Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

ONE L by Scott Turow

August 11, 2015

OneLBookJacket

First, some corny lawyer jokes (excerpted from the book):

How do you know when a lawyer is lying?

His lips are moving.

What do you know when you find a lawyer up to his neck in concrete?

Someone ran out of concrete.

How do you know that God, who created the world out of darkness and chaos, was a lawyer?

Because he made darkness and chaos first.

The first time I read One L, Scott Turow’s memoir rewritten from a journal he kept during his first year at Harvard Law School (first year law students are referred to as 1Ls), I was an undergrad student and had just completed two semesters of Business Law. Thumbing through One L while waiting on line at the college book store, it grabbed me from page 1.

I enjoyed and did well in Business Law and seemed to have an affinity for legal thinking. I even enjoyed the exams. Exam questions were were presented like intellectual puzzles. A case was summarized and the multiple lists from which to choose the correct answers were intricately nuanced. Settling on the correct response required knowledge, deeply considered reasoning and an understanding of how the law worked.

I guess that’s what prompted me to re-read One L. I’m a proponent of reading good books more than once. During a first read, there is a great deal of information to absorb. The second visit, then, offers a more comprehensive read. Familiarity with the story and plot allows you to focus more attention on the details. A seemingly minor detail noted the second time around (or, perhaps, briefly overlooked during the first read or unremembered) will often elicit a joyful revelation or aha moment. Such discoveries are the rewards bestowed on you by the act of re-reading. If many years have passed since first reading the book, the life experience you bring with you upon the second reading enriches your experience and understanding.

This describes my experience of re-reading One L.

Working in a law firm for the past 5+ years, I was able to more fully appreciate lawyers and what first year law students have to endure, or, at any rate, if they attend Harvard Law School (HLS). Year 1 at HLS  is an arduous, torturous, frustrating and reliably miserable period of intense study and exhaustion. All-nighters, enervating self-doubt, no free time at all, and constant tension and fear of being cited as unprepared in class further characterize the first year.

To be admitted and stay the course at HLS  you must, first, have aced the LSAT, love the law and possess the intellectual faculties to earn top grades (As).

The good news is, after the first year, 2Ls and 3Ls have an easier time of it. If, however, a 2L student is exceptional enough to possess the aforementioned qualities and also make the Harvard Law Review (which in itself requires a commitment of 50 hours a per week of additional work), that student will be guaranteed a position at a top law firm upon graduation. And a boatload of money — which is a prime motivator for many HLS grads.

For a cinematic rendition of HLS, and before I re-read One L, I re-watched a classic Hollywood film called, The Paper Chase (it’s a favorite of mine — and available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube). The film came out in 1973. This is a great clip:

Re-watching the film prompted me to read One L again. I downloaded the ebook and breezed through it in no time. The difference between the early publication of the book and the most recent is that Turow has included an epilogue.

The experience of re-reading One L shortly after re-watching The Paper Chase left me astonished at the similarity of the dramatic elements and personalities shared by the memoir and film. Wondering if One L had been optioned for the film, I googled to find out.

The Paper Chase, I learned, was actually adapted from a novel written in 1970 by John Jay Osborn, Jr., who also attended HLS., and was a direct descendent of Supreme Court Justice John Jay (another attendee of HLS) — after whom John Jay College in N.Y. is named.

The telling of these three stories of HLS are uncannily similar. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

I now realize that my enjoyment of Business Law was that of a dilettante. I was dabbling. I would never have withstood the trials and tribulations of law school. My employment at a law firm (which I will resume at the end of this month after 3 weeks of physical therapy) is about as much as I can stand of the law. The tedium of the work sometimes drives me mad. As do the many rules and regulations to be remembered and recited; the bureaucracy to wade through; the eye-tearing repetition. Forms, forms and more government forms.

A few months ago, a member of the firm wrote this in a email to me, designed to cheer me up: A poor day at the ofice is better than a good day on a broken ankle. Spoken like a lawyer.

So doesn’t it make perfect sense that Scott Turow abandoned the legal field to pursue writing novels. Before HLS, Turow had attended Stanford University as an English major. He left a tenured position teaching English at that same university to enter HLS. Eventually, he returned to his first love — literature — and, as we know, has enjoyed enormous success.

If you work for 8 hours a day, it is important to love what you do. But life is not that simple. Responsibility is always nipping at your ankles. There are bills to pay, health insurance, keeping your body fed, internet service…and so it goes.

At the end of the movie Annie Hall, the Woody Allen character sums it all up with a joke:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.”

And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?”

The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”

I Saw A Man (but didn’t care)

August 3, 2015

I Saw A Man

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers

If you wear glasses, you probably own a pocket-size minuscule screwdriver set, which is sold in most big box pharmacies. If a minuscule screw connecting the arm of the eyeglasses to the frame has loosened up, the minuscule screwdriver, handled by someone with better eyesight than you, will come to the rescue and tighten things up.

screwdrivers

Why is this important to mention? 1) Because a minuscule screwdriver figures prominently in this novel by Owen Sheers; and 2) Because I am buying time. I’m reluctant to write about a book I didn’t particularly enjoy.

The review I read in The New York Times misled me to this book (you can click the link above to read the review). Lately, more times that I can count, I have been fooled by book reviews, been too eager to accept as gospel laudatory reviews from respected sources that seem to have been, in retrospect, fueled by the publicity machinery at work in the publishing industry. Often, I am left wondering, after reading the latest hyped publication, what happened to all the great editors? Most likely, it has to do with the sorry state of economics of the new world order.

At any rate, I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers.

The novel opens when protagonist Michael Turner, a youngish writer from England (as is the author), walks over to the house next door to retrieve the minuscule screwdriver he had lent the day before to Josh, his running buddy and neighbor.

Michael is suddenly in need of his minuscule screwdriver, but the author does not inform the reader as to why. The quest for the mini screwdriver reads like flimsy pretext, a not-that-imaginative means employed by the author to get Michael inside Josh’s home.

On arrival, Michael finds the door ajar. He lets himself in, calls out after Josh and his wife, Samantha. No one answers. His deck shoes muddy from gardening, he slips them off and pads around the first floor barefoot, checking for signs of life. He climbs the stairs to the second floor. He snoops around in their master bathroom. Pretty ballsy of him, I would say.

Yet, from the start, the reader gets the impression that the author wants to elicit sympathy for Michael, as he tells us very early on — and, therefore, not a spoiler — that Michael is bereft over the recent death of his wife in an explosion.

In the bathroom, Michael gets a whiff of Samantha’s cologne from a bottle sitting on the vanity. Turns out, it’s the very same fragrance worn by his deceased wife. (This presents some interesting implications in the reader’s mind re a possible coupling in the future between Samantha and Michael, but the author chooses not to develop this foreshadowing tease any further). Instead, the fragrance transports Michael into a sort of mystical reverie, a visual hallucination starring his dead wife…while the reader is then condemned to dwell in flashback. A very long flashback.

The suspense built up at the beginning of the novel has fizzled. The momentum has come to a standstill.

Unfortunately, the structure of the novel maintains this same pattern throughout: one or two sentences describing the present situation, followed by a chunk of lengthy flashback and backstory. And so it goes. And goes.

Fast forwarding to the end of the book, there is a critical “reveal,” upon which the outcome of the entire story hinges. But this revelation and how it is revealed feels as contrived as the mini screwdriver ploy constructed at the beginning of the novel.

In an excerpt from the Times review, the journalist says this about the book:

“Sometimes the plot can strain credibility, but Mr. Sheers’s writing is so psychologically astute that it hardly matters.” 

I beg to differ. As psychologically astute as a writer may or may not be, (I don’t happen to agree with this reviewer regarding the psychological astuteness of the writer), it certainly does matter if the plot strains credibility. When a story feels manufactured, the reader feels cheated and manipulated.

I wanted to like this book. Owen Sheers is an artful writer. He composes beautiful sentences. But right from the beginning and again at the end, I was not able to overlook, could not get past, the artifice of that mini screwdriver.

Ghettoside

July 28, 2015

City of LA

After I moved to Los Angeles in 1996, I made it my business to scour the city’s newspapers for reported crimes. An instinct for self-preservation drove me to it. As a native New Yorker I knew about violent crime. Muggings, wildings, rapes, murders — in the 70s, 80’s and 90’s in New York City — were commonplace.

The fact that New York streets run on a grid and are numbered makes it easier to find your way from point A to point B. N, S, E and W make sense and are relevant to the grid. Or, you can always hail a cab. This is not so in Los Angeles.

Shortly after I moved there in ’96., a horrifying crime occurred. Because the victims were a family of white tourists, the crime made the newspapers. Driving at night, the family was navigating L.A.’s meandering, confusing streets when they lost their way. They turned down the “wrong” block — i.e., into “gang territory” — a fatal mistake. Their punishment was death by gunfire.

Reading about that crime not only freaked me out — that gangs were a reality in L.A. — it caused me to wonder, was this an isolated incident?

In L.A., you need a car. You hardly ever walk, except on the beach or from the parking lot to your final destination. The limited metro system extends only so far and L.A. is a sprawling city. So my first order of business after settling in was to: 1) buy a car; and 2) buy a Thomas Guide book of maps (it was the pre-GPS era).

Terrified of getting lost, whenever I needed to visit a new place, I would pore over the Guide and plot out the most direct route. The more freeways involved, the better.

Street maps in the Thomas Guide soon proved insufficient. I wanted statistics about individual neighborhoods and needed an overview rather than pages and pages of small sections of the city viewed one at a time. My eureka moment came while searching online. I stumbled on the site called the Los Angeles Homicide Report (click on this link to read a sample).

Reading a review of the book in The NY Times and recalling my years spent in L.A. (I moved back to NYC in 2009) are what drew me to Jill Leovy’s gripping, prodigiously researched page-turner: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America.

Ghettoside

Leovy, as it happens, had been a writer for the online Homicide Report mentioned above (back when I first discovered the site it was called the Homicide Blog for The Los Angeles Times).

What exactly is Ghettoside? The word is part of the police lexicon that refers to black-on-black murder in Los Angeles.

Here is how Leovy describes the motivating factors for “ghettoside”in her book:

“The smallest ghettoside spat seemed to escalate to violence, as if absent of law, people were left with no other means of bringing a dispute to a close. Debts and competition over goods and women—especially women—drove many killings. But insults, snitching, drunken antics, and the classic—unwanted party guests—also were common homicide motives.”

The festering underbelly of ghetto life in L.A., as in most cities, is characterized by poverty and hopelessness. People living in poor sections of L.A. have a hard time believing the police care about the murders of black people. Alternatively, homicide detective working the cases are continually frustrated in securing convictions due to the lack of witnesses coming forward to testify — at the same time understanding why people choose not to testify (they don’t want to be shot; don’t want their family members shot; basically, they want to remain alive).

The main thread of the book centers around the killing of the young son of a black homicide detective, a detective who not only works but lives with his family in the Watts and Compton area of south L.A., a dangerous place. The hunt for and capture of the boy’s murderers is undertaken by members of the same squad as the father of the victim. This is what drives the narrative.

Leovy’s writing is absorbing, detailed and eloquent. She vividly fleshes out each homicide detective and gang member involved in the cases. You see and feel them. Equally compelling are descriptions of the residents of Watts and Compton as they struggle to get by, go to work and raise families — and, sometimes, dodge bullets. Their sorrow mixed with resignation mixed with anger is palpable. Any stereotypical viewpoints you may have harbored previously fall away.

Gang bangers, as I learned, have a lexicon all their own. An excerpt:

“One almost never heard the word “murder” on the streets. Euphemisms served instead: “puttin’ in work,” to “serve” someone, to “smoke” him, to “lay him out,” to “light him up,” to “take care of business”—the list went on. Bloods, Crips, and Hoovers had their own trademark verbs for attacking and hurting other human beings—“swoopin’,” “movin’,” “groovin’.”

“…Caught slippin’ ” meant letting your guard down—a momentary slip could kill you. “Catch a fade” meant a fight. The gang term “DP” was an acronym for “discipline.” It meant roughing someone up to punish him for something.”

The book is a tour de force. The descriptions of gang members and what they are capable of, at times, will make your skin crawl. However, when the dedicated homicide detectives in this squad get gang bangers into the interrogation room, their skilled interview techniques not only root out information, they humanize the criminal. The reader comes to realize that most of these gang bangers were “raised” by violent criminals, themselves; abused; never had a chance.

L.A. homicide detectives refer to “ghettoside” as The Monster. The Monster is chillingly nailed by Snoop Dogg, a former member of the Crips, in his song (Drop It Like It Hot):

For those who love criminal investigation, reading Ghettoside is a must.

A Portrait of the Artist

July 21, 2015

PortraitCover

For too many years, I was afraid to read James Joyce. Most of this fear was based on what I had read about the novel, Ulysses. Opinions of his book ran the gamut from, this:

“One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”

– Paulo Coelho

to the more informed, this:

(from a column addressing Coelho’s opinion): “…Only someone who had barely glanced at Ulysses would damn it for “pure style”…

…Whenever there is a reactionary attack on contemporary literature, a snipe at Joyce is necessary…The real slander is to the reader, or rather, to readers. Note how the anti-Joyceans have all read him and then tell readers he’s not for them: too difficult, too abstruse, too weird – with the “for you” hanging in the background. I’ve been there, they say, and you wouldn’t like it. It is an attitude that surreptitiously belittles the reader. There is nothing as profoundly patronising as a middlebrow, supposedly “literary” author on a soapbox.”

Maybe Ulysses can’t be summarised into a sentence-long quote such as: “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find treasure.” Perhaps life is actually a bit less pat than that.”

– Stuart Kelly, The Guardian

You have to take a course just to understand Joyce,  I was once forewarned, a long time ago.

However, I am pleased to say I chipped away a little at my fear of reading Joyce as I read “Salinger and Sobs,” part of an essay collection called Loitering. In this essay, writer Charles D’Ambrosio makes reference to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist… and how he came to read the novel:

“…I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man strictly for its creepy Jesuit milieu and the way Stephen Dedalus uses difference and snobbery to escape. The reading of Portrait was itself a Dedalean act of snobbery on my part, a pose I hoped would piss off the jocks at my Jesuit boys school.”

Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Joyce’s Portrait, a coming of age novel derived from his own life, also attended a Jesuit school. A disturbing passage from Portrait describes 10 year old Dedalus as he is unmercifully whacked with a pandy bat by the Jesuit prefect of studies under false pretenses:

pandy bat

Check out the size of this instrument of torture

“Stephen closed his eyes and held out in the air his trembling hand with the palm upwards. He felt the prefect of studies touch it for a moment at the fingers to straighten it and then the swish of the sleeve of the soutane as the pandybat was lifted to strike. A hot burning stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick made his trembling hand crumple together like a leaf in the fire: and at the sound and the pain scalding tears were driven into his eyes.”

As it happens, in the days when corporal punishment was condoned in public schools, I had a 6th grade teacher who owned a pandy bat, which he kept in his desk draw. This teacher was an old-school, died-in-the-wool Catholic and, no doubt, a product of a Jesuit education. Because why would he own a pandy bat?

The good ole days

It didn’t take much to provoke this teacher to whip out the bat. Once in hand, he proceeded to inflict great pain, just as Joyce describes above. Talking in class or not paying attention or worse would determine the amount of whacks delivered — but, only to the boys in the class.

Girls, on the other hand, were never whacked. Instead, he would shoot the offending girl a piercing, cold stare while tapping, in steady intervals, the eraser of his Dixon-Ticonderoga yellow pencil on his desk until the girl looked up and their eyes met. It was terrifying (I was once on the receiving end of his murderous stare — I was a talker). But not nearly as bad as what the boys had to endure — and suck up.

I related to much of what Joyce writes about in this book, having grown up quasi-Catholic. As the child of an agnostic mother and lapsed-Catholic father, I, nevertheless, attended religious instruction until I was 15 years old, participated in all the required sacraments, until I found the courage to confront my parents and stage my own revolt.

That said, it is Joyce’s glorious writing, the story, his beautiful turn of phrase, command of the vernacular, erudition and sharp dialogue that captivated me from beginning to end. Stephen’s sweetness as a child; his earnestness to be good and not to sin is heartbreaking; and becomes even more so as he reaches adolescence, when he is still trying to fit in and find his place in the world while battling hormones and torturous Catholic guilt.

The ending of the novel holds within it the thrilling promise of liberation — something Stephen Dedalus has yearned for throughout. The reader rejoices for Stephen; and also identifies with him — while, at the same time, worries for him. The world can be an unforgiving place.

Finishing this great novel prompted me to read up on the novel, Ulysses. The book is brilliantly structured. It takes place in the course of a single day (June 16, 1904 — James Joyce would have been 22 years old in 1904); and each chapter is devoted to a single hour in that day. The story is based on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey —  and, delightfully, I learned that Stephen Dedalus reappears in the novel as the character, Telemachus.

“Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.”

– Dorothy Thompson

I am no longer afraid of reading James Joyce. Bring on Ulysses.

READ ON!!

July 10, 2015

4.1.1

Because I am still recuperating from a broken ankle and I have missed Spring and 1/3 of Summer, I’ve been doing a lot of reading…

These are some the new books I’ve recently read:

Words Without Music – Philip Glass – I enjoyed his conversational writing style; instinct for survival; and down to earth POV; Glass has tried his hand at just about everything and studied music with the best. I admit, I speed-read over some of the more technical aspects of scoring.

Mink River – Brian Doyle – I enjoyed Doyle’s quirky voice, characters and imagination in this brief and engaging novel — however, this is yet another book of fiction where the writer felt the need to construct an epilogue. As a result, the ending, to my taste, is too neatly wrapped up.

The Good Nurse – Charles Grabber – Indulging in my guilty pleasure of reading true crime non-fiction, a chilling story of a psychotic nurse who got away with murdering patients for far too long; it is also an indictment of the corrupt network of hospitals that terminated, rather than investigated, this killer’s employment.

Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill – Most writers, if not all, like to keep notebooks for jotting down therein extraordinary facts and personal observations. Offill’s short novel reads like a compilation of such notebook entries crafted into a work of fiction. This is all well and good if the device is not obvious. For me it was just that — obvious — which hindered my enjoyment of the story and many times got in the way.

Blue Nights – Joan Didion – I love this author’s writing and found this memoir of her daughter’s untimely and tragic death honest, riveting and profoundly satisfying in its artistry and craft.

The Harder They Come – T.C. Boyle – I am a fan of Boyle’s writing and crackling, dynamic prose. I’ve read several of his novels and short stories. This novel has a bang-up beginning, which was what drew me to it, but soon after it loses its momentum.

10:04 – Ben Lerner – This is post-modernist meta fiction at its best. The book is brilliantly executed and masterfully structured (I was stunned and thrilled at how seamlessly he can weave the elements of fiction and metafiction into the writing, and my appreciation of it enhanced my reading experience even more). This luminous story is set in NYC around the time of  Hurricane Sandy and Occupy Wall St. The story’s narrator is diagnosed with a serious medical condition. At the same time, a close friend asks him to help her conceive a child. Lerner’s deft prose, poetry, wit and cleverness enthralled me page after page. This is just a great book. I know I will read again…

Click the link (below) to read a entertaining essay by Tim Parks in the NYRB blog about why we should re-read books:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jun/26/reading-is-forgetting/

Devil in the White City – Erik Larson – A thoroughly engrossing, thrilling page turner of historical non-fiction, told in alternating chapters, about the planning and development of the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1890’s (the innovation of the era is mind-blowing). The author pairs the aforementioned story with a parallel, horrific tale of a predatory serial killer at loose in the city.

Where I Was From – Joan Didion – Another masterwork of non-fiction by Didion, which retells the historic path taken by her ancestors as they traveled west to settle in the Sacramento area of California. The author guides the reader on a absorbing path of discovery and its attending idiosyncratic history. Filled with tidbits about California and related personalities: Jerry Brown, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, to name a few, the reader learns through immensely readable prose just how water in California has been routed and re-routed, and still is, to its final destination points and what brought the state to the crisis of severe drought it now finds itself in.

Of course, I had to re-watch Polanski’s “Chinatown” after reading this book!

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou – After the shooting in the South Carolina church, I realized, with chagrin, that I had never read Angelou’s most well known book. I’m rather glad I came to it later on because I am bringing life experience to the reading. The writing is achingly beautiful; the story heartbreaking and deeply inspiring. I can recall only a few books that have brought tears to my eyes while reading; this is one of them. But make no mistake about Angelou’s courage. She was not and had never been a pushover. I wish everyone would read this book. It is as timely now as it was in 1969, when it was first published. She gets my vote for placing her portrait on the $10.00 bill.

Another Country – James Baldwin – The main character, Rufus, a jazz musician in NYC, is a complex, tightly coiled, black man who dates white women and then slaps them around and hates himself for it. Confused, messed up, charismatic and full of self-loathing, still, you cannot bring yourself to dislike him in spite of his behavior (a sentiment also demonstrated by his close friends, the other characters in the book (n.b., I did not find the other characters as interesting in their own right). His friends always forgive Rufus. You feel his pain. When Rufus talks about music in the jargon of the time (1962), it is electric and captivating. You feel that too. So, why, at about 1/3 of the way into the book, does Rufus throw himself off the George Washington bridge…what?  At that point, the reader is left with the uninteresting supporting characters (his friends). I read some more of the book beyond the suicide event, but was disappointed. It was not as fun to continue on without the presence of Rufus. One day, I may go back to the book and try finishing it, if the spirit moves me…

ANYWAY…

After reading Maya Angelou’s book, race was on my mind. I recalled an incident concerning James Baldwin, which is why I picked up Another Country. Many years ago, I was lucky to have as an English teacher a progressive, liberal man named Mr. Goldfarb. Our class was assigned to read James Baldwin’s  Go Tell It On The Mountain, in which Baldwin dramatizes the story of the black migration from the rural South to urban North.

Published in 1953, Baldwin said of this book, Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.”

An important book.

A group of parents in our town got wind of the book Mr. Goldfarb had assigned. Our suburban town happened to be nick-named, “lily white” back then because not a single, non-white person resided there.

An emergency PTA meeting was called by parents to ban the reading of this book that frightened them so much. An emergency PTA meeting!

That was when I fully comprehended the power of literature.

In the words of Ray Bradbury:

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 

READ ON!!

Notes From The Sofa

May 5, 2015

LifeInOurFastLane

When you’re laid up with a broken ankle, you spend a lot of time on the couch reading.

Recently, I spent real quality time in horizontal mode reading the memoir H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, a sharply observed and deeply affecting book. Her writing is elegant and her honesty unflinching. Her gift for metaphor is astonishing.

Unknown

MacDonald, a falconer and naturalist,  shape-shifts into the soul of the goshawk, the wild bird of prey she has set out to train, as an attempt to assuage her deep sadness over the sudden death of her father.

The book is structured so that the story alternates, chapter by chapter, between MacDonald’s own memoir and that of author T.H. White. White’s emotionally complex memoir, The Goshawk (published in 1951), with its tragic undertone, acts as a dubbing rod for MacDonald’s maneuvering through her labyrinth of grief.

It’s not often I am lucky enough to read two books back to back that I cannot put down.

allthelight

I have just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Beautiful prose and structured in alternating chapters similar to MacDonald’s book, it’s a style I’ve come to appreciate because I do most of my reading on the iPhone. I’d rather not put lay down a book until I’ve reached a good stopping point.

Doerr’s novel was riveting. He too is a gifted, elegant writer and, in my opinion, deserving of the Pulitzer Prize bestowed upon him in 2015. Set prior to and during WWII, the plotting is as intricate, colorful and dense as a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The story of a blind French girl is paralleled with that of an orphaned German boy who was drafted (unwillingly) into the army of the Third Reich as a radio engineer. Doerr has done his research and weaves detailed information  into the novel seamlessly.  The reader comes to care deeply about the characters and their respective fates.

There is one thing I want to mention. Something I have encountered in other novels (most recently, in We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas).

Doerr’s novel has an “epilogue” — in the  guise of a “final chapter.” After sailing through the novel, this last chapter left me disappointed.

Epilogues work well in non-fiction and are often necessary (for example, to provide relevant information that comes to light after publication). In a novel, though, an epilogue does not work for me. In fact, I hate epilogues! An epilogue merely jumps ahead in time that yo me reads like a cop out.

I think it is better to end the book. There’s nothing wrong with an “open-ended” conclusion to a novel. It can set the reader’s imagination on fire.

When you read Doerr’s novel (and I hope you do, because it is excellent), my suggestion is to stop reading after you finish penultimate Chapter 177, dated 1974, titled “Frederick.” I believe this iwouldchave been the perfect place to end this novel.

Try not to read: “Part Thirteen,” “Chapter 178,” which wraps up Doerr’s novel (the title is: “2014”). Permit yourself to bask for a while in the satisfied, wistful feeling bestowed on you by “Chapter 177.”

Epilogues are favorited by Hollywood filmmakers (rewatch Robert Altman’s brilliant satire on Hollywood, a film titled The Player, which drives this point home perfectly by making fun of Hollywood endings, specifically, the scene in the gas chamber with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts).

ThePlayer

As Billy Holiday famously sang, “Don’t explain.”

A Shout Out To My Sister

June 3, 2014

 

ME&CON

My favorite picture of us, my sister and me, taken at the wedding of my oldest younger brother.

As you may notice on the sidebar of this blog page, I recently reactivated my twitter account.  Twitter is a good place to post great sentences discovered inside the many, many books I’ve read.

But not everything fits in 140 or fewer characters-limit of Twitter.

So here is a very funny, longer  passage I discovered a couple of years ago in Nathan Englander’s short story collection,”What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” It is taken from a story titled, “Camp Sundown.” (Camp Sundown being an “elder hostel”)

“I don’t know why they call his book ‘Les Miserables’,” she says, leaning into the circle, as if sharing a secret. “As you will discover, this book is not less miserable. It is more miserable than you can imagine.”

This laugh is for you, Connie.

ganesha

The Holy Trinity of APPLES

November 20, 2013

CAMEO*

HONEYCRISP

 *

MACOUN

“…that every thirst is satisfied that Fall and ourselves have been

reconciled

that the stars in the street have been blossoming in broad

daylight and hold out their fruits to us now low and easily

within reach”

– Aimé Césaire, THE THUNDER’S SON

My Lunchtime Escape Into Fantasy

September 25, 2013

BirGirdTextingBig Bird texting in Central Park

Big Bird was sitting on my favorite lunchtime-reading bench the other day so I had to keep walking.

I didn’t want to sit down next to him. I thought: What if Big Bird starts talking to me.

You never know what kind of lunatic might be residing inside those feathers.

Instead, I circled around the bend to my second favorite bench. Farther away from the Bird — and the hordes of people clogging other parts of the park.

The view from my second favorite bench is the waterfall:

Waterfall

So it was on my second favorite bench that I finished the novel, Orkney by Amy Sackville, a work of such haunting, atmospheric, literary beauty that I continued thinking about it long after I had turned the final page (or “thumbed” the final e-page). The writing and the story left me mesmerized.

Ostensibly, the novel is about a 60-something professor of literature, taking his sabbatical with the intention of working on his book of enchantment narratives, who falls in love with and marries his intellectually precocious 20-something student. She asks him to take her to the sea for their honeymoon. Thinking himself the luckiest man on earth, he will, of course, do anything for her. He leases a small cottage on Orkney. The two of them nestle into its protective warmth, seemingly, at first, content to sit and watch the inclement weather through their window. Yet, gradually, his mysterious young wife is driven to spend less and less time with him and more time on the cold, misty beach gazing longingly into the turbulent sea.

In the course of my reading, I learned exactly what a “selkie” was (a word which, theretofore, I’d recognized only as the name of an English folk singing group from the 1960s). A selkie (or silkie) is a mythical creature that looks like a seal in water but assumes human form on land…

If that doesn’t whet your appetite to pick up this novel, have a listen to the intro to “Song of the Silkie” by the Scottish folk group, The Corries:

Finally, here are a few lovely writing samples from Sackville’s novel, vis a vis the setting:

“…The wide-winged grey-white birds all about us, soaring over, rising on the air and rounding, crying and dipping for a flash of silver, the bright, crisp sunshine, the shush of the waves, and our blanket between us and the scoured grass.”

“…The sea-mist was thickening, it was getting dark, and cold with the dampness; the masked sun was already setting, casting a squeamish, greenish light through the pewter clouds.”

“…An overcast, lowering sky this morning; the clouds have clotted through the night. Something gathering, brooding, out on the sea. A darkness spreading. The edges of my wife blue against the sky.”

*

The isles of Scotland (in particular, the Orkneys and the Hebrides) have held me in their thrall for a very long time. As far back as high school, when I listened regularly to the music of singer/songwriter Donovan.

One song of his, Isle of Islay (in the Hebrides), is a favorite of mine. In my imagination, it perfectly captures the essence of the place:

As it happens, Donovan named his daughter, actress Iona Skye, after two isles in the Hebrides. Lucky her!

On the map below, the Orkneys are colored “red” above the northern coast of Scotland, between the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. The Hebrides are located midway down the west coast, slightly south of the one-short and one-long blue “dashes” of lake dividing the mainland.

456px-Orkney_Islands_in_Scotland.svg

It is the remote natural beauty of the Scottish isles that captures my fancy. Reading Sackville’s novel, I was right THERE with her characters. I got to take the much longed-for vacation I’ve dreamed about.

I would wager, if you loved the John Sayles’ film, The Secret of Roan Inish, as I did, you will likely love this novel.

I am now looking forward to reading Sackville’s first novel, The Still Point. She is a writer I intend to follow. A new literary discovery is just so exciting.

Alas, on my way back to work, I spotted a forlorn-looking Big Bird on a gray brick road to nowhere, his break time over and back on the job.

BigBird2I feel your pain, Big Guy.

Feed Your Head

September 1, 2013

Overbaord

Now that everything is quiet and relatively stress free on the Day Job front and the DODO BIRD is located a football field length away from me, at lunchtime I am throughly comfortable sitting at my desk and catching up on my reading.

That is, until this sticky and disgusting heatwave grinds to a halt. With fall just around the corner (hurray!!), and today being the first day of September, I am so much looking forward to resuming reading in Central Park:

MorningGeese

Or at Lincoln Center Plaza, below (and partaking of the special seating seemingly designed for introverts and New Yorkers desperately in need of a little personal space):

SeatedIntrovertsSeats with Walls!

Currently, I’m reading 3 books at once, all on my iPhone with the Kindle app. Not unusual for me to read several books at once when the subject matter is non-fiction. The option of choosing to read what suits my present mood pleases me the most.

My head is always hungry. I try to feed it daily.

Novels hook me in a different and deeper way than non-fiction. Fiction reading for me is a one-book-at-at-a-time experience. And when a story is that good, I bury myself in it.

I’m finishing up Quiet — the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain.  I’m understanding quite a bit about myself from this book and from others who share a temperament similar to mine.  Introverts, it seems, have a heightened sensitivity to their environment. I’ve learned that introverts possess a more reactive, excitable amygdala — which is the  fight or flight response center of the brain. The emotions.

According to Cain, studies show that unfamiliar, new and stimulating experiences in the environment increase the introvert’s: 1) heart rate; 2) dilation of the eyes; 3) tightening of the vocal cords; and 4) the production of cortisol (stress hormone) in their saliva. Incredible stuff.

Franz Kafka, a purported introvert, had a temperament that couldn’t bear to be near even his adoring fiancee while he worked.”

These are Kafka’s words on the subject of solitude and its importance during the creative process (excerpted from the book):

“You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind.

That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

I can relate, Franz.

*

I’m also finishing up: “Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song” by David Rothenberg. Admittedly, I’ve been skipping passages here and there that don’t interest me, but have gleaned a lot from this book. The following is from a section on songbirds:

“…the ability to create music happens on the same side of the brain that creates language, but the ability to listen to and love it is retained somewhere else.”

Which might suggest that the appreciation of music uses the right side of the brain while making music requires the left.

From my own personal experience, I’ve noticed that words do flow from me more easily if I have been keeping up with my fiddle practice. Words don’t flow as easily if I haven’t plinked the piano in a while.

Of course, words flow best of all if you write every day. But listening to music you love (which I do most days) has no real bearing on the creation of  language — but it does make me feel wonderful. And it’s good for my amygdala!

*

The third book I’m reading is “Joseph Anton: A Memoirby Salman Rushdie.

Joseph Anton is the pseudonym used by Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa on him after “The Satanic Verses” was published back in 1988 (I can’t believe it was that long ago). The fatwa forced him into hiding.

His ordeal of constantly having to move to different dwellings; threats on his life and the lives of his family;  the support vs. non-support of the writing community; bombing of bookstores by the zealots; abandonment of him by publishers; the courage of other publishers to persevere in spite of the threats; the pressure on Rushdie to “apologize” to the Ayatollah (he would not apologize for being innocent of trumped up charges).

The fact that his troubles began when an irresponsible media individual issued a manufactured, incendiary comment regarding his book, something to the effect of: “oh, there are certain people that are going to be very upset by this book” designed to rile up the fanatics (I wish I could remember who Rushdie cited, but I don’t) — based on nothing that was true. Based on probably not even reading the book. Those (with no minds of their own) who decreed the fatwa against Rushdie had latched onto that media person’s throwaway comment and everything snowballed from there.

Interwoven throughout the memoir is the backstory of Rushdie’s educational path (though not a religious person by any common standards, Rushdie is a religious scholar in his own right ). In The S.V. he explores the plight of his (Pakistani) countrymen, the disorientation of the immigrants, their Islamic faith and difficulty in assimilating themselves and it in Britain. He also writes about his own personal life, which I knew little of before reading this book.  How he struggled with his conscience over the ethics and integrity of his writing, which he puts forth succinctly by quoting Yeats:

“The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work.”

That said, I confess that I tried reading his novel Midnight’s Children years ago but wound up abandoning it midway. For me, it was a style issue. I found the writing too dense. Too much like a fable. Excessively cluttered with details. To my taste, anyway. The book is 670+ pages. I knew I would never make it to the end, but not because of the length. Because of the style.

His non-fiction writing I’m finding more readable. Still, I detect an air of entitlement in Rushdie’s personality, which makes me uncomfortable. The British government, and, hence, the British police force, protected him for years, providing personal body guards; specially assigned cars to move him to new ground whenever danger threatened — which was quite often; transportation for his wife and child; picked his child up from school and more…all so he could remain living in London.

Rushdie could have hidden away safely in Scotland, for example, and relocated near the coast (residences were offered to him) — but, as he is a self-proclaimed urbanite, he declined the offers. He insisted on remaining in London. At the cost of the British people, which, eventually, caused resentment.

You can’t blame them. Doesn’t Britain has enough on their plate having to support the royal family?

Anyway, I’m about half way through the book. I’m beginning to doubt — perhaps because I already know Rushdie has made it through the fatwa alive and am questioning if I care to read about more of his real estate problems — if I will make through to the end of the book.

Besides, I am missing fiction. When (and if) I finish Joseph Anton, next on my list is: Orkney by Amy Sackville. I’ve read the first 57 pages for free on Amazon’s “LOOK INSIDE” feature. I’d like to read the rest of it.

I’m also curious about reading the memoir: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill (a writer who is in her 90’s).

So many books. My head will never starve!