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.

 
 
After reading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, about a flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population within a few days, I realized that this might be the first book I’ve ever read about an apocalypse. I don’t think 1984 would count, right? Or Brave New World? In both books, the world as we know it may be gone, but systems reign. But imagine everything coming to a halt in a matter of weeks. No electricity, no fuel, no Internet, no White Castle. You’re shuddering imagining a society with no sliders.

If our thoughts ever do veer toward wondering what would happen under such dire conditions—and how can they not, given the shock and awe of headlines about Ebola—the details always remain blurry. It’s too damn overwhelming to think about. As I began reading this novel, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about these grim prospects. But I soon realized that, yes, I did. In fact, it didn’t take long to be drawn in. Maybe because we all take perverse pleasure in gaping at breakdowns? Or more precisely, Mandel’s voice is commanding and eloquent and demands our full attention.

It’s no surprise that this book has been nominated for a National Book Award. While the apocalyptic angle is compelling and fully developed, spanning a period of about fifteen years, Mandel also depicts how particular lives remain intertwined. You wonder throughout how the seemingly disparate pieces will fit together, but in the end, they do, beautifully. It’s an ambitious story, and Mandel’s vision is sparkling.

By the way, I heard on the radio yesterday that nearly 25,000 people died last year as a result of antibiotic resistance. Yet, we don’t hear much alarm over this. As of this writing, one person in the U.S. has died from Ebola. We’re all pretty stupid when it comes to worry.

 
 
Interstellar is an apt title for this broad, bold, majestic movie. Before I headed out to see it, I’d glossed over a few reviews (glossed because I only ever want a general impression), and the consensus seemed to be: see this movie in an IMAX theater to fully appreciate its cosmic sweep. Well, I’m not sure I agree entirely. The slick cinematography requires a canyon-sized screen, yes. But I went to an AMC theater, in the middle of remodeling, everything new where I sat, with state of the art equipment, presumably, but the sound was terrible. Oh, it was loud all right—my ears bled, my elbows rattled—which was fine during action sequences, but much of the time I couldn’t hear the actors speaking during the thumping bass. And, you know, I like to know what’s happening, how the story is progressing.

The reclining leather seats were so plush that during quieter moments in the film, I had to listen to the guy behind me snoring. I was tempted to throw popcorn at him, but that didn’t seem wise. I didn’t care to be a headline. So after an hour or so, I moved, which made me feel like a schoolboy because the seats at this revamped AMC are assigned when you buy the ticket. The old woman in line in front of me hated this as much as I did and wanted her dissatisfaction reported to the manager.

Back to the movie. Did I mention it was loud? Rollercoaster loud. And when the actors weren’t talking, this made for one hell of a ride. Buckle up. Yank me wherever you like. Because there’s no way to predict where the next turn will take you. The entire movie is wildly imagined—this is the same Christopher Nolan who brought you Inception—and firmly in control. Much of the time, you won’t be able to follow where you’ve even been—I’m guessing Nolan didn’t always quite know either—but it doesn’t matter. Kick back and enjoy the fun. Just don’t recline and fall into a snoring slumber.

The story is not meant to be linear or fully understood, I think, because it’s about black holes and wormholes and the harnessing of gravity and potential life in other galaxies. Even if you understand the physics tossed around, you’d still need to mute the analytical side of your brain and give in to the stunning visuals and sit there and admit, well, yeah, maybe, could be…who knows? (I had a harder time doing this with Inception because I know a bit about the psychology of dreams. How does the science hold up in this movie? I’m not sure, but from what I’ve read, scientists point out a few flaws but insist it’s far more plausible than the movie Gravity.)

There are some big name actors here, all holding down the galactic fort pretty well. Matt McConaughey appears in about every shot and will probably earn another well deserved nomination at Oscar time. Jessica Chastain could earn another for best supporting.

The movie is almost three hours long, well worth your time though. And there are plenty of quiet, floating in space moments for a bathroom break. Finally, don’t worry about being confused now and then. You’re meant to be. By the end, everything falls together nicely. Here’s the irony. The interstellar story, stunningly beautiful, becomes secondary to the personal one involving one small family trying to eke out a living on a dying farm.