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Six Books

Sally Mann's daughter Jessie with a candy cigarette. "Viewers who knew nothing about us interpreted our lives, and the images were scrutinized under the mantle of scholarship or god-haunted righteousness," the photographer writes in her memoir.

Sally Mann’s daughter Jessie with a candy cigarette. “Viewers who knew nothing about us interpreted our lives, and the images were scrutinized under the mantle of scholarship or god-haunted righteousness,” the photographer writes in her memoir.

Among the books I read this year:

A Gentleman of Leisure by P.G. Wodehouse (1910). The coincidences come thick and fast in this story about a wealthy young man, a jewelry heist, idle doings in a British manor and a romance gone right, vindicating those who maintain that everything happens for a reason.

I always confuse Wodehouse with Evelyn Waugh. So I read Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), too. More hijinks among the upper classes, and what you had to do to get a divorce. Plus: the downside of reading Dickens in the Brazilian jungle.

The Girl on the Train (2015), by Paula Hawkins. I heard an interview with the author on NPR one night while driving and was hooked. Through a drunken haze, the our narrator sees a married former neighbor dallying with another man. Soon that neighbor disappears and the unreliable narrator makes every wrong choice available to her to try to solve the mystery.

Hold Still, by Sally Mann (2015). I was introduced to the work of the Virginia photographer about a year ago. In this memoir, she shows herself to be a great storyteller, naive, an obsessive artist with a wonderful way with a southernism (“He was in more trouble than a run-over dog.”). She defends her controversial photographs of her children like a mother defends her children. She’s great, albeit gothic, company.

Run, Don’t Walk, by Adele Levine (2014). Walter Reed Army Medical Center as the 4077th.  Washington physical therapist Adele Levine writes warmly and humorously about her six years treating casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee (2015). Scout Finch, all grown up, travels back south from New York City and discovers her father, Atticus, is not Gregory Peck, but an ossified small-town bigot. I have the same reaction every time I go on Facebook.

What did you read in 2015?

 

 

 

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Seven cool books

Labor-Day-Parade-New-York-City-Jewish-Garment-Industry-End-Child-Slavery small

My top 7 for 2013. What were your favorite books that you read this year?

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012) American immigrant stories from the Dominican experience.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  (2012) To hell with Henry. Give us more Cromwell!

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman  (2013) Memory and artifice among North African immigrants in 1970s Cambridge. I’ll never think of Walden Pond the same way again.

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen (2013) The rise and bellyflop of the greater-than-we-realized musical parodist Allan Sherman.

War Over Lemuria by Richard Shaver (2013) I’ve written about this chronicle of the pulp science fiction craze and what happened when a writer insisted that his stories were really true.

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934) Leftist New York intellectuals, struggle and seduce each other into the modern age. I learned about this book on an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan of a different book.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930) I’ve known about it since I prepared my bar mitzvah speech. But this is the first time I read it through. One hundred years later, poverty is still poverty.

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‘Polyptoton’

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

This is a word I’ve been needing to know, in the same way where you see a particular object everywhere but have no idea what it’s called. I finally learned it while reading Fiona Maazel’s new novel, “Woke Up Lonely.”

The example Maazel gives of a polyptoton  is John Kennedy’s exhortation, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

A polyptoton, Maazel-as-narrator explains, is “a redeploying of the same word in different form, fear as noun and verb. It was JFK’s genius to use the polyptoton as much as possible…”

In the hands of a master, this rhetorical tool can open the mind to new possibilities.

When Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he wove a strand of idealism into a generation that was coming of age in the early 1960s.

In the wrong hands, the polyptoton is a cheap parlor trick, a favorite of epigram-mongers because they sound profound even when they’re not. (I will add an example of this when I come across a good one.)

Like Kennedy, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a fount of this kind of rhetoric. As World War 2 approached, before Israel was a state, the country’s British rulers issued the (always referred to as “infamous”) White Paper — a policy barring Jewish immigration to Palestine, just when they needed it most.That policy, along with the world’s refusal to welcome Jewish refugees to safety and the Nazi’s rather efficient genocide led to the murder of one third of the world’s Jews.

It was a knotty problem for the Jews in Palestine: the British on one side and the Germans on the other. A right-wing group, known as the Stern Gang, operated in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They attacked the British and attempted to make common cause with the Nazis to try to save Jewish lives.

Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, undid the knot. He did it through paradox. And a polyptoton.

His policy was, “We shall fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler.”

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An altogether amazing story

Shaver1-590x845In 1943, a letter arrived at the editorial offices of Amazing Stories, a Chicago-based science fiction magazine that had prospered in the pulp fiction craze that had begun a decade before. The letter told an amazing story: In underground caverns there lived the survivors of an ancient race of people. Radiation had mutated some of them and they had become what the letter called deros, or degenerate robots. The deros had access to the machinery of the ancient civilization, and used it to affect the minds of the humans on the surface.

The letter was nothing less than a wake up call to mankind to the unseen forces in our world. What made the letter different from anything else that showed up at Amazing Stories, was that the letter writer, Richard Sharpe Shaver, insisted that it was not fiction. He held that he had direct experience of the caverns and the mind-influencing machinery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash. But the editor, Ray Palmer, saw promise in it. He fished the letter from the wastebasket, rewrote it to give it a sense of narrative, and published it in 1945 as “I Remember Lemuria.”

For the next three years, Palmer continued to publish stories about what came to be known as the Shaver Mystery. Shaver’s claims that the tale was true and Palmer’s insistence that he believed in the Shaver Mystery’s veracity were transgressive. It smelled of a hoax and it outraged orthodox sci-fi buffs. Richard Toronto’s new book, “War over Lemuria,” looks at the controversy that split the small but fanatic world of science fiction fandom.

Toronto is the editor of the Shavertron fanzine, dedicated to the Shaver Mystery. He knew both Shaver and Palmer, who died in 1975 and 1977 respectively, and other members of what was known the Inner Circle at Ziff-Davis, the publishers of Amazing Stories and other titles. This book is as much as a dual biography of Palmer and Shaver as it is an exploration of the Shaver Mystery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash.

Shaver appears in Toronto’s telling as a well-meaning if often-lost individual. He began hearing voices, the source of his knowledge about the caverns, in his 20s. The voices got him two lengthy stints in mental institutions, but as Toronto shows, Shaver seems to have largely weathered the auditory hallucinations like a chronic condition, albeit one that colored his understanding of cause and effect in the world.

Ray Palmer was the son of an abusive father. At the age of 9 he was hit by a milk truck and so badly injured that he was expected to die. He survived but with severe internal injuries that stunted his growth and caused him lifelong pain. He compensated for his disabilities by mythologizing himself in grandiose terms and writing bombastic prose that never seemed to need to come up for air.  He was part editor, part huckster. And when Richard Shaver sent his letter to Palmer, he had unintentionally found the Svengali to make the most of his tale.

One of my reasons for my interest in this subject is that Richard Shaver was a relative of mine. In the 1930s, before the Shaver Mystery, he was married to my mom’s oldest sister. So parts of this book are a fleshing out of strange, old family stories that I heard in pieces through the years.  Still, these chapters were hard to read. My family’s role in Shaver’s institutionalization, as seen from today, is far less than exemplary.

The Shaver Mystery still circulates within the UFO, Bermuda Triangle and crop circles crowd. But are the threats these phenomena pose from without or from within our own minds?

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Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Just resting

Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketchThis article in Lapham’s Quarterly on Roget’s Thesaurus got me thinking (pondering, contemplating, considering, musing, putting through the meat grinder). The thesaurus has a mixed reputation, and is often derided as a hollow crutch for writers who are unable to find their own language.

Its creator, Peter Mark Roget, was a 19th century Englishman and apparently compulsive list-maker who pursued his life’s work with an Enlightenment-inspired religiosity. Lapham writes:

“His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.”

Roget ordered the unruly language into 1,ooo categories of meaning.  “The synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically … like siblings that share a striking resemblance,” Lapham writes.

I was surprised to learn that Roget’s index was an afterthought. I’ve turned to that index with greater or lesser frequency since I received a thesaurus for my bar mitzvah in 1972. It may be my most-loved and most-used present that I received that day. It sits near my computer, much closer than “up on a high shelf,” where poet Billy Collins describes his as resting in the poem “Thesaurus,” an indication, writes Lapham, that Collins believes the best place for the book is at arm’s length.

Because if Roget sought to tame the language, he is often undone by the wild humans who use the thesaurus.

“To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words,” according to Lapham.

Lapham was thinking of college students, eager to express their intellectual bona fides. In my case, the thesaurus was like a ticket to the circus midway.

In a short story I wrote in 1973 called “A Clash With Death,” two high school friends, Eric and Jim, must overcome Death in an ordeal to save their lives (I had just learned about “The Seventh Seal“). Jim, as I wrote him, never went anywhere without his thesaurus.

“I’ve come to get you, Eric,” said Death.

“You won’t take me without a fight!”

“That’s right!” said Jim. “OK, well, I’ll be seeing you guys later.

“Wait a minute,” said Eric. “You can’t leave me in my hour of need.”

“I have to. I’m one who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.”

“You mean a coward?”

“Gritless would be a better word,” said Jim.

This was the exuberance of discovering the rhythms and colors of language. I was learning the humor of the unexpected and the freedom in an unwieldy accumulation of words. Far from wanting to sound impressive, I reveled in a chaotic  derangement of the senses.

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came to America a couple of years later, I recognized the same exuberant impulse, particularly in the Dead Parrot sketch:

Mr. Praline: VOOM?!? Mate, this bird wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it! He’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no. He’s pining.

Mr. Praline:  He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Yes, and Death is The Pale Priest of the Mute People, That Grim Ferryman, The Old Floorer.

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Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.

Fiction

History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…

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