Valentine’s Day…late as usual….

So, we’re a few days after Valentine’s Day, and blog-wise I am pulling up the rear, as usual.  Happy Valentine’s Day Barb!  (For the record, flowers did arrive on the appointed day.)

The issue of Valentine’s Day and books is a little different for me and, in fact, has me a little vexed.  Here’s the thing:  my view of literature is that “happy, well-adjusted people don’t make good fiction.”  So, you know, the heart-warming, live-happily-ever-after Valentine’s Day book probably isn’t in my library.

If only there was a holiday for “living forever in a state of sad acceptance.”

I kid.  Remember, we’re talking about my literary tastes, not my human tastes.

So, I have scoured my shelves to try and come up with some books that might qualify for this holiday, if only in a glancing blow.  (I have tried to tame my sarcastic side and not mention Bonfire of the Vanities, Anne Tyler, Portnoy’s Complaint, Heartburn or Lolita).

sport pastimeA Sport and a Pastime–if we are willing to concede that for men Valentine’s Day might be more likely to mean S-E-X, then this James Salter classic fits well.  It encapsulates the powerful desires that people can feel and how controlling those desires can be.  It is also a testament to the power imagination, the sole transformative power we have as humans.  (Note, if this was a business blog I would call it vision).  I read the book originally because I heard Jami Attenberg describe it as “filthy” on a New York Times Podcast.  (A Widow for One Year would slip in–to coin a phrase–under this general category as well).

John Adams–odd, I know, but why not a non-fiction Valentine’s Day book?  This is a story about a lot of things, but the relationship between John and Abigail Adams is one for the ages.  These people are true Yankees–reserved patricians and they spent year after year separated, but their letters are a testament to the deep affection and trust through troubled times that marks great relationships.

alice eat


All the food books by Calvin Trillin–Trillin’s books about food are actually love notes written to his wife, Alice.  He described her as having a “weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”

Just Kids--While not romantic in the gynecological sense, Patty Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is the kind of true love story that would have had wine-drunk Greek poets swooning.

Honestly, you look through my reading list and you might think there could be no person less aligned with “Married Book Nerds.”

A few observations after this exercise.

There seem to be no great romance stories that take place in ordinary places.  Even All the Light We Cannot See, which chronicles a long-distance relationship of a sort, takes place in a romantic, picturesque setting.  Same with Beautiful Ruins.  Anything set in our mundane suburbia seems to turn into The Abstinence Teacher or Mrs. Fletcher. The romance genre would confirm this.  We seem to need to escape in order to suspend our disbelief.

It seems like some of the stories that succeed are ones where a man finds love after a long life of struggle.  You can kind of feel the peace as the couple settles into a quiet old age.  See Canada.

Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day Barb! I think 🙂

Grant: Half-way Point

Someone (I believe William Pitt) once said that parliaments are not driven by public policy or great ideas, but on the weakness and frailty of its members.  I have been thinking about that quote as it relates to biography and fiction.

When you read the Grant biography (or any military history), you see that impact that human error plays on warfare and what it does to shorten the lives of men.  This includes everyone, Grant included.  There are numerous times when Chernow points out that the right action might have shortened the war by a year, had it been taken.

GenWFSmithSee Baldy Smith, a Union general who was the first guy into Fredericksburg and caught the South by surprise and undermanned.  Had he pushed forward into the city, Lee would have had to abandon Richmond, which would have fallen and the war would have been completely different.  Instead, he lost his nerve, served a big breakfast to the men and let the moment pass.

So human weakness and frailty cost lives in war.  Of course, without human weakness and frailty, there would not have been war in the first place.

But that’s not my point.

My point is this:  if your point is about the impact that human frailty and weakness have on events, you’re better off making that point with non-fiction than you are with fiction.

First, there’s plenty of examples in non-fiction.  No need to make shit up.  But beyond that, if you want to have a bunch of people screwing up in fiction, you have to be very careful.  It seems to me that the whole thing could come off as contrived and artificial.  You’d have to take the time to fully develop the character who screwed up and post their failure to some past tragedy or a controlling father, or whatever, and you’d lose the elements of what makes a good story and also the message that we are all flawed.

This is a great book.  I’m not sure it’s a musical but it could be a movie or series, like the HBO adaptation of McCullough’s John Adams.  I’m actually looking really forward to the rest of it.  I’ve read a bunch of Civil War history, but I’m pretty unfamiliar with Grant’s Presidential terms, beyond the broad strokes we learned in school.

Literary Podcasts

podcastYou can’t get far today without talking about podcasts.  They’ve been around for a long time.  When I first started listening, they were all of the homebrew variety and the only professional one was the Daily Source Code by Adam Curry, but now they are increasingly being produced by large media and publishing companies.

I think Serial did a great job of showing the power of the medium, which is really the AUDIO medium and goes all the way back to the radio dramas that were big in the pre-television era.

Naturally, I have been interested in sampling them and seeing what might be interesting.  In fact, I used to have a significant commute, but now it is shorter, so I don’t get quite as much time to listen.  Even so, a significant portion of the time is spent listening to literary podcasts.

One caveat.  I don’t want a podcast with readings.  I hate readings.  I hate them in person and even more on a podcast.  So those are out.  Also, I’m not interested in your audio book club.  Nor your book club.  (My line is that book clubs take away the best part of reading, which is solitude.)

It isn’t easy to make a good book podcast, just because there are SO MANY books.  Many of the ones I have sampled have focused on YA and fantasy, which is fine and understandable given the audience sizes, but not my cup of tea.

The obvious go-to choice is the New York Times Book Review.  This is a staple and is always good if for no other reason than they get access to the good authors.  Sometimes I’d rather hear from the reviewer than the author, but this is a consistent high-quality podcast that has made the transition to Pamela Paul as host.  They also discuss publishing news and add in a personal note with what they are reading (a favorite married book nerds topic).  This allowed me to discover Emmanuel Carrere.

One podcast that is excellent but not literary specific is Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.  Just excellent.  The American Icons series is especially strong, but this podcast addresses creativity in all its forms and Andersen gets the people talking about what creativity means to them, not just about their latest works.  They have recently moved to Slate.

I have also listened to Other PPl, from Brad Listi.  It is generally a high-quality podcast featuring a long  (or LONGform) interview with an author who is usually from the indie world more than the NY Times world.  Sometimes the interviews get too long and sometimes Listi talks too much about himself, but you can always switch it off it gets too far off track.  There’s almost always 45 minutes of strong content.

I tried listening to the Book Riot podcasts and also Books on the Nightstand (no longer produced), but just found too much description of the books themselves–books I will never find a chance to read–to find it consistently interesting, despite the obvious passion and highly insightful commentary both podcasts provide.

I honestly think there’s room in this space for new entries, and maybe better ones exist. One idea I have comes from a podcast they did to accompany the show The Americans, where there was an interview with people inside the show that ran after every episode.  It was excellent…could be the actors or the writer or the directors or the set designers or the costumers, but you really got an idea the depth of creativity applied to ever single detail in the show.

Why couldn’t you do the same thing with books?  Now, you never know when people are reading a book–oh wait, you don’t with TV anymore either–but think about this.  New book comes out.  Let’s say Gentlement in Moscow.  You could do a podcast covering, say, every 75 pages.  They’d only need to be 10-12 minutes long and the reader would stop and listen when they hit that interval.  I honestly think that’s a way to modernize the reading experience.  If you use this idea, you owe me $100 million.


When you read history, one of the things you pick up pretty quickly is that there is nothing new.  Everything has happened before.  You can sound high and mighty and say things like people are flawed and always will be and therefore the whole world is cracked with imperfections, which change only in degree and audacity.

Or you can be a jerk and say something like people “have no originality and if we were as smart as we like to say we are, we’d at least find new ways to fuck the world up and cannot move past out our own limbic system.”  So much for being the evolved species.

Either way, I ran across a good example in Grant and the battle of Shiloh.  Long story short, the South caught the North and Grant by surprise.  How much by surprise is open to debate, but even honest journalists struggle with nuance in their stories.

But we don’t have here is honest journalists.  We have what Donald Trump sees when he watches CNN and what sensible people see when they watch Fox News.  We have this man.

His name is Whitelaw Reid.  Writing under the name Agate (and don’t lie, that’s as cool as

This asshole

hell), he was an ardent Republican and a supporter of those people who were out to get Grant, for a variety of reasons.  He wrote a 14,000-word story about Shiloh in which he said many things that were true but then added many details that were, you know, made up.  And as always, they were the most graphic and memorable details of the story…in fact, they still resonate today, if for no other reason than Reid wasn’t constrained by what actually happened and was a skilled propagandist.


For example.  Reid created a detail in which the Confederates were bayoneting the surprised Union soldiers in their tents while they ate breakfast, a memorable insight that did not happen. In fact, Chernow writes that the consensus on-field position was that there had been no bayonet deaths in the entire battle.  Reid’s writing dogged Grant for his entire career (along with similar exaggerations and untruths about his drinking) and Lincoln was under constant political pressure to replace him, inflamed by the yellow journalism.

It goes back past that.  Without leaving Chernow’s writing, we can recall the story of James Callendar in Hamilton’s era.  And it hasn’t stopped.  I give you Troopergate.  And I’m only counting the partisanly-inspired fiction jobs, not the incompetent/lazy Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair versions.

It matters because we have the tendency to think that we are in the worst of times, that the world is swirling down the drain, whereas in reality, it is only as bad as it has ever been.

First 100 Pages of Grant

220px-US_Grant_in_1885So one of my Christmas presents was the Grant biography by Ron Chernow.  This one is right in my wheelhouse…I’m a long-time Chernow fan.  Read the Hamilton biography back when it was new.  Etc.  Love that he has gotten fame and hopefully some cash from Lin-Manuel Miranda adapting his bio.  He’s just a brilliant writer and historian.

I’m also a long-time fan of Grant.  This goes back to the Ken Burns film so many years ago.  I have always admired Grant’s story because of the contrast it provided to the other generals….particularly George McClellan, WHO I LOATHE.

McClellan was the Union general early in the war and nothing had ever gone wrong for him.  He was a prodigy of sorts and had never failed at anything.  Consequently, he was terrified of something he had never known…failure.  He failed to attack the Confederates early in the war, when they were very weak.  He insisted on more and more reinforcements so he could attack in a zero-risk situation.  The paradox is that had he attacked the war could have been ended early and untold suffering avoided.

Grant had failed plenty and he did not fear it.  And therefore, when Lincoln was pressured to remove him, he said “I cannot spare that man.  He fights.”

The other thing that is so interesting about this story is what it reveals about history as, ultimately, another form of myth.  It’s not fiction per se, but by necessity, it is a story, subject to all kinds of influences.  This is not a criticism.  It literally cannot be another way.  Five people who see the same traffic accident don’t describe it the same way five minutes later.

As they say in the musical, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”  And that’s a big issue for Grant, as pointed out early in the bio.  Much of Grant’s reputation comes from yellow-press smears from his military opponents–smears that turned into history in the minds of most people today.

For me, I’m a believer in the power of resiliency.  You don’t want to head into battle (even in a business sense) with people who haven’t failed.  You’re just not a complete person.  And if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never be able to get your mind around solving the problem.   If you’re not afraid to fail, you can focus.

Also, most times when you succeed it comes after a setback, on the second day.  After Shiloh, Sherman said “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day.”

“Lick ’em tomorrow though,” was the reply.

And for these reasons, I have always felt a kinship with Grant, who ended the Civil War.  Don’t forget that without complete victory, the South could have negotiated to continue slavery.  Victory was necessary to history, even with the cost that was paid.

So one other thing, tangential at best.  The Trump inaugural was about a year ago.  When it happened, I was on a train to Toronto.  Some asshole in our cabin was playing the speech on his speakers so everyone could hear.  I had no interest in listening and was, in fact, sick about the whole thing.  So, I put my earphones in and listened to Hamilton (the Musical), drowning out the dreck with a reminder of the revolutionary ideas that founded the Republic and the struggle that brought them to life.

The power of history?  The power of myth?  The power of art.

Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar

horseSo Barb got me A Horse Walks Into a Bar for Christmas.  It was on my wish list.  I had seen it on a lot of the year-end lists and it looked like something I would enjoy.

And I did.  It is a supreme literary achievement and deserves all of the accolades it has received.  David Grossman, the author, created a piece of writing that is at the top of the craft.

The frame of the book is deceptively simple.  The entire story is told through one man’s stand up routine in a club in Israel.  Grossman takes that frame and uses it to gradually reveal the story of the stand up comic, who is clearly tormented.  Through it all, the reader has the sense it is bad.  Is driven to keep watching.  Sees it get worse and worse and yet continues.

I can’t find the quote, but somewhere the narrator says something like “but what is literature but an excuse for a man to look into another man’s tortured soul?”

The audience at the club gets involved as part of the story.  As the story moves forward, it turns out that people who have been sitting there in the audience are actually part of the story, as if a spotlight shines on them suddenly in the dark.

Grossman’s writing has been praised in reviews for being elegant and spare.  It’s hard to describe how true this is.  Every word is perfect.  Every word is necessary.

This is one of those stories that has everything.  Abuse.  Family dysfunction.  Mental illness.  Death.  Regret.  Told in a florid and overbearing style, it would collapse of its own weight into The Prince of Tides.  It would be emotionally unmanageable.

But Grossman gives us nothing but the story and lets us supply the feelings.

I don’t like to give plot summaries, but if you read the book, there’s a scene where the comic describes being put into a truck with a total stranger and the scene goes on and on and you can feel yourself in that car, you can see what it looks like out the dusty window.  The scene, which seems incidental, turns into the book’s critical passage and it is a torture to read.

Which brings up a key point.  This book is framed in a stand-up comedy routine.  Any reader should understand that the book is almost never funny.  There are a couple corny jokes–like ones your uncle would tell every year at the family BBQ after cracking open his sixth can of Stroh’s–and you might chuckle at those, or groan.

But this book is not funny.  In fact, it is a tough read.  It is dark and it delves into the most pain and regrets that people are capable of carrying, exponentially multiplied by years of stewing.

And I guess that’s my ultimate verdict.  This is an expertly crafted piece of fiction.  I like my art dark, and it certainly is.  The only thing that keeps this book from reaching my very top shelf is just the fact that…for my taste…it is dark and humorless, unlike say Catch-22.

That’s ultimately quibbling.  This is a great book.

Ghosts of the Tsunami

ghostsSo I was looking for a book to read before Christmas and looking at The Economist’s Books of the Year List when I saw them mention Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lee Parry, the Toyko editor of The Times.   I’m not sure what appealed to me about this book, particularly as a feel-good Holiday read, but I downloaded it to my Kindle and went to work.

It is an excellent book.  If it was just about the tsunami, there would be plenty of material.  Something about these kinds of disasters leads to cliches….so far I have barely avoided descriptions like “unimaginable,” “indescribable” and “biblical.”

Luckily, Parry doesn’t have this problem.  Here is the thing.  This is not like a hurricane that tracks down the coast for days.  This is not like a tornado where you know a storm is brewing, perhaps for hours.  A tsunami starts with an earthquake and earthquakes come without warning.  After the earthquake hit–one of the five strongest earthquakes in recorded history–there were only about thirty minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami.

Parry puts you right there, speaking of survivors struck miles inland by a mountainous wall of water dragging pine trees like battering rams.  He tells the story of a city manager dumped to the bottom of the wave and feeling the asphalt of a parking lot.  He tells the story of people who reached high ground and watched their home be swallowed up with their entire family inside.  And he tells the story of a school where 74 children and 10 teachers died, inexplicably close to the high ground where they could have been saved.

Here he finds his focus.  It has been said the crises don’t build character, they reveal it.  In this case, the same can be said of tragedy.   As good as Parry’s description of the tsunami is, his best writing comes when he tells the story of the aftermath, both from the grieving parents and the school leaders as they attempted to evade responsibility.

In one sense, there’s nothing too surprising.  A parent’s grief is the worst grief I have ever seen.  No parent is prepared to outlive their children…especially when the child disappears in a wave of water, with no chance to say good-bye and a lifetime of self-doubt about whether the parent should have picked their child up between the earthquake and the tsunami.

If there’s a better description than this, I’d like to see it:

Grief was in their noses like a stench; it was the first thing they thought of when they woke in the morning, and the last thing in their day.

Or this:

The true mystery of Okawa school was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic.

Just like anywhere else, those who survived felt guilty.  Those whose world’s were in turmoil looked for meaning.  And that included a demand that somebody be held accountable.

But within these univeras truths, the reader finds one more truth that is wrapped in a paradox.  Turns out, it is also true that people’s reaction to a tragedy is largely determined by their culture.

I don’t think most people in the West have an understanding about the gulf between the West and the East when it comes to deciphering the world we all live in.

For example, we know, as a fact, about the stoicism and dignity that are part of the Japanese culture.  Reading this book, we understand how deeply rooted it is, as we see the parents painfully mount a challenge to the school leadership, seeking an apology for failing to save the children from the tsunami, a disaster that was a question of when, not if.

I had had enough of Japanese acceptance; I was sick with a surfeit of gaman. Perhaps, at some level of superhuman detachment, the deaths of the Okawa children did make possible insight into the nature of the cosmos. But long before that remote point, in the world of creatures who lived and breathed, they were something else as well—an expression of human and institutional failure, of timidity, complacency, and indecision. It was one thing to recognize a truth about the universe and man’s small place within it; the challenge was how to do this without also submitting to the cult of quietism that had choked this country for so long.

Beyond that, we see the spiritual and mystic side of the Japanese culture.  Parents dream constantly of their children and mediums are engaged to try and speak to the dead children.  In the West, such behavior would be on margins, but for the people of this book, it is a mainstream pursuit.  There were also exorcisms as ghosts and evil spirits were routed.

Here, though, we see the limits of spiritual pursuit.  After 9/11, I heard ministers say that there is no explanation of how God could allow such suffering.  In Japan, a Buddhist monk said this:

“We realized that, for all that we had learned about religious ritual and language, none of it was effective in facing what we saw all around us. This destruction that we were living inside—it couldn’t be framed by the principles and theories of religion. Even as priests, we were close to the fear that people express when they say, ‘We see no God, we see no Buddha here.’

This is a fascinating book, well-researched and well-written.  It is a study of humanity and culture under the most extreme stress-test possible.  It is a great piece of writing and a great reading experience.