Saturday, January 20, 2018

News from Spain


 
I thought this book by Joan Wickersham was a novel, but it is not.  It is a string of thematically related, but not plot related, short stories. 

I’d seen the author's name on a site that listed writers with whom readers of a certain vintage should be familiar. I can't recall now the age bracket, but remember knowing that I was in the ballpark. So, I found the book in our library system.

About four of the seven stories are outstanding. Each has its moments of excellence. They are   thematically linked because all deal with love, often extramarital love affairs, and often love that has been thrilling but ultimately problematic.

All of the stories have the same name: "The News from Spain."  Those four words appear not only in the title, but somehow in each story.  On the surface when the words appear they do not mean the same thing.  In one story, a biographer asks an interviewee "how did you feel when you heard "the news from Spain."  In another there is a reference to a woman watching CNN or something of that ilk and "the news from Spain" on the report is not good. In a third a friend of a lothario is explaining to a distraught lover how many paramours this lothario has had throughout Europe.  The woman tells her lover's friend to stop.  He responds half in jest, "but you haven't yet heard 'the news from Spain'".

Until the end I thought the title of the collection, the same title for each story in the collection, and particularly the insertion of the same words into each story was a sort of literary gimmick which, while clever, did not work.    But in the last story, again about a woman in love in an extramarital romance, the "news from Spain" line comes at the end and makes the point.

In this story a woman falls in love with an office mate who appears to feel similarly but is unwilling to reciprocate.  It's a complex story but the gist is that the woman is distraught because she cannot connect with this co-worker.  She says that her experience reminds her of the line from the early days of Saturday night live. In a recurring SNL skit a character says "the news from Spain this week is that General Francisco Franco is still dead." 

With this I got it. The story of love and passion recurs. We fall in love often outside of marriage, and the pain of the experience--however exhilarating it had been, and worth it on balance it had been--will inevitably linger.  

While four of these stories are just great, there are a couple of dead spots in some of the longer ones so, I can't strongly recommend the collection. However, some of these are very well written and I am glad I read the book.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

12-16




You would have been 93 today.

Just checking in to wish you a happy birthday.

We're all healthy.  (kayne a hora) Donna retired.  I'm still working.  Bobby is great.  Matt, Shannon, Sophie and Jack are wonderful. Jack has become something of an ice hockey star. Scored four goals in his first game. Sophie is just a delight and so cute.

Kenny's son Scott married in November. Quite a nice simcha up in the Hudson Valley.  The official grew up not far from us in Sheepshead Bay--in the projects just across Avenue W.  What a character.  The guy had on this funky hat such that Kenny thought, when he met him, that the guy was going to double as the saxophone player in the band. Something to be said for children of divorced parents. There were four sets of parents wishing the kids well, and all seemed to be getting along. Lots of food. Lots to drink if you were so inclined and not driving.  Kenny has been on a high since.

Our 50th high school reunion was a few weeks before the wedding.  Kenny, Gary, Aiken and I all went.  Many of my classmates asked about you, still remembering from when you were their fifth grade teacher. It was at the holiday inn just past your Parkway school  Phyllis always comments about how you impressed her. Eddie and Doug as well.  Some sad news as is always the case at one of these because the list of the deceased has, of course, expanded. Some surprises there. Alan Whiteside, Larry Zalin. 

For Chanukah, Donna got me/us hoo hah tickets to see Judy Collins. We went last night and were parked in the second row, no more than thirty feet from the singer. It was inspiring to see Collins and the concert served in part as an antidote to thinking about those who have passed.  She is 78, is still touring obviously, and can still croon.  On stage for 90 minutes and did not take a song off (there was an accompanist and another singer who occasionally did a duet) the whole time.  The audience was filled with folks like us and older. When we first got in,  a woman sitting in the front row turned around and said she started listening to Judy Collins fifty years ago.  I stood up and looked around and I'll bet that was the case for every single person in the joint.  It looked like the Woodstock folks grown up and cleaned up. There probably wasn't a body in there younger than 60 and most were pushing 70 or over that hump.

 It was way past everyone's bed time when she did her encore after 1030.  A guy in the front row was yawning despite being entertained.  At times Collins forgot words and I wondered about her stamina, but the next to last song she sang was "Send in the Clowns" and boy did she belt that sucker out and make it meaningful.  No forgetting of lyrics there. "I thought you'd want what I want, sorry my dear. But send in the clowns. Quick send in the clowns. Don't bother they're here."

Are we all in need of clowns to undermine the sadness of not capturing time? Are we the clowns for "losing our timing" whenever we do throughout "our career."  I don't think that is the way to think even though that's what the lyric might conjure up.  I don't know a whole lot about Collins except what is revealed in encyclopedia excerpts and news clips.  I read that she is the musically gifted daughter of a blind musician who burst into success in the 60s. Then I read that she had problems with alcohol (to which she alluded last night). I also read that her only son committed suicide.  So some tsuris there, but here she was at 78 years young, performing and not giving up on this precious life. No clowns needed to deflect anything.

You taught us that, dad.  You taught us by your actions that life was for living. I remember when I would get nervous about you driving from Florida to Colorado to Wisconsin to Maine in a single summer. You had to be pushing 80 then.  I don't think Judy Collins drives herself to her gigs. She is going to be in New Hampshire tonight.  My hunch is that she has a driver and a shlepper who brings in everything to the theatres except for Judy herself.  You were driving to the lectures you'd give and shlepping your guitar and amps into halls all over the United States. No clowns for you.  You did not lose your timing.  You just captured time.

Meanwhile, I must be getting old, because to me it did not seem like Ms. Collins was wearing any real pants. She had on leggings, the kind of things women put on underneath their pants, and then a sparkling jacket, but nothing else.  Must be the style because I heard noone else commenting on this. What do I know.

I have another book contract so that is good.  Also have a hernia which is not good, but the doc says it is no big deal and I barely know I have it.  Been to the gym a bunch of times since it was diagnosed and no problem.  In the last two weeks we've had to call in a plumber for the sink and a Samsung guy for the refrigerator. So compared to the house I am holding up okay.

Lighting the candles this week and thinking of how you would break into song after we'd say the prayers. Miss you today--always.  Goober. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

enlightenment?

Before people get too excited about changes in the South and the enlightenment of Alabama, it would be wise to consider the real possibility that had Judge Moore not been so outrageously inappropriate, Alabama would have elected a right wing Republican.

The election was close even given Moore's background.  So, if you unpack the various attributes that would be seen as a negative by Blue State supporters, it was not the pro slavery, anti-semitic, anti-abortion, and non consensual overtures that cost him, it was the allegations of pedophilia.

In other words, had he just been a racist and anti-semite, he would have won.  If he had just said he was against a woman's right to choose, he would have won. If he had just been a predator, he would have won.  He had to be accused of being a pedophile to lose--and only by less than 2 per cent of the vote.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Kool Aid

New People by Danzy Senna is an excellent book. I saw it acknowledged this past Sunday in the New York Times list of great books for 2017. I'd read another book by Senna and liked that.

This one is better. It is well written; the characters and their mannerisms are effectively portrayed, and the story is engaging.  It's a short book--only 229 pages and you can go through it in a day or two.  Both the previous book by Senna that I'd read, Caucasia, and this one deal with issues faced by those who are biracial. Senna herself is biracial and most of the characters in New People are biracial.

In this book a woman, Maria, is engaged to be married but--we learn early on--has developed a very strong affection for a man she barely knows.  The attraction is magnetic.  Maria is a doctoral student.  Her dissertation topic, which is not irrelevant to the story, deals with Jonestown and the over 900 deaths there when followers of Jim Jones, literally, drank the Kool-Aid that they knew would end their lives.  The expression that has evolved "drinking the Kool-Aid" is derived from the Jonestown self inflicted massacre in 1979.  There are different flavors of Kool-Aid that we all consume with various effects-- some flavors are more toxic than others.  Maria studies Jonestown while she herself nurses a debilitating potion.

In New People, we learn about Maria's mother, fiance, soon to be sister-in-law, college boyfriends and the stranger of course. There's an encounter with another college acquaintance who has both consumed and is selling another brand of Kool-Aid. Then there is a peculiar scene with a neighbor and a baby which stretches credulity, and an ongoing story about a documentary being made about biracial people by a biracial woman.

More than anything I liked how the main characters in New People were drawn.  A number of scenes to me seemed difficult to capture and yet Senna made the events and the people appear so very real that I felt I might have been in the scene observing events myself. 

The ending might not tie the knot for you, but maybe it will if you give it some time.  New People is worth the energy you'll spend reading it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Just Saying

In case you missed it, here underlined below were my predictions yesterday for Saturday's games. Just saying.

Four for four.  And I believe Ohio State should not get invited to the dance, and Alabama will indeed sneak in with Georgia, Clemson, and Oklahoma.


My predictions:  Georgia will beat Auburn; Ohio State will defeat Wisconsin; Oklahoma will beat TCU; Clemson will defeat Miami.  And then Alabama will sneak in as one of the four teams in the tournament and take it all

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

People have been raving about this book.  I put myself on a waiting list for it at the library. In the past, the waits are about a week tops.  This took over a month.  They had the book on speed reading lists also but even those were scooped up. When I finally got my notice that the book was available, I zoomed to the library on the day after Thanksgiving and hunkered down to read what I figured would be a page turner.

I did not think the book was so extra.  The author, Amor Towles, can write and sometimes I marveled at how well he expressed something, but overall it just did not grab me.  Meanwhile I must have had three friends tell me that I should drop everything and read it. 

It's about a gentleman from the privileged class who, shortly after the 1917 revolution, is sentenced to house arrest in a Moscow hotel. He is told that he must never leave the hotel or he will be killed. So, the entire book--except for one scene when his adopted daughter gets hurt-and he, despite the risk, races with her to the hospital--takes place in the Metropol hotel in Moscow.  I'm sure there is some metaphor there, but to date I can't figure it out, other than a general sense that we are all confined by our circumstances. Whatever the metaphor, it does not justify the absurdity of a person who lives his entire adult life indoors from 1922 to the mid 1950s.

As I wrote, the author can turn a phrase.  At one point the Count (the main character) is having difficulty sleeping as problems surface.  Towles writes,

"Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore."

At another point the Count is describing conveniences. He goes through a list of them and concludes:

"To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences and at one time I had them all.  But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most."

Even with the beautiful writing, I cannot urge a reader to go get this. There are worse ways to spend a weekend, but if you never read the book, I'm not sure you would be missing anything other than an interesting description of the Russian revolution.  But who with any sense of history doesn't know that the Russian revolution was a sham? 

There are some very engaging and endearing characters. There's a nine year old whom he befriends when he first is sentenced, and then many years later we meet that nine year old's daughter. There's a friend from college, and an actress who becomes the count's paramour.  We meet a woman who is the seamstress in the hotel, as well as the chef, bartender, and maitre d of the restaurant.  And then there are the Soviet officials who have consumed the Kool-Aid.

The book is a novel, but he sprinkles in real (as opposed to alternative) facts from the revolution  and uses footnotes to do so. Not sure I have ever seen footnotes used in a work of fiction. 

This is not the first time I did not like a book that has been bally-hooed. I do not get the enthusiasm for The Great Gatsby, or Catch-22 (though the actual catch-22 is pretty good) or On the Road, which I think I threw against the wall at one point I was so annoyed by the tale.  A Gentleman in Moscow is not in this category of hoo-hah books I did not like at all--it's just not all it is cracked up to be.

championship games

For those who are regular readers of my blog and who, also, have a long memory, you may recall that prior to 2014 I, annually, railed against the college football system of declaring a champion without a playoff.

However, for the last four years college football has employed a playoff system--and it has worked.  We have gone from a procedure pre 2014 that meant nothing, to a system that has put the excitement back.

Teams jockey all year long for the right to be among the four teams selected for the tournament.  I have not always agreed with the four selected, but the selection has worked as well as it can.  Even in the 68 team NCAA men's basketball tournament there are always 69th and 70th teams who squawk about not being allowed to participate. So, the committee that determines the four division 1 teams has an unenviable job. 

With only four teams eligible, the entire season becomes meaningful. Losing one game early on can severely jeopardize chances of playing for a championship. Two losses make it a real long shot (though this year a 2 loss team may get in). 

Tomorrow there are four conference championship games. These can be very exciting because losers almost certainly will be eliminated.  If undefeated Wisconsin loses to Ohio State, that is it for Wisconsin.  If Auburn loses to the Georgia bulldogs, Auburn is out of the running despite having whipped Alabama last week.

So, for football fans, the new system works.

The problem is that even for football fans like myself, it is almost too much. There are so many games on tv, that one can start watching tomorrow at noon eastern and not budge until around midnight tomorrow.  Even I cannot watch that much. In general, the enthusiasm for football has ebbed in part because, by this time of the season, several of the games blend together. 

I still have not kicked my cold completely though I thought I had done so in the last day or two. I went into the office today where I could not adjust the thermostat and it was an oven therein. The only way to stay there was, on December 1, to blast the air conditioner out to combat the heat that could not be stopped. For this reason, I have been lying in bed pumping aspirin all night. I am between books, and just did not have a clear head to watch anything on tv that required processing of data. So I found the PAC 10 championship game.  It was close. And I was bored nevertheless. Just too much football.

Tomorrow, should be different. Partly because my head should be cleared up some, and also because all four of the games could determine who makes it into the final four. 

My predictions:  Georgia will beat Auburn; Ohio State will defeat Wisconsin; Oklahoma will beat TCU; Clemson will defeat Miami.  And then Alabama will sneak in as one of the four teams in the tournament and take it all.