The Liars’ Club (Karr)

Memoirs are a funny genre. It’s one thing to read a memoir written by a famous person or a memoir that focuses on a particular historical incident of interest. But why should we read a memoir written by an ordinary person? (And goodness knows, there are a lot of them.) Some memoirists respond to this obstacle by going to extreme (at times even fictional) lengths to make their memoirs memorable.

Yes, there are plenty of moments in Karr’s book that, well, terrified me. But I think what holds the book together is that Karr is a fantastic writer. People, places, and incidents spark to life. Karr is telling a story, her story, first. She rarely steps back to comment on the story itself, and by exercising such restraint, she makes her reflective moments more memorable. She allows her growth to reveal itself. She doesn’t name it as such; circumstances force her to scramble to survive or simply just endure.

She doesn’t shoot for the movie-of-the-week angle. There’s no false attempt to inspire at the end. She doesn’t attempt to show off her cleverness. There is simply just a story here, extremely well-told.

The Retreat (Appelfeld)

Retreat is exactly what some Jews have done in this slim, poetic novel. It is 1937, and an eclectic assortment of Jews has been drawn to this Retreat in order to rid themselves of their Jewish traits. We know our history, so we know what’s coming. Though it’s not explicit, it’s always in the air. Ominously, there is a sense that work, hard work, will set these people free. As with most visions, though, things here fall apart, especially when the founder, Balaban, becomes ill.

Appelfeld directs our focus onto Lotte, an actress still concerned with her body, whose daughter brings her to the Retreat because she has nowhere else to go. Lotte becomes part of the furniture here, and a long awaited visit from her daughter, does not turn out the way one might expect.

Appelfeld’s writing is delicate. It’s translated well by Dalya Bilu. The story takes on the tone of a parable. It’s an intriguing, understated story.

Telegraph Avenue (Chabon)

I have a pretty good track record with Mr. Chabon. Aside from The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which just eluded me, I’ve enjoyed both his fiction (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Wonder Boys, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and his non-fiction (Manhood for Amateurs, Maps & Legends). So, based on a friend’s recommendation and a ticket to Mr. Chabon’s appearance at the beautiful Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, I picked up a paperback copy of Telegraph Avenue the day it came out. The clerk had to go into the back to get one; it hadn’t even been put out on the floor yet.

Now I’d read one review, so I knew a bit about what to expect. Chabon, the review said, had made one of his characters black and the reviewer said that some of the dialogue seemed a bit extreme.

Why did this bother me? I’ve never been a firm believer in the ‘Write What You Know’ axiom. For some (Neil Simon comes to mind because of a long ago conversation at Morton’s in Chicago), it works. I think most good writers (and I’d put Mr. Chabon in that category can make stuff up.

But either the reviewer underplayed the issue or I only remembered a piece of it. Not only is one of the protagonists (Archy) black (and Mr. Chabon, for those who don’t know, is not), but his father is former star of 1970s black exploitation films. And Archy has a son, Titus, who he didn’t acknowledge for 14 years until the kid shows up in his neighborhood and has an ambiguous sexual relationship with Julie, the son (yes, son, until, unless – no, that would be a spoiler) of Archy’s (white) business  partner, Nat. Chabon clearly made no little plans for this novel.

Though there are lulls in the plot at times, the writing is electric throughout. The magnificent sentence that marks the flight of 58 (a parrot – believe me, it makes sense) is majestic. So is the eulogy Archy delivers. At first, I wondered if Chabon could keep it up for 465 pages; he does. The details are magnificent. I would love to see Chabon and Junot Diaz talk pop culture.

Mostly, I admired Chabon’s ability to evoke the neighborhood that surrounds Brokedown Records on Telegraph Avenue. In the end, this was, in my mind, the major success of the book. Chabon could be talking about his own book when he writes, “It was all about the neighborhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild” (465). Though the character of Gibson Goode (a poke at Magic Johnson?) seems a bit broadly sketched, the conflict he brings into the story is presented in an even-handed manner. It is to Chabon’s credit that, as a reader, I empathized with no one and every one.

My ticket to hear (?) / see (?) Mr. Chabon was for earlier this evening. I knew it was going to be him and his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Of the two, she was definitely more dynamic. I am curious to read something of hers. (Any recommendations?) But there was no moderator, and the arrangement came off as a bit cutesy and pre-packaged. The two of them sat on stage and talked (guided by a timer) about collaboration (as writers, as parents) and how art and life intersected for them.

Through a set of awkward circumstances, I ended up asking the last question (the third, after there were supposed to be just two more). I asked Mr. Chabon about the thought process that went into making one of his main characters black. I asked the question badly and perhaps because I asked it badly, or perhaps I asked a question just of him, or perhaps because he’d heard the question before (on his book tour? in reviews?), or perhaps for none of these reasons, he seemed annoyed. (Perhaps he wasn’t?) He gave me an answer that was almost verbatim from the “About the Book’ section at the end of the paperback edition. In sum, he’d visited a record store, seen that it was run by two partners, one white and one black man, and that it was a community hangout. He decided it made a great setting and wrote about it. To fill in any gaps, he used research and his own observations. I’m not sure what kind of answer I expected. Author talks are a funny thing. But the answer seemed disingenuous at the time and that feeling was confirmed when I read the ‘About the Book’ section in the novel.

[A probably petty aside to the huffy and obsequious librarian who invited Ms. Waldman to a mystery festival in front of the whole audience.

a) You don’t invite an author to an event in front of an audience. There’s a protocol. Follow it.

b) Before you criticize me for asking an extra question, you might want to make sure you know all of the facts. I gave you the opportunity to ask me, but you got on your high horse and rode away.]

The Phantom Tollbooth (Juster)

This just might be the perfect read aloud and the perfect book. Funny and pointed, this book works for children and adults. The sentences are elegant, the characters memorable, and Jules Feiffer’s illustrations are wonderful. If I were to propose a “One Country, One Book” title, it would be this. I think this one is worth re-reading on a regular basis.

We’re on to The Mysterious Benedict Society next. I hope the kids like it because they’ve been arguing for Lord of the Rings.

No Country for Old Men (McCarthy)

Even after some years, it was hard to read this without picturing Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem (and that haircut!), Josh Brolin and even Woody Harrelson. The Coen Brothers just got this one right.

But I have to read some Cormac McCarthy every once in a while, and when Elmore Leonard died, I checked my shelves. When I didn’t see any Leonard, I decided that the time was right for this one.

I imagine McCarthy’s spartan style must annoy some, but I like it (21):

Where’d you get that pistol?

At the gettin place.

There’s just no better answer.

Bell, the sheriff, really becomes more central in the novel. He has regular internal monologues, and I think McCarthy is speaking through him. Something is changing, and neither Bell nor McCarthy seems to know what to make of it. From one of the monologues (295-296) –

These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.

“Signs and wonders.” I love that.

Bell and McCarthy want to know “[h]ow come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for?” (271). We are, after all, “bein bought with our own money” (303).

I couldn’t agree more.

If you haven’t seen the movie, read this book. If you have, read the book anyway and then see the movie again.

The Two Cultures (C.P. Snow)

This book is actually a transcript of lecture Snow gave and then his response a few years later to all of the feedback he’d received. Though the original lecture was given in 1959, there is much in it that resonates today.

What Snow calls the two cultures might today be called the two sides of the brain. He offers the dichotomy of the scientist and the literary expert. For example, he writes that “[i]f the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist” (11).

He laments the increased specialization of education and outlines the impact it has on all of us. We were, at that time, at a point where each side barely spoke with each other. He argues, and I agree, that “[t]he clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines,two cultures – of two galaxies, so far as that goes – ought to produce creative chances” (16). Instead, “once a cultural divide gets established, all the social forces operate to make it not less rigid, but more so” (17).

He also argues that “[i]ndustrialization is the only hope for the poor” (25). At first, I balked, thinking only of child labor and its abuses. But Snow calls me on that, using the word “privilege” far sooner than any of our current critics. “[T]he industrial revolution was less bad,” he asserts, “then what had gone before” (27).

Snow is also sensitive to the fact that “the young scientists know that with an indifferent degree they’ll get a comfortable job, while their contemporaries in English or History will be lucky to earn 60 per cent as much” (18). The scientists were on what Snow calls “the rise” (17) even then.

The writing here is not outstanding. The first part is, after all, a talk. I wonder if it would be a TED talk today.

But there is much in here to chew on for educators today. This piece made me think a great deal. It also made me want to brush up on my science.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (Maraniss)

I am not sure why baseball biographies have become my “go to” genre whenever I need a break. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been unable to find a replacement for Mankell’s Wallender series.

I came to this bio knowing little of Clemente – that he had exactly 3,000 hits, had a great arm, and died in a plane crash while he was trying to deliver humanitarian relief.

I learned a great deal from this well-written book. To his credit, Maraniss largely stays out of the way. He’s not afraid to criticize Clemente – in particular for his (sometimes feigned) anger and its consequences. And the book moves well.

I had no idea about how Branch Rickey serves as a connection between Jackie Robinson and Clemente. Rickey knew the Dodgers were trying to hide Clemente in the farm system because he’d helped get him there.

The Pirates are making an impressive run for the post-season this season. I hope they make it. It would be good for Pittsburgh and for baseball. And perhaps it will bring more attention to Clemente – both to his career and to his life. I had no idea he was the labor rep when Curt Flood tried to change the way baseball operated. I had no idea how much he meant to Puerto Rico. I had no idea that, as he struggled to learn and pronounce English, reporters would write his quotations using phonetic spelling. (How editors allowed that is beyond me.)

But Clemente wasn’t first, and his arc and reputation are not as storybook as Robinson’s, so perhaps that’s why (and this was one of Clemente’s most regular laments) he never seemed to get enough credit. Where is his movie?

Clemente seemed to make an impact on everyone he met everywhere he went. After his plane crashed, the people of Puerto Rico lined the beaches and “waited for [him] to come walking out of the sea” (340). One sportswriter (and Clemente seems to have had a rather contentious relationship with the profession) said, “there were things he did on a ball field that made me wish I was Shakespeare” (343).

Perhaps baseball is right not to retire #21, but attention, Arthur Miller wrote, must be paid. Clemente was quite a player; he was also quite a man.