Currently Reading…

bridgeofsighsBridge of Sighs by Richard Russo.

I reached out to one of my favorite college professors, Ed Thompson, several years ago when I hit something of a reader’s block. I had taken on several reading projects to challenge myself, and I was done with them. The last of these was to read Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. I then rounded that project off by reading McCarthy’s The Road and, finally, Blood Meridian. If you know one, some, or all of those books you will understand why I might have been a little wrung out.

(And, by the way, to the Amazon reviewer who gave Blood Meridian a one-star review in part because it had a 163-word sentence, you need to put on your big boy shoes and march over to another Amazon department.)

Anyway, Professor Thompson answered me thoughtfully. I had explained that McCarthy and some others had opened my eyes to gritty realistic fiction after years of reading short fiction masters such as Andrew Dubus, cornerstone male American authors such Updike and Roth, post-modernists such as Heller and Borges and magical realists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He pointed me to Richard Ford and Richard Russo.

I had bought Ford’s The Sportswriter more than a decade before. I knew it was considered a great novel. As a once-aspiring sportswriter, I should have been more drawn to it (though perhaps that’s one of the reasons I didn’t read it). Professor Thompson also pointed out it was the beginning of a trilogy and I liked trilogies. I had read the border trilogy of course and I had read the Rabbit trilogy before it became a tetralogy.

I read Ford’s trilogy and I was deeply moved. Even more than that, I was knocked off my literary moorings. For more than two decades I had considered Andre Dubus my favorite writer–and really without peer for me. I read everything he wrote and reread favorite stories many times over. I taught “The Winter Father” and “Killings” more than a dozen times. Each time I would reread the stories, recast my notes, and read selected reviews literary criticism. I held other favorite stories such as “If They Knew Yvonne” and “Townies” closer. I considered Dubus’ novella trilogy (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Adultery, and Finding a Girl in America) to be the greatest fiction writing produced in English.

Ford kicked that all to the curb, but more on that another time.

I concede several things about my reading. It tilts heavily male. It is almost exclusively literary fiction. It is melancholy. It features themes and subjects like sex, religion, violence, and the nature of masculinity. It is also not everyone’s cup of tea. I know this because I know the broader canon and I know my friend’s tastes. I also work in publishing and have some sense of the very broad marketplace. People read many, many things besides what I read.

Amazon reviews are an unreliable barometer. Many reviewers have clearly not read the books. Many who have shouldn’t have. Reviews whipsaw from ecstatic to flaming. Still, when a novel such as The Sportswriter has an average review of 3.2, I know not to give it as a gift for Christmas or recommend it to a casual acquaintance. Years ago I recommended a collection of Dubus’ short stories to a lovely friend of my wife. I thought she would enjoy it. She hated it. That was the last book I recommended to someone I didn’t know very well.

Russo is a warm and humorous writer, even as he mines some of the same themes as people like Ford. Some of his writing–including Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls–is also panoramic while Ford is often internal. More characters fill the pages, and while many are of a type, Russo is generous to them, their quirks serving as introductions to their experiences and their background. When his characters stumble and even fail, Russo often gives them a soft landing. They might be victims of ne’er-do-well fathers or vindictive spouses. Many are victims of economic upheaval but they are loyal to the old mill towns that are collapsing before their eyes. Their own generosity doesn’t allow them to make the grim conclusion that Greg Brown makes in his wonderful song, “Our Little Town,” They say it’s dyin’ now and there ain’t a thing we can do.

Bridge of Sighs is 642 pages, and while it focuses on one of Russo’s archetypal small towns and its inhabitants, it adds four interesting layers.

  1. The book goes back and forth in time.
  2. It follows one character abroad
  3. The primary narrator is relating the states-side story as he himself is  also writing the same history he is relating (though by his appraisal in another form).
  4. The story abroad is told by a third-person narrator

You can imagine, if you know Russo, that these worlds–here and abroad, past and present, fictional and nonfictional–are destined to collide.

I am about halfway through. I am busy but will certainly finish it Christmas week, then I hope to read a couple of books that my boys will give to me. They have good taste in books.

Krapp’s Last Tape

Krapp's Last TapeIn my senior year of college, I wrote the worst English-language play ever put to paper. I have saved many things–journals, letters, college notebooks, exams in blue-books, mediocre stories and less-than mediocre poems–but I did not save that play. I am thankful for that.

Trust me on this: you would never want to read it.

This came to mind when I was reading an old journal this morning and decided it was finally time to forgive myself for that play. The the 21-year-old me reached out of that journal and told the 57-year-old me to not be too hard on myself.

I have to be honest and tell you that my 21-year-old voice frightens me. I was gripped by untreated anxiety. I was open about it in my writing, but it was clearly worse than I was admitting to myself. Everything terrorized me–school, my own writing, work, my girlfriend, my family, the world, friends, my past, my present, my future.

Then, every fifth day or so, my journal entries were full of an ecstatic me. The world was wonderful, my girlfriend was my alpha and omega, and I was headed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Was I cycling? Was it the dredges of normal teenage angst and exhilaration? It didn’t help that I was going to school, working, freelancing, and making my way between New Bedford and Boston several times a week, all without a car, to chase work. It didn’t help that I was binge drinking. It didn’t help that whatever my diagnosis, it was untreated.

In the fall of my senior year of college I took a survey class on drama and a separate playwriting class. Like all English majors, I had read Shakespeare and a sprinkling of other plays, but the survey class was modern and contemporary drama. We read everything from Ibsen and Oscar Wilde to Albee, Beckett, and O’Neill. (I still have my copy of Zoo Story in which I kept making the same marginal note, “Oh my God!”)

The one play that truly stuck with me was Krapp’s Last Tape. I was an existentialist then and fully understood that I was supposed to understand the despair of Krapp’s existence. Thank God I had a sense of humor, though. I thought the whole banana thing was hilarious.At least in my classes I was having a blast.

Then on November 2nd, my father died, and three weeks later one of my closest childhood friends was killed in an accident. My anxious, exhausted, drinking, existential self was presented with a big ball of terrifying nothingness.

My journal tells me that I left school for each of the funerals, drank heavily with the other mourners, then returned to school and bulled through the rest of the semester. I had developed the ability by then to tear through work at the end of each semester and I did. I finished all my papers, took all my finals, and finished with a 3.7, which would prove to be my best semester in my four years.

And I wrote that play.

It had a title, which I forget. It had two characters–a young man and his father’s ghost. It had no plot. I clearly had Krapp in mind because only the young man talked. Instead of Krapp’s older tapes acting as a ghost from the past, the father acted as a ghost from the present or perhaps of a ghost to come. Instead of bananas, it had alcohol.

My professor, who had the wonderful name Americus J. Cleffi, was kind in pointing out there was no plot and no character development. I think I got a B, maybe a B-, but my transcript tells me I got an A in the course, so my other work must have been OK. Oddly, Professor Cleffi reminded me of my father in some ways. They were both Italian, both city boys. Professor Cleffi was six years older than my Dad, but my Dad had lived a hard life, so they kind of looked alike.

I can see it clearly now. I was destined to write that terrible play. All the forces of my life brought me to that moment–my angst, the reading that was filling my head, my mediocre writing, the tragedies that were dropped in my lap, and Americus J. Cleffi’s Roman nose.

My minister told a story of tough love yesterday from the pulpit. She made her son deal with consequences once, and she’s never forgiven herself for how she handled it. She found a reason to apologize to him recently, and he reminded her that she had apologized for it–again and again. She spoke about Yom Kippur, its spirit of reflection and forgiveness. She decided it is time to finally forgive herself for something she did 20 years before.

I am taking her lead. Yom Kippur begins tomorrow evening. It’s time for me to forgive myself for a piece of bad writing borne out of loss and pain and youth.My 21-year-old self tells me this. It’s time.

Reading and the Value of Time

foulI was a voracious but streaky reader growing up. I would hit upon a theme–even in grammar school–and read my way through it. One year it was biographies of the presidents–I worked my way from (1) Washington to (36) LBJ. After that it was countries of the world. I would burn through a series of books until I got to the end. Then I wouldn’t read for a few weeks or maybe even longer, but would eventually find a new vein to mine.

Sports biographies were less linear. I read about Jim Thorpe of course, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Jim Brown. In junior high I discovered sports biographies that were considered risque at the time: a Joe Namath biography that described how he lost his virginity and Ball Four by Jim Bouton that described Mickey Mantle’s heavy drinking. I read chunks of these in the library stacks because I wasn’t old enough to take them out, then got my older sister to take them out for me.

One day my sister was taking out one book for me and grabbed another, Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story I put it aside, then read, reread, and then reread it again. If I had been indiscriminate in my reading–and happy to read anything about a subject that interested me–I somehow knew this book was different. It was gripping, poignant, sad, and ultimately exhilarating. It  brought to life the brilliance of Hawkins as a player against the backdrop of racism, class, and power in American life.

I was 13 and hooked on good writing.

I have spent precious little reading time on poor or mediocre reading since, save my one guilty pleasure, the occasional John Grisham novel (each of which puts the formula in formulaic but somehow still keeps me reading).

The value of my time became abundantly clear in college where a contemporary novel class had me reading ten books and in one semester. That same semester had me in a Gothic novel class. Just before Thanksgiving I hit the wall while reading Melmoth the Wanderer which Amazon tells me is 704 pages but I remember as 1700. I got through it, though, and finished the semester well.

That winter break I had some required reading to do but not so much that I couldn’t pick up an odd book or two. I decided to read a social science book that a friend recommended. I’ve decided to not mention the author because the book was terrible–insipid, poorly written, and overblown. I am not mentioning the author’s name in part to not offend anyone; more importantly, though, I don’t want to say something that I would then have to back up. To back it up I would have to go back and read it again and I simply wouldn’t do that to myself.

I can vividly remember the moment I abandoned the book. I was waiting for a train at Boston’s North Station. I was sitting on the end of a bench, next to a trash barrel. I got through one last flatulent paragraph and couldn’t take it any more. I flipped the book into the trash.

It was the first book I ever threw away and the last. And, putting aside, Grisham, it was the last bad book I read.


In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
–From Locksley Hall, Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred_Tennyson..jpgI am not a Tennyson fan, honestly. I found his work ponderous. I am happy to blame it on my own shortcomings; I was in college when I read everything I would ever read of his–In Memoriam, some parts of The Idylls of the King, and the play Becket. I think I liked Becket a little and the others not much at all. Perhaps I didn’t work at it, think deeply enough, read some good literary criticism to gain a deeper understanding. Or perhaps it was my professor for that survey course, a boozy guy who would cut class shorts most days–especially Fridays–to get to the campus restaurant where they served beer and wine. He was a funny, brilliant, caustic guy who had his opinions, and I made the opinions mine. I ended up with a love of Hardy, an admiration of Eliot, and the conclusion, at least for a while, that Pride and Prejudice was a perfect novel.

But Tennyson? Not so much.

There sits that wonderful line, though, about a young man’s fancy and thoughts of love. It comes to mind maybe as often as the word “spring” does. It’s there, beckoning to me, especially now, on March 10th, when it’s 61 degrees outside, and the clocks are about to change, and the Vernal Equinox is just days away. We could still have bad weather–it’s Boston, we have had blizzards in April–but if we do have snow it will be followed by warmer days and a strong sun that will beat down on the southern-facing front of my house and melt it all away.

The Red Sox are more than a week into spring training games. Opening day is in a little more than three weeks. I bet when I step aside this morning a cluster of irises will be pushing up through my front garden, along the brick wall. Spring will come I like to say, with the emphasis on will. I won’t let it not come, and of course it will whether I say so or not. Still, saying so has its own pleasure, when the winters are long and cold and deep, and you know that you’ll be standing outside soon, in a light jacket or a shirt, your face tilted to the sky, the warm sun on you, and the smell of fresh, warm, moist dirt rising to you, bringing you to life again.

Currently Reading: The Bad Girl

Mario Vargas Llosa (from Wikipedia)
Mario Vargas Llosa (from Wikipedia)

I love summer for a thousand reasons, beginning and ending with the fact that it is not winter. But summer is also when many people read more for pleasure than for work or for school (or both!). My first such book this summer is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

When I was an undergraduate English student, it wasn’t unusual to have to read 20 or more books in a semester, and many more if I did the additional critical background reading. For some reason, the Spring semester of my junior year I took six classes. I would have to look at my transcript, but my recollection was that two of them were fiction surveys. On top of the school work, I was doing all kinds of part-time and freelance work. I was stringing for a couple of newspapers, reading news at night for a local radio station, and was the managing editor of my college weekly newspaper. When the semester ended, I did what I always did and went home to my summer jobs. It wasn’t unusual for me to be on campus one day and be behind the cash register at a convenience store back home the very next day.

I remember being incredibly tired that year as my semester ended and my summer began. I jumped right into working 50+ hours a week, but a few weeks into it I just crashed, and quit one of the two jobs just to give myself a little break. It turned out the best part of the break I gave myself was to pick up Vargas Llosa’s book, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. I remember getting a few dozen pages into it and thinking to myself, “Wait. Am I supposed to take this ‘seriously’?” It was too fun, too funny, too sexy. It seemed like Vargas Llosa had more fun writing it than I was having reading it, and I was having a blast. I read more of Vargas Llosa over the years, confident that he was indeed to be taken ‘seriously” (and of course he has written more sober books). Still, I have to admit to finally letting go of some of that sense of guilty pleasure when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago and the committee ponderously referred to “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.”

Well, sure, I guess there’s that too.

Excuse me while I get back to some summer reading.