Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

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:


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.


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.

…the universe squeezed into a ball…” (T.S. Eliot)

November 19, 2012


(all that’s missing, above, is the easel)

*   *  *   *



What a joy having FOUR whole days off from work in a row!

Away from the office FRIDAY, SATURDAY and SUNDAY is wonderful enough, yes.

But — waking up on MONDAY, with the knowledge that all the other employees in your section of the office are reporting to work and YOU ARE NOT — is beyond wonderful.

During this particular FOUR-DAY weekend, quality time was on the agenda.



I finished the painting I’ve been working on!


(apologies for the grainy iPhone photo)


Practiced Schumann’s Remembrance on the piano  (a small piece I’ve always liked; I’m determined to learn and memorize it).


Woke up early and drove to the Jericho Cider Mill on Long Island; stocked up on all things apple: Cameo apples (my favorite), apple cider, apple sauce; apple turnovers; apple oat bran muffins…

Apple Nirvana


I found a THURSDAY parking spot (which means we won’t have to move the car until one week after Thanksgiving)!


I read the essay on T. S. Eliot by Mark Ford from the New York Review of Books that I had dog-eared a month ago and set aside for a later date.

Facts I learned from this detailed, erudite review of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (3 volumes) by Valerie Eliot (Eliot’s widow):

  • Eliot was born into a comfortable, Unitarian family in St. Louis, MO and summered with them in East Gloucester.
  • An anglophile, he moved to England and readily acquired an accent. He became more “English” than the English. He  joined the Anglican church and eventually became a citizen.
  • He was born under the sign of Libra, went to Oxford, studied philosophy and Sanskrit, taught at Harvard.
  • Eliot was a virgin when he married his first wife, Vivienne, after knowing her for just a couple of months.
  • Vivienne suffered from mood swings. She was diagnosed with a “hormonal imbalance” (parlance of the day for what resembled bipolar disorder) and endured a host of physical problems; i.e. “female problems” (another euphemism).
  • Vivienne lived on a trust fund endowed by her wealthy family, over which Eliot would later assume governance.
  • Virginia Woolf once called Vivienne “a bag of ferrets.”
  • Ezra Pound was a friend of Eliot’s and was instrumental in launching his career as a poet.
  • Bertrand Russell, also a friend, lent the newlyweds one of his flats and was rumored to have had an affair with Vivienne.
  • Poetry notwithstanding, Eliot was encouraged by his father-in-law to take a position in a bank.
  • In one of his letters, Eliot describes what it was like working in the bank:

“I hope to become less of a machine–but yet I am frightened–because I don’t know what it will do to me–and to V.–should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses–I have deliberately died–in order to go on with the outward form of living–What will happen if I live again?…Have I the right to be I–But the dilemma–to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person?”


  • The misery of Eliot’s bank job produced these lines:

He didn’t know if he was alive / and the girl was dead

He didn’t know if the girl was alive / and he was dead

He didn’t know if they both were alive / or both were dead


  • The opportunity in hand, the next logical step was to re-watch the film, Tom and Viv. Which I did.

I first saw the film in the mid-1990’s when it was released. With Willem DeFoe, Miranda Richardson and Rosemary Harris, it’s a gorgeous film. The character of Ezra Pound is noticeably absent (perhaps because he was an anti-semite). But the film includes Bertrand Russell (an extramarital affair, or the allusion to one, naturally being a more juicy topic).


  • To complete my experience of total T. S. Eliot immersion, I pulled from the bookshelf my marked up college edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and re-read The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

As I contemplate (dread, more like) returning to work tomorrow, these lines stand out:

“And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’

Time to turn back and descend the stair…”


I’ve made a promise to myself that, one day, I will dare.

But in my case, my descent will take place in the elevator — and I’ll be eating that peach.

Grins :) and Grimaces :(

January 29, 2012

“How nice–to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

The inimitable Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

First, let me apologize to all who subscribe to my blog — twice today, I hit the “PUBLISH” button while writing this post instead of the “SAVE DRAFT” button. Consequently, the post was published two times — with little content — and then deleted, by me.

Well, you know, it’s been one of those days, weeks, months…pick one.

Anyway, what I was attempting to say in the first two false starts of this post:

I just finished reading an absorbing biography of Kurt Vonnegut (check out my book review by clicking the link on the right side of this page, if you’re interested). I love the above image I found on the web.

If only I could remember where I found it – I would certainly give credit for it where credit is due. But since nothing else appears to be working out right now, I’ll be swiftly moving on…

I cannot believe a new week is about to begin. I had a very good afternoon of painting, today — PTL for that — but I am not at all ready for Monday.

In fact, I’m getting pretty sick of wanting Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to speed by in a blur — just so I can have two measly days off. This is definitely not the way I planned to live!

Let’s just say this past week has been a week of grins 🙂 and grimaces 😦 – and leave it at that.

First, the 🙂

I saw two films that I just LOVED:

1.  “Another Earth” – definitely an art film, fascinating subject matter (I love cosmic stuff that’s intelligent and entertaining and not stupid).

This film is well-written (great story), beautifully photographed and acted. I promise!

2. “L’Amour Fou” – About Yves St. Laurent’s remarkable creativity and career and his lifelong love relationship with his partner Pierre Bergé.

If you love gorgeous fashion and stunning interior decoration at its utmost (wait until you see his apartment and home in Morocco), you will LOVE this documentary.

3. “Downton Abbey” is on PBS tonight!

4. Obama’s horoscope chart looks very good for the November elections. He’s not the best leader, but he’s honorable, smart, classy and decent — I could not bear it if any of the others were elected.

Okay, now the 😦

1. All the other political candidates and their stupid infighting, lying and name calling. Why won’t they all just SHUT the F-K UP!

2. The unrelenting tedium of my job. PLEASE, more mental stimulation, a thank-you now and then, and a little teamwork would be much appreciated.

3. The elderly Asian man who fell down the subway steps on Thursday evening and banged his head and sat bleeding on the bottom step near the platform waiting for the ambulance to arrive and all any of us could do was give him tissues to wipe away the ribbons of blood streaming down his face and assure him that help was on the way.

4. Everything that’s bad about the country CHINA (I’m not talking about the Chinese people – you know, those unfortunate citizens their lousy government could care less about? Those they poison with toxic air and bleach in the food?)

Things could always be worse, some people like to say. But you know what? Things could also be BETTER.

The Ninth House Blog: Then and Now

September 3, 2011

This afternoon, I revisited my very first post on this blog, published on April 23, 2009 at 1:57 P.M., and erected its astrological chart. I’m somewhat chagrined, given how wrapped up I am in astrology, that it had never occurred to me to calculate the blog’s horoscope; that is, until today:

I won’t bore you with a lot of esoteric astrological humdrum. Suffice it to say that this blog’s horoscope chart is not only auspicious, but synchronous.

Guess where the Sun, the most important luminary in the chart, is posited? In The Ninth House — the “astrological house” that rules “publishing.” Hard to deny that prescience was at play when I named this blog.

This is the kind of corroboration that excites astrology geeks like me.

Way back then…

My first post back in April 2009 happened to be a meme. I thought it would be interesting to see just how much I’ve changed in these past 2 and 1/2 years (2009 in L.A.; 2011 in NYC):

1. Morning routine:

2009: Tazo Awake tea with a little rice milk; muffin or granola; fruit;  sharing the newspaper with JC.

2011: Twinings English Breakfast tea with honey; English muffin and peanut butter; fruit; Today Show on T.V.

2. Job Description:

2009: freelance writer always looking for the next job.

2011: overworked legal administrative asst.

3. Bad Trip:

2009: way back in high school, smoked some pot laced with something and hallucinated on the “late bus” during the ride home. Haven’t smoked any since – if you don’t count the night John Lennon died – which made for a doubly bad trip. I should have just said no.

2011: one morning, I waited on the subway platform for the F train to Manhattan, entered a crowded car and quickly snagged a vacant seat. Then I smelled something bad. I looked down and saw my feet sitting in a pool of vomit. No wonder no one was sitting there.

4. Good Trip:

2009: driving down the staggeringly gorgeous coast of Oregon, which beats CA’s coast by a mile.

2011: sneaking into the grounds of the shuttered Kings Park Mental Asylum on Long Island to shoot photographs:

Creepy Mattress

5. Drug of Choice:

2009: a good book (presently, it’s The Periodic Table by Primo Levi).

2011:  two good books (presently, it’s Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter [reading at home — to heavy to hold in one hand on the subway]; and Composed: a memoir by Roseanne Cash).

6. Pets:

2009: as an adult, my beloved English bulldog, Roxy, born under the sign of Cancer, who died prematurely of kidney failure; her companion, a pit bull-bulldog mixture named Flash, the Virgo that outlived her; my darling Jack Russell Terrier, Quark, another Cancerian who also died tragically. Sadness aside, dogs have never been a bad trip for me.

2011: a basil plant.

7. Controversial Stand:

2009: I’m an astrologer but I shy away from squishy New Age-y stuff.

2011: I’m an artist but I shy away from the art scene.

8. Exercise Routine:

2009: morning sessions from a yoga show called “Inhale” that I record from the OXY network. Soooo good for my office-chair induced backaches.

2011: fast walking everywhere in NYC; Masala Bhangra dancing Indian hip-hop DVD-watcher/participant.

9. Evening Routine:

2009: when not reading, I’m watching In Treatment. I’m a closet (but not after this post) American Idol junkie. I like The Office too.

2011: just re-watched all 4 seasons of Mad Men on Netflix.

10. Favorite Gadget:

2009: my garlic press. It’s a Kuhn – it’s amazing. I no longer mince – a time consuming chore I’d rather avoid.

2011: now I use the Cuisinart to mince garlic. Same chore, different gadget.

11. Obsession:

2009: astrology, for over 20 years.

2011: astrology, for over 22 years.

12. Art Collection:

2009: mostly my own stuff — my paintings –but also a couple of Haitian pieces (gifts from a good friend), a great little ink drawing of a donkey doing a handstand, which was purchased off the wall at a café in Los Feliz.

2011: my newest paintings and J.C.’s newest photos.

13. Native American Memorabilia:

2009: a traditional tomahawk we bought from a Navajo woman near the Grand Canyon. Instead of a sharpened steel blade, there’s a large flat river stone and eagle feather laced to the handle with rawhide. It’s tucked away in a corner in case of emergency — like a home invasion robbery (my deepest fear out here in L.A.).

2011: tomahawk still on the premises.

14. Favorite Vacation:

2009: the Grand Canyon in early October. I can never get enough of it.

2011: I miss the Grand Canyon.

15. Always in the fridge:

2009: apples, yogurt, Trader Joe’s chocolate covered mini-grahams or some such chocolate treat.

2011: apples, strawberries, lemons, something to heat up, Locatelli romano cheese, salsa.

16. Next big purchase:

2009: probably a computer. My Mac is dying a slow death.

2011: we’re aiming for a vacation in 2012.

17. At age 5, I wanted to be:

2009: a garbage collector. Every morning, I’d watch with fascination as the men in blue hopped on and off the moving truck emptying garbage cans. I honestly believed that after the truck left our block, their route included cities like Paris and Rome, and that their mission was to travel and collect the world’s trash.

2011: a Brooklynite forever. We moved to Long Island when I was 6, and I left all my friends behind:

893 Schenk Avenue – I’m in the middle with the wrist watch

18. Current project:

2009: reading, making notes and psyching myself up to finally begin that novel…

2011: painting, painting, painting, painting…

Draw the shades, turn on the A/C, open a book and pretend it’s winter!

August 7, 2011

Coney Island – who needs it?

I just don’t get it. Going to the beach in the summertime. Enormous crowds. Coating your body in greasy sunblock, which attracts layers of sand and gnats like flypaper. And beneath your unguent veneer, perspiration, being liquid, follows the path of least resistance, which is to say, flows downward, where it will puddle around body parts you didn’t think of basting, previously.

Salty, slimy, sea-weedy, jelly-fishy water provides dubious relief from the baking sun. A plunge, rogue wave, and the next thing you know you’re swallowing a mouthful of petroliated swill that the kid splashing next to you is probably peeing in.

After your cursory attempt at “cooling off,” you trudge back through the muckety muck and hordes of people, searing the soles of your feet in the process, cooking your body in the sun once again, trudge back to the blanket you’d only just abandoned — the sand-encrusted pastel-hued swath of cotton that is flapping wildly in the sea breeze — the blanket you’d left unattended, sans anything valuable, while you were away “cooling off.”

Remember when you were a kid and your father would slip his wallet and wristwatch into his canvas loafer, worry-free,  just before you all made a mad dash for the surf?

Which begs the question: Where do you put your money nowadays when you go for a swim? I’d really like to know (not so I can steal it, mind you, because you won’t find me at the beach in June, July and August. I’m just curious).

And, so, anyway, now that you’re back to your blanket, you notice that the salty waves have stripped the sticky glaze from your body. You collapse on your blanket and are forced to repeat the exhausting suntan lotion ritual all over again. Either that or get skin cancer.

I suppose if you’re a Nietzschean — although I wouldn’t call Thus Spake Zarathustra a beach book, exactly — and hold to his theory of “eternal recurrence,” that is, accepting you are destined to repeat every single action that you have taken during your entire lifetime, you probably would not regret repeating the sunblock slathering ritual over and over again, year after year, every weekend of every summer for the rest of your natural life.

Things could always be worse. You might love the summer and also live in South Africa, where beaches are even more crowded than in New York:


As for me, I’ll be relaxing in my apartment for rest of the summer with the A/C cranked up, reading Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, the book I’d mentioned in my previous post, which happened to arrive at my office in an box last week, a surprise gift from J.C.

Talk about instant gratification. What a guy. Who needs the beach.

Music, Films, Books – Recommendations

July 31, 2011


My absolute favorite band of late. Their music, lyrics and utter creativity makes my hear soar.


Praise be to our Roku box, oh magnificent streamer of Netflix instant video directly to our TV, through which we recently viewed this immensely satisfying documentary: Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, featuring this undeniably brilliant, still relevant, thrilling band. Maybe the best rock band ever.


I’m a fan of Wolitzer’s witty, literary novels. I’ve read The Wife twice and recently finished The Ten Year Nap. I breezed through this latest book because I didn’t want to put it down. The novel centers around a local high school’s teaching staff and the changes wrought by the new drama teacher when she decides to shake things up by staging Aristophanes’ drama, Lysistrata, as the school play (in the Greek comedy, women of Athens decide to deny the sexual privileges of their husbands and lovers in an effort to put a stop to an ongoing war). It’s a clever, fun, heartfelt and poignantly relevant reading experience.

Midway through, I wanted to cheer, when one of the students stages a bed-in reminiscent of John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace:

If only this sort of thing would happen more often.


I love the low-budget grittiness of this decade of film. Here’s a few that I’ve recently streamed through the Roku box:

A WEDDING – vintage 1970s Robert Altman, meandering, kooky, punctuated with improvisation and parody, filled with name actors.

DILLINGER – (1973) starring Warren Oates as Dillinger, Richard Dreyfuss (!) as a very good Baby Face Nelson, Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd (these three criminals were actually in the same bank-robbing gang, at one point), Michelle Phillips (from The Mamas and the Papas) as Billie, Dillinger’s girlfriend, Ben Johnson as the Special Agent tracking him down, and notable extras, such as the never-disappointing Harry Dean Stanton. A great film!

THE ONION FIELD – (1979) Unforgettable film about two decent cops and a traffic stop that goes terribly wrong. Tremendous performances by  John Savage (The Deer Hunter) and Ted Danson (Cheers) as the cops, a magnificent James Woods as the psychopathic killer.

SUPER FLY – (1972) Starring Ron O’Neal as Priest, dope dealer and reluctant pimp, and cameos by Curtis Mayfield and The Curtis Mayfield Experience providing the excellent soundtrack. Notable for its unflinching footage of down and dirty NYC ghetto life. And a much better film than I remembered it to be.


THE RED BALLOON  – Utterly magical, uplifting jewel from France.

MOONSTRUCK – An all-time favorite. Masterful, funny script by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote “Doubt”).

MANHATTAN – A Woody Allen masterpiece. A perfect film.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE  – Never, ever fails to make me laugh.

STARTING OVER  – One of my favorite romantic comedies. Great work by Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh.


SUNSHINE CLEANING  – Don’t let the subject matter of the film (crime scene clean-up), which, admittedly, kept me away initially, deter you. With stars like Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin, you can’t go wrong. You won’t be disappointed.

COLLISION – Enthralling 5-episode drama from British T.V. about a six-car crash and the ensuing investigation that unearths lots of dark secrets as well as a murder. An obsessive viewing experience. Highly recommended.

VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR – Fascinating entry into the over-the-top world of designer Valentino and his long-time companion. A sumptuous visual experience.

BORN RICH – Illuminating documentary on the trials and tribulations of a group of financially privileged young adults.

NO IMPACT MAN– Maybe you’ve heard of him, a documentary about the guy who gave up toilet paper, etc. to live simply with his wife and child…? Much better than I thought it would be. Worth catching.

THE ECLIPSE – Atmospheric, supernatural thriller from an Irish playwright (i.e., well-written) centering around a strange presence inhabiting the house of a recent widower. Really good film.

ISLANDER – Drama about a lobster fisherman imprisoned after a tragic accident on his boat and his attempt to rebuild his life and win back the love of his wife and daughter and the esteem of the town that has shunned him.

As you can see, a lot of film viewing with the benefit of air-conditioning in this hideous hot weather!

When is a Work of Art Finished?

June 14, 2011

I’m in between books.

I’ve just finished a string of them. Books are easy to finish. You know when you are done because you’ve run out of pages.

What I’ve been reading lately: The Ugly American (William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick — excellent, very readable, semi-satirical, startlingly relevant classic from 1958 about American foreign policy); The Ten-Year Nap (Meg Wolitzer — very enjoyable read about a group of women friends, and could qualify as “summer reading”); Reading My Father: A Memoir (Alexandra Styron — disappointing in that it is interesting when she discusses William Styron, her father; but dull, when she doesn’t); The Emperor of All Maladies (Sidhartha Murkerjee — fascinating, informative labor of love about the history of cancer); and Drop City (T.C. Boyle — I’m a Boyle fan and loved this one: the inevitable decline of a hippy commune circa late 1970s in northern CA).

At any rate, with three books on my library queue languishing in “pending” limbo, I quickly scoured my bookshelf this morning for something to read on the commute.

I will not ride the subway without burying my face in a book and hiding my eyes behind sunglasses. Why? What if something like this happens?

This occurred the other day on the train I normally take to work, at the Lexington Ave. 53rd St. stop. Thank God I wasn’t on it.

(Just so you understand why I need to divorce myself from the MTA environment I travel in, daily.)

On my bookshelf this morning, I located an old favorite: And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos by the brilliant John Berger (who also authored the astoundingly perceptive Ways of Seeing —  a staple for artists and art lovers alike.)

Half-way into Manhattan this morning, I read and re-read this long-forgotten passage by Berger.

When is a painting finished? Not when it finally corresponds to something already existing — like the second shoe of a pair — but when the foreseen ideal moment of its being looked at is filled, as the painter feels or calculates it ought to be. …Of course, the painting’s moment-of-being-looked-at cannot be entirely foreseen and thus completely filled by the painting. Nevertheless every painting is, by its very nature, addressed to such a moment.

Is it finished? is a question I asked often of my professors in school. I also asked it in writing workshops when presenting an essay or story. It has taken years of experience for me to trust my instincts and figure out the answer on my own.

Sometimes, the answer is simple: You just know. 

For profundity and perspicacity, you need not look further than John Berger.

But I suggest reading him in a quieter place than on the F train.


April 16, 2011

You’ve heard of Nicholas Pileggi…? The writer…? Husband of Nora Ephron…? Diverting from my usual lean toward LIT-tra-ture, I briefly crossed over to the dark side — my dark side: the true-crime-reading side of me that’s passionate about all things mafia.

I finally read “Wiseguy.” I was not disappointed.

“Goodfellas,” a masterpiece of cinema by the brilliant Martin Scoscese and one of my favorite films about the mob, is the film based on this book.

I stumbled on “Wiseguy” in the Book Revue, an independent bookstore in Huntington, NY. An institution, this store is a holdout from the “good old days;” the days when everyone from every walk of life bought books and actually read them.

If you’ve seen the film (and who hasn’t?) and recall the superb narration by Ray Liotta — who played the Henry Hill character — then I can vouch for the fact that he got Hill’s “voice” down to a tee.

For Pileggi, “Wiseguy” had to be not only a fun experience but a breeze to write (if there is such a thing), because a very large chunk of the book is in quotations, taken right from the mouth of the highly entertaining Henry Hill.

As a journalist, Pileggi wrote mostly about the organized crime. The pace of “Wiseguy” is quick, with no dead spots (except for the murders, ha ha) and frighteningly revealing, particularly about airport security, pre-9/11.

As in — there was none. Who knew that the mafia controlled the airports. This book is a real education about who actually ran (and runs?) this city.

In this morning’s Times, I read about a member of the Colombo crime family on trial (uh, I thought Giuliani or some N.Y. law enforcement agency had supposedly busted the the mob using the Rico Law…?)

Well, they’re still around, apparently. Not as darkly glamorous as in the days of Gotti, et al., but they have a presence.  It seems that a Colombo gangster refused to appear in court in handcuffs because it was just too humiliating for someone of his stature.

You gotta love it.

In my birth family, a mob “hit” made for many a warm and fuzzy moment at the dinner table. My mom bought just about every newspaper (in the other “good old days” when people read newspapers) published in N.Y.C.

How we would bond as a family over these notorious mob rub-outs (with the exclusion of my father,  perhaps because he was 100% Italian and grew up in East New York, the turf of the mob — a fact I also learned in “Wiseguy” — and was a little too “close” to their dangerous reality.)

We read The Daily News, New York Daily Mirror, The Long Island Press, The Herald Tribune, Newsday — and on Sundays, also The New York Times. 

A mob hit was always followed by an animated family conversation, rife with details. Some of the hightlights:

There was Joe Colombo (shot at an Italian American rally in Columbus Circle in 1971);

Crazy Joe Gallo (gunned down in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy in 1972 — after a night out with actor Jerry Orbach [of Law & Order] and his wife);

Carmine Galante, a capo in the Bonanno crime family, murdered in 1979 in the backyard garden of Joe & Mary’s restaurant in Bushwick, cigar still in his mouth;

Gambino boss Big Paulie Castellano shot on the sidewalk in front of a midtown Manhattan steakhouse in 1985 on an order by John Gotti (who then took over as head of the Gambino crime family);

Michael “The Bat” DeBatte, killed by “Sammy the Bull” Gravano in 1987 at Tali’s Bar in Brooklyn;

Anthony DiLapi of the Lucchese family, who moved to L.A. trying to get away from the mob, rubbed out by Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso.

And let’s not forget “Vinny the Chin” Gigante of the Genovese crime family wandering the streets of New York in his bathrobe, feigning insanity.

Or Joe Bananas, The Dapper Don, Big Tuna, Tony the Animal, Tony Bagels, Meatball, Fat Dennis, Vinny Carwash, The Claw, Jimmy Gooch, Cheeks or Junior Lollipops.

And the famous “Billy Batts” scene from “Goodfellas”? Remember when “Spit-Shine Tommy,” the Joe Pesci character, helped by “Jimmy the Gent,” kills capo “Batts” for insulting him in the bar?

In real life, it was the up and coming Johnny Gotti who would order the hit on Tommy.

100% true, gleaned from the pages of “Wiseguy.”

For Art’s Sake

April 3, 2011

Quasi-Bohemian Days of Grad School

I may not be  a sentimentalist, but I am a romantic. I love art and music and poetry and books written about the early 1900s in Paris.

Particularly, Montmartre and Montparnasse, where artists and poets and musicians lived, worked, starved, smoked hashish, drank absinthe and, tragically, died of tuberculosis.

I’ve just finished reading Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest. I now know more about that horrible disease than I ever thought I would. The terrible pain, paroxysms of coughing, spontaneous hemorrhaging of blood through the mouth, the migration of the disease to the bones and the brain. Many artists and poets self-medicated with drink and hashish to mitigate the pain, from which there was no relief.

Incurable at the time, TB killed so many creative people. As I read, I couldn’t help relating it to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Women loved him —  all 5’3″ of him

In the first ten years or so of the 20th century, Modigliani hung out at The Lapin Agile with the rest of the artists.

The Lapin Agile was frequented by the likes Picasso, Gris, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain, Picabia, van Dongen, Degas, Duchamp…it’s staggering to think that all these incredible artists were in Paris at the same time.

Around 1910, the art scene moved to Montparnasse, as scenes are wont to do. The new gathering place for artists was now a café called the Rotunde. Poets came, too. Apollinaire, one of them — who, shockingly, served in WWI and died of a head wound, as a result. Braque served in the war, too, and also suffered a head wound, which almost cost him his sight.

Also at the Rotunde: Diego Rivera, Léger, Max Jacob, Brancusi…the list goes on.

Typically, an artist arriving at 8:00 a.m. would find a cozy place to warm his hands, eat the free bread, sketch, and nurse a single cup of coffee for the entire day and into the next, unmolested.

The Paris scene reminds me a bit of Soho (NYC) in the late 60s and 70s, back when it was still gritty and industrial and interesting and Trump-less and empty of chain stores, with graffiti everywhere:

Secrest’s book is painstakingly researched, never pedantic or boring. If you are an art lover and like to fantasize about Paris during this time period — it focuses on the years right before Hemingway’s Paris in “A Moveable Feast” — and share an appreciation of Modigliani’s painting (he was one of my favorite artists in high school, during my “portrait” period), you will also enjoy this book.

I’d like to share this excerpt from page 42. The scene takes place in the late 1800s (a bit of backstory), and features three friends: poets Shelley, Byron and Keats ( ! ):

“Early in July 1822, Shelley set sail in a new boat, the Ariel, built for him by Byron, fast and luxurious but an open craft with no deck. He made the fifty-mile trip to Leghorn in about seven hours, and stayed for a week. Then he, a friend Lieutenant Edward Williams, and an eighteen-year-old cabin boy set out on the return journey. There was a violent storm. The boat capsized and all three were drowned. Their bodies washed up on the beach at Viareggio ten days later and were cremated on the spot, with Byron in attendance. Shelley’s partially decomposed body was recognized by a book of Keats’s poetry that was found in his pocket.”

I hope this passage moves you as it did me.

A Lifetime of Books

January 29, 2011

A love of books was instilled in me by my parents. As a youngster, I have fond memories of both my mother and father, usually reclined in bed, with their noses buried in their respective books.

My mother’s taste was non-fiction, but not strictly. When I’d become old enough to appreciate “literature,” she suggested a reading list, important books she had loved as a girl and thought I would, too.

Although I don’t recall every entry on that list, a few are still embedded in my soul: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (one of the best books I’ve ever read, about the mounting consequences of untruths and the despair of self-deception); The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (influenced my dreams of becoming an artist); Jane Eyre (the importance of women speaking up for themselves) by Charlotte Bronte; Seventeen (the trials of adolescence, as depicted through humor and satire) by Booth Tarkington; and, most important,  Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl:

Anne Frank

I read this earnest, wise and tender work of art at about the same age as Anne was when she wrote it. It helped shape much about how I would view the world. I took so much away from this book. The need to sustain hope in spite of impossible ignorance and cruelty, the value of relationships and the beauty in growing up and accepting (and honoring) the changes that go along with it. Not too long ago, I purchased a hardcover edition of this book, which I will someday reread.

This spate of serious reading came on the heels of an earlier obsession with Nancy Drew, girl detective. I’d read 42 of these mysteries novels by Carolyn Keene. Make fun if you like. But Nancy demonstrated to me the importance of being independent (yes, she had Ned, her boyfriend, but equally valued her two close girlfriends, Bess (girly-girl) and George (the un-girly-girl) — and Carson, her lawyer-father, who encouraged her along these lines.

I attribute my lifelong love of clutch purses to Nancy. She always carried a pencil and pad inside, with which to record any “clues” she might uncover that would help unravel a mystery.

I am also never without a pad and pencil — in my clutch bag.

My father leaned more toward reading fiction, and also poetry. Hemingway was a favorite. He wrote a brilliant thesis paper in college about the Nick Adams stories. My parents shared a mutual love of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and would frequently recite stanzas from it at the dinner table.

On many a night, my father would lull my sister and me to sleep reading Longfellow’s tragic The Wreck of the Hesperus (a father ties his daughter to the mast during a fierce storm at sea so she won’t blow overboard, but she freezes to death in the process – the lesson being: it’s the thought that counts) or, more inspiringly, Henley’s Invictus:

…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Those last two lines still give me chills.

The thought of writing this post came to me because, since my last post, I’ve read four books and all of them were unforgettable and superbly written:

Nemesis by Philip Roth (his latest, about the polio epidemic in the 1940s, set, as usual, in his hometown of Newark, NJ) – If you want to learn how to “structure” your novel, read Roth. He’s inventive, clever and seamless – a masterful writer. One of the best. And, boy, does he know how to end a book.

Everyman by Philip Roth (because one book by Roth is never enough, I needed another). No other writer I can think of can write a novel about aging and death and leave you feeling transcendent at the end. My love for his writing knows no bounds.

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg – The subject matter is just what it sounds like – strung together in short, anecdotal chapters of about 5-6 pages, all set in New York City. A perfect book for the commute, too. Greenberg has a very well-reviewed novel that I’m planning to check out. An excellent writer.

Legend of a Suicide: Stories by David Vann. Set in Alaska, a kind of blend of Krakauer’s Into the Wild and the John Sayles film, Limbo. Structured in linked chapters, a fictionalized “novel” of the events and emotions surrounding his father’s suicide when Vann was a young boy. What he has done with the structure is a marvel. As I pored over it, its eloquence and inventiveness reminded me of Mozart’s “Variations on a French Folk Song” (Ah, Vous Dirai-je, Maman…). His writing style is unique, existential, empathetic, wondrous, suspenseful and not to be overlooked. Please don’t allow the subject matter to deter you. It’s so much more than what it seems. An essential book.

And since I began this post with a photo my sister took in London last year (I’d asked her if she would please go to “84 Charing Cross Road” and snap one and she happily obliged!), I must recommend the the book of the same name by Helene Hannf, particularly if you’re a writer — as well as the lovely film of the same name, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft (available as an instant download on Netflix!)

Once again, happy reading!