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.”

Most Disappointing
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.

Funniest Moment
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.

Stiffest Presenter
Eddie Murphy. Why so sour, Eddie? I miss you.

Biggest Paradox
Eddie Redmayne’s performance is excellent. So how can the movie, The Theory of Everything, still be mediocre?

Best Phrase
Birdman director Inarritu (I think it was him): “That little prick called ego.”

Nicest Dress
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.

FICTION

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

NONFICTION

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
 
 
This tailored list may be too specific for your needs. If that’s the case, send me a description of someone on your gift list, and I will send you a book suggestion.

While some of the descriptions that follow may seem like nonsense—how dare you—I want to stress that I love and recommend all these books. Really.

If you care about the world of books, about the future of books, please don’t order online from the big A place. Instead, independent bookstores are very helpful. And Barnes & Noble has good deals. Every time one of their holiday commercials comes on, I become giddy. A commercial for a bookstore! The world becomes right again for 60 seconds.

Here we go. Books to give!

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1. For the 50+ year old who doesn’t like to read but doesn’t mind hearing a little gossip now and then, here’s the perfect book: ME AND DEAN by JERRY LEWIS.


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2. For the Italian or wannabe Italian in your life, who misses the old days when the old stockinged women in the neighborhood would gather each summer evening on lawn chairs, sipping coffee and nibbling on coffee cake, while the men smoked and gambled on bocce: THE FORTUNATE PILGRIM by MARIO PUZO. Yes, that Puzo, who wrote this more intimate novel about four years before the seminal, The Godfather, another fine book that worked out pretty well for him.


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3. For the speed reader, who can finish this book before the movie comes out near the end of December, which needs to happen because this is one remarkable chronicle: UNBROKEN by LAURA HILLENBRAND.


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4. For the English major, who loves beautiful sentences and still writes and mails letters, and who keeps saying she wants to write a book herself: SOMEONE by ALICE McDERMOTT.


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5. For the slightly quirky guy on your list, who often says things that confuse you: UNDERWORLD by DON DeLILLO. I won’t pretend to understand this book in its entirety, but it’s a masterpiece, especially the first long chapter about the famous 1951 game between the Dodgers and Giants that features the “shot heard around the world,” a homerun crack by Bobby Thomson, which you can view on Youtube.


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6. For the Beatles fan, who isn’t much of a reader because an avid fan would have already read this: THE BEATLES: THE BIOGRAPHY by ROB SPITZ. Crisp writing, detailed, and balanced. Another Beatles book that’s not as balanced but offers insights you won’t find elsewhere: PAUL McCARTNEY: MANY YEARS FROM NOW by BARRY MILES. The guy was there, and he includes dozens of direct quotes from Sir Paul.


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7. For the voracious reader in your life who has fallen behind on recent published books and who might have missed one of the best books of 2014: ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by ANTHONY DOERR. I can’t praise this book enough. I need to read it again. I just finished his previous novel, too, ABOUT GRACE, which is equally powerful. Give this person both books!


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8. For the least prudish person on your list: ANCIENT LIGHT by JOHN BANVILLE. This Irish writer is not afraid to show off his skills, which strikes me as old-fashioned yet modern at the same time. He’s one of the best writers working today.


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9. For the thinker in your life, the one who asks interesting questions and is always curious about your answer: THINKING, FAST AND SLOW by DANIEL KAHNEMAN. Kahneman may not be the most eloquent writer in the world, but he’s clear, and the studies he cites, many of them conducted by himself, are fascinating. 


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10. For the most sentimental person in your life: LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ. This book reads like one long, spellbinding dream that you don’t want to wake from.


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11. For the relative or friend who can quote Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: MARCH by GERALDINE BROOKS. I’ve never even read Little Women, but I still loved this book, told from the point of view of the father of the little women.


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12. For the delusional person in your life, the chronically upbeat one, who thinks the fifties were a time of innocence: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by RICHARD YATES. One of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, but I can’t forget it.


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13. For the reader who’s not afraid of a challenge: AMERICAN PASTORAL by PHILIP ROTH. I’ve read this book several times, and I’m still not quite sure how he gets away with his masterful point of view technique.


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14. For the calmest person you know, who can use a little jolt of gothic fright to curl the blood: A RELIABLE WIFE by ROBERT GOOLRICK.


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15. For the person who got C’s in high school and who didn’t read the assigned books in English and who barely made it through college but who is now the most curious person you know: THE GRAPES OF WRATH by JOHN STEINBECK. You probably forgot that Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for literature. There was a reason for that. 


OK, send me a description of your gift recipients!

 
 
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Stephen King's 
New Novel

If I read a book I don’t like, I don’t post anything about it. Ever. Like a traffic cop overlooking the slapdash lane swerving of a fellow cop. But today I make an exception. I figure Stephen King can take it.

Here’s the problem. When I pick up a Stephen King book, I never know who I’m going to get.

I’ve been reading him for a long time, beginning with Carrie and Salem’s Lot and later the longer volumes, like Dead Zone and Cujo. Even though the plots began to blend together for me, the everyday lives he painted seemed gritty and real, and the breakneck pace kept my heart racing and my fingers turning pages. After a while though, I grew tired of the flat endings, as if King decided after 800 pages or so that he was ready to move on to another world and another set of characters. For years, I’d pass his books on the store shelves and feel an ache of longing to be transported into his nightmares, but decided ultimately that the time spent would be a poor investment in the end.

But I couldn’t quite stay away. I came back for the short stories, then a few shorter novels, not quite as enthralled as I’d hoped. But then 11/22/63 came along, and what a gem of a book that is. If I were asked to list my favorite novels, one of those useless exercises I enjoy, this book about time travel and the JFK assassination would likely crack the top 25. And the ending? Exquisite.

So I was hooked again. I backtracked and decided to tackle another behemoth.

How does the writer of 11/22/63 also write the meandering mess that is Under the Dome? Characters we come to know well after a mere two or three pages (King is the master of this) are killed off without purpose. Oh, I suppose there’s reason, for effect and all that. But once the effect is established, the pattern is repeated, and new characters take the stage that aren’t as fleshed out; and other than gore, nothing truly dramatic happens. And talk about a stupid ending.

His latest efforts are hit and miss as well. Joyland is a good ride, beckoning back to the days of pulp fiction, but the book, luckily, is short—because, yes, you guessed it, the ending is beyond ridiculous. Mr. Mercedes is and old-fashioned, hard-boiled detective novel, and while the end is a little implausible, it fulfills the expectations of this genre. This is a good, entertaining read.

What prompted me to write this post. I just finished Revival, his newest book. I was so hopeful. I was ready to settle for the solid effort of Mr. Mercedes. But I’m sorry to report that Revival reminds me instead of Under the Dome. The first two chapters are promising. But after that, it’s a long drive without much destination. If you’re a Stephen King gambler like me, save your money this time around. And wait for the next one, which always arrives sooner than seems possible.

 
 
About a month ago, I hadn’t given much thought to Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift.

All I knew about Lady Gaga was that her early career was mired in mediocrity, and to shatter that, she began to wear outrageous outfits on stage. Which led to wild success. Which led years later to the dress made of meat. That’s about it.

What I know now: that lady can sing.

She and Tony Bennett make an unlikely pair, but they complement each other magnificently on their duet album, Cheek to Cheek. If your musical tastes are broad, you’ll probably recognize many of the tracks, all recorded lavishly with a full orchestra. If I owned the album on vinyl, I would have worn out the grooves, it’s so good. Lady Gaga sings solo on Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn, one of my favorite songs, and she crushes it. And Bennett sounds more soulful than ever.

Taylor Swift’s music? I would not recognize a single song of hers. I would not even  recognize her voice. But she’s been making headlines lately, which has sparked my admiration. In the most recent Time magazine (24 November 2014), she’s says, “I think that people should feel that there is a value to what musicians have created.” This after having removed some of her music from the streaming site Spotify. She certainly doesn’t need their money or anyone’s money, so I have to believe her move is based on principle. And I couldn’t agree with her more.

There’s no simple answer to the dilemma of artist and compensation. Record companies certainly have not been generous with their artists, which is a gross understatement. So even when you purchase rather than stream, the artist receives only a miniscule cut. Some genius needs to devise a way for a portion of each sale to transfer directly to the artist without a middleman, and maybe that’s where many bands are heading. But that’s a tough life, pushing downloads, and hawking CDs out of the trunk of your car without a promotional army. I don’t know the answer to the dilemma, but I’m glad someone with Swift’s pull is drawing attention to these unfair practices.

 
 
You may have heard of this book because of the companion PBS series: How We Got to Now, by Steven Johnson. The book is part history, part science, and reads like a detective novel.

Here’s an example of the fascinating connections that Johnson weaves, what he calls the Hummingbird Effect. In the 1440’s Guttenberg created the printing press. Before this, not many people read; thus, not many people knew they were farsighted. This knowledge, along with the increased opportunity to read, created a demand for glasses, which inspired a surge in lens research, which led to the invention of the microscope, which ultimately led to the study of cells in the body. If this alone doesn’t make you want to go out and buy this book, I don’t know what else I can add.

Okay, I’ll add this. In a related thread, the fall of Constantinople in 1204, which I believe is Turkey now, led glassmakers to migrate to Venice. But since Venice included many wooden buildings that could easily catch fire under the intense heat needed to make glass, these craftsmen moved to the nearby island of Murano, where they refined glass, which led to the invention of lenses (which comes from the Latin lentes, or lentils, because they have the same shape), which led, again, to the microscope, and you know the rest.

I was a poor history student in school. Mostly my fault. But I wonder if I would have been less sleepy-eyed and slack-jawed if these sorts of connections were taught. Nah! My mind was mush. Not 1960’s hippy mush. I just needed more time to incubate. I’m a slow learner. Steady but slow. Even today I don’t feel fully hatched.

Incidentally, I visited the beautiful island of Murano a couple of summers ago. Those craftsmen are still there, part of a vast lineage that has contributed quite directly to the study of diseases. I wonder if they even know.

 
 
The title Nightcrawler refers to hustlers with police scanners who rush to crash sites and other gory scenes to collect footage that they can sell to local news stations. Jake Gyllenhaal (try spelling that name without looking it up) plays Louis Bloom, a snake of a character who quickly learns how to thrive in this cutthroat business.

Keenly aware that this psychopathic crawler has no conscience, we in the audience are usually a step ahead of the plot, which might seem like a flaw. But it’s not. What this achieves, which is a creepy little trick: we know what he’s going to do. We understand him. We’re in his head. Or more to the point: he’s in our heads. And when Bloom does exactly as we predict, there’s a heightened sense of doom, as if we’ve participated. Well, maybe not quite that, but we are with him, reluctantly, which is awfully gripping.

Gyllenhaal lost almost thirty pounds to prepare himself for this role, based on a real nightcrawler, Weegee, from the forties. (You can read about Weegee in the November 10 issue of The New Yorker or find his 1988 book, Naked City.) The lost weight makes Gyllenhaal’s eyes look startled and desperate, leaving the impression of an actor inhabiting a role, rather than playing one. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more realistic portrayal of this depraved state of psychopathy, which remains consistent from beginning to end.

Nightcrawler Bloom does hire a sidekick, Rick (played by Rick Garcia, I think), who does the necessary work of voicing all the questions that we in the audience want to ask. His performance is low key, unassuming, and always convincing. A little subtext about his life would help stir more empathy toward him. But maybe this is director Dan Gilroy’s intent all along: to keep our focus almost solely on the main character.

I highly recommend this flick. Though I do have one qualm. I suggest you skim this next section until you see the movie. Then come back. It’s not quite a spoiler, but it might heighten your awareness at a time when you should be simply lost in the action.

Anyway…

If you haven’t seen the movie…

Stop. Put your pencils down.

I have a problem with the ending. The epilogue, I guess you’d call it. The very last shot. Without being too specific, I’ll say this: we’re left with theme rather than plot. We’re left with a condemnation of television news, which the rest of the movie deals with exceedingly well (though maybe overplayed a bit). The focus should be on this hungry wolf we’ve been with for two hours. I’m not talking about remorse or epiphany or justice, but something. Some small glimpse into what all this means to him. We know the answer. Just some confirmation. Instead of walking out of the theater feeling haunted and creeped out by this guy, we’re let off the hook. As if Gilroy didn’t want to leave us with nightmares.