<![CDATA[ - BLOG]]>Sat, 23 Jul 2016 14:17:58 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Review: Richard Russo's Everybody's Fool]]>Sat, 23 Jul 2016 19:44:04 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/review-richard-russos-everybodys-fool
Reading Richard Russo evokes the illusion that he’s sitting beside you on a barstool and catching you up on neighbors and friends you once knew. The illusion is especially vivid in his new book, Everybody’s Fool, because we’ve been here before in North Bath with Sully and Rub the person, along with Rub the dog, that is, if you’ve read Nobody’s Fool. And if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you? In fact, read Mohawk, then Risk Pool, then Nobody’s Fool, and finally, Everybody’s Fool.
In between are solid books well worth diving into, but this is the one I’ve been waiting for because Russo is at his best describing the modest aspirations of ornery characters in small towns. I grew up in Chicago, but it’s made up of neighborhoods that can seem insulated, so these small towns Russo depicts feel homespun yet universal.
Full disclosure: I don’t spend much time on barstools. Full disclosure two: I can’t recall ever caring about the thing being disclosed under “full disclosure.” Having disclosed here fully, more than fully, I suspect that sitting on a barstool for hours is mostly ordinary, possibly depressing and dark even. So I’m not referring to a real barstool. I’m referring to a dimly lit throwback tavern with hardboiled eggs in a jar and dollar bills tacked to a wall and spending time with Old Russo, who lumbers in and sits at the same stool every time and makes you smile, that more than anything, because he’s seen a thing or two. He knows we’re all a little ornery, or worse, and to hear how others deal with that human condition ultimately sheds light on our own lives.
More than anything, this newest novel will send me back to rereading the other books mentioned above. I love the company.
<![CDATA[Another Superb Memoir]]>Mon, 11 Jul 2016 01:27:47 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/another-superb-memoir
Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker
I don’t recall seeing this book in the store when it came out. If I had, I would not have picked it up. Strange title (self-help?), superimposed on some ambiguous image—of a tree stump? And if I had picked it up and turned to the author photo, I would have found a familiar face. An actress. A really good one. I would then have immediately set it down and moved on. I hate when people use their fame to open otherwise closed doors, as in Tom Hanks recently publishing fiction in The Newyorker, which I refused to read, which was later deemed as average at best by one critic, which prompted me to exclaim, “Ha, see, I was right.” I like to be right. We all like that. Though I could have been more magnanimous, I suppose. I love Tom Hanks. As an actor.
Luckily, I received Parker’s book as a Father’s Day gift, so I felt obliged to at least dip into it. And now I can’t put it down. Each chapter is a letter—to Grandpa, to Daddy, to a free spirit she calls Blue—which is an ingenious way to craft a memoir. Who doesn’t love to read a heartfelt, well written letter, even one not addressed to us? The letters are polished like poems—no words are wasted—but you also get a sense that they’re unvarnished, that nothing is withheld. Some of the recipients of these letters will never read them, which is heartbreaking, but which also makes the letters feel even more vital because our reading breathes new life into them and keeps Grandpa and Daddy and the rest of them alive.

<![CDATA[Don DeLillo Review: Zero K]]>Tue, 28 Jun 2016 18:39:20 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/don-delillo-review-zero-k
Hearing that a new Don DeLillo book is out brings me back to my boyhood anticipation of Thursdays, the day when new comic books arrived at the corner store on Wood Street. How I miss those little stores, stocked with candy and chips, fresh bread and canned goods, even greeting cards and prescriptions. Those stores had everything, and they were right there, in the middle of the neighborhood, just down the block.
After buying a DeLillo book, I let it sit in the house for a few days because I know once I begin I will finish it quickly. Leaving it on a tabletop is part of the savoring.
DeLillo is not a writer I recommend to many people. His plots, if they exist, are secondary to his ideas. His characters are complex yet one-dimensional, in the sense that they all speak the same, because their purpose, again, is to convey ideas. The ideas, the themes, are so rich and wide in scope that none of this matters. The one-dimensional business is not a criticism. It’s just DeLillo. He’s able to put into sentences the fleeting thoughts of a day, what it’s like to be a conscious person. The thoughts he captures are often primitive, sometimes childlike, but always weighted with what feels like great significance. You get a sense of a genius mind at work—and looking into your head.  
His latest book, Zero K, a term that refers to the coldest temperature possible, is propelled by plot. The narrator’s stepmother, nearing the end of her life, decides she wants her body cryogenically frozen. His father can’t bear to live without her, and though he’s healthy and relatively young, soon follows. Talk about desolation. These passages of the futuristic compound where this happens are among the most stark and haunting I’ve ever read. In his earlier work, DeLillo may have stranded readers there, but here he reaches and offers satisfying glimpses of light. This is one of his best books in years.
By the end, I wanted more pages. But like a boy standing outside the corner store, searching for an incoming truck with the day’s deliveries, I’ll have to wait for more.
I have no insider information about DeLillo, but I have a prediction about what’s coming next from him. A book about the meaning and manipulation of genes. 

<![CDATA[Four Excellent Memoirs´╗┐]]>Mon, 20 Jun 2016 20:14:22 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/four-excellent-memoirsPicture
About six months ago, I decided to become a recluse. But no one noticed. So here I am again. With reviews of four excellent new memoirs. All vastly different from one another.
Each title is revealing.
Escape Points by Michele Weldon.
In wrestling, you are awarded one measly point for escaping. Sometimes an opponent will even grant you an escape, just so he can take you down for two points. Over and over again. Mostly though, escapes are hard fought, and you end up on your feet, ready to begin anew after a battering to your body and head.
In this wonderful and engaging book, Weldon is battered by divorce and cancer and the endless challenges of raising three high-spirited boys as a single mother. All three are accomplished high school wrestlers, a sport whose commitment requires herculean, individual dedication but also the support of a rich network of family, coaches, and community.
You may not know a single fact about wrestling, you may not be a parent, you may not be dealing with cancer, but the book will feel familiar to you because we’re all a little battered. By life. Though I doubt that many of us could chronicle our battles with Weldon’s grace and humor. And openness, which requires nuance and courage, which in itself feels triumphant by the end of this insightful memoir.

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod
The title here refers to the difficulty of reporting sexual abuse. The author, abused by her live-in cousin when she was four, years later confides in a friend, a boyfriend, a therapist or two, but only when the cousin is arrested for molesting a different girl does she finally reveal the truth to her parents. You may feel as if you’ve read this story, but Zolbrod meticulously and precisely unravels the complications involved with telling or not telling. Much of the reporting here is heartbreaking, sometimes touching, especially when she focuses her sharp lens on her own parenting. But Zolbrod also spends considerable time on the big picture, relying on studies and stats that sound familiar but that gain significance through her synthesis and guidance. For example, we’ve all heard experts advise us on how we should talk to children about their bodies, but Zolbrod’s advice hits center on many levels.
The chapters read like a stand-alone essays, each one a bright gem. This is an important book, one that all parents should read.

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley
This memoir reads like a book on war. On one side stands the South, on the other the “sin” of homosexuality. Throughout his life, Conley has been fed the propaganda on the righteousness of this war and weakly buys into it—because why would his family and everyone he loves and trusts steer him wrong? But he knows early on that he’s gay and must come to terms with being on the wrong side.
Here’s a glimpse of the propaganda Conley encounters. The Baptist and Pentecostal creed says that “Christians had to arm themselves against Satan’s offensive against our country.” These same churches blamed “terrorism against America on homosexuality.” (Which makes me wonder how this warped logic applies to the horrific shooting in Orlando.) At church the author is asked to sign a petition against the pride parade or “‘How else can you call yourself a soldier in the Christian army?’”
After Conley is outed to his parents by a rapist classmate, they are devastated and send him to a camp to erase his gay impulses. A camp! The perfect misnomer. At least they didn’t call it a retreat, a term educators have hijacked, as in data retreat. I’ve heard about such camps, I’ve heard about the Bible belt war on sexuality, but to read a firsthand account is infuriatingly maddening. It’s a fury that Conley only hints at. He offers us full snapshots and allows us to presume sides. Though there’s no middle ground here. Fascinating and gripping.
Falling by Elisha Cooper
This is a book full of beauty and grace, bursting with poignant metaphors to help describe what it’s like to be a father of a five-year-old girl diagnosed with an aggressive kidney cancer. The titled Falling feels almost literal, disorienting and consuming. But the deeper truth lies inside the metaphor. In midair, you can’t “fight” cancer—this language of battle, Cooper says, misses the point and misleads. In midair, you trust the experts, the true experts. In midair, you and your spouse create routines that your little girl and her sister can hold on to. Your patience is tested, your anger is displaced on bystanders, some of whom deserve your wrath. But you move on because what other choice do you have. Gravity is real.
Cooper is a children’s book author and illustrator, which means he has a keen eye and an ear for the poetry of sentences. Despite the grave diagnosis, spending time with Cooper and his family feels comforting.
I wasn’t serious about that recluse business, of course, but I do think about that phenomenon from time to time, usually when I teach Salinger. In order for Salinger to have been considered a recluse, he needed to be sought after. Otherwise, he’s just a lonely man living on a hill in New Hampshire.

<![CDATA[Don't Go See Star Wars. Yet.]]>Fri, 18 Dec 2015 04:49:09 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/dont-go-see-star-wars-yetEven though I’ve never felt inclined to watch the three most recent Star Wars installments, I plan to see the newest one. Someday. When the crowds thin. Maybe in 2017.

In the meantime, if you’re like me and want to avoid the crowds and long lines, here are two movies worth seeing.


This first one I’ll call a film, a beautiful, expansive drama that shifts easily from Ireland to Brooklyn. When you hear expansive, you might assume that the film spans generations. But the time here can be measured in months, about a year in all. By the end, you can’t believe how far these characters have come. Which is a testament to the craftsmanship behind the camera and to the fresh faced actors on the screen, Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen. The change in Ronan as the Irish born character Eilis is transformative and inspiring. And you’re with her every step of the way, cringing at her missteps but fully understanding them. And while Cohen, as Tony from Brooklyn, changes not at all, he pulls you in with his smirk and unassuming delivery. He is a young Marlon Brando. You will hear both their names again. And maybe one day I’ll be able to spell hers.


Ah, the latest Bond movie. Yes, this is a movie. Heart attack fast and Aston Martin sleek and smart, even when you don’t know what the hell is going on. But I don’t think you’re supposed to follow the story too closely. You know who’s sinister, you know his motives, you know it’s global. On the other side, you know that Bond will prevail, that his escapes will be thrilling, and you know you shouldn’t analyze anything he does too closely. For instance, and I don’t think this will ruin anything, there’s a scene when he needs to catch up to some fleeing bad guys, and suddenly he’s flying a plane. For a second, and only a second, you wonder, how the hell did he get a plane so quickly? But you have to dismiss this and just watch with your reptile brain. I don’t know if I’d say this is a great movie, that it will stay with me for any meaningful length of time, but I don’t want to think about that either. The film is a carnival ride, a dazzling feast for the eyes.

<![CDATA[Sounds from the Sixties]]>Mon, 14 Dec 2015 03:42:02 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/sounds-from-the-sixties
I’ve been teaching this sixties & seventies film and literature class, and while the focus is squarely on themes such as rebellion and civil rights and war and the changing of women’s roles, I’ve been most struck by all the sounds that have disappeared from those decades. When Benjamin from The Graduate barrels into a gas station near the end of the movie, an intense sequence, my students, oh so young, can’t understand the satisfaction I feel upon hearing the little dings that signal his arrival. I’m sure they don’t even notice. Back when those dings were commonplace, I’m sure I took them for granted myself. But now, I want to stop the movie and ask, Did you hear that? When Benjamin dials the rotary phone, the sprockety ratcheting the phone makes, especially when the disk reverses direction and returns to zero, sounds glorious to me.

Actually, maybe I didn’t take sounds for granted when I was a kid. I remember plugging my ear to a cold street light pole on hot summer nights and marveling at the buzz of electricity inside, a subterranean sound that both frightened and thrilled me.

Anyway, here are some of the other sounds from the sixties & seventies that I heard these past few months and that I miss.

An obvious one. The clacking of a manual typewriter. Those arms catapulting toward the paper. Even the electric ones with the steel ball had their own distinct slap, clean and succinct. I don’t recall hearing teletypes in my past, but when you hear them in All the President’s Men, they seem both officious and quaint.

Oh, and that lovely chatter from cash registers. Part typewriter, part vending machine, part pinball. Clattering and sighing and ringing. Which reminds me of the subtle shrrinjj sound from the knobs of those old cigarette machines. I never bought a pack of cigarettes in my life, but I never passed one of these machines when I was a kid without pulling on the taut knob, like it was vacuum packed.

Even squad car sirens sounded different back then, more shrill and urgent, though I may be mistaken about this one. Watch Serpico again and decide.

Maybe most glorious is the drop of a needle on a record, the initial pop and hiss while the needle gains traction on the first track. It’s no coincidence that I purchased a turntable a few weeks ago. Now, I’m finally able to play all those LP’s I’ve been saving for decades. Elton John and Rod Stewart and the Stones and The Beatles. And the records really do sound richer than CD’s.

As I finish typing this, I pay attention to the sounds around me now. These laptop keys beneath my fingers emit a soft patter, fluid and clackety. I might miss this. My phone, quiet now, includes an array of sounds I may someday yearn for. Though I doubt this. It seems that the sounds coming from our devices today have been manipulated; some attention has gone into their creation, whereas the sounds of past decades, with exceptions maybe, were more functional and unapologetic, full of character and attitude. “You talkin’ to me?” asked the cash register. “Shut up,” answered the typewriter.

I hope this post sparks some of your own sense memories. What sounds do you miss?  

<![CDATA[Grammar Police]]>Thu, 01 Oct 2015 04:03:07 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/grammar-policeQuestion: Should you correct people’s grammar? Since I’m posing the question, you probably assume I have a clear answer. But the question creates a murky mess. First, you have to be pretty confident in your own expertise. And just about everyone struggles with some rule or other. Second, you don’t want to annoy. Third, who the hell do you think you are monitoring others’ mistakes? As long as the message is clear, that’s all that matters. Right?

But maybe the person wants to know. Maybe the person would appreciate a friendly correction. Maybe you’re doing your part to preserve the English language, sturdy as it may be.

I usually say nothing, I admit. Life goes on. Everyone is content. But I can’t stop myself from correcting the mistake. In my head. A fleeting mental murmur. Let it go, let it go. But I can’t. Nothing more than mild OCD, I suppose.

Anyway, here are a few mistakes I’ve heard lately.

1. “Between you and I.”
Corrrection: “Between you and me.”

We’ve been scolded so often for beginning a sentence: “You and me should go…” No, no, it should be You and I. So we apply that to every construction. But you wouldn’t ever say “Between you and we,” right? (which is essentially the same as “You and I.”)

2. “My head literally exploded.”

Did it? Literally? And you’re still here, speaking? Unfortunately, the usage gods, the panels that monitor dictionary changes, have capitulated. It’s now okay, they say, to use “literally” for emphasis. But “literally” is often useful. Sometimes we need to know that some extraordinary event actually happened.

3. I saw this restaurant ad on a highway billboard: “Ever wonder why there’s so many Italians in Chicago?” No, but I do wonder how you can spend big bucks on a sign with such a glaring mistake.

4. Studio Movie Grill features these words in giant block letters: “Eat. Drink. Movies.” For some reason, this one doesn’t bother me so much because it’s effective. To correct it would be burdensome: “Eat. Drink. Watch Movies.”

5. “I feel badly.”

We hear this so often that it sounds correct. What you’re actually saying is that your sense of touch is poor. “I feel bad,” while it sounds incorrect, is right.

6. The last example brings up a tricky one. And I’m already second-guessing myself. Which is correct? “I’m good” or “I’m well”? Nearly everyone understands that an action is done “well,” as in “The guitarist played well.” So we tend to change every use of “good” to “well.” But I would argue that “I’m good” is correct, as in “I am good.” It’s a state of being, and “good” acts not as an adverb but as an adjective or noun.

Exceptions about. Correctness sometimes is a drag. For example, I’m rarely bothered by mistakes in lyrics, probably because they serve a sound purpose. I also love how slang slaps grammar sick.

I happen to be one of those people who wants to be corrected, who wants to discuss the nuances of good and well, so please comment on any disagreements on the above or raise other questions. I promise not to be annoyed. For example, I struggled with punctuation at the end of #1 above. Not exactly a grammatical concern, but related. I’m still tempted to move the period to the very end.

Anyway, have a good day, and do good. Yes?

<![CDATA[Brief Reviews of Good Books]]>Thu, 20 Aug 2015 03:11:30 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/brief-reviews-of-good-booksPicture
A Slant of Light
Jeffrey Lent

This remarkable book, set in western New York at the end of the Civil War, reads like Shakespearean tragedy. The descriptions are rich with the precision of poetry, the sentences often twisting in unexpected ways that leave you wondering how the writer is going to resolve this one, and then he does. Perfectly. Even the dialogue is crafted in this way. My typical reaction: people don’t speak this way. But in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Plot? Plenty. Something dramatic happens on page two, the suddenness of which causes you reread it. The rest of the book shifts back and forth from the source of the drama to its consequences. I’m being intentionally vague as usual to avoid spoiling your reading pleasure. Trust me. This is one of the best books you’ll read this year. I’ve never read any books by Jeffrey Lent. Now I have to read them all.

Sick in the Head
Judd Apatow

When he was in high school, Apatow worked at the radio station at his school, which gave him license in his mind to call up comics for an interview. Not just any comics, but the biggest names in the business, including Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Allen, the guy who invented the late night talk show format. When he called, he conveniently never mentioned his age or how many listeners tuned in to the radio station. His questions even at that young age show his passion for and immersion in comedy, and he has continued these interviews into present day, collected in this book. The interviews are fascinating, full of wisdom and candor, not only about the life of a comedian, but about life. 

Our Souls at Night
Kent Haruf

This is Haruf’s last book, published posthumously. And it is a gem. He returns to his usual theme: the ways we form ties and establish community with others, through kindness and grace and honesty, the kind that unfolds haltingly but that sticks. You can finish the book in one sitting, which I did. I so enjoyed spending time with these characters that I began reading it again. Immediately. 

The Confessions of Frances Godwin
Robert Hellenga

I’ve been reading Hellenga for a while, and this is one of his best books. You will love spending time with Frances, who is a retired Latin teacher, a loving wife, and a protective mother of a daughter who is dating an asshole. And she’s a criminal. And, oh, she speaks to God. Which creates this strange sense that you’ll find out a few secrets of the universe. At the very least, you’ll learn about Latin and music and science and Rome. This book will take you far.

The High Divide
Lin Enger

This is about Ulysses Pope, who suddenly leaves his wife and two young sons. He abandons them. It’s 1886, Minnesota, a time when everyone needs to pitch in just to survive. The sons pursue him. Their mom doesn’t even know where they’ve gone. In the meantime, she has to pacify creditors at home. So there’s plenty of adventure, and it feels like an old fashioned Western, but ultimately it’s a sweeping story about survival and sacrifice and love. Written with a keen eye for details, the language always precise, this is a great pleasure to read.

H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

This is an unusual memoir that may not appeal to everyone, but it’s written so well that I want to include it here. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Macdonald, as a way of dealing with her grief, buys and trains a hawk to feed from her glove, to fly and return to her, and to complete a multitude of other tasks. The training process is often arcane—and sometimes tedious for Macdonald—but always fascinating in the telling. I do wish she’d have devoted more time to her father’s life. But this is a wise, instructive book on patience and discipline and grief.

<![CDATA[Not Your Daddy's Bible Belt]]>Fri, 14 Aug 2015 02:45:20 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/not-your-daddys-bible-beltI recently spent a few days in Nashville. This is what the main downtown strip looks like at night.
Reminded me of Vegas. But less crass and more earnest. Though unlike Vegas, it’s a place I’d want to visit again. Inside every bar rocked talented musicians, who were earning their tips with long sets and strident wails. Not a false note anywhere.

Walking these streets reminded me also of Orson Welles’s movie, Touch of Evil, because every few steps you’re assailed by a torrent of different sounds. (It’s a 1958 movie, probably not on your radar, but if you get a chance to watch the first six or seven minutes, it’s one spectacular shot, minus today’s computer gimmickry.)

Everyone down there in Nashville, from waiters to taxi drivers to tour guides, are hoping to break into the music world, it seemed. I did wonder if the regulars playing in bars had given up their big dreams and remained content to eke out a living playing covers, which would make a good movie. I think I’ve seen that movie a few times.

And the dreams begin young.

One night, a crowd of young people was herding into the arena where the Nashville Predators play hockey. We asked a radio station worker at a booth what was going on. And why the handful of protesters were trying to block the entrance, hollering that the people marching in were going to hell. When the radio guy handed us some free tickets, we decided to check it out for ourselves. It was a Christian mega-concert, a little heavy handed with its message, but innocuous and even inspiring at times.

We stayed for about an hour, then moseyed 100 feet down Broadway Street and found a piano bar called The Big Bang. The wait staff wore shirts that said Bang This. And the piano player was imploring one patron to “Show me your boobs.” Also innocuous. But quite a contrast from the arena.

One day we took a tour of Barbara Mandrell’s old house, which is now a museum of sorts. I didn’t have any particular interest in Mandrell, but the house was supposed to be spectacular, which it was. After learning about Mandrell, I grew to admire her talent and the way she kept her family grounded in the midst of wild success.

When she was twelve, she was a prodigy on many instruments, so talented at steel guitar that Patsy Cline invited Mandrell to join her band. Her parents feared this would interfere with her education and kept her home. Shortly after, Cline’s plane crashed. It’s likely that Mandrell would have been on that plane. It’s a chilling story that has stayed with me. But I also started wondering. It’s possible that had twelve-year-old Mandrell joined Cline’s band, maybe that would have prevented the crash through some odd coincidence. Maybe Mandrell couldn’t fly that day because of a fever, an ear ache, something, and maybe the rest of the band would have postponed the flight. Not likely. But possible.

At her house, you were allowed to touch the books, sit in the chairs, and pick up the instruments. Here’s me with Buck Owen’s guitar.

Look for my upcoming album on vinyl, Italian Country.
<![CDATA[Attention Must Be Paid. Or Not.]]>Tue, 28 Jul 2015 03:46:30 GMThttp://tonyromanoauthor.com/blog/attention-must-be-paid-or-notPicture
One Movie That Didn’t Get Enough Attention

Love and Mercy, the story about the genius and the demons driving Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I’ve never been an avid Beach Boys fan, but their music always made summer nights fuller and winter days less chilling. If I had known back then about the battles waged to create the music, I wonder if the songs would have seemed any less comforting. Because sometimes it’s better not to know. But all these years later, the music knotted firmly in the American psyche, the story of Wilson’s trials only serves to heighten your appreciation of little deuce coupes hugging California highways and surfboards building to safari pitch. Though what I liked best about this movie was the attention paid to the craft of music making itself.

One Movie That Got Too Much Attention

Jurassic Something. I’ve never been interested in any of the Jurassic movies, though I can’t quite explain why. The premise is intriguing; the special effects are dazzling, or so I’ve heard; I like Spielberg. But even he once admitted that after working on Schindler’s List, Jurassic seemed frivolous. Anyway, I didn’t see this current installment either. All I know is that it came out the same week as Love and Mercy and sucked the attention away from what everyone should have been seeing.