Category Archives: reading

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

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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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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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‘It’s all good.’ –Albert Einstein

Why do we quote others?  Specifically, why do we quote famous people? Presumably it’s to give weight to the point we’re trying to make: If you won’t take it from me, take it from Albert Einstein.

Better yet, if you won’t take it from me, you’ll take it from me if you see I’ve taken it from Albert Einstein.

Quoting Einstein is a no-brainer. School and PTA newsletters quote him all the time. The logic  here is interesting:  If what Einstein says is true (and of course it’s true, because he’s a genius), then the point we’re trying to make — about education or school spirit or the bake sale — by quoting him must also be true, and you’d be a fool to dismiss it.

Einstein, of course, wasn’t a genius about everything. And I wonder if people would fall in line behind a quotation from him about marriage or relations between the sexes the way they seem to behind “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

I found that quotation on a calendar which had something wise and pithy from somebody wise and pithy for every month of the year. It’s where I found this quote from Aristotle:  “Wit is educated insolence.”

I’m beginning to doubt that these famous, wise and deep people actually said the things that are attributed to them. Can you imagine Aristotle saying that wit is educated insolence? Could he have actually said that in Classical Greek? And if he had, did it mean the same thing as it does in modern English? Was Aristotle’s concept of wit the same as ours?

Many times quotations are used to demonstrate to the reader what a failure he is:  “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of life,” the calendar quotes Charles Darwin, who must never wasted an hour of his life unlike, say, me.

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do,” wrote Voltaire. And I feel guilty as charged.

What Einstein is to genius, Gandhi is to virtue. And so the calendar quotes him saying, “We must become the change we want to see.” I’d probably agree if I understood what that means.

Another thing these quotations have in common is a complete absence of  humor. This makes them catnip to organizations and institutions that are trying to assert their moral authority without making any waves.

But if these men did say or write these things, perhaps they did it as hack work. Like celebrities today do commercials for the money, perhaps Emerson and Voltaire  and the others earned extra cash by penning these deep-sounding but otherwise banal one-liners.

To rise above the cheapening of the Einstein and Gandhi brands from over-exposure, we might be forced to come up with our own quotations.

Something like:  “The secret of life is no secret if we keep it to ourselves.”

“Wisdom is wise and also dumb.” Or:  “Wisdom without wis is  just dumb. (I admit, these need some work.)

“The true path to meaning is not knowing, but not knowing.”

“I would rather eat my dog than fail to help my fellow man.”

Please add yours.

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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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With friends like these

Saint Bernard: Friend of foe?

St. Bernard: Keep on expiating.

In his review in Tablet of “Philosemitism in History,” edited by Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp, Adam Kirsch made clear to me why people who Love the Jews are so creepy:

“…closer to the bone is the saying that ‘a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews.’ That formulation helps to capture the sense that philo- and anti- share an unhealthy interest in Jews and an unreal notion of who and what Jews are.”

That unhealthy interest is what is perverse about Christian Zionists of the fundamentalist kind. It’s why Washington Post opinionaire Dana Milbank called the news that Sen. Joe Lieberman was going to join Glenn Beck’s rally in Israel in August a shande.

Milbank wrote: “Beck’s descriptions of his event as a gathering and a restoration echo his Mormon faith’s theology: there will be a ‘Gathering of Scattered Israel’  in which Jews return to the Holy Land and are converted to Christianity as part of ‘the restoration of all things’ and the Second Coming.”

For this we should send a thank-you card?

If so, one for Saint Bernard is long overdue. In his review, Kirsch quotes Saint Bernard warning the Second Crusaders not to slaughter Jews like the First Crusaders did:

“The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world, so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere the living witnesses of our redemption.”

It’s a bit like the punchline of the joke in which the Jew asks God if the Jews were really the chosen people: Would you mind loving someone else for a change?

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‘Knowledge is garbage.’

Whenever I run into a new word, or a word that I have to look up, invariably I’ll turn around and find that word in another place. It sits there on the page, or comes through the speaker, as if saying, “I’ve always been here. You were just too dim to notice.” Or maybe it says, “I’m your new friend. You can see me everywhere!!”

And so I was reading Gene Weingarten’s column in the Washington Post Magazine, where he’s saying that Google has turned knowledge into garbage:

“Information isn’t garbage, but being knowledgeable is severely devalued. It is nothing to aspire to or to take any particular pride in. The era of the know-it-all is over.”

Then he brings in Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” who, recalling his SAT scores, says, “I definitely had a 780 in verbal. I missed one question, the meaning of the word ‘palliate.’ ”

Palliate.

My Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. which I won in the 6th Grade spelling bee at Friends School in Detroit, says palliate means to reduce the violence of : abate; to cover by excuses and apologies: excuse.

Next day I’m reading “Bel Ami” a 19th century French novel of manners by Guy de Maupassant, and I come across this:

“Do you understand now how our acceptance of [the fortune] would be interpreted? It would be necessary to find a side issue, some clever way of palliating matters.”

No more palliating sightings since then, but I’m hopeful.

Happy New Year.

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