Saturday, May 28, 2016

How Tom Rachman "Mourned His Sister Through the Books She Left Behind"

Tom Rachman
A Washington Post article titled "How I Mourned My Sister Through the Books She Left Behind" caught my eye this morning - and it started me on some serious thinking about what we leave behind us upon our deaths.  What physical objects, especially books, will our survivors associate with us for the rest of their own lives...and so on?  

When Tom Rachman's sister Emily died, he found that her "library remained like a silent repository of her, and I had to dismantle it."  And that is exactly what he would end up doing by distilling her 800-volume library into the 250 books that he believes meant the most to her during her life.  
I found books on psychology written by our parents. Books she’d started but never finished. Books with sticky notes in them — she was passionate about sticky notes. I discovered packets everywhere, in neon pink, yellow, green. Each time I found a note in a margin, it made me scour the text for why.
Many of her books I associate with her childhood bedroom in Vancouver, where she read one astonishingly thick book after another, such as the red hardcover of “War and Peace,” which bears our father’s handwriting inside: “To darling Emily, With fondest love on your 12th birthday, from Mum & Dad. x x x x”
There are books I forgot I had given, such as “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which I (at age 15) printed in pencil: “Dear Emily, happy 18th birthday, I got you this book because it is very funny, and overall ace.” 

Discoveries like these were just the beginning of what Emily's books reminded Tom of from their shared lives - memories that bound her forever closer to him than would have ever been possible without the presence of the books - and notes - she left behind.

We should all be so lucky as to have a Tom or an Emily in our own lives.  

Perhaps writers are not the only ones who gain a measure of immortality from their books.  Maybe, just maybe, those of us who read them gain the same - if we are very, very lucky people.

(To read the entire  Washington Post article, please click on the red link at the beginning of this post.)

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

Baseball is the sport that most appeals to the dreamers among us, those who lack the talent to play the game at a high level but who have such a deeply felt love of the sport that we are willing to take just about any baseball related job that comes along.  Until recently, such dreamers were limited to jobs in the front office or to positions that could never even remotely impact what was happening down on the field.  But then along came Money Ball, and everything changed.  It hasn’t been easy, but baseball’s statistical nerds are finally in position to contribute to the game in ways that used to be impossible.

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller are two of those dreamers – and they managed to make their own dream come true by convincing the owner of a small-time professional baseball team to hand them the keys to his team for an entire season.  As Lindbergh and Miller describe them, the Sonoma Stompers, members of a four-team league known as the Pacific Association, are pretty much astride the bottom rung of the professional baseball ladder.  But that doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the Stompers and the three teams they play over and over again are comprised of real, living and breathing baseball players – young men who grew up dominating the baseball fields of their youth, all the while believing that one day they would make it to the major leagues.  But although that hasn’t happened for any of them so far, and probably never will, they are not ready yet to call baseball a day.  And as long as they can afford to play the game for the $500 a month or so that the Stompers can offer, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller want to help them make their dreams come true.

Lindbergh and Miller are baseball writer/editors (Lindbergh for FiveThirtyEight and Miller for Baseball Prospectus) with lots of theories about how best to play the game.  They use intricately designed spreadsheets to identify players that may have slipped through the cracks of major league baseball’s comprehensive player draft system.  They dream of using a five-man infield against players who almost never hit a fly ball, and they wonder what would happen if they ask their hitters not to swing the bat any time they jump in front on a two-ball, no strike count.  They wonder why managers insist upon saving their “closers” exclusively for ninth inning save situations instead of using them in critical situations that happen an inning or two earlier when a game is so often lost.

 Now it’s time to see what happens when theory becomes reality.  The Only Rule Is It Has to Work – and there’s only one way to find out.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

600 Self-Deluded Writers Sign Open Letter Condemning a Political Candidate

One of the 600 Who Over Estimates the Power of His Opinion

According to this piece from The Guardian, some 600 American writers have signed an open letter condemning the political aspirations of Donald Trump.  Among them seem to be a few favorites of mine and a whole lot more of whom I've never heard.

But for all 600 of you, here is my open letter to you:

As I desperately look for reasons I can justify voting for either of the two most despicable candidates in recent American political history, I don't want (or need) to hear from people whose opinion is no more valid or informed than my own.  I don't give a damn what you think about politics, so keep it to yourself - and if you think your opinion is going to make me vote one way or another in any election, you are hugely over estimating your influence on the general public.  Keep writing, and I'll keep reading.  Other than are irrelevant.  

Especially you, Stephen King.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Chronicle of a Last Summer

In Chronicle of a Last Summer, her debut novel, Yasmine El Rashidi explores three volatile periods of Egyptian history through the eyes of a single narrator who lived with her mother in the same Cairo apartment between 1984 and 2014.   The novel is divided into distinct sections recalling the young woman’s recollections of the events of the summers of 1984, 1998, and 2014.  Unfortunately, for both the narrator and for the country of Egypt, the more things changed, the more they remained the same.

In 1984, our narrator is still a little girl basking in the attention of her family and those in the neighborhood impressed by the stature of the lifestyle her businessman father is able to provide his family.  She is a confident child, one who feels secure about her place in Egyptian society, but she is smart enough to know that she does not understand everything about the world she lives in – and that the best way to learn the truth about that world is to listen quietly to the adult conversations surrounding her.  Why, for instance, does her father remain in Geneva on business for so long, and more importantly, why does the rest of the family talk about him as if he may never return to his Cairo apartment?

By 1998, the little girl is a university film student well aware that one of the truths of Egyptian society is that some of its citizens suddenly disappear, with only the luckiest of them ever to be seen again.  But even those lucky ones come home physically and mentally scarred by the experience, mere shadows of the people they were when they went missing.  In the meantime, her own father remains “in Geneva” on business, and the narrator has to be careful that the actions of her radical cousin and uncle do not convince the government that it is time she take a “business trip” of her own.

Yasmine El Rashidi
And then it is 2014, and the narrator’s Baba (father) is back.  He will never return to the family home (a place more and more in danger of collapsing from neglect), but his return to public life gives the narrator the chance to spend time with the man she only knows through family stories and a few vague, early childhood memories of her own.  Soon enough, another “revolution” behind them, the people of Egypt are faced with the reality that only the names of those in charge change, and that life for the rest of them is something to be endured until the Egyptian political cycle completes itself again.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Safe House: A Documentary on the Decline of Public Libraries in the U.K.

Stephen Fry on U.K. Libraries
When I lived in London in the nineties, one of the things that most disappointed me was the city's public libraries.  Being a bit of an Anglophile, I probably expected way too much from a country that more or less shaped my understanding and appreciation of literature, so maybe they were not as bad as the impression they made on me then.  But when I compared them to the libraries in and around Houston, they invariably suffered in the comparison, so to me they were almost without exception disappointing. 

And now, shockingly, I see that they are probably worse today than I remember them to be when I was a regular patron at two locations back then (the libraries in Richmond and Uxbridge).  I lived in the rather upscale area of Richmond/Twickenham and worked in the more industrial area of Uxbridge, and that meant that Richmond was my week-end library and Uxbridge my lunchtime library.

All that said, this trailer publicizing a new documentary called "The Safe House" on the decline of public libraries in the U.K. leaves me rather sad.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Thursday 1:17 P.M.

At first, fans of time travel novels and short stories might not know what to make of Michael Landweber’s Thursday 1:17 P.M.  After all, the novel’s narrator/hero (a teenager whom everyone calls Duck) moves neither forward nor backward in time during the entire novel.  Duck would, in fact, be perfectly happy if he could simply figure out how to get time started again, because right now he is the only thing moving in a world in which every other living thing and machine is frozen solid at 1:17 on the worst Thursday afternoon of his life.

How bad a day is Duck having?  Well, consider this: minutes earlier, he walked away from his mother’s deathbed; his father is institutionalized; and Duck has just stepped directly into the path of the speeding car that is destined to smash him into pieces.  But suddenly the clock stops ticking, and Duck finds himself staring into the eyes of the driver who is about to crush him.  So he simply steps away from the intersection. 

Thus begins one of the strangest coming-of-age novels a reader is ever likely to encounter.  Duck will be eighteen years old tomorrow – but will tomorrow ever get here, or is Duck destined to remain forever a seventeen-year-old boy grieving the loss of his mother?

Michael Landweber
Survival proves to be surprisingly easy in a world in which everything is literally frozen in in the instant during which time stopped.  Washington D.C. grocery stores are filled with food and drink that never spoils; the temperature never varies; shelter is available everywhere Duck turns (if he can just figure out when it is time to get some sleep); and everything in the nearby shopping mall is his for the taking.  All around him, people are frozen in the act of walking, falling, fighting, or making love.  Everyone but Duck is waiting for the next tick of the clock to determine their fate.  Now what?

Ironically, it a world in which time has frozen, Duck has nothing but time on his hands, time to think about his past, time to miss his parents and his friends, and time to figure out what he would do differently if only the rest of the world would catch up with him again.  But in order to do any of these things, first he has to figure out a way to get time flowing.  Can a boy really come-of-age in a world in which he lives entirely alone, or is his situation akin to the tree that falls in the forest when no one is around to hear it hit the ground? 

You’ll have to read Thursday 1:17 P.M. to find out.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

You Can Have It All (Rolling in the Deep parody)

This song parody was apparently used to promote the New York State Reading Association conference held in Syracuse in 2012.  Based on a song called "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele, this version is called "If You Love to Read" and features real-life English teacher Sarah Ada in place of Adele. 

Everything about this video makes me smile, but I especially love the lyrics and Sarah's voice.  Readers, "you can have it all if you like to read."

For comparison purposes (and mainly to illustrate just how clever and well done this video is) I'm including the original Adele video on which it's based: 

Friday, May 20, 2016

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, it seems, has always been suspended between very different cultures.  The daughter of Indians from West Bengal who had migrated to England, Lahiri moved with her family to the United States at the age of two and grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island.  Although the family spoke Bengali at home and her mother made sure that she understood her cultural heritage, Lahiri could not help but consider herself to be American.  English may not have been her first language, but even as a little girl she often found herself asked by strangers to ensure that her parents understood the finer points of any conversation they were engaged in because her parents spoke with heavy Indian accents and her English was flawlessly spoken (a presumption that still irritates Lahiri to this day).

Lahiri’s debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published in 1999 and has been followed by a second story collection and two well-received novels.  In Other Words may be only her fifth book, but Lahiri’s writing awards are already numerous, including an O. Henry Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Humanities Medal. 

And then she fell hopelessly in love with the Italian language she had before only flirted with from afar.  So taken with the sound and construction of Italian that she and her family relocated to Rome so that she could completely immerse herself in it, Lahiri decided even to write in no other language.  In Other Words is the result of that decision.  The author, understanding the limitations of writing in a language as foreign to her as Italian is, did not even trust herself to interpret the work back into English for fear of being tempted into “improving” the English version (the book was translated instead by Ann Golstein, an experienced translator who has worked with, among others, Primo Levi and Elena Ferrante).  As she puts it, Lahiri is “a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”

Jhumpa Lahiri
In Other Words – which is part autobiography, part memoir – includes both the original Italian version (the left-hand pages) and the translated English version (the right-hand pages) of Lahiri’s manuscript.  The 233-page book is comprised of an “author’s note,” twenty-three short reflections on her relationship to language and self-identity, and an “afterword.”  Lahiri tells the reader that because she wrote In Other Words in Italian it is inherently different from her earlier work.  “The themes, ultimately, are unchanged: identity, alienation, belonging.  But the wrapping, the contents, the body and soul are transfigured,” she tells us.  

In the end, though, despite all that she has achieved in her study of Italian, Lahiri feels a little “insecure” and “embarrassed” by what her efforts have produced.  She realizes now that for her, Italian will always be a work-in-progress and that she will always remain a foreigner to the language.  But it has been three years since she has read or written much in any language other than Italian, and Lahiri believes that this has led her to a new “creative path” that she would have otherwise never have found.

All in all, not bad for “a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”