Saturday, December 31, 2016

On Beauty

Does love trump and overwhelm all the impediments lovers manufacture? Does love endure despite the character flaws that sabotage efforts to connect?  I think these are the questions that On Beauty by Zadie Smith addresses, and addresses affirmatively.

This is really a terrific book. The author's ability to describe behavior is indescribable.   It is almost worth reading the whole book for pages 205-207 when Kiki and Howard discuss his infidelity.  The part about the glee club had me giggling like a maniac making a scene in the public place I was in. Also, how Smith could so accurately describe university life given that she is not an academic, really a tip of the hat.  These are just a few examples.  I think I can string words together better than the average bear, but when I read someone like Zadie Smith,  I realize that there are amateurs and then there are professionals.

The book is about a couple living in a university community on the outskirts of Boston. Sometimes I thought it was Wellesley and other times Harvard, not that it matters much. The couple has three kids. The father is a professor who is a bitter rival of a visiting professor.  Howard, the main character, is a white liberal married to Kiki a black woman.  Dr. Kipps, the rival, is a black conservative whose daughter and wife feature prominently in the novel as do Howard and Kiki's three children.

This is the best book I have read in 2016 and the year on the east coast will end in a few hours.  If you are a reader, I highly recommend the novel. It is not a page turner like a who dunnit, but I was sufficiently engaged to inhale about half of the book in a short period of time.  Could be that my interest relates to the fact that much of the novel is about university life. I was surprised to see the many amazon readers whose reviews I read subsequently who did not like the book.  Not me.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

La La Land +

I saw an excellent movie today. La La Land. It is good all the way through, but the last scene in the Jazz Club has happened to us all, or at least many of us.  The movie is about a romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling-- an aspiring actress and a dedicated Jazz pianist.  I don't know what else to write without giving away too much. Go see it.

Also finished a mystery this morning.  The novel is called Snow Angels and it takes place in a ski resort town above the Arctic Circle in Finland.  An actress has been murdered, gruesomely, and the Inspector, Inspector Vaara, attempts to locate the killer.  Among the suspects:  his ex wife, his ex wife's long time boyfriend, a registered sex offender, another cop, the other cop's son, and the investigator's own father.  The novel takes place in the darkness as it is around Christmas time (just coincidental to my reading it around Christmas time) when there is no light in northern Finland.  Fast read, though the names can be difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with common names in Scandinavia.   Also there is a lot of dying, and not ordinary deaths either.  Good news is that if you are inclined to learn about another part of the world, the book brings to the otherwise unfamiliar reader, a sense of the culture and life struggles in Northern Finland.

Finally, while I am reviewing, I trekked to the movies a few days ago and saw Manchester By the Sea.  Very good, not as good as La La Land, but I will bet both will be up for the best picture Oscar. A young man becomes the guardian for his nephew and has to deal with a tragedy from his past.  It takes place in the Boston area so if you like references to these parts, that is an added benefit.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Marjorie Morningstar

When I was fifteen I became very sick over the Christmas break and had to stay in bed for over a week.  My father gave me the book, The Caine Mutiny to read, and having not much to do except read, drink fluids, and perspire I raced through it.  Long time since I was 15 but I remember loving the book.  I still have some of the scenes etched in my head--the one with the strawberries for example, and the post-trial "Multitudes, Multitudes" toast.  Maybe if I read the book as an adult I would have a different take on it, but then at least--and in my memory--I thought it was terrific.

When I told my folks I liked the book my mother suggested another one of Herman Wouk's novels, Marjorie Morningstar.  Dad made a face at that suggestion commenting that Marjorie Morningstar was just some saga about and for a young girl.  On the basis of this review I never had much of a desire to read the book, but recently another friend--someone with whom I went to camp--mentioned the book commenting on how effectively it portrayed a character (not Marjorie, her love interest) who worked at a resort for adults.  I had once seen the last scene in Marjorie Morningstar, the movie, but beside from that and my dad's 1964 review of the book, I knew little about it.

So, I got Marjorie Morningstar out of the library, started reading on the first of December and just finished it last night.  It did not grab me the way The Caine Mutiny did, and for much of the very long novel, I was thinking that once again Dad was right. It is a big fat book with lots of text and little dialogue so it is a bit of a slog to get through. If not for the last ten pages, I might be highly critical of the novel but the last ten pages--written as part of the main novel, but really a postscript-- is "a where are they now" epilogue and has made me think of the book in a different light. I'm still not sure I could recommend the book, but I think it will hang around in my consciousness for a spell.

The book begins when Marjorie Morgenstern is a 19 year old Jewish girl living on central park west in the 1930s. Her family is not affluent which may be an indication of the 30s as they would have to be 80 years later, but the family is not impoverished by the depression either.  Marjorie throughout is depicted as beautiful and has suitors galore. She aspires to be an actress and fancies that when she is successful she will change her last name to Morningstar. Most of the book takes place during the next six years of her life and the central plot is about Marjorie's love affair with a man she meets at a summer resort.

I did not care a whole lot for Marjorie or her love interest, Noel Ehrmann.  I did not think either of them were mensches, though Marjorie had more class than Noel.    So, for 550 pages I am reading about Marjorie and Noel and assorted other suitors and escapades and my feeling was essentially that I did not care much what happened to them. However, as mentioned, the epilogue put an interesting backdrop on the rest of the story.  Fifteen years later, much of who Marjorie was, is forgotten even by Marjorie. She has grown to be someone that would have been of no interest to Marjorie.  Is this the way it goes? Are we, when in the throes of something in our youth, so caught up in what seems essential, that when we look back on these times we are not recognizable to ourselves? Are our fifteen year later selves unrecognizable to those who knew us when?

One very valuable aspect of the book is that it depicts attitudes toward love and sex and marriage that may have been common in the 30s, but are not now.  And it was interesting to me at least to imagine how Marjorie's life would have been different if she had lived in the 21st century and not the 1930s. (This next sentence you might not want to read if you are considering reading the book).  In one scene, for example, Marjorie is beside herself worrying what a man will think of her once she reveals that she, at 24, had been intimate with another.

I think I will take out the movie as I would like to see if the movie--as is the case with movies--changes the story much.  I would not be surprised to find out that the ending is different based on the little snippet I saw of the end of the film.

Bottom line, I am reluctant to write such things, but I think this may be more of a woman's book than a man's as it centers on the thinking of a woman as she matures.  It may be of interest however to anyone who is seeking some insights on attitudes toward intimacy a century ago.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Let the Toasts Start

Happy birthday, Dad.

I've been thinking of you all week.  As time goes on I do not miss you less.

I was down at the condo last weekend.  I saw Wally and Eileen as I typically do when I am down there.  And as is always the case each, unsolicitedly, made some comment about what a great person you were.  Ona sent me a note in the morning.  She always remembers your birthday and the day you passed. You touched so many people.

A few years back I took one of your suits and had it altered.  I've altered two of your jackets and they fit me just fine. The suits are a bigger challenge for the tailor.  You never had the soft belly I must have inherited from mom, but you were wider. So it took some work for the tailor to try and make it work.  I've had the suit in the closet for a couple of years and never wore it. Yesterday, I decided to do so.  Could not fill it out. Waist is too big, suit jacket just did not work the way the sports jackets have.  Just could not fill your suit.  Probably some metaphor there.  At one of the camp reunions I was asked to lead the prayers before dinner.  I flubbed the opening line.  Barry chirped, "He's no Meyer." It was all in fun, but in some ways Bird's quip and the metaphor with the suit are apt.

It's a good thing you died in 14 of heart related disease, because otherwise the election of 2016 would have killed you as if someone had taken a knife to your chest.  Hillary Clinton ran and was predicted ala Truman-Dewey to defeat the Republican nominee... (get ready for it) Donald Trump.  Despite the wisdom of the experts and the fact that Clinton received over 2 million more votes than Trump, the snake oil salesman won the electoral college vote.  I can hear you saying, "You're kidding" from the grave. Not kidding.

We lost Pumpkin. The guy did not come back on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving.  Just disappeared. It was a blow.  When we asked the policeman who lives on our block if he had seen him, the fellow--who we've met previously--confided that one of his kids has had chemotherapy a number of times.  Losing Pumpkin is sad, but relatively, not that significant.  Still we miss the guy.  When I come down the stairs to make coffee I think I am going to hear him meow for his grub.  Sometimes I see Donna gazing out the window looking for him.

On a positive note, we went to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving again.  It was wonderful to see Hillel and Sam and their kids.  Sophie and Jack were there with Shannon and Matt.  Bobby and Lynne as well.   I kept imagining you sitting around the table with Uncle Morris and Aunt Ethel kvelling at your descendants spending the holiday as you had.

On the even more positive note, we are all healthy.  knock on wood.  I am completely ambulatory--still can't run--but can walk forever.  I have not had a physical since the spring, but at the time the prognosis was life.  I'm still gainfully employed but could cease doing so tomorrow and not have to worry as long as I do not adopt a rich person's life style. Even if I was a rich person I would likely not adopt a rich person's life style. Of course if Trump does what I fear he will, I will be broke by the end of January as the stock market will take a dive. (So far it has zoomed up, but he is not in office yet).

Well, dad, I will close this electronic birthday note.  You are still hanging around in my consciousness and I am grateful to have such a fine person in my head as well as part of my real and symbolic DNA.  When I was at the condo, I went through some of the CDs that we have not as yet taken back up north.  I saw the score from The Student Prince and played--over and over--the Drinking song you would sing at the dinner table or while in the shower now and again.  It makes me smile to think of you belting it out.   "All I ask is the right to see, those smiling eyes beguiling me."

It would be great to see your smiling eyes beguiling me.

Happy birthday, Dad.  Thank you for the wonderful wisdom.

"Drink, Drink, Let the toasts start."

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Often when I go to a college basketball game by myself I bring a book.  I do this because in division 1 college basketball there are automatic tv timeouts at the dead balls after the 16, 12, 8, and 4 minute marks in each half.  Add to these breaks, the halftime period, plus the four timeouts each coach has per game, and you have the potential for 17 breaks during the course of a contest.  If I am by myself, I figure I might as well bring a book for these times as opposed to contemplating, say, the state of our democracy (where it seems to be okay that a former enemy may have affected the results of our presidential election and not too many people seem to care a whole lot).

Reading a book during basketball breaks creates a minor problem for me.  I have been blessed with many health related gifts (knock on wood).  One of these gifts is that at an age when I am closer to 70 than any other round number, I do not need glasses to read.  Almost always now when I go to dinner with contemporaries each person at the table has to take out reading glasses or they cannot see the menu. On occasions when glasses have been left in the car or pocket book or at work or wherever, I become the designated reader for my party.  Folks of my vintage marvel at my ability to read without spectacles.  My long range vision, however, has deteriorated.  With specs I can see fine, but without them street signs are blurry as are figures on a movie screen or basketball court.  I did not want to have to have "must wear glasses" on my driver's license and thought I could pass the test without them.  I figured there might be a time when I did not have my glasses and could do just fine without them.  When, while taking the eye test for driver license renewal I attempted to read the letters at the bottom of the chart, the young woman at the counter looked up at me dully and said, "Why don't you get your glasses" which I did and even startled myself when I saw what a difference they made.

The point of all this commentary about my vision is that when I go to a game with a book, I have to continuously take my glasses off when I go to read during time outs, and put them back on when I want to resume watching the game. The idea of bifocals would only be appealing if I needed a different sort of lens for reading, but since I don't need any lens for reading I figure I can deal with the mild inconvenience at basketball games. And I do.

The other night I was a second or two slow putting the specs back on when the game resumed and saw the real contrast between the unfocussed players and then their clear images.  And I was struck for the first time with the idea of what a metaphor this whole vision business is for me.

 I have always been very good at seeing a situation for what it is.   I don't kid myself as a general rule and when faced with an uncomfortable--or comfortable--situation, I see it clearly for what it is.  But I've been accused of not being able to look ahead as clearly.  A woman, way in my past, told me that "the problem with you is" (I had heard a number of versions of what the problem with me was--this was just one of the problems, according to her, of me) "that you think you are going to live forever."

I'm not sure that that is exactly how I think.  I do have a sense that we are here for a finite period, but I do think that sometimes my vision for the future is not as good as it could be. This, of course, is quite a liability in the betting casinos. Also for political punditry.  I was positive that Carter would beat Reagan in 1980 until the last few weeks of the campaign. I really was not worried about a Trump victory last November. (I did pick, to the exact number, the electoral vote count in 2012--but that was an aberration).

I'm not sure how much I can generalize my strengths and weaknesses to others, but I do think even for those who have the ability to see the here and now acutely, the ability to see long range is often impaired creating relatively unattractive presents in the future.