If you ask people why they read, most will tell you they want to be transported to some other locale or time. In the past two weeks or so, I’ve had a pleasant time in four vastly different locales.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
I can never remember this writer’s name, and I know I’ll forget it soon after typing this. I’m sure social psychologists have a name for this kind of forgetting. But the world Murakami creates won’t be forgotten as easily. The story takes place in several metropolitan areas in Japan, and while you get a vivid picture of daily life, the book reads more like mythology or parable. I usually hate that kind of book, but this story is grounded in the details of awakening and eating and working, which serve as a backdrop to the central mystery: why does Tsukuru’s circle of tightknit friends suddenly abandon him without explanation? (That’s another name I’ll never remember.)
It’s a small book, literally, a pleasure to hold for all you digital readers, but it includes big ideas. As with any book that takes on myth-like proportions, you feel as if you’re being fed great truths. The writing is often ordinary, which makes for a fast read, but always gripping. I would have gladly read hundreds more pages.
The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
Greene takes us to England, then to Panama. But the shadowy Captain is a bigger-than-life character, and we feel as if we’re seeing the entire world (and parts of the underworld) through his eyes.
I’d never read any Graham Greene before this, but I love the movie The Third Man, written by Greene and adapted from one of his books. But all I had to do was read the first paragraph (sent to me by my wise son-in-law) to be hooked. The language bristles with British formality; it paints a picture of repressiveness, from which young Victor, the main character, yearns to escape; and it sets up the quirky premise that the Captain has won the boy from his father in a game of backgammon.
The book is compelling and well worth the time, but here’s the problem. Greene has written about 40 other books I now need to read! It’s a good problem. I’m not complaining. But where to begin?
Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
Doerr soon became one of my favorite writers after I read his book, All the Light We Cannot See. Here, he takes us to Rome, though not through fiction. He was awarded a one-year fellowship with no strings attached. He was granted a writing studio, a stipend, and time. What the American Academy of Arts and Letters didn’t factor in was the birth of his twin boys. Much of Doerr’s time is spent taking care of the infant boys, especially when his wife turns ill suddenly and needs emergency care. He also explores Rome, navigating its streets, gleaning its character, marveling at its treasures. During his year, he reads, researches, keeps a journal, and ultimately writes this brilliant account of what it’s like to live in Italy. This is a warm and wonderful book that makes me want to return to my native land.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Tyler explores a different kind of continent, one closer to home, the interior worlds of the Whitshank family in Baltimore. I’ve read Tyler off and on for many years. I’m not sure how to explain the “off” part because I’ve never been disappointed by any of her books. In fact, Spool, her latest, is deeply satisfying. Not much happens, but the disappointments and daily joys this family encounters create a vivid tapestry of what it’s like to be alive. That’s right, tapestry. Layered, intricately weaved, and full of dark beauty.
I’m watching the Cubs play the Cincinnati Reds. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning. The last pitch was 83 mph, which seems like useful information if you’re following the game closely, which I am not. The balls and strikes are also displayed, of course, along with the score. Again, useful. But after each pitch, the pitch count flashes. I hate that. How does that tally help me enjoy the game? If the count is high, do I root for the manager to yank the pitcher? Do I text the manager? Do I call my Cubs friends? Post it on Facebook? Besides, these guys are making tens of millions of dollars. Let ’em throw 300 pitches and get our money’s worth.
I know, I know, managers have to pace pitchers so they last the season, but this is the manager’s job. I don’t need to know the reasons why a pitcher is yanked.
What I hate even more is when they flash the pitch count of a pitcher who comes in, let’s say, in the 9th for one or two batters. Really? We need to know this?
I miss the old Jack Brickhouse days, when the score on WGN was displayed in hopscotch-like grids, when pitchers typically hurled nine, sometimes ten innings, worrying more about the score that day than the number of pitches thrown. Did anyone even count back then?
Brickhouse, by the way, was the legendary announcer for WGN. Hey, hey.
Question. How many days do you have to roam around West Hollywood before you run into a celebrity?
Answer. Apparently, about five days. That is, if you don’t count Will Ferrell’s mountainous profile plastered everywhere to promote his new flick. The bigger and more plentiful the signs, I concluded, the worse the movie. I think Einstein wrote an equation for this.
Last week, we spent spring break in the LA area, and while strolling through an upscale outdoor mall, we came upon a flurry of buzz at one end. Chevy was giving away t-shirts—all x-large for some odd reason. Chevy was sponsoring a free concert. Chevy was chauffering some big star and her entourage in two black Chevy SUV’s to a newly constructed stage. And Chevy would later give away a Chevy to some lucky shopper.
Shoppers were herded into a small area stage front, probably to make the modest space seem more cavernous for what would likely turn out to be a commercial. We were invited to be part of the audience, but we Midwesterners were a little skeptical about this spectacle. (Say that fast.)
The singer? Kelly Clarkson. But before she could take to the stage, an emcee had to prep the crowd. He told the crowd that Chevy was trying to make this the best day ever. I wanted to interrupt and ask him to define best. He said the show was dedicated to moms (because market research shows Moms are the car buyers?). He had to teach the crowd how to clap for Clarkson’s entrance. Then he ran through a practice clap. All with a straight face.
Aside from her bedazzled microphone, Clarkson was about the only genuine one amid all the commotion. She was personable, modestly dressed, and she didn’t seem fazed by all the attention directed her way. Sure, she had to play a part, she had to adopt a stage persona, but we all do that. On smaller stages maybe, without the dazzle, which is probably for the best. Though it would be nice to hear applause every so often when we entered a room. At times, we deserve that. For the chocolate cake we baked as a surprise, for the kindness we showed to someone in line at the grocery store, for working 40 hours without complaint. How easy that would be. How little effort that would take. So when your mom or dad or sister or roommate comes home today, put your hands together. Make some noise. You don’t even need to practice.
I wish I’d known this guy.
He was my Nonno Leone, and he died at the age of 100. We left him and came to America shortly after I was born, which must have broken his heart. He is whittling away here at a bamboo shoot to form a whistle for me, his grandson. I was in my mid-twenties when I shot the photograph, well beyond the age of prizing whistles, but I was glad to have it. He was 90 at the time, the last time I saw him. I still have the whistle.
When we left that early morning, we had to wake him in his bed. He raised his arms to embrace me, weeping like a baby, knowing he wouldn’t see me again.
We had visited only one other time, when I was seven. He sliced farm fresh peaches and steeped these in a glass of wine. I ate the peaches and sipped the wine and soon became drowsy. He had to carry me up to the bedroom, one of the few memories I have of him, vague as it is.
I do clearly remember watching him chase a circle of squawking chickens. He had on these unlaced, scuffed black boots that he used to work the fields. He finally pounced on one of the chickens and calmly bled it out, not worrying at all about what his young grandson from America might think.
If we had never left him, these farm scenes would have been commonplace for me.
This is my father, who also grew up on a farm.
He realized early on that he didn’t want to chase chickens and so became an apprentice for a tailor in town, taking him away from his family for months at a time. He was only eleven when he began. As skilled as he was, he couldn’t make a living in Giao, his small village in Italia, which is why at age 37, he left for America to find work and then sent for his family.
Instead of being outside, like Nonno, Papa sits in his living room in Chicago, probably just resting his eyes. But the way he holds his head has always summed up for me the weight he felt about being the provider. Though we always had plenty on our small table, he worried that it wouldn’t be enough. He never schemed to strike it big, as some men might under this pressure. Instead, he trudged ahead steadily, never missing a day of work, never giving his boss reason to send him home, never upsetting the safe, little world he’d created for us.
And this is me a few months ago.
I am also inside. Not whittling. Not chasing chickens. I think about the crushing strength of Nonno’s hands, how they belied his gentleness. I think also about the intelligence in my father’s hands, the grace of those fingers as he chalked patterns and scissored them into pieces that would become a woolen skirt for my mother. I still have the gray, pinstriped suit he designed and made for me when I graduated from college. Oh, to still fit into that vest.
In my hand is a pen. I have spent years poised like this. Curled over, thinking, waiting. A world apart from Nonno and Papa.
I can’t understand why Radio Shack had to file for bankruptcy. I have been a loyal customer for years, spending about $3.81 every three months on some cord or splitter or funky battery. I assumed they would always be there for me, eagerly waiting to address my current crisis. I need this plug to fit into an outlet that looks, sort of, like this.
I loved the flash of recognition on the clerk’s face, who understood precisely what I needed. Right over here, the clerk would announce. I’d follow behind sheepishly, confident and hopeful, knowing I was in good hands.
The other day, I wanted to plug my headphones into an amp that accepted only ¼ inch cords. I knew I had an adaptor buried somewhere, but the one I found didn’t quite fit snugly and didn’t work. (Why wouldn’t such an adaptor be universal?) I searched further, but didn’t get too frustrated because I was already calculating the cost of the adaptor I needed…surely under $4.00.
But then I remembered. Radio Shack was no more. Where the hell do I go now? Who’s going to solve my audiovisual emergencies? I was a little devastated. I felt cold and abandoned.
And I knew I couldn’t be the only one.
Have you had your Radio Shack moment yet?
About halfway through watching the Academy Awards last night, I couldn’t help but categorize my reactions into a variety of my own awards. I think this could become a tradition.
Most Eloquent Acceptance Speech
John Legend and Common, Selma. They did Martin Luther King, Jr. proud.
Most Heartfelt Acceptance
Graham Moore, Imitation Game.
Most Stirring Moments
A. Glory sung before backdrop of bridge in Selma.
B. Sound of Music tribute
Most Striking Tone-Deaf Moments—Twice
A. Neal Patrick Harris. After a winner bared her soul about her son’s suicide, Harris made a raunchy joke about her dress. Maybe he wasn’t listening?
B. Harris again. After Glory sung, many in tears. Harris, smiling: “Great song.”
No phone call from my three daughters after JK Simmons urged people to call their parents...right now, he said.
Most Awkward Moment
John Travolta kneading his co-presenter’s face.
John Travolta being a good sport about mangling the same co-presenter’s name the previous year.
Most Amusing Moment
Winner (from Budapest? Design?) who spoke through orchestra crescendo—and kept talking after.
Eddie Murphy. Why so sour, Eddie? I miss you.
Eddie Redmayne’s performance is excellent. So how can the movie, The Theory of Everything, still be mediocre?
Birdman director Inarritu (I think it was him): “That little prick called ego.”
Just kidding. Oh, I have my opinions, but I have no credentials/expertise to evaluate. I am tired of the JLo look, those two vertical sails designed to shock—ten years ago.
Least Flattering Mustache
Now mustaches I know. Hands down, Sean Penn.
I was saddened to hear that poet Miller Williams died on January 2, 2015.
I’d been reading his work for years and finally got to meet him in 1997 during Writers Week, a literary festival at our school. My pal, Gary Anderson, and I picked him up at a bookstore downtown, where he was reading and signing, and drove him to a hotel near our school, where we would pick him up again in the morning for his visit. We started out a little star struck, that’s how nerdy we are, but he put us at ease right away with his soft-spoken, humble demeanor. He sat in the backseat and talked nonstop about the South, Flannery O’Connor, his work, and poetry in general. Gary and I kept glancing at each other, thinking the same thing: Our own private Miller Williams lecture.
You wouldn’t guess that a 67-year-old poet from Arkansas would have much to say to a crowd of high school students, but they knew they were in the presence of a grand gentleman, full of wisdom and compassion. And hope. We’d prepared the audience, so a few raised their hands to request certain poems, which touched him. This was a gift to him. But he made those students feel as if he was the one privileged to be there.
He spoke also about the pressures of being Clinton’s inaugural poet. At the security gate before the inauguration, he realized he’d forgotten the official papers needed to enter. From his rented car, he told the guard, “Well, I’m scheduled to speak…you know, the poet.” The guard said, “You know what would happen if I let you in, and you’re not who you say you are?” And Williams replied, “You know what would happen if I’m telling the truth, and you don’t let me in?”
After he spoke to two large groups of students in our auditorium, we ushered him to our lounge, where he spoke to teachers and students with the same generosity that he’d shown in the car. He seemed supremely comfortable, as if there was nowhere else he wanted to be. This wasn’t an act. This was how he lived.
After his visit, we sent him thank-you letters from students, and he responded graciously, asking us to send along his own gratitude to them. We kept in touch by email now and then. We asked if maybe he’d visit again, with his daughter, the singer Lucinda Williams. He responded favorably, but at the time, her career was taking off, and scheduling the two of them together would have been difficult, he said. But I am pleased that the two of them shared the stage elsewhere now and then.
When I read obituaries or listen to eulogies, I’m often left with this feeling: Boy, I wish I knew that person better. If you have that same sentiment while reading this, well, all you need to do is turn to Miller Williams’s poetry. He will be your best friend, patient and wise and there. Always there.
As I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent book on Albert Einstein, I’m realizing something: when I read a biography, my reactions follow a rough pattern.
1. I FEEL CONTEMPT. Not for the subject of the bio—not usually at least. But for the others who don’t yet recognize the greatness in the person. For instance, for many years no one would hire him. How can you not offer Albert Einstein a job, you idiot? This is Einstein.
Early in his life, one of Einstein’s elementary teachers wanted him ousted, probably because he was Jewish. She claimed that he “spoils the respect of the class.”
2. CONTEMPT IS TEMPERED BY IRONY. Many universities ignored Einstein’s job applications. Had he been hired, he would have worked within an academic system that stifled free thought. He settled for a job at a patent office, where his boss urged him to question everything, which carried over into his thinking on relativity and other concepts that changed the world.
I haven’t read the new bio on Richard Pryor, but I listened to an interview on NPR. He complained to one teacher about being called the N word by classmates. The teacher replied, “Well, that’s what you are.” Ah, but another teacher, she noticed that Pryor, who was always tardy, enjoyed entertaining his classmates. She made a deal with him: “Show up on time, and you can entertain in class.” He was never tardy again.
3. I FEEL SMARTER AND DUMBER. I usually enter a bio with a few preconceived notions, then feel dumb if those notions are way off, then feel smart because now I know. Einstein, for example, did not fail math. He did very well in school, especially if the subject matter lent itself to thinking in pictures, which is how he approached problems.
4. I WANT TO BELIEVE I’LL LEARN SECRETS. About life, how to live, how to overcome adversity, how to define success. For example, Einstein admired physicist Ernst Mach for his “incorruptible skepticism.” Without this skepticism, Einstein would have been a long forgotten patent clerk.
5. I WANT TO BE THERE. Einstein would have long discussions with friends, sometimes lasting till morning. In the summer, they’d climb mountains, watch the sun rise. Sometimes Einstein would play his violin. In the morning, they would hike down and have coffee at a local café. Breakfast with Einstein. I’d go see that movie.
6. I DON’T WANT TO FINISH THE BOOK. Because while I’m reading, Einstein is breathing and thinking and playing music and drinking coffee. Now. Never ending.
I’d be curious to know about your patterns. What am I missing here?
A while ago I wrote about the psychology of lending books. The other day my daughter asked if she could borrow one of my books. Having read my old post, she kidded, “I know you have a thing about lending books.”
I said I used to have a thing. Now I have a new thing. Allow me to clarify.
I drive to the bookstore. I buy a book. A book with actual, aromatic pages. I own the book. It’s a beautiful country. I lend the book to my good pal, Joe. Day by day, Joe begins to believe he owns the book. I don’t fault Joe. I understand Joe. I’ve been Joe.
Now, when I “lend” books, I view this as giving the book away. Joe can believe the book is his all he wants. I have no expectation of getting the book back.
There are some books that I deem valuable and would like to keep, first editions, for instance, especially if they’re signed. In that case, what I will do, seriously, is I will go out and buy another copy of the book, a paperback maybe or a second printing of a hardcover, which not only supports the writer but allows me to envision that copy being passed along to multiple readers—that is, if Joe is willing to part with "his" book.
Maybe I do have “a thing,” since I’m spending all this time thinking about and responding to this subject. It probably has something to do with the trauma I felt when my mom threw away a box of pristine Batman and Superman comic books when I was fifteen, pristine because I always placed great value on all those splashes of color and talk bubbles. I need comic book therapy maybe.
Yesterday I posted a list of 15 books to give as gifts this holiday season. Yeah, like my brain was going to stop at 15. So here are another dozen titles that the reader in your life will enjoy.
1. RISK POOL or NOBODY’S FOOL by Richard Russo
2. BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter
3. BLUE DIARY by Alice Hoffman
4. BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose
5. CANADA by Richard Ford
6. STONE DIARIES by Carol Shields
7. VAN GOGH by Steven Naifeh & Gregory Smith
8. JOHNNY CASH by Robert Hilburn
9. COMPOSED by Roseanne Cash
10. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion
11. THE OPTIMISTIC CHILD by Martin Seligman
12. MISTAKES WERE MADE BUT NOT BY ME by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson