I'm excited to announce the publication of a new novel. Official release date is December 12, but you can preorder a copy very soon, maybe by the time you read this. For details about the book, click on "Reviews." To order click on "Books."
Several years ago, we booked Ray Manzarek of The Doors to visit our campus, but he cancelled. I don’t recall the reason. But I do recall the disappointment. I put aside his book that I had planned to read in preparation for his visit. I told myself, Ah, it’s probably just juicy gossip anyway. I don’t need to fill my head with that. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I snatched the book off my shelf the other day and devoured it.
Manzarek is a Chicago guy through and through. Which may explain how he kept his head amid the madness of The Doors between 1965-1971. Not that we Midwestern folks can’t go off the rails, but I’d like to think we have a greater capacity for…stability? Balance? I’m clearly biased. And I don’t want to get into a defense of that bias. Here’s why I mention it at all. As I was reading about Jim Morrison’s downfall, caused mostly by his own self-destruction, but also by outside forces feeding on him and handcuffing him, literally in a couple of cases, I couldn’t help thinking, Oh, but Manzarek will survive. He’s rooted. And he is. His authority, his ability to fuse the personal with the historical with the psychedelic is remarkable. The writing is crisp and hip and resonant of the sixties. Even the redundant use of Dionysian and Apollo and the word fecund mirrors the hypnotic pull of the music of The Doors. The other great thing about this book is that it will send you back to the music, to the songs beyond the hits. You will become newly entranced.
Jonathan Eig is another Chicago guy, who has written about Capone and the pill and Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson, all penetrating portraits. This time Eig tackles Muhammad Ali. When Ali died recently, I was moved by the public grief and the overwhelming tributes. All I knew about Ali was the image he worked to project. What I didn’t realize is that this image-making began well before he became a public figure. Even as a child, he worked to make an impression. He was more than Cassius Clay. I can’t help think of real clay, how it becomes shaped by time and hands. This is a fascinating glimpse into Clay’s obsessive need to shape what he presented to the world, and how he shaped his own views on race and religion and society, how he became Muhammad Ali.
No matter how many times I read about the injustice blacks faced in decades past, not to mention the present, I’m always taken aback by stories of how a World Boxing Champion could not eat or shop at the same restaurants as other citizens of this country, simply because of the color of his skin. This book provides broad historical perspective on the racial divide, but also offers smart glimpses into the personal reactions to this injustice.
Not long ago, I had never heard of Leonard Cohen. I’d heard the song “Hallelujah,” usually covered by some other artist. Then I saw footage of Cohen at a concert, with black jacket and tie and his trademark fedora. I heard the raspy delivery. I wasn’t sure I liked the voice. It seemed he was speaking more than singing. Slowly, I became more and more drawn to him, which is what his music does. The sound, the rhythm pull you in. The music reassures. I don’t listen carefully to lyrics on first or second listenings. It’s like my brain needs to acclimate. The content of the lyrics, as I soon discovered, are often less soothing, though still hypnotic and moving. It’s no surprise that Cohen published several volumes of award winning poetry. The songs are poems. I’ve become more obsessed with Cohen’s music after reading Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography of Cohen. That guy lived a full life, from a rich childhood in Canada to an artist’s isolation (mostly) in Greece to a monk’s isolation (really) in California. Simmons ably chronicles it all. The book made me sad to have discovered Cohen so late, but it’s a glimmering kind of sadness. This fine book, written a few years before Cohen’s death, and with his cooperation, is a poignant celebration.
I was poring through some old school files and came across this touching little note from poet Miller Williams. I had my students write poems using Miller-like titles, which could often be lengthy. Here are some of his actual titles:
"One of Those Rare Occurrences on a City Bus"; "My Wife Reads the Paper at Breakfast on the Birthday of a Scottish Poet"; "After the Funeral of a Young Woman Who Played Her Guitar on the Corner"; "On a Trailway Bus a Man Who Holds His Head Strangely Speaks to the Seat Beside Him"; "During a Funeral Service the Mind of the Young Preacher Wanders Again."
Don't you want to read these poems! Williams was a fine poet and a grand old gentleman.
And here's a brief inscription he wrote to me in one of his books, Imperfect Love.
Psycho by Robert Bloch
I’ve seen the Hitchcock movie, Psycho, maybe twenty times but never felt compelled to find and read the source material, the novel by Robert Bloch. The other day, while browsing at the library, I came across the book on a shelf, facing out, and couldn’t resist. Bloch’s book is just as chilling, but in ways that might surprise. For example, the famous shower scene takes up barely a page, with a final sentence that devastates. On the other hand, the psychological suspense in other sections, especially between Norman and his mother, is riveting. Bloch digs and digs until we know these characters. We understand their desperation and their desperate actions. Much of the psychology is dated and even flawed, but this matters little because this self-encapsulated little world is presented in such convincing detail. What’s also surprising is how faithful the film is to the book, right down to the money stolen at the beginning of the story, though we more fully understand Marion’s motivation in Bloch’s precise rendering. Marion Crane, by the way, is named Mary in the book, though I’m not sure why Hitchcock would have changed that. I understand the Crane part, the bird reference. But why Marion? Short for marionette?
Blood in the Water: the Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
I was fourteen in 1971. The fact that I recall nothing about the uprising at Attica tells you all you need to know about fourteen-year-olds. My only reference point is Al Pacino chanting “Attica” in the movie Dog Day Afternoon. It was an anthem of injustice for him and maybe for our society back then. But that soon changed. And Attica became better known as a place to which the most dangerous prisoners were sent. This is an important book, not only about the uprising itself, but about the system that fostered the riot and then systematically tried to cover up the brutal retaking of the prison, the details of which will enrage you and better help you understand the state of prisons and civil rights today.
Here’s a little background for those who are as clueless as I was before reading this absorbing account. The living conditions at Attica in 1971 were deplorable. If basic human needs had been met, no riot would have ensued. The riot, which was unplanned and more a result of prisoners’ panic over being inadvertently locked in a holding area one morning, led to standoff that lasted four days. Over thirty hostages were held inside the prison, while troopers paced outside, seething with fury. When negotiations broke down, troopers were told to take back the prison by force. Tear gas then incapacitated the prisoners, who were unarmed. This was followed by a barrage of gunfire, about 3000 bullets in all, which killed nearly forty people, ten of them hostages. Not a single bullet needed to be fired for troopers to retake the prison. The retaking was followed by months of torture and indiscriminate punishment, which was followed by decades of cover-up and courtroom battles for justice. The last few chapters focus on the families of the hostages, who were never properly compensated or counseled.
This is a story about injustice, brutality, racism, but it’s also a story about perseverance, recounting the overwhelming obstacles inmates and hostage families had to endure to have their voices heard. This book is a tribute to that perseverance.
Upstream by Mary Oliver
This short book of essays, Upstream, by poet Mary Oliver offers a different kind of chill, as in chill out. You’ll find insightful and comforting essays here on building sheds, on watching spiders, on reading Poe and Whitman, on blue pastures and turtles. Oliver makes you feel as if you’re on a walking tour with her through nature, stopping now and then to discuss the books that helped shape her. And through it all, Oliver is fine company.
I haven’t posted book reviews in a while, which doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. To catch up, I’ll confine myself to a single sentence per book. When I read reviews myself, I usually gloss over the details. I just want to know if the book is worth my time. So maybe one sentence will be the perfect length here. You’ll just have to trust me about the worth.
ENDURING LOVE Ian McEwan
I’ve been on a McEwan kick lately, and this book includes one of the most riveting and haunting opening chapters I’ve ever read.
SWEET TOOTH Ian McEwan
This is a lighthearted spy novel with a most satisfying ending.
UNDERWORLD Don Delillo
I’ve been dipping back into this masterpiece, which at over 800 pages is daunting, but if you can’t commit to that, the first sixty pages alone will satisfy.
ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY Neil DeGrasse Tyson
The title is misleading if physics doesn’t come easy to you, and instead, this will be slow reading, but the labor will lead to huge rewards because Tyson always manages to convey a sense of wonder.
THE DELIGHT OF BEING ORDINARY: A ROAD TRIP WITH THE POPE AND THE DALAI LAMA Roland Merullo
Who wouldn’t want to read about such a road trip, especially with the delightful Merullo as tour guide?
LIT UP David Denby
Denby visits several high school literature classes for a year, and his reporting is captivating, reminding us of the important role of teachers in inspiring young people.
NOISE OF TIME Julian Barnes
This story of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, who lived in constant fear of punishment under Stalin, is a remarkable and timely chronicle of the importance of art in society.
TALKING IT OVER Julian Barnes
This clever book reads like a script, where three characters seem to speak to each other, recounting the same events from different points of view, but they’re really speaking to us.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND Elena Ferrante
An intimate portrait of friendship that’s both exotic and ordinary, with lush descriptions of Naples, Italy.
FOREVER WORDS Johnny Cash
These are quiet, poignant poems that Cash never got around to putting to music.
BEATLES ’66: THE REVOLUTIONARY YEAR Stever Turner
There’s always more to learn, and their story never gets old.
THE LITTLE SISTER Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s plots are always convoluted, with some poor schmuck getting killed every ten pages, but the writing is so wonderfully crisp, like a brisk morning walk in late September, that plot doesn’t matter.
THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER Raymond Chandler
This book includes an essay on writing murder mysteries, along with several finely crafted short stories.
HIROSHIMA John Hersey
We follow the lives of six Japanese men and women just prior to and then after the bomb in this devastating account of ordinary lives disrupted in unfathomable ways.
Last night I had about ten pages left in Nathan Hill’s The Nix. I could have easily finished before dozing off for the night, but I wanted to savor it a bit longer. It’s a 620-page book that you’ll devour in three or four days, it’s that good. It feels like an important book, an achievement, a record of the turbulence of the sixties, a chronicle of a family, a perceptive study on what it’s like to lose everything, an astute assessment of what’s bankrupt in politics and culture today. It’s all that and more. But mostly, it’s a damn good, compelling story that’s propelled by genuine warmth and hilarity. And the writing? Hill reminds me a bit of David Foster Wallace in his scope and ambition, but while Wallace seems to revel in his own intellect, and why wouldn’t he, Hill remains earthbound and interested more in the integrity of the story. He does include a ten-page single sentence about the manic pull of gaming, but I’ll indulge him that, because even this serves a purpose in the story as a whole. This is a wonderful book. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I want to read it again.
If you’re reading this, you probably love books since I often offer recommendations. I’ll further assume that some of you may need the comfort of a good book about now, amid the uncertainty that has engulfed this great country of ours. There’s no escaping the uncertainty, of course. But for me, that’s not why I read. Sure, I might escape the day’s news, but books for me intensify what it feels like to be alive. I’m not moving away from anything; I’m moving toward the beauty, and yes, the security of sentences. Whether I’m reading fiction or non, I am intimately in touch with another point of view, which becomes, I suppose, an indirect and reliable kind of therapy. And yes, comforting.
I haven’t posted reviews in a while, so I’ll catch up here.
In The Fall A novel by Jeffrey Lent
This is the second book I’ve recommended by Lent, who hypnotizes you with the richness of his descriptions. While making his way home after fighting for the North in the Civil War, Norman meets Leah, a runaway slave who tends to his wounds. She joins him on his journey, and the two fall in love and form an unlikely family, which could be a book on its own, but this covers only the first third. The next third follows the adventures of their bootlegging son. The final part follows the bootlegger’s son’s journey back to his grandmother’s slave life, where he has to come to terms with who he is. This is a wonderful, evocative epic. I will warn you that the sentences can be challenging at times, one fragment piled atop another, which makes for slow reading. But after a while, you grow accustomed to the style, which fits the subject matter perfectly. And by the end, the satisfaction is earned and deep. This is one of the best books I have ever read.
The Heavenly Table A novel by Donald Ray Pollock
This book deals with some of the same themes as In the Fall, the same hardscrabble settings, the same language and local color of rural folks, the same lack of sentimentality and no-nonsense approach to life, but the prose here is much sparer. Because of that, the effect is often more jarring, and I’m not sure I would recommend this book to everyone. It’s unapologetically crude, but often amusing and by the end, well worth the time.
Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick
If you’re planning to read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which I am in the middle of, this is a good book to read first. This history centers primarily on Benedict Arnold and George Washington. If you think the country is divided now, the divide is centuries old. About the only thing I knew about Arnold is the traitor label associated with him. But before the treason, which was real and abhorrent, he was a great patriot for the colonies. If he’d been acknowledged for his heroism and dedication and honored with a reasonable position, he most likely would never have crossed sides. Besides delving into Arnold’s and Washington’s motivations, Washington’s being less transparent, Philbrick also supplies insights into the dumb moves made by many British generals. In the end, you realize, as you do after reading most histories, that the story didn’t have to turn out the way it did. In fact, the odds against independence were extraordinary. All in all, Philbrick knows how to tell a good story as well as any novelist. I only wish the book were 300 pages longer.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
More division here. Which shows me that the inclination to divide the world into Us and Them is part of our fabric as human beings. I don’t say this in a cynical way, well, maybe a little, but I think we also have the capacity to recognize this lazy way of viewing the world and to fight the laziness. Aslan is a capable guide through Biblical times, and while he refers to the Bible from time to time, he relies primarily on history gotten from scholars and scientists. The result is a fascinating glimpse into what Jesus the man might have been like. The book is devoid of preaching or skepticism regarding faith. He deals convincingly in likelihoods. By the end, you feel like you know Jesus and John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate and other people who usually remain vague and distant as human beings.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante is an Italian writer who prefers not to talk about her books or to even show the world what she looks like. I, for one, am only mildly curious. I’m happy to have the books. My Brilliant Friend is Book I of four Neapolitan Novels, and it is a beauty. I was born about 30 kilometers east of Naples, the general setting of the novels, so I was particularly interested in what my life might have been like had we not emigrated here. But I think the book has universal appeal, as evidenced by the attention Ferrante has been getting of late. The book is a deep look into the friendship of two young girls, often competing, sometimes distant, but always intimate and connected. This novel will provide the comfort I mentioned above.
Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman
When you think you know everything about The Beatles, there’s always more. I didn’t know: while in their early twenties, Paul and John would hitchhike and perform an acoustic set at a bar they happened to run across; many of their first songs had YOU or ME in them because they were superstitious after a hit or two, which included those words. You also learn about life after The Beatles. I didn’t know: Paul is handy with tools and adept at home improvements; Paul opened the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, where he teaches a songwriting class now and then(!) and still shows up at graduation. He is a good guy. Not perfect. Flawed like the rest of us. But driven and generous. This is a good companion to Norman’s other book about John, and also a good follow-up to Bob Spitz’s book about The Beatles.
Andy and Don by Daniel de Vise
I spotted this book at Half Price books and couldn’t resist. If you’re a big fan of The Andy Griffith Show, you will enjoy this. If not, carry on.
I’ve always been intrigued by time travel and did just that a few weeks ago. I slipped back to 1971 for our first ever St. Columbkille eighth grade reunion. Saint Who? That’s right. St. Columbkille. Near Grand and Ashland in Chicago. The school shuttered its doors the day after we graduated, which has always filled me with both pride and shame. No one could fill our shoes, I thought, but at the same time, this question: Were we that unruly? Closing the school was more likely a diocese decision that took into account boiler costs and teacher salaries, as pitiful as those must have been. Though I am pretty sure we drove our eighth grade teacher out of education, granting countless future students a huge favor. “Unruly,” by the way, was his favorite insult for us. He never tired of it, calling us “you unruly elements” many times each day.
Before I get to the reunion, let me back up. Weeks after I graduated, my family moved out of the neighborhood. I went with them of course. I was fourteen. But the move felt like a sudden split. My mom and dad were not the nurturing parents who sat us down to explain where we were moving or when exactly we’d be going. I always felt that if I hadn’t come home that early afternoon after working all morning with the local milkman, that they would have left without me.
So between then and now, I hadn’t seen or heard from a single person from my old grade school or neighborhood. Which is why I’ve thought about them often. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to learn the rest of their stories—what they did, who they became.
Though the adjoining church burned down in 1975 after it had been slated to be demolished anyway, the school building still stands, used now to teach children with autism and other developmental issues. A few of us met at the school before dinner, and one of the employees happened to be leaving. At 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday! That’s all you need to know about his dedication. We asked if we could peek inside, and he gave us a full 30-minute tour.
I had been content to loiter in front of the school, the past flooding back in vivid snapshots: the countless hours playing softball on our asphalt “field”; sitting on the wide steps, playing poker; and using the steps as a jail at night for ringalevio. But to enter the school, this cauldron of dreamy memories, never sure after a while what was dream and what was real, made my head swim. Three floors. Each floor had four classrooms in the corners. Classroom ceilings 30 feet high. Two stairwells, one running down the front of the school, the other down the back. Even these basic details had become dim.
As we were standing on the second floor landing, someone remembered how Jerry used to climb on the ledge of the chalkboard and reach up to move the clock hand forward so we could leave early. The teacher never caught on, and the entire class would exit down the front stairs, opposite the principal’s office. (I’m changing most of the names here, by the way. After all these years, I’m still protecting secrets. Those nuns taught us well.)
On that same landing, Jack casually reported, “Yeah, this is where Sister Agatha pushed me down the stairs.” We all stopped and turned. What? “Yeah, she pulled me out of class…and started poking my chest…and pushed.” These were steep, metal stairs, about 15 of them. He said he lay there, pretending to be hurt so that he could go home. Mom was called to bring him home. When he told her what had happened, she didn’t believe him!
No one remembered the push because only Jack had been out in that hallway. But most remembered the clock. I didn’t at first, and never would have without being prompted, but that memory soon became fairly solid. But what if someone had mentioned something that did not happen? I probably would have started to consolidate that false information in my brain as an actual event. For example, I’ve been thinking about doughnuts lately, not unusual for me. But I’ve been thinking about a particular kind, a certain dozen crammed inside a certain waxy white box that I think we had to sell for a school fundraiser. I think they were called Clyde’s. All other doughnuts in my life have had to live up to these sumptuous treats. The thing is, I’m not really sure if we ever sold them. It’s possible that the school simply sold them to us, or that they appeared in another decade of my life. Back to my point: if someone had suggested that, yes, we sold chocolate cake doughnuts every Christmas to raise money for the boiler that was in need of constant repair, those details would have soon, and without question, become a solid memory for me. (If any fellow eight graders are reading this…can you verify?)
Is this why I’ve avoided every other reunion invite in my life? To preserve my tenuous grasp of the past? Is what’s stored in this old noggin of mine more important than what really happened? Sometimes, at our reunion, the facts did clash with my stubborn memory. I’d always thought that, except for catechism, I got through eight years of Catholic school without a nun as a teacher. Oh, I admitted that they wielded great influence as they marched around the school and church. I think I avoided eye contact and held my breath. But I was informed that we in fact had several teacher nuns during the first few years. More often though, instead of clashing, the stirred-up past confirmed what I remembered, or spurred on the kind of re-remembering that I described earlier. This entire process, the entire evening, had me leaning in. Why the hell had I avoided reunions? This was fun.
One worry I had as I drove to meet these now strangers was that we wouldn’t have much to say to each other. But there were no awkward pauses, no empty stares, as if picking up right where we left off. The instant camaraderie resulted, I think, from this: we had all shared the same battles. No one else could understand how small we felt in those small desks as mr. h belittled us, especially the girls. No one else could understand how important we felt while campaigning for Mr. Hallock during his Chicago aldermanic run.
As I listened to the stories and battled with my memories, my paternal instincts kicked in. I wanted to protect those girls from mr. h; I wanted to cover for Jerry who was too often caught doing the unruly things we wished we could do; and most urgent, I wanted to catch Jack from falling down those steep steps. But the other lesson that hit hard, after a while, was that none of us needed saving. We were resilient. Children are resilient. Maybe the hard knocks toughened us. Not that there will ever be any rational justification for pushing a kid down like that. But if it happens, we stand up. And if we’ve learned anything these past 45 years, we speak up as well. Maybe today someone would listen.
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.
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.
My reflections on writing, reading, and random thoughts.