A Shared Cultural Moment

On Monday night I attended a program of storytelling at the Westport Library called “Naughty or Nice: In Literature and Life,” presented by the groups Write Yourself Free and the Storytelling Circle. I enjoyed the stories, and one in particular struck me not just for the story but the audience’s response to part of it.

Steve White, a photographer from Norwalk, Conn., talked about attending a private boarding school in the 1960s. He linked his miserable experiences to the movie Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman had a problem with authority. The boys at the school similarly rebelled. Once, at the dreary daily chapel session, they were instructed to sing “God Bless America.” White revved up the singing to a boisterous yet sincere level — not the low-wattage rendition the school administration wanted and demanded.

The audience of 75 at the library responded — when White sang part of the song — by singing along, and, when he forgot a line, providing the next words. One woman upfront even kept singing when he wanted to continue the story.

The moment struck me, as I looked over the audience, mostly middle-aged and older. We all knew the song. Forget about our politics, our TV habits, our economic situation. Everybody in the room shared a common connection around a patriotic song. Had the song been the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, I’d like to think the reaction would have been the same. We would have instantly sang the words, arising from childhood memories of devotion to ideals and instruction of teachers who cared about passing on a common national identity through song.

Is this still the case in the United States? Do schoolchildren learn these songs and still sing them with an open heart and conviction? Simple devotion does not last, I’m not going to kid myself about that. I know how kids are, grumbling and parodying such music, and as a parent I did my own rewrite of “God Bless America” as “God Bless Jigglypuff”, to amuse my adolescent son with what I called the “Pokemon National Anthem.”  However, I would hope some primal American feeling would remain even if the attitudes grew tired and weary of the daily jolts in this country. The seed of national knowingness, to coin a phrase, could remain there for the right moment.

Still, can anything now serve as a shared national cultural experience in the United States, or are we so completed fractured by groups, media and political intensity that no single cultural factor can serve to unite us? On September, 11, 2001, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang, yes, God Bless America. At that moment of national danger and uncertainty, the power of collective song brought us together. Could that happen today? I don’t know.

But I did see the power of a shared identity on Monday night in a New England library.

 

Playing Reporter at NPR

National Public Radio wins plenty of criticism but the complaints usually have a vague tone. Grumbling without content. I listen to the news regularly, on WNYC in New York and WSHU in Connecticut. I usually shrug off the criticism; if you want any news on the radio, this is the place.

On Sunday I heard two stories on All Things Considered that got my antennae, as a former journalist, quivering. I never talk about to NPR but this time the marshmallow-style reporting sounded so blatant and skewed that I decided to share some thoughts.

Both stories dealt with issues that need attention. One focused on the difficulties faced by renters in a market with high demand and static supply. As a renter myself, my ears pricked up when I heard the story. The second was on a program in Los Angeles about a program to help young dads — as in mid-teens to mid-20s — cope with all the new pressures they face as fathers.

Let’s look at the new-dad story first. With the headline on the NPR site of “From Resumes to Romance, Giving Young Dads the Skills to Succeed,” it detailed a program that tried to meet the economic and social needs of new fathers.

Parenthood is often unexpected for these men. They weren’t planning to be dads, Blaney says. “They just get a lot of criticism and a lot of judgement from everybody in their family. So they basically just go from having a larger social support circle to none.” Most of the men who attend are between the ages of 15 and 25, though fathers as young as 14 have made their way through the program. Blaney says the men come from different backgrounds, but most of them are black or Latino and the majority of them are low-income.

Males in the program learn how to be good fathers, how to control their anger, and overcome their own lack of male role models. The piece scrupulously avoids certain words that, I imagine, might be seen as “judgmental” and hurtful to these youngsters. Those words are “marriage” and “birth control.” The NPR reporter positions the program as one answer for the problems, but never wants to explore the impact of a committed marital relationship. As a former reporter myself, I’d have raised questions that may has disrupted the sweetly hopeful tone of the piece:

  • How many of the males have married or plan to marry the girls they impregnated?
  • How many impregnated multiple girls and are now fathers several times over?
  • Do any face statutory rape charges?
  • What’s their understanding of birth control and do they practice safe sex?
  • What are they doing to prevent additional pregnancies?
  • How many of them are currently interacting with the criminal justice system? Why?

These questions may be rude, but they get to the heart of these programs. Unless you think teenage pregnancies is an unalloyed social good, then you want to prevent them or at least limit their negative impact on the parents, the babies and the public treasury. I get no sense that NPR wanted to address any issues other than guys dealing with their feelings and being better fathers. But husbands? Socially responsibility? Those topics must be either judgmental or beyond the realm of imagining for this population. Or maybe the reporter just lacked time to squeeze in some microaggressive topics.

The program on renting, also set in Los Angeles, which has the highest percentage of renters of any major city, was titled “Home, Food or Health Care: A Choice Many Renters Can’t Afford.” More renters are crowding into the city due to the foreclosure wave, but building apartment complexes is difficult thanks to antiquated and expensive zoning laws. As a result, those apartments being built serve the high-end market, where owners can recoup their costs.

So far, so good, NPR acknowledges economic reality. The story focuses on the Alvarez family scraping to get by in the working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The story says,

Ymelda Alvarez, her husband and their two daughters live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment just east of downtown Los Angeles in a neighborhood called Boyle Heights. It’s not a fancy or trendy area; it’s a poor part of town with a lot of crime, and most of the schools are struggling.

Their apartment consists of a front living room converted to a bedroom, a small kitchen and a little room in the back with bunk beds for the kids. Other amenities include sagging ceilings, leaky faucets, doors that don’t lock and pests like cockroaches and rats.

For this they pay $1,000 a month.

But it’s currently their only option. Antonio, her husband, can’t land a full-time job and only makes about $1,200 a month from stringing together part-time work at a school nearby.

Mrs. Alvarez only speaks Spanish; what’s the story about her husband not being able to find full-time work? So the obvious question to me is, what’s their immigration status? While the article makes a reference to them waiting to get tax refunds, the story resolutely avoids the issue that leads to crowding in areas like Boyle Heights. In this era of accelerating border-crossings without much in the way of enforcement, those questions have to be asked. Competition for scarce job and housing resources, the criminal justice system, wage depression, education, clashes with other ethnic groups at the lower end of the economic and social bell curve, the degradation of the concept of citizenship, “white privilege” — all are questions that must be raised and the ones I’d ask if I were the reporter doing this story.

Call me a neocon or clueless or heartless, but those are the questions NPR avoid.

Jack Brabham and the Car-Crazy Kid

I read recently of the death of Jack Brabham, 88, a renowned Australian race car driver who was active from the 1940s to 1970. The name and the news took me way back, 45 years at least, to when I was a car-crazy kid who avidly read Car and Driver, Hot Rod and other car magazines to keep up with the racing news.

My father, a racing enthusiast who named my brother Cooper and me after cars or drivers, must have influenced this interest, although he lived far away. As a somewhat-typical American boy, cars fascinated me, anyway. I built plastic and metal models; my mother used to take my metal parts to the Tipton Chevrolet dealership in Mission, Texas, where the guys in the repair shop would happily prime the pieces before I painstakingly painted them (a big thanks to my friend Renee Zamora-Hernandez for confirming that Tipton was the name of the dealership in the 1960s). I avidly collected the glossy marketing brochures from Tipton and Spikes Ford in Mission. Salesmen sometimes found me in their showrooms sitting in the cars, dreaming.

On the long drives to San Antonio for family vacations, my brother and I competed in car-counting games. I took Cadillac, he took Mustang, and we kept track of the number we saw to see which was the most popular car on the 250 miles of highway going up to the Alamo City.

I never cared so much for the mechanics of cars as for the culture, especially the speed side of cars. Indy racing, Can-Am, Formula 1, drag racing with the long pointy vehicles and the tire-spinning burnouts before the staging lights counted down from red to green to start the five-second races along a quarter-mile strip — I remember all of that.

The high-glamour world of Formula 1 especially caught my attention and Jack Brabham was a great driver of the era. The photos with the memorials showed a man I instantly recognized, square-jawed, determined, ready to put his pedal to the medal.

Back in those days I avidly tracked the standings and teams with the enthusiasm I would soon show for baseball, my next kid obsession (I can recite the names of most of the starting line-up of the 1969 Houston Astros and a good chunk of the pitching rotation, but that’s another column).

I became a big fan of Texas’ own Team Chaparral, owned by Midland oil executive and driver Jim Hall. His low-slung white cars burned up the track in the Can-Am series of races in 1966 and 1967. I remember being thrilled by the daring design of the car. Hall rolled out the 2E car at exactly the moment I went car crazy and photos online indeed show the look I remember from the pages of Car and Driver. The details:

The 2E was based on the Chevrolet designed aluminum 2C chassis and presented Jim Hall’s most advanced aerodynamic theories to the racing world in the 1966. The 2E established the paradigm for virtually all racing cars built since. It was startling in appearance, with its radiators moved from the traditional location in the nose to two ducted pods on either side of the cockpit and a large wing mounted several feet above the rear of the car on struts. The wing was the opposite of an aircraft wing in that it generated down-force instead of lift and was attached directly to the rear suspension uprights, loading the tires for extra adhesion while cornering. A ducted nose channeled air from the front of the car up, creating extra down-force as well. By depressing a floor pedal that was in the position of a clutch pedal in other cars, Hall was able to feather, or flatten out, the negative angle of the wing when down-force was not needed, such as on a straight section of the track, to reduce drag and increase top speed. In addition, an interconnected air dam closed off the nose ducting for streamlining as well. When the pedal was released, the front ducting and wing returned to their full down-force position. Until they were banned many sports racing cars, as well as Formula One cars, had wings on tall struts, although many were not as well executed as Hall’s.

In layman’s terms, the Chaparral 2E had a “spoiler” on the back, and that’s forever imprinted on me as the ultimate in car design, other than gull-winged doors from a 1950s Mercedes-Benz. Every time I see a modern car with a spoiler — Subarus — I’m transported back to the days when I saw myself as an honorary member of Team Chaparral.

Other bits and pieces of racing lore stayed in my brain from 1967, the year I turned 10. I must have kept up with the news in Car and Driver and newspapers like the McAllen Monitor. The horrific accident at the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 10 that killed Lorenzo Bandini sank deeply into my subconscious. Photos of the crash, in which Bandini was terribly burned, soon appeared in Car and Driver with an angry editorial; 47 years later, I instantly recalled his name and scenes of the crash that I read about. The violence and nature of Bandini’s death must have shocked me.

A happier racing memory came from later in the same month. I’m thinking back on the Indianapolis 500 of May 1967, when Parnelli Jones shocked the traditionalists by almost winning in the STP candy apple-red gas turbine car, which led most of race until it broke down with three laps to go after a $6 ball bearing failed. To this day I associate the letters “STP” with game-changing innovation — which ultimately went nowhere in terms of impact on Indy racing, although it caused a massive stir that year. A.J. Foyt won the race — he’s just one of the familiar names from that era that leaped back into my awareness from that era; I couldn’t name a single driver from any circuit of today, but names like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill and, of course, Jack Brabham feel as familiar to me as Bronx kids in the late 1920s recalled Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and their Yankees teammates.

Of course, I clearly remember my family’s own cars. My mother had total loyalty to Chevrolets that she bought at Tipton Chevy throughout the 1960s. She first bought a rear-engine Corvair in 1962 or so, then traded three years later for a sporty 1965 turquoise Malibu that, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind driving today. Following the pattern of the day, in 1968 she bought a yellow two-door Impala, with the popular option of the era, a white vinyl roof. She stopped upgrading after that, and the yellow Impala was the car my brother and I drove after taking Driver’s Ed in the mid-1970s.

Hands down, though, the hot wheels in the family in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to my mother’s Aunt Sue in San Antonio, a retired teacher. She tooled around the Alamo City in her early ’60s white Thunderbird, a bitchin’ ride with creamy leather bucket seats and the power windows. Power windows! I had never seen those before. In the late 1960s, alas, she traded the T-Bird in for a boat-like Lincoln Continental, painted gold, with plenty of room. I liked riding in her Caddy when we visited San Antonio on family vacations, but she just couldn’t top the T-Bird.

My interest in cars and racing faded away, replaced by baseball and girls and other primal quests. I bought my first car in May 1979 for a summer job as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, a rusty 1971 AMC Hornet station wagon. Desperate for the required transportation for the job, I bought it for $500 from a graduate student. It served its purpose but I never drove it unless I had to in that gas-crisis summer, when long lines snaked around service stations nation-wide. I took it back to Princeton and parked it behind my eating club during my senior year. I used it to move to Brooklyn after I graduated and heaved a sigh of relief when I donated it to Goodwill as soon as possible.

I didn’t own a car for 11 years, until my wife and I moved to the suburbs and we bought a tan 1984 Saab two-door. It had a manual transmission, so I had to take driving lessons to learn how to drive the thing. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually learned how. Three years later we bought a red four-door 1986 Saab when our son was born. The tan car died in a train station parking lot and we got a Taurus station wagon. After we divorced, I got the red Saab, which proved increasingly unreliable. I liked the unique look of Saabs and their solidity but 1986 was a wretched model year and the car became a terror ride as I wondered when it would stall at a stop light or just not start, as once happened after I picked up my son after a Labor Day sleepover with a friend in Westchester County. A $200 AAA pick-up to my repair shop in Stamford ensued.

Fed up with Saab’s clunkerness, I got to the point where I rented cars on the weekends my son was with me so I could have reliable transportation. In April 2005, that year of miracles, I made the best consumer purchase ever when I bought a 2004 Hyundai Elantra at the short-lived Hyundai dealership in Stamford, Connecticut. The dealership closed a month after I bought the car, but I’ve had nine years of trouble-free cruising.

My silver four-door blends into every parking lot in total anonymity. Nobody’s going to be impressed by the tape deck it still has (how’s that for old-style technology?) but it gets me around the suburbs and handled ferocious New York blizzards, so long as I don’t actually drive during a snow storm. As much as I dream of late-middle-aged-life crisis Corvettes and T-Birds–my car fantasies always involve classic American Iron from Detroit–I’m sticking with the utilitarian services of my Elantra and its tape deck.

Truth be told, even expensive current models fail to impress me. The Westport train station parking lot packs in row after row of grey, black and silver sedans from BW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. They all look alike and I stroll past them. I only nod and gaze with passion with longing at the stray Corvette or curving Porsche. If I see a low-slung piece of superpowered road-candy, or an antique. I’ll whip out my camera to get shots from different angles.

Still, I can look back on my days as the car-crazy kid following Sir Jack Brabham and the home-state Team Chaparral. And sometimes where I accelerate through the mild uphill curves of the backroads of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, I grip the wheel of my Hyundai, feel the wind in what’s left of my hair and think, “Ja, fine European road handling.”

Junior High Confidential: Teenage Dance Party, 1971!

Hormones + a dark room + Jackson 5 records = a fun evening for all, according to my notes from autumn 1971, a Facebook ThrowBackThursday special.


November 6, 1971. Tonight is Lois’ party, + I guess I’ll go. It’s from 7:30 to 11:30 pm, at Lois’ house (I guess) + I’m looking forward to it. The only problem is since I’ve never been to a party like this, I don’t know what to expect, what to wear, + how to get home. Mom says I can call her, but getting her up from bed at 11:30 (if I stay that long) or later isn’t too appealing.

November 7, 1971. Last night I went to Lois’ party + had a lot of fun. Good many people there: me (of course), Daniel, David, Joe Sietz, John N., Tito, Abel, Johnnie Martinez, Ridling, Dean Williford, Pee Wee, some high school guys, Robert Rojas, Joe Gonzales, Ricky Garcia, Eli Ochoa, + others I don’t know or remember. Oh, yes, Larry Bray was there, as was Gabby Garza + Ricky Hinojosa. The girls were: Lois, Angie, Sylvia, Dee Dee, Dalia Martinez, Janet, Stephana, Sandy Miller, Mary Ann, Cynthia Nelson, Raynell, Hilda Perez, Teresa C., Rachel Currie, Sheri, Bertha Hernandez, Joe G’s sister, Rhonda, Sandra Kemp and some more I can’t remember.

Anyway, I got there about 7:45 pm at Lois’ house at 16th + Conway. I walked to the door + peered thru the darkness + saw that it was the right address (1623 Conway) + told Mom + Coop who where parked on the curb, told ‘em it was the right house and to leave. So I walked to the door.

The 1st time I went up to the door I  knew it was the right house because I could hear young voices inside + an Osmonds song on a record player.

As I walked in the room where the action was was in almost total darkness, illuminated by a candle at each end of a room 7 yds wide + 15 long. The walls were jammed with people. The 1st person I saw was Daniel + Charlie + Ricky Garcia, by the door. We talked a bit + they told me David was at the far end of the room.

He was, with Joe, John + Belinda, Ricky + a few others. We sat + talked a while, every so often someone moving to a refreshment table at the corner of the room across from us.

After an hour or more (Time got too fuzzy to remember when things happened) I danced with . . .

The music was well fitted for the occasion, lots + lots of slow 45s like the Osmonds, Jackson 5, Carpenters, etc. They must have a huge collection of records but only 1 album was out “Cosmo’s Factory” + it was played for only parts of 2 songs. I left a little before 11:30. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

John Paul II, a Saint and an Inspiration

The elevation to sainthood of Pope John Paul II gives me a happy feeling. In his long and eventful papacy, he spoke to me on political and human levels.

He became the Pope from Poland on October 16, 1978 (my 21st birthday, by the way) when communism still ruled over Eastern Europe and Russia. He was subtle and tactically brilliant in confronting the Evil Empire and its lackeys in Poland. I recall that after martial law was declared in Poland in 1981, John Paul II warned Soviet leaders that if the Red Army invaded Poland, he would personally go to Poland to lead the resistance. Having lived in Poland during the Nazi occupation, he knew the value and costs of resistance. I hope I’m remembering the story accurately; I can’t find documentation for it, but the thought remains deeply lodged in my associations with John Paul II. He was fearless.

Fast-forward two decades. Poland is free, the USSR has been swept into the dustbin of history, and John Paul II is dying. Cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and assassination attempts all took their toll on the man. He was clearly ailing in his public appearances. In the weeks before his death on April 2, 2005, I remember walking past The Church of Our Savior at 38th Street and Park Avenue in New York, on a spring evening a few days before his passing. A large sign on an easel outside the church said, “Pray for Pope John Paul II.”

That made me think. The Pope no doubt had a great degree of spiritual peace in his declining days, sureness in what awaited him in the World to Come. But he still needed prayers, for recovery of health and his comfort. He kept hanging in there as Pope despite his decline. The thought that came to mind: Even if you have absolute faith in the certainty of an afterlife, you don’t have to be in a big rush to get there. Like the movie title says, heaven can wait; it ain’t going anywhere.

Life in human society, among friends and family, offers great rewards whatever the difficulties. I like to think John Paul II rather liked being alive right to the end and would go only when the proper moment came. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. The afterlife is long, so, so long.

His last words to aides on April 2 were “Pozwólcie mi odejść do domu Ojca” (“Allow me to depart to the house of the Father”). Finally, Pope John Paul II was ready.

 

Junior High Confidential: The Young Literary Reviewer Looks at “Across the Tracks”

Reading old journals offers endless pleasures. I found my inner literary critic at an early age, and I especially wrote about books that touched on the world around me. In the early 1970s, tales of vampires and werewolves and Hunger Games were decades in the future. Social realism attracted me. From September 18, 1971, at Mission Junior High School in Texas. I was 13 years old and had just started the 8th grade:

Finally, yesterday 2nd period, Mrs. Smith let us go to the library. I checked out a book, a paperback, that I noticed but never got around to reading. It’s called “Across the Tracks,” about this senior at a high school in South. Cal, Betty Ochoa, who wants to: 1) be accepted by the top social group at school (the Anglos) 2) help the tough, bitter gang leader, Pete Flores, before he gets killed. 3) she wants to bring gringo and chicano together. Though it has some faults (the author can’t go a page without having Betty  blush) + everyone’s always hugging each other, it’s interesting because, with only a few alterations, it could be Mission.

What to make of this? Even then I noted other books with similar themes of Anglo-Hispanic (today’s terms of choice) conflict. Everything seemed to set in California, Texas didn’t get much ink as far as I could tell, and what books did cover South Texas were of the Anglo-focused triumphalist sort. More realistic views of interactions in Texas now exist and I’ve read them, through the novels of Rolando Hinojosa, set in an imaginary landscape of South Texas. I tried to find out more about Across the Tracks, but online searching turned up nothing about this book that so caught the life swirling around me in my small town.

One of these days I hope to make my own contribution to the genre of life along the tracks of Mission, Texas.

“The Son” Also Rises

When last I wrote, I lamented the difficulties I have finding books I really like. I struggled through sci-fi, winners of glittering international awards, Jewish historical fiction, Latin American books. The list of grim hikes through trails of directionless prose discouraged me.

But, with hope springing eternal, I rolled the reading dice on “The Son,” by Phillip Meyer, published last year and weighing in at 561 pages. The book gripped me from the beginning, as it rolled across 170 years of Texas history, seen through the eyes of members of the McCullough family, with tortured and violent interactions with their neighbors, the ancient Garcia family, on ranches in South Texas.

How firmly did the book hold my attention? I stayed up, fully awake, until 2:30 a.m. one night last week to finish it, and I wasn’t just skimming the pages either, as I have with other massive recent tomes. No, Meyer’s clear style , sure sense of landscape and unblinking view of his subject material took me on the reading ride I crave and so rarely encounter.

The book follows three main characters from the McCullough, starting with patriarch Eli, born in the day the Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836, and kidnapped by Comanches in 1849. He becomes a member of the tribe, its leader, as warfare and disease shrink it down to nothing. He goes back, reluctantly, to white society, where he doesn’t fit in. But as a Texas Ranger and Confederate he makes his way in life and finally a fortune in land and oil. The family seems cursed, and that’s told through the stories of his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie.

Wending through the narrative, especially of Peter and Jeannie, is the specter of the Garcias—I’ll leave that angle to your own reading. The prose is biting in the way it captures the attitudes of the power elite. Here are Jeannie’s childhood musings on her neighbors’ ancient destroyed home:

Only the children had interest in the casa mayor. The Mexican hands, if forced to fetch cattle from the pastures nearby, always crossed themselves. They could not help being ignorant Catholics. And the Garcias had not been able to help being lazy, cattle-stealing greasers and she felt sorry for them, even if they had shot her uncle Glenn.

The book could have used a genealogy table to keep the characters straight. Other than Eli, the main characters spend most of their time moaning about fate and their lot in life (fabulous riches be damned, they want to suffer), and minor characters keep getting shoved on-stage even to the end. I could see another, more compelling book carved from the material, more on the Garcias, less on the McCulloughs. The issues become a little too trendy in the last years covered. Quick appearances by Lyndon Johnson and an unnamed woman writer (obviously Edna Ferber, when she was researching her Texas epic, Giant) suggest another plot direction that never develops.

Still, the book did a great job of communicating a sense of place. Having grown up in South Texas, I know that territory on an instinctual level, even if I haven’t lived there in almost 40 years. References to Brownsville and Hidalgo County jumped out at me, as did the bloody guerilla warfare along the border during the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, so revered in Anglo society, look very different through the eyes of the Hispanic families that had lived in the region for centuries. They were the Rangers for one population, and the dreaded “Los Rinches” for another.

Peter kept a diary of his life on the Rio Grande, with this September 17, 1915 entry:

Trying to console myself that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Two weeks ago the railroad bridges to Brownsville were burned (again), the telegraph lines cut, two white men singled out from a crowd of laborers and shot in the middle of the morning. About twenty Tejanos killed in reprisals—twenty that anyone heard about. The Third Cavalry has been in regular fights with the Mexican army all along the border, shooting across the river. Three cavalrymen killed by insurgents near Los Indios and, across from Progress, on the Mexican side, the head of a missing U.S. private was displayed on a on a pole.

June 19, 1917: [After Hispanics move north to Michigan to work in car factories, and a local Anglo finds this amusing] Considered mentioning that several of the “greasers” (Vargas and Rivera, at least) had gone to college in Mexico City while Gilbert and his cross-eyed brothers were diddling heifers in Eagle Pass.

Meyer captured the attitudes of both viciousness and generosity that I heard growing up. After Jeannie’s husband Hank dies, she finds this type of response from her business circle:

The Texans had been relentless; they might hate the blacks and Mexicans, they might hate the president enough to kill him, but they had not let her alone, they had cared for her like a mother or daughter, men she barely knew, men whose absence from their offices cost thousands of dollars an hour, and yet she would come downstairs and find them asleep on her couch, and call their drivers to pick them up.

This is Meyer’s second book, very good but not quite great, and I predict he has other major works ahead of him, on topics I cannot even imagine. I’ll be waiting for them.

A Reader’s Lament: Beware Book Award Winners

I finally powered through the sci-fi novel Rainbows End by by sci-fi legend Vernor Vinge. I had earlier read his novel A Fire Upon the Deep, which I found to have great ideas but sluggish execution. Still, I liked Vinge’s short stories, so I decided to give Rainbows End the old college try.

I didn’t give up, but Rainbows End was more of a challenge than a reading pleasure. Again: great ideas presented with blah characters and a plot that never grabbed me, despite a promising spy vs. spy techno-war beginning.

And this novel won a Hugo Award.

I should know better by now than to get seduced by high profile books. Winners of fiction prizes sing a siren song to me, enticing me to dive into their crisp pages of critically praised copy. I’m seekng both reading enjoyment and writing approaches tghat I can apply to my own writing. Yet, I have had consistently poor experiences with the novels that racked up the awards. My hopes crumpled time and again against the plotlessness, lack of empathetic characters and exuberant but indulgent writing. Even worse, these books stick in my mind because I stuck with them due to a mulishness that convinced me the book HAD to improve, the themes would coalesce into a riveting reading that would leave me thinking, “That was a wild ride, long but worth it.”

I never thought that about a book that didn’t grab me. The rides never improved. In some extreme cases I even bailed out, but otherwise I hung on and wound up using the tricks I used to get through Moby-Dick and Les Miserables – skimming great swathes of the books, especially their latter sections, in a search for turns of phrase and plot advancements that made the book worthwhile.

What books rode prizes to a claim on my precious time? Let me count the ways:

  • Rainbows End, Hugo Award. Vernor Vinge is very highly regarded. As a mathematician and computer scientist, he’s got the background to write with authority on science topics. I had seen several references to his work and decided to give it a try. A Fire Upon the Deep, about different zones of space defined by the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, sounded good. The ideas summarize well, but I never got into the mood. Rainbows End, set in San Diego without any interstellar travel or even non-human species, was much closer to current reality. Still, it reflected every problem I had with Deepness in the Sky. Having bailed on The Children of the Sky, the sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, I should have known better. The problem is, I hugely enjoy some sci-fi. Short story collections on time travel and apocalyptic themes haunt me. The novels of John Scalzi (Old Man’s War, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, all prize winners with Old Man’s War being one of the top sci-fi novels of all time) always delight me and, even better, make me think. Sci-fi, however, is wildly unpredictable as a genre so I can’t presume anything will work.
  • White Teeth, loads of UK awards for a first novel. Zadie Smith’s sprawling, imaginative novel about families in England from World War II to 2000 won a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. I can appreciate Smith’s ambition but I found the book an impossible slog, with some intriguing parts about culture clashes, but full of characters I could not care about an ending that seemed rushed. Maybe I just have overly linear and plot-driven tastes. I need three attempts to push my way through White Teeth. I’ve had no desire to read her later novels, awards or no awards.
  • The Finkler Question, Man Booker Prize. Howard Jacobson’s novel about three men in London differs from the others in that I liked his writing style, which had some screamingly funny and insightful passages. I don’t begrudge him the 2010 award. Still, the book seemed less than an integrated novel than a collection of chapters that could have been arranged any which way.
  • Tree of Smoke, National Book Award. Denis Johnson’s 2007 about the Vietnam War had a solid premise and writing style, but the plot just wandered and never came together, completely tanking at the end. I think he succumbed to the need to make any novel about Vietnam hallucinatory and fragmented, without the linear flow of anything suggesting a sensible story. Soldiers, do-gooders, double agents, refugees and spooks wandering the jungles had the makings of something great, but I missed the prize point and felt cheated that I put my time into this.
  • 2666, called one of the 10 best books of 2008 by the New York Times and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page epic excited me as a concept. The setting, a fictional reworking of Ciudad Juarez, drew me in because of the location on the Texas-Mexico border. Once I got in, and kept flipping ahead to see if the epic would untangle the avant-garde, style-blending prose, I knew I’d never engage.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. These are highly regarded flights of polished, knotty prose and imagination from Michael Chabon. I finished both, but they were exhausting and left me with a “who cares?” attitude. My high hopes were dashed, especially with the great concept of the second book about Jews with their own Yiddish-speaking nation in Alaska. Well, I knocked them off my fiction bucket list and I know what I don’t want to emulate as a writer, although the source material was terrific.

Sometimes I can tell a book is not going to work for me, no matter how hard I root for it. Most recently, I slammed shut the cover on The Children of the Sky, the long-distance sequel to A Deepness in the Sky. I read about 10 pages and knew I’d never get into the characters I didn’t much connect with in the original book. Further back, I surprised myself by not finishing Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Joheved: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France by Maggie Anton. Unlike the other books here, the writing style had a straight-ahead direction and I cared about the characters. But the book just didn’t come to life for me; it had a stolid tone that wore me down that reminded me of a romance novel. Of all the books listed here, this is the one I might try again, in case I wasn’t in the right mental mindset to appreciate it the first time around.

Lest you think I’m a literary crank who seeks out books for the sole purpose of complaining about them, I really do enjoy reading novels and, lately, short fiction. John Scalzi is a sci-fi favorite, and Alan Furst goes to the top of my list whenever he releases one of his romantic-spy novels set in the tumultuous Europe of the 1930s and 1940s; most of the titles sound like recent Woody Allen movies, by the way, like Mission to Paris and the upcoming Midnight in Europe. Carl Hiaasen’s comic mysteries set in corrupt and sunny South Florida are a new favorite; I’ve greatly enjoyed Bad Monkey and Skinny Dip and can see my own mentality in their language and material.

Novels with Russian themes always work for me. I can read long, profound Soviet historical novels (Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, the series Children of the Arbat, 1935 and Other Years, Fear, and Dust & Ashes by Anatoly Rybakov) and they make great sense because I’ve done a lot of non-fiction reading on that era. Fictional investigations of the Stalinist era are my version of horror and vampire novels– forbidding, frightening yet irresistable. William Ryan’s thrillers about a Soviet investigator in the late 1930s dazzled me, with Holy Thief and The Darkening Field. Tom Rob Smith’s brilliant, brooding trilogy about troubled Soviet investigator Leo Demydov gave me a real feel for an era I’ve studied in depth, spanning the 1930s to the 1980s, with Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6. He just released the psychological thriller The Farm, so I’ll hunt that down at the library.

I know I can always turn to Anita Shreve for a close look at relationships and, as a have called it, angst-ridden baby-boomers enjoying illicit affairs in tasteful vacation locales. Jodi Picoult also gives me reading enjoyment.

The lesson, sad as it may be: I’m resolutely classical and genre-driven in my reading tastes. I’ve learned to choose my targets wisely when looking for both enjoyment and writers to emulate. Soaring pyres of tangled prose simply don’t work for me, no matter how they stunned the po-mo crit crowd.

I’ll be at my local library on Sunday — let’s see what jumps out at me.

“Nothing But Trash” = Nothing But Fun

Showing once again that you don’t have to drop a bundle to enjoy high-quality live theater in New York, I had a great time on Saturday night viewing “Nothing But Trash” at the Theater for the New City at 155 First Avenue. Trash is set in the late 1950s on a summer-resort island, as hunky teenage guys toss footballs, engage in horseplay, and check each other out. In one highly amusing scene, lead characters Troy and Tab (played by Rory Max Kaplan and Tim McGarrigan) assess each other’s reactions to, shall we say, certain stimuli to determine whether or not they’re “queer.”

But complications ensue involving the alcoholic mother Beatrice (played by playwright Andy Halliday), old flames, questions of paternity, snooping by gravel-voiced grumpy resort caretaker Lucas (played with piratical glee by Jeffrey Vause in one of his three roles in Trash) and then a “crime” that lands lovers Troy and Tab in — horrors! — the juvenile justice system. But true love prevails in the end.

I knew I’d like Nothing But Trash because it affectionately nods to entertainment I already enjoy. It self-consciously twists the themes of romantic dramas of the 1950s, especially A Summer Place. Indeed, the play takes place on Pine Island, the same as the 1959 movie, and its promotional poster is a same-sex reworking of the movie poster. The bubbly cast’s bright, tight sweaters and shirts communicate both clean-cut silliness and sensuality. Halliday described his sources well:

I wanted to tell a story about repressed love. I was inspired by the lurid teenage romance movies of the 1950s. The first act satirizes films like “Peyton Place.” I love Lana Turner’s character – a frustrated widow, hungry for love, but fearful of sex. The second act delves into teenage rebel movies like “Reform School Girl,” where only the tough girls survive. But ultimately, this story is about two innocent teenage boys who must hide their love.

Nothing But Trash was also a homecoming of sorts for my own theatrical memories of my life in New York 30 years ago. Playwright Halliday performed in the original versions of plays by Charles Busch, such as Times Square Angel, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium. They were short, punchy, campy and hilarious, as Busch lit up the stage in immortal drag roles like Irish O’Flanagan, the hard-bitten chanteuse of the 1948 New York milieu of Times Square Angel. I can still remember the play’s last line, as an arrested mobster is led away: “We’ll see who has the last laugh!” And then the entire cast laughs at him.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what my 27-year old self wrote after I saw Times Square Angel with my friend Amy Frost and a friend of hers on the frigid night of December 29, 1984 at the Limbo Lounge at 647 E. 9th Street, deep deep in New York’s then-decrepit and drug-haunted Alphabet City:

Times Square Angel was a hoot, w/ a transvestite playwright-author. The scene outside the theater was astonishing — an “Ethiopeaner” church down the block. Across the street were ghostly vacant buildings and an empty playground. Yet the menace was mostly mental. Afterwards the three of us walked right through Tompkins Sq. Park, with a young cop at the entrance. Amy’s guy, with earrings in each ear, said Operation Pressure Point helped a lot. Afterward we had drinks at the Village Gate. I got home in time to watch Star Trek.

So, Nothing But Trash was a delightful connection with my mid-80s lifestyle, when New York was in the throes of its gritty, real (as the nutty nostalgic types describe it) collapse into social chaos. Halligan learned well from the master Charles Busch in both drag style (as if I know anything about that) and how to construct irresistible comic theater.

The play also had a generational aspect to it. I had tickets for me and my Significant Other, and I surprised her with our special guests: my nephew Tyler Wallach, up and coming graphic designer and man-about-Williamsburg, and his boyfriend. I rather enjoyed executing my familial duties as the doting uncle introducing my nephew to a connection of the time when I was young and creative and living in Brooklyn. From Times Square Angel 1984 to Nothing But Trash 2014, what goes around comes around.

Nothing But Trash plays through March 23, and the place was packed when I attended, so if you want a thrifty but enjoyable night of theater, make the call now! Operators are standing by!

Jan. 23 BlogTalkRadio Interview Coming Up on “Last First Date”

I’ll be interviewed on the BlogTalkRadio program “Last First Date” on Thursday, January 23 from 2-3 pm. I’ll be speaking with host Sandy Weiner on the topic of “Role of Religion and Spirituality in Dating.

Weiner is a speaker and dating coach who helps people achieve their goals. She writes about her approach on her website

I walk my talk. As a woman actively dating after my divorce, I bring first-hand knowledge and wisdom about what it’s like to be over 40, dating in the 21st century. Like you, I am navigating through the sometimes confusing world of online dating. I am always learning new ways to talk to men and get different results. I share my extensive knowledge with my clients.

I am a woman of action. I kick butts, but always from a place of love. I want you to rise up to your highest self. Therefore, I don’t settle for the same old answers or excuses. I challenge you to push yourself to do things differently and attract the love you want. And, I bring my warmth and sense of humor to my coaching, because if you can’t laugh at life, you’re in big trouble!

 

I’m looking forward to getting on to her program and digging in to issues of spirituality and dating, and how I got to where I am today (wherever that is).