl of wind over my head? Forget about it. I’ve never seen the fan turned on at their house.

The broiling nugget is amusing, I admit, but I wouldn’t call it wisdom. My mom’s wisdom comes not from words but from her actions, from her hands. She can pull a hot tray of lasagna from a stove without oven mitts. My wife and kids and I marvel at this every time. She kneads dough about every day. If she’s not in the kitchen, she's in her backyard turning dirt and planting tomatoes and eggplants. Last week, after a visit, she wanted to send me home with a jar of red gravy she’d just made. The gravy was hot, so I grabbed a dish towel and used that to wrap the jar because my hands are human. That same towel ended up in our laundry, and when it was washed and dried, I held it up to my face to see if it would still smell like my mom’s house. Sure enough, it did. I tested this on my daughters, not telling them where I got the towel, and they confirmed the source of the scent as well. And this I have to add: breathing in that aroma, which speaks of hours of toil at one of her two stoves, provides a kind of comfort that I can’t begin to describe. The aroma takes me back not only to my childhood but to the old country that I’ve visited only a few times, and I feel a vague but powerful ancestral pull. From a little dish towel.

And here’s what I wonder. I wonder, once they pass, where will I be able to inhale that warm scent? Which may sound selfish, I know. But where in the world am I ever going to find that again?

One thing I know for sure. The next time I visit, in a day or two, I will take another towel. But I will see how long I can go without throwing it in the wash.

Here’s a photo taken the same day as the one above that I believe illustrates my point. 
Here's an interesting short interview with Andre Dubus III, whom I mentioned in a previous post. It's from a cool site that includes more videos of Dubus, along with interviews of many other authors: http://www.openroadmedia.com/

Dubus's book,
Townie, has sent me back to his father's work, which is masterful. Still strikes me as ironic that the keen insights the elder Dubus has into his characters didn't always translate to any better understanding of his own family. At least not until the last few years of his life, when he seems to have more than made up for his failings.
Interesting article on capital punishment in the May 9th issue of The New Yorker by Jeffrey Toobin. First some numbers. 

During the 1990s, there were about 300 death sentences handed down each year in Texas.  In 2010, that number dropped to 114. 

In 1991, there were 98 executions.   In 2010, only 46. 

Toobin is thorough and discusses several possible reasons for the drop in numbers. But what he hits hardest is that, until recently, mitigating evidence was often not presented to juries. In other words, juries didn’t hear the life stories of the convicted. Now that many of these stories are now being heard, thanks in part to Danalynn Recer, who directs an advocacy center, far fewer deaths occur. This is not an argument for or against capital punishment, but an example of the power of stories.

Though I never met him, I count the late Andre Dubus as one of my mentors. Not just a mentor for how to write, which is enough, because his work is remarkable, especially his spare, rich short stories. But I admired him too for his integrity and spirituality and moral outlook, if that’s not too presumptuous. From a book jacket of his: “A writer of immense sensitivity, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness...” Exactly. The guy sacrificed his body to help two motorists one night—his legs were shattered and one eventually had to be amputated; he volunteered as a tutor for troubled girls in custody; he was a generous instructor, holding sessions in his home near the end of his life. I felt as if I knew him well.

Yet now I’m reading his son’s memoir, Townie, and I’m crushed. I didn’t even realize he had a son until the son, Andre Dubus III, started gaining recognition several years ago for his novels, which are very good. The memoir is better: unflinching and raw.

I have about 100 pages to go, and I should probably wait to finish until I weigh in, but whatever kind of redemption happens in those final pages doesn’t erase the fact that the father, whom I revered, chose art over his family when they were young and needed him most. While they were scrambling to find their next meal, he was living an orderly life on a campus nearby, teaching and writing and running. I’m a little devastated, which may be an oxymoron, but that’s what it feels like. If I actually knew the guy or if he was a family member, I’d leave out the little, I suppose. But still.

I keep reminding myself of the thought I often have during the eulogy at a funeral. A eulogy is a time of kindness. The person in the box may not have always lived up to the kind words, but that doesn’t diminish the truth of the words. We’re all flawed, and there are many truths. 

ADDENDUM. 18 May 2011. Finished Townie yesterday. My disillusionment lingers, but it pales in light of the redemption Dubus describes. The elder Dubus doesn’t change much, he barely realizes his flaws and failures, yet the ties that the father and son forge is built on bedrock. This is a good damn book. 
I don’t write many poems, but here’s a one-line poem, 
with a long title.

Watching husbands examining greeting cards at the grocery store on Mother’s Day at 7:00 am.

I am one of you. 

Your submission for a one-line poem?  Include title.
When I was a kid, the thing I looked forward to most was Thursday mornings. On Thursdays, the new comic books came out, and I would scrounge around for change, anticipating the slow pawing of the racks at the dime store on Wood Street as I perused the new arrivals. My only memories are of summer, rooting around the neighborhood for discarded pop bottles worth two cents each. All I needed was six for a new comic. Why anyone would leave the bottles as trash, I never understood. I'm not sure what I did in the winter. Hard to believe I would have gone without for so many months. I don't remember.

The reason I thought of this today: I heard about two new books coming out by two of my favorite authors, and I felt that old tug of anticipation, the yearning to feel the heft of the book in my hand, to check out the blurbs on the back and the acknowledgments and any other ancillary information before I delved into the first sentence.

The authors? Jean Thompson, one of the best short story writers around. The new book is a novel. And Geraldine Brooks, who brings history to life with real characters and briskly placed plots. She's brilliant.

Any new books you would recommend here for the millions of readers who check out this blog? (Keeping a blog is still a surreal experience for me. I'm not sure what's lurking out there. It feels like I'm screaming out a dark window and the only sound I hear back is the reverberation of my voice. Is anyone out there?)
I mentioned previously that I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King. If you’re not willing to slog through some of the slower parts—his intent at times is tedium—dive into chapters 5, 13, 15, and 16. They are masterpieces. I’m sure there will be more, but this is where I am so far.

Because of the circumstances of his death, because I know there will be no more new work from Wallace, my attention is keen. A few weeks ago in The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen, a good friend of Wallace’s, wrote a fascinating piece about him. He maintains that Wallace, in dying, chose his readers over those closest to him. I doubt that someone suffering as Wallace was possesses such clarity at the end, even if the clarity is unconscious, but it’s hard to disagree, given that I’ve never even met Wallace.

But all this got me thinking about a reader’s feelings toward favorite writers when they die. The death that hit me hardest probably was Raymond Carver’s. His short stories were a bit confounding but they clutched you by the throat. The poems were much more accessible and sweet, which is what I’d delved into at the time of his death. I walked around sad for days, even though I’d never met the man. He was one of the people I “studied” when I was cutting my teeth over my own short stories. I knew him. And he knew me. Well, maybe not me, but he knew, well he knew...about me. No, not quite. He knew...what?

Although the writer-reader equation is admittedly lopsided—the reader knowing the writer’s deepest thoughts (even via fiction) and the writer knowing virtually nothing about the reader—an illusion of give and take persists. Carver was speaking directly to me, his observations could be most fully appreciated by...ME. I don’t think this is egocentric or schizophrenic—at least I hope not; I hope that most readers have some similar psychic link to writers.

But I would really like to hear from you, if only to appease me, to assure me that I’m not disturbed.

What are your thoughts and feelings when a writer you love dies?