I imagine someone reading the book reviews I’ve posted and thinking, Doesn’t this guy dislike any of the books he reads? Now and then I do, but I don’t feel comfortable maligning fellow writers. I’m not sure if some code of conduct exists, but there should be. Even if I were a paid reviewer, I’d simply pass on the books I didn’t like.

I can think of about four books from the past year or two that I have hated, all of them lavishly praised and the recipient of many awards. I started each with high hopes, only to shake my head later wondering about all the fuss. All of the books fall into the category of, in my opinion, “trying too hard to be clever.” The books leave me angry for the time invested and, I admit, jealous of the awards. This won this? Come on.

In the books I dislike, I slowly move toward a tipping point. At the beginning, I find things to admire. After all, look at all the big names who loved the book. Then a boring passage (to me) comes along that I minimize, hoping still to discover gems, surprises, a kick in the ribs, something. I want to get it. But when the reading becomes less and less satisfying, I start to feel left out. I want to know why everyone else is doing cartwheels. I concentrate harder, reread passages where my attention may have flagged, and finally, gradually, concede that I’m not crazy about the book. Once I reach that point, I start to search for reasons to dislike the book and sure enough find more and more reasons. And then a dilemma arises: do I continue? Usually I do, but I can think of a few books that made me feel as if I were punching in for work—and all those other books on my list are calling to me. (The more the praise, the more I’m inclined to finish the book so I can in good conscience attest to the awfulness.)

Which brings me to a few questions. Do you leave books half read? If so, at what point do you stop? Why do you stop? Do you feel remorse or guilt or wonder if your favorite English teacher from high school would think less of you if he or she found out? If you always finish a book, why? If this describes you, I’m going to guess that you’re either an English teacher yourself or that you are a good old fashioned Catholic or you have compulsive tendencies—or maybe, lucky you, all three describe you. Go ahead and press that Comment button at the top and answer the questions. Don’t be shy. 
 
 
I’ve been reading two books at the same time, no, not physically at the same time, though there was that guy who was able to do this because he didn’t have a corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres. Each eye was independent of the other, which might seem like an advantage if you’re cramming for a test, but it’s not an enviable condition. The movie Rain Man was based on the poor guy.

The books: (1) Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand; and (2) My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir by Dick Van Dyke. Here’s the irony. Hillenbrand’s book is 400+ pages of small print and rich in detail, while Dick Van Dyke’s book is slim and light—and I raced to finish the former first. If you pick up Hillenbrand's book you’ll see that raced is fitting since it’s about Olympic miler Louie Zamperini, who endured harrowing obstacles during and after the war. I can’t praise the book enough. And you won’t soon forget Zamperini’s story. I don’t want to go into any detail and ruin anything because every chapter includes gripping details and surprises. Here’s a sure sign of a good book though: I want to read more about the subject matter, in this case, Japan during WWII.

Two predictions. One, they will make a movie of the book. That’s an easy one. Two, the movie will open with Louie running and will flash back and forth between California and Japan. The book is written so well, the details so vivid, that I can already see the movie. I’ll start working on the screenplay tonight.

I’ve been obsessed with the Dick Van Dyke Show for many years, so the book has been a treat for me, especially when he discusses the show. He acknowledges his alcoholism, but this isn’t a dark, brooding book. It’s full of optimism and Dick Van Dyke’s goodwill, which is refreshing.

After reading three books in the past couple of weeks that all reference WWII, even the Dick Van Dyke book, I can’t help but wonder what my own ancestors were doing at that time. I’ve heard a few stories, but only a few. My immigrant parents were busy cooking and working and surviving—or maybe they didn’t want to remember. They said that German soldiers often marched along the dirt paths through their village, taking what they wanted. My parents often hid in their respective storm shelters until the soldiers passed. One group decided to take my grandfather’s house for a while. The family fled, but my grandfather decided to go back one night for some reason. He was shot and killed. The details are murky, but my father shakes his head every time he tells the story, as if the memory is as vivid as yesterday.

The two war books mentioned here and in the last post, since they’re documented so painstakingly, also have me thinking about my more distant history, which I wish I knew more about. What were my ancestors doing during WWI, during the time when Spain occupied Italy, during Shakespeare’s life? And will my descendants hundreds of years from now have a clearer understanding of me and my family in 2011 because of our ceaseless efforts to document everything in photos and blogs and videos? Are these cyber-documents going to last? Or will there just be too much? 
 
 
I just finished reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, an apt title. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the history of Germany prior to WWII, but this time the story is told from the point of view of an American diplomat, William Dodd, and his family. It’s personal and intimate and chilling. Amazing how, in the face of stark evidence, many denied that evil was brewing, and how many others who did know, went along. By June, 1934, no one could deny what was happening, but at that point, people obeyed or risked imprisonment or worse. Also, not many could quite fathom what was to come.

Why didn’t the United States intervene earlier or at least protest? Apparently, Hitler was sensitive to such acrimony, and protests might have done some good. As it turns out, after WWI, Germany was heavily indebted to us, and we wanted to make sure we got paid. This was one of many reasons, but it’s a hard one to wrap my head around. In the same vein, some influential business people here thought they could “do business with Hitler.”

Larson doesn’t go back and forth like he does in his other book, Devil in the White City, but he does offer alternate worlds, from parties and strolls through lush parks in Berlin and letters written to Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder, to one-on-one meetings with Hitler. The book is hard to put down.

Larson lists a video in his sources that you can find on Youtube: Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. If you’re a film buff or if you’re fond of nostalgia, the film is a fascinating glimpse of everyday life in Berlin in 1927. Not a single swastika, at least I didn’t spot any. The following year, Hitler’s party would lose an election. But then.

Next book to tackle is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which seems like a good companion piece to the above. 
 
 
Yesterday, Father’s Day, after I’d been regaled with gifts and hoisted onto shoulders and paraded around town, and after visiting my old man and hoisting him up on my own shoulders and things had quieted down, in that quiet aftermath, I went to hit a bucket of golf balls. Midway, a father and his two sons and daughter filled the slot next to me, the oldest probably age eleven and the youngest about seven. The father clearly had a close relationship with his kids, he was encouraging, they all got along. A nice afternoon outing, I thought. As the kids stepped up to the tee, it became apparent they had little experience hitting a golf ball, which wasn’t a problem, but the father was insistent on offering tips, which also wasn’t a problem. He wasn’t overbearing, he was patient. Yet. After they hit balls that skidded about ten feet to their right, he’d offer comments such as, “Hey, great shot. Good swing.” What kind of lowly curmudgeon was I to counter in my head, No, that was a terrible shot, kid. To be clear, I’m not a good golfer, and I’ve hit more grass-burning shots than I care to remember, and if my buddies tried to cheer me by saying, devoid of sarcasm, “Hey, at least you’re closer to the pin,” which I can’t even imagine, but let’s just pretend, I’d still know. The ball is ten feet away from me. How can I not know? And I suspect that kids know too, no matter how much we try to sugarcoat.

I know exactly why I was so critical of the kind encouragement, though this doesn’t make me feel like any less of a slug. I just read an article by Lori Gottlieb in this month’s The Atlantic (July/August 2011) about how we coddle kids because we’re afraid we’ll damage their fragile self-esteem.

Here are the main points of the article, which is fascinating, the kind of article I wish I’d read when my kids were young because I see so much of myself in the warnings.

a) Parents do too much for their kids. As a result, kids don’t become resilient.

b) Parents rarely say No to their kids. As a result, kids don’t listen well to their parents.

c) Parents are too concerned with their children’s self-esteem. “All failures are reframed as ‘good tries,’ says Gottlieb. As a result, kids feel entitlement and in the worst cases become narcissistic. (Martin Seligman, former APA president has been arguing for years that self-esteem, while important, is overrated. Murderers, he says, often have high self-esteem. If we offer our kids empty, baseless praise simply to ensure high self-esteem, we are doing a disservice to our kids.)

d) Parents treat their kids like fragile “teacups.” Well, you can guess the result of that.

My mother sometimes tells me that I’ve raised my three daughters like flowers, which is amusing. My mom the poet. I don’t know if it’s true; I did my share of yelling when they were younger. When she says it, though, I smile. I like that image. And I suppose she’s mostly right. Better than raising them like weeds. 
 
 
“School’s out for summer...”  If you’re over 40, that lyric is stamped forever in your head, yes?

                       Highlights of My School Year

1. Teaching three A.P. psychology classes. (For years, I avoided A.P. because I thought “those A.P. kids” would be concerned almost entirely with grades. I’m feeling pretty stupid now. I got to spend time with curious, wise, and talented young people who inspired me every day.)

2. Those self-described nerdy A.P. kids sauntering into class, eager to grab study guides for a new unit. Really.

3. Teaching statistics in A.P. psych. Definitely kidding.

4. Bringing in panels of freshmen to help us review for tests. The freshmen were good sports.

5. Teaching two regular level psych classes as well. (A more leisurely pace, which allowed for lively discussions and tangents.)

6. Learning about differentiated instruction. (You have to be a teacher to appreciate this one. It’s a little like learning that running makes you tired.)

7. After all these years, loving teaching still (minus the grading and having to wake before 6:00 a.m. and meetings).

8. But realizing I am, under the new teacher evaluation system, merely “proficient” rather than “excellent,” as I have been in years past. Some people view this as progress, I guess. (Teaching ultimately comes down to trust. My philosophy: hire good people and trust that they will work hard and strive for excellence for intrinsic reasons and not for some stamp of approval—or disapproval. Sure, check on them. Verify that they’re busting ass. And get rid of them if they’re not. How do you know if teachers are working hard? Part of me thinks that teachers should have hiring and firing power because we know which teachers are not pulling their weight. But that would get unwieldy and messy, I admit. Or how about this: the people in charge can ask us what we think! Now there’s a novel idea. If you know a teacher, ask this question: how often have you been asked by an administrator in your school what you think about how the school should be run? I predict the answer will be, Never. Sorry. I really do love my job. Which explains the rant, I suppose.)

9. Eating tomato Florentine soup in the school cafeteria.

10. Taking in Writers Week XVII. Of course. See previous entries for details.

(This post is inspired by my good buddy, Gary Anderson. If you want to read his Top Ten Lessons Learned, go to http://whatsnotwrong.wordpress.com/.) 
 
 
A few highlights from Printers Row last weekend.

I moderated two panels, which always creates a little anxiety. The moderator should become an aside, the spotlight focused squarely on the writers themselves. So I hope I did well in this regard. Benjamin Hale, I predict, will become a household name. He’s personable and he’s willing to show his vulnerability, commenting openly on the struggles of his childhood and his face blindness (he has a difficult time remembering faces). Most important, his writing is brilliant. I hope he has a memoir in him that he needs to get out. He’s young, so I may have to wait a while. On the Italian cultural panel, Frank Cicero and Jonathan Cavallero were pros, making my task appear effortless. I felt like we were old friends.

I got to spend some time in the audience as well, a calmer experience.            Jean Thompson is a patient and compassionate thinker. I wish I’d had her as a teacher. Her newest book is a quiet masterpiece. On her panel was Glenn Taylor, another talented and wildly creative writer, and Dean Bakopoulos. I’d never heard of Bakopoulos, but I bought his book, My American Unhappiness, which I love and can’t praise enough. The book is full of big insights presented in such an intimate manner that you feel as if the narrator is your buddy. Oh yeah, and the book is hilarious, too. My buddy, Billy Lombardo, did his usual excellent job of moderating this panel.

Here are some questions I wanted to ask these writers but did not, mostly because I fear that I’m the only one who thinks this way: When you walk around, are you constantly curious? Do you wonder where the guy in the black t-shirt and tight kerchief around his head is going? Does he punch a clock each weekday? What was he like as a toddler? Or how about that girl with the high boots in 90 degree heat? Are those the only shoes she owns? And if you do watch others and wonder, do you feel slightly detached and a little omniscient? (Is it possible to be a little omniscient?) Do you wonder if there are others watching you as well, if they’re directing your life in their heads? And does watching these people make you a trace sad because you’ll never quite know the answers to your questions? And is that why you write, so that you can satisfy your own curiosity about what goes on behind people’s doors? To feel some connection? 

Here’s one really stupid example. I was coming home this morning from a coffee run and saw a sign: “Our church is prayer conditioned.” I wanted to know: do pastors subscribe to some newsletter that suggest various lines to post on the marquis? Or does the pastor stay up nights, alone, thinking of such witticisms? Does he bounce his ideas off anyone before sending some parishioner out there to construct the line, one letter at a time? Or is there someone who’s assigned and paid to decorate the sign? Is there someone behind me on his own coffee run who sees the same sign and groans at the pun?

Am I the only one who thinks like this? 
 
 
For years I’ve been submitting captions to The New Yorker cartoon contest with no success. So I figured, just for fun, I’d begin my own. Here’s a picture of my mom and my daughter’s boyfriend, taken by my daughter. The photo has not been altered in any way!

Your caption? 
Picture