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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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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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‘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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Hey Keith, ‘Hey Joe’

As I was leafing through Keith Richards’ new autobiography, Life, before diving in, I found this offhand mention of how one of rock’s great guitarists got his hands on one of rock’s great guitar songs:

“And then, so [Richards’ ex-girlfriend] Linda [Keith] says, she also picked up a copy of a demo I had of Tim Rose singing a song called ‘Hey Joe.’ And took that round to Roberta Goldstein’s, where Jimi was, and played it to him. This is rock-and-roll history. So he got the song from me, apparently.”

Tim Rose?

While I had never gone searching for the origins of “Hey Joe,” I always  knew Jimi Hendrix wasn’t the first to record it. Once when the song was playing on the radio, my mom told me she had heard an earlier version of the song.  She couldn’t recall the singer, or when she heard it.  But I’ve always kept my ears open for that mysterious other version. Could Tim Rose, who I had never heard of, be the singer my mom meant?

So I began my online search. It turns out that both “Hey Joe” and Tim Rose have complicated stories.

“Hey Joe” rose from a tradition of folk songs in which an enraged man shoots his two-timing lover down. The creation of the song itself is disputed, although it was registered for copyright in the U.S. in 1962 by Billy Roberts, according to Wikipedia. A number of uptempo versions were recorded in 1965-’66, including one by the Byrds.

Rose’s version, by contrast, was slow and brooding.  Rose, who recorded “Hey Joe” in 1966, always maintained that “Hey Joe” was a traditional song that he had arranged. He died in 2002.

If you know Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” by heart, see how powerful Rose’s 12-string guitar version was, in this 1969 performance:

Here is an older Rose discussing and performing the song.  And an opportunity to put Rose and Hendrix side by side.

My mom died in 1986. She would have been 91 today.

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Going green.

God and Moses in "The Comic Torah"Moses is black and God is green — and a she — and both bear a strong  resemblance to their real-life creators in “The Comic Torah,” a graphic reimagining of history’s enduring bestseller.

Husband and wife Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig have written and illustrated a biblical midrash that is colorful, deep, funny and mind-blowing — just like the original.

And just like in the original, holy business is a messy business. And no one in the Torah is more contradictory and unfathomable than God herself, known here as YHWH.

“Vain, opinionated, wrathful and flirtatious, her larger-than-life personality impresses itself on followers and enemies alike,” Kent Worcester wrote in a review in The Comics Journal.  “[The Comic Torah] doesn’t censor the source material but instead revels in its strangeness and perversity.”

As the Five Books unroll — with each Torah portion presented in a sumptuous double spread —  the relationship between God and Israel develops in all its glory and chaos.  What caught my imagination was the shifting relationship between God and Moses, sometimes like parent and child, other times like mistress and servant, and still others as mismatched lovers, even as Moses dreams of the Promised Land.

Those dreams are not so innocent and holy. Rosenzweig and Freeman depict the Israelites’ ultimate quest as a blonde bombshell called Honey “The Land” Milkand.  Other characters include an oily Jacob, with a suit, narrow tie and pencil moustache, and a dreadlocked Aaron. Other gods, dwelling in the etymological mists of the biblical text, make an appearance,  including Zeus, who God turns to for advice. “You have a pantheon of support,” she complains. “I’m a single parent.”

“The Comic Torah” doesn’t disparage the tradition that has grown up around the Torah. Freeman and Rosenzweig have clearly wrestled with the text. But they have also tapped into one of the secrets of the Torah’s resilience, it’s weirdness and primalness. “The Comic Torah” reads like a strand of tradition that never made it into the canon.

And it’s often sharply funny. As God reveals to Moses her plans for a Tabernacle in the desert she conjures the image of a unicorn. “To cover the ceiling — Tachash skin!” she says. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” Moses says, gazing at the creature whose non-existence has broken every child’s heart. “Can I have one?” “No,” God says, “I’m only making one. But you can kill it for me.”

I wonder how some of the jokes will hold up, particularly popular references such as “Jew Tube” and to the Obama presidential campaign. (Joshua is a ringer for the president.) On the other hand, the Torah comes around every year, and is new every year, as Freeman and Rosenzweig acknowledge. “The Comic Torah,” they write “is a snapshot of the arguments we had this year. Next year, different arguments.”

And let us say: Amen.

Disclosures are in vogue. I’m never quite sure if the people who disclose really need to disclose, or if they get some sort of ego rush from doing it. While I’m sorting that out, I’ll tell you that I’m a big fan of Ben Yehuda Press, which published “The Comic Torah.” I wrote about another one of their books here. Also, I was a member of a group that helped fund the printing of “The Comic Torah.” So go now and read.

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Believe in magic.

The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis SingerThis article in Tablet about the reissue of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Magician of Lublin made me dip back into my memory to figure out whether I read the book or saw the movie first. It might have been the film first, with Alan Arkin playing the restless magician Yasha Mazur. Either way, the story had a profound effect on me, on how I view possibilities and limits in life, and the book remains one of my favorites.

If my history with The Magician of Lublin were a current question, I could enter a few keywords and perhaps draw from the cloud the dates I read the book and saw the movie.

Search is one of the greatest inventions of our time, a bit of magic compared to the alternative:  going through boxes from decades ago to see if I saved the ticket stub from the movie and, by chance, wrote the date on it.  Tedium.

Lacking facts, I’m free to remember the story of my discovery of Singer’s world of the damned and the doomed as I think it happened  or, failing that, as I wanted it to happen.

The reissue of the novel comes at the 50th anniversary of its original printing.  In his Tablet article, Adam Kirsch notes the plot of  The Magician of Lublin “is one that must have resonated personally for Singer, since it is substantially the same as those of Enemies: A Love Story and Shadows on the Hudson: A man suffers a spiritual crisis as he juggles love affairs with three different women.”

This is a much more insightful and certainly more subtle description of what I’ve always thought of the story: A depressed Jewish magician sleeps with three women at once and remains depressed.

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A present for Jack.

Gotta be something better than a gift card.Jack’s 11th birthday party is in a couple weeks. And as with every birthday party my son is invited to, we’re wondering what to get Jack for a present.

When the kids were younger, it was easy to pick out a good book to give, or at the least some kind of interesting toy. But now it’s harder to be guided by what led our decisions in the past: what we think is good for them. And what do you give to kids who have more electronics than you do?

As the years passed, gift giving devolved into gift-card giving. They’ll do in a pinch. They’re shiny and plastic and branded. But they leave you with an awareness that they aren’t personal enough to give to a someone you actually know. Gift cards lack the creativity and the rip-off-the-wrapping-paperness of a real present. And with a brand comes limits.

Cash comes without some of those drawbacks, of course.  But it also conjures up those checks from Grandma, or some dirty, crumpled bills stuffed into an envelope. What the world needs now is something that combines the glitz of plastic with the perfect liquidity of cash.

To do that, we need to rebrand cash.

It’s time for: The Cash Card.

Each credit card-sized Cash Card would come stamped with an easily recognizable logo on one side and, on the other, the following ad copy targeted especially at children:

This cash can be used at Target, Barnes and Noble, Borders or wherever gift cards are accepted. You can also use it anywhere American money is welcome. You can break into smaller amounts (change). You can even give it to a charity. This cash will not expire. And if you put it into a bank account, it will pay interest. That’s right! This gift can make you money!

The card would be inserted into its own branded sleeve, with enough room for the giver to slide in a sizable wad of cash.

Wrapping paper is optional.

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