I go through spells when I ignore fiction. Then I ache for a novel I can savor. Well, I have found one: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I found myself handling the book gently, reading slowly, pausing, flipping back to previous sections. This is a masterful work.
The narrative switches back and forth between a young blind girl living in occupied France and a German cadet in training with the Third Reich. The chapters are short, the drama is intense, the truths are precise. A lovely book.
In nonfiction, I just finished Robert Hilburn’s biography, Johnny Cash: The Life. I haven’t read much about Cash, so I can’t say this is the definitive bio, but it’s damn good. The details are so richly conveyed that Hilburn doesn’t need to offer psychological theories about what drove Cash. He doesn’t need to provide any lofty sociological framework. He simply tells the story and trusts the reader to understand why Cash was so driven and often lost and always taken with the downtrodden in our world.
I didn’t realize that some of Cash’s best known hits were recorded when he was in his 20s. I did know that some of his best work was recorded during the last few years of his life, and the section on his collaboration with Ric Rubin is especially fascinating. Even if you’re not a big Cash fan (and if not, just listen), you will still enjoy this story.
After I finished the book, I happened to catch Walk the Line on television. I liked the movie when I first saw it, but after reading the bio, the movie strikes me as caricature. Read the book. And listen to When the Man Comes Around or his version of Hurt.
Five books under $8. The Julian Barnes book is a signed first edition.
The news about Robin Williams still haunts.
Yesterday, Mary Smich in The Chicago Tribune cites a few lines from a poem by Galway Kinnell that he wrote to help a student during a dark time:
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything if you have to.
But trust the hours.
carried you everywhere,
up to now?
Pass these lines along to someone who might need them.
If you haven’t heard about Richard Linklater’s newest film Boyhood, you need to check it out. He began filming when the main character, a boy, was five years old, and every year for 12 years, he assembled his cast for a few days to shoot additional scenes. As the story unfolds, we watch the boy grow into a pensive teen.
A few questions arose while watching, to which I didn’t know the answers because I avoided any behind the scene glimpses. For now, I still don’t want to know. I’m still awash in the magic of the transformation, and that’s good enough. But here are my questions. When Linklater selected this particular boy, Ellar Coltrane, how could he know that the boy would be a convincing actor 12 years later? I think about Ron Howard, who was wonderful as Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, but who became cringe-worthy much later on Happy Days. Also, how much of the script was planned? As they saw how Coltrane actually matured, did they use his looks and demeanor to fill in the storyline? I don’t think I’m ruining anything by mentioning the changes in hair length throughout the movie. Was the hair a real length every year, or did Linklater say, “Hey, kid, next time I see you, look like a hippy.”
Although the boy is the main character, the movie could have been called Fatherhood or Motherhood because not only does the boy grow before our eyes, but so do his sister and parents and step-parents. And since we understand the boy so well, we also understand those around him.
When the mom, now divorced, hooks up with a man we know is wrong for her, we also know why she needs his stability. When the dad, who sees his kids only on weekends, can’t get his kids to open up, we understand both sides. Years later, when the dad mellows, shown via high-hitched trousers, we understand this too well because we’ve seen this in ourselves or our friends. Well, not me. I’ve been fairly tame my whole life. I feel as if I need to break out the other way and get me a Harley.
I’ve been thinking about why this movie has stayed with me for days now. Have you seen the Youtube video of this little girl, about four years old, bawling because her infant brother will one day grow up? She shrieks! She doesn’t want him to grow up. It’s hilarious because it such a mature sentiment coming out of this toddler, and it’s a pain we’ve all felt. Well, you feel similarly as you watch this movie. You know the boy is going to age 12 years. (This much I knew ahead of time.) You know there’s no halting the years. You have to sit back and let time pass, holding at bay your sometimes intense curiosity about his future. By the end of the movie, you want more. You’ve been sitting there for nearly three hours, and your curiosity doesn’t simply end when the movie does.
For the past few months, I’ve been experiencing a similar type of wonder. I’ve been transferring old home movies onto DVD. In order to do this, I have to watch the old VHS tapes in real time, watching my three girls as infants, then toddlers, and I’m now up to the little girl stage. It’s 1994, and I know what’s going to happen in the next 20 years. Yet I’m still searching for clues about why they turned out the way they did. And I can identify with the Youtube girl, screaming to freeze time. I can’t. I wouldn’t if I could. I love what they’ve become. But it’s all too much to take in sometimes.
The movie, in the end, does provide pointed perspective on all this, which is a comfort actually. A thing to savor.
Not long ago, we had to move my mother-in-law, Marilyn, into an assisted living facility. The place is warmer than the word facility suggests. It’s run by Catholic nuns and a battalion of Slavic women armed with mops and towels over their shoulders to wipe their brows. When I mention the move to others of a certain age, they usually nod in understanding. They know firsthand how hard this can be. They know also about the challenge of dealing with the loved one’s belongings. Their stuff. We talk about estate and garage sales. The many trips to Goodwill. The claiming of particular things by family and friends and neighbors.
I’ve been most fascinated by this last challenge. What items are taken, what becomes a discard. Since I’m mostly retired and not working in the summer, I’ve been the one driving to thrift shops for The Stuff’s final destination after it’s been picked through. No, we don’t want that cup, that paper shredder, that rickety ladder, that Christmas tree. But as I’m loading boxes, I find myself unwilling to part with certain things. Not so much because I want them, but because at one time or another they meant something to Marilyn or her husband, Marty. At least this is what I imagine.
My favorite item I’ve taken is a spatula. Just an ordinary kitchen tool. But I picture Marilyn, who loved to wait on others, poking at wedged potatoes or turning an omelet for Marty, who loved to be waited on. In this sense, they had a pretty darn good marriage! She probably didn’t pay much attention to the utensil in her hand, but I do now, dearly. I imagine the fluid deftness of her movements, the care she attached to what she was making.
When I had to clean my parents’ home two years ago, it’s no surprise that I came away with a couple of similar utensils from their house. I don’t use them often, but when I make taralli, this is what I dig out of the kitchen drawer:
I also took a few dish towels from my mom’s house. I’m reluctant to admit that years ago I stuffed one towel into a mason jar to retain its aroma, reluctant because this strikes me as a little desperate. At the same time, I’m glad to know the jar is downstairs, waiting for me to unseal it one day.
I took a few saint statuettes, too, and have them scattered around my house because I knew what they meant to my parents. I took a large spool of thread and scissors from my father’s tailoring supplies. I can’t bring myself to throw out their canes, though I want to. I spent the winter after they passed wearing my old man’s coat, which I’ve written about before. I took a salad bowl we use often and a bowl for Romano cheese for when guests come over.
Speaking of dish towels, Marilyn had, I’d guess, 200. I imagine her in Montgomery Ward’s back when keeping house was something like a calling for her, browsing through ribbed cotton towels and apple-patterned softer ones, deciding and thinking, Yes, I could use another towel. Did she realize how many she already owned? Would she ever have enough? What did her collection mean to her? I did save four or five of her towels, stuck them under our sink to use, but towels are not that distinct to me, and I’ve already lost track of which ones are hers.
I took some of Marilyn’s jazz CDs, too. When I play one, I imagine the contentment she felt as she sang along, but only when Marty wasn’t home. He was a gifted musician who could not stand his wife’s off-pitch wailing. The irony is that Marty rarely listened to music and probably never played piano, at home, for himself, which probably smacked of work. When he had guests over though, he and that piano came alive. His daughter now has his piano, and I wonder about her sentiments toward this instrument she sees every day.
I also saved a painting of a violin that hanged above the piano, not that Marty probably took much notice of the painting. Still, it was something he took in each day, at some level, and I want to continue to see that same image.
I took a wide sauté pan that no one claimed. My fervent wish: that Marilyn could stand next to me now, warning me about the height of the flame and suggesting when to add oregano and pepper and when to let food simmer undisturbed.
I’ve been wondering about my own things, too. What will my garage sale look like? Which of my things will my family want to keep—or discard without a second thought? Would their choices surprise or appall me? Let’s see, I don’t write in my books, so I doubt that many of my books will be kept in the way I describe here. Besides, there are too many, and most will have to be given away. While I don’t mark up books, I do often write on jumbo note cards that I use as bookmarks. Maybe there’s some random note in one of the books they’ll want to keep? I don’t have a favorite mug, I don’t wear slippers, I don’t feel a particular connection to any kitchen item. I’m glad I won’t have to make these decisions myself.
These legacies of daily life can be powerful, tapping into grief that seems to be right there without notice, or joy or nostalgia or a number of other feelings. But it’s probably best not to think too long on your own things and what they might mean to others someday.
It comes as no surprise that I feel compelled right now to march downstairs to clean our so-called storage room, but also dread.
If you like books, you really need to get to downtown Chicago next weekend, June 7/8. You can find a schedule online, download an app too. And it's all free. Meet writers, shop used books, talk to people at booths, weave in and out of crowds, make a new friend.
I'll be moderating a panel of writers at noon on Saturday at Jones Prep Academy. The writers: Charles Finch, Maya Lang, Joshua Max Feldman. All great writers. And this is their first book. Come out and hear how they did it!
Don’t read any further if you want to see Godzilla without the taint of someone else’s opinions.
My hopes for new movies are always high. On Fridays, when I open to the reviews in the newspapers, I’m a little tentative, rooting to see four stars emblazoned, or even three, my heart sinking if the rating is lower on a flick I’ve been eager to see.
For Godzilla, the Chicago Tribune boasted 3½ stars, and I could already taste the popcorn. But then I turned to the Daily Herald, which rated the movie much more harshly. Ah, I thought, I’ll have to judge for myself, which I do anyway. But now I was wary.
The first hour of the movie works very well, with a range of emotions displayed and an ominous score and decent acting, especially from Bryan Cranston. The set-up is drawn out but done so well that I had no complaints.
Finally, we get a peek at the monster. But it’s not Godzilla. It’s this other radiation-hungry creature, a gargantuan grasshopper looking thing with steely wings, that’s clearly up to no good—well, not really—the creature is simply hungry and doesn’t seem to have any interest in humans at all. For me, this defused the drama, well, dramatically. To save your ass in this world, all you’d have to do is move to an area not so rich in nuclear resources. This is a short-term solution, and you probably wouldn’t survive long anyway, but you wouldn’t have to deal with these giant grasshoppers. And then we find out that there are several of these menaces.
Notice I haven’t even mentioned Godzilla yet. He barely makes an appearance. And when he does, I don’t know where he came from, who he is, if I should buddy up with him or run. I feel more emotion when watching Muppet characters, and I hate the Muppets, most of them anyway (there, I said it; sorry if I offend).
By the end, Godzilla is clearly more friend than foe, but I don’t know why—why, that is, he wants to defend the human race, because if we’re to believe the rest of the movie, the human race has created a mess of the world. In the end, I feel as if I didn’t even see a Godzilla movie. I saw a lot of computer-generated destruction—and that’s getting old—which looks fairly real but left me unmoved.
Much of the above complaints might have been softened by a better human story, but these actors aren’t given much range to work with. The Japanese doctor in particular, who is probably a fine actor, mainly stares just above the camera lens, toward us, with his mouth open in horror and regret. Which pretty much matched my face while heading for the exit.
I need to enter a 12-step program. But I’ll need to start my own because my fix is pretty particular. I’ll call it TA, for Thrift-store Anonymous. Or just T. Not sure I need Anonymous. I’ll need to create my own checklist, I suppose:
1. Do you ever go to more than one thrift store on the same day?
2. How long do you spend there?
3. Do you go alone?
4. Do you eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner from the vending machines at thrift stores?
You get the idea. Actually, I’d need to be even more specific with my program because once I reach the store, my palms sweaty in anticipation and my heart hammering away, I veer toward only one section: the books. Maybe I can call the program TBA, for Thrift-store Books Anonymous. I can imagine the confusion. “You’re going to a TBA meeting? How will you know where…or when?”
Explaining one’s particular obsessions usually falls short. We all understand our own but fail to grasp the pull of anyone else’s. I can’t imagine the need to watch sports every night. Or the impulse to buy new shoes when you already own 8 pairs. But books? It’s like finding a $10 bill on the sidewalk and so for the next ten minutes your eyes keep scanning the ground because you know more cash will appear. There are always more gold nuggets just around the corner.
My latest finds:
A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole / Bella Tuscany: Frances Mayes / Wait Till Next Year: Doris Kearns Goodwin / Sin in the Second City: Karen Abbott / A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Dave Eggers / A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: David Foster Wallace / After the Plague: TC Boyle / All My Best Friends; George Burns / Demian: Herman Hesse / Gang Leader for a Day: Sudhir Venkatesh.
You’re envious, aren’t you?
The books feel like orphans to me. If I already have a particular title, I become an adoption agency and buy for others. Or sometimes I’ll see books with inscriptions that I don’t have much interest in but can’t turn away.
I found these words, at the front of a Studs Terkel book, heartbreaking. The title was not a recent one, so I imagined the recipient being well beyond 70 and maybe gone, the family taking on the heavy task of clearing out her things.
I find the practice of inscribing books a quaint one and was surprised to see these words on a newer title. I found this inside Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath:
I hope Patrick is fine, and if he is, I wonder why he’s giving away books that include a personal message like this.
For the record, I still buy new books, at book stores, because I don’t want them to become extinct. But I’m afraid I’m fighting a losing battle.
Well, I have to go now. Time for my TBA meeting. “My name is Tony, and it’s been…14 hours since my last visit to Goodwill or Savers…”
I don’t ordinarily pair in my mind the characters Captain America and Noah, but I saw both movies that feature them in the last few days and inevitably found parallels.
Both movies deal with mass end-of-world-as-we-know-it destruction that requires superhuman intervention. The odds are stacked against the heroes; yet you know they will prevail in the end. And therein lies the challenge: how to build suspense when the outcome is more or less known.
I’d seen the first Captain America installment and found it clever and well paced and pleasing. I especially liked the creation aspect, how he acquired his powers and how he had to learn to deal with them. This newest flick, in contrast, was a disappointment. His character is more one-dimensional, the plot is more farfetched, and the battles are too digitally enhanced. As with the latest Superman, the brawls occur on city streets, and if the laws of physics exist in this superworld, plenty of innocent bystanders are going to be killed. The problem I have with this: (1) nothing of the sort is ever acknowledged; Captain America and his buddies don’t give these deaths a moment’s consideration, and (2) why should we care more about the survival of one or two main players than the hundreds or thousands of nameless cabbies and pedestrians? Maybe I’m just the Felix Unger of movie-watchers. But the mayhem is too messy and doesn’t match the lofty goals of the guy in the blue tights. (For you younger folk, Felix is the neatnik half of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.)
In Noah, the mass destruction of innocents not only occurs but is central to the plot. Noah, under God’s direction, intends to kill off everyone—or allow it at least—because humans have made such a mess of the world. In this case, since there’s a reason for the callous brutality, the Felix in me gave this a pass, even though the killing is far messier.
I had no interest in seeing Noah after viewing the previews and hearing lukewarm reviews, but the movie works. The beginning is a little slow, but the suspense builds to Biblical proportion, while making you empathetic for the main players. A nice balance.
I’m not a Biblical scholar, so I did wonder about the accuracy—that is, does the story match what you’d find in “Genesis”? As I was trudging out of the movie (trudging is what you do after two hours in the dark, right?) and back toward the ticket window, a husband and wife were debating which movie to see. Husband: “Oh, I thought we were going to see Noah.” Wife: “No, I don’t want to see it because it’s inaccurate.” I was tempted to interrupt and claim that I was in fact a Biblical expert and that the movie was extraordinarily on the money. I’m glad I didn’t because when I got home, I pored through “Genesis,” and found that the movie takes more than a few liberties. Crazy liberties. I didn’t see the movie so I could enhance my Biblical knowledge, but I could understand how the wife wanted to keep certain aspects of the story straight. I can understand how scenes from a movie become fused with the memory of the “real” story. But I did wonder how much of the story she really knew firsthand and not from some picture book—because the movie captured God’s wrath from “Genesis” pretty accurately. I mean, God intends to destroy everything outside the ark. I suspect this would surprise her. And disturb her too. It did me.
This incident probably says more about the ornery sonofabitch I’ve become than anything else.
I saunter up to the bank teller the other day, and before I reach her, she calls out, “How may I assist you?” Which strikes me as formal and a little stiff, which—I know, I know—should not in itself annoy. But she does this every time. Mostly I’m annoyed because I’m approaching with a check made out to me and a deposit/withdrawal slip that I’ve dutifully filled out. In a second she will lay eyes on this slip, which will clearly tell the story on how she can assist me.
“This is all I’ll need today,” I tell her. But I know she has not heard.
She presses a few keys, unlocks that mysterious hidden drawer, and begins to pull out cash. She’s assisting me! She turns to me and counts out bills, then coins. But before she plops down the coins, she says, “And last but not least…” I’m thinking, last AND least. This is one case in which the coins ARE less. This same person who is so concerned about the distinction between may/can, suddenly wants to be chummy. But I ain’t buying. Though I don’t say anything.
Here’s the clincher. She has assisted me. She has been excessively polite. As I’m gathering my bills and coins and receipt, she asks, “Is there anything else I may assist you with?” Why, yes, what a capital idea. Let me return to the counter near the entrance for another deposit slip because that would be the most efficient way for me to conduct business, one transaction at a time.
“No, that’s it.”
“Have a wonderful day,” she tells me.
“Thanks,” I growl.