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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Lost In Lethem Land

I just couldn't wait.

Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence (2011) is so good it was easy to scuttle my longstanding policy of keeping distance between blog posts about books. Lethem's essays deliver so much wallop I was able to temporarily forget how much I've missed reading new non-fiction by John Updike, David Foster Wallace, and Christopher Hitchens. I'm now looking forward to getting lost in Lethem land a lot in the future.

The essays in "Ecstasy..." cover a dizzying array of topics ranging in length from half a page to forty pages - that one happens to be about James Brown. Like all the talented writers I admire, Lethem is a persuasive reading evangelist.  I have yet to read a book of essays without coming away with at least a few new authors to add to my list. Updike was the first to lead me to Anne Tyler; Wallace persuaded me to return to Kafka; Hitchens extolled his friends Martin Amis & Salman Rushdie. And Lethem's suggestions? Among others, he reminded me I'd forgotten to look up Italo Calvino, an author esteemed by another terrific essayist no longer with us - the always provocative Gore Vidal.

I hope someone will pick up Lethem's book and tell me what you think; he's a writer that begs to be discussed. Even when a little out of my depth, I felt smarter just reading him. If you don't have much  time, sample a few of his essays recalling 9/11. More time? Try the title essay and "Postmodernism As Liberty Valance". I'm guessing you'll get lost in Lethem land a little bit too.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Payoff For A Stubborn Reader

Don DeLillo has long occupied a spot on a short list of acclaimed fiction authors who I've struggled to crack. Each time I abandoned one of his novels, I vowed to return, knowing sooner or later my efforts would pay off. Authors don't get to be as highly regarded as DeLillo for no reason.   

If DeLillo's work has challenged you as it has me (and you're as stubborn as I), The Silence (2020) could be - as it turned out to be for me - your gateway to a modern-day master. The premise is straightforward - five people try to cope with a technological apocalypse - the prose is lean, the insights powerful. This time, at under one hundred fifty pages and with a small cast, the density of DeLillo's vision didn't overwhelm me as happened with several of his earlier novels I'd started. If you end up reading The Silence, I'd enjoy hearing about your experience, especially if DeLillo hasn't been easy for you.

BTW, the short list referred to in the first paragraph also includes William Faulkner, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon. Except for Old Man - shorter than The Silence - I've yet to finish another Faulkner novel. And though I have greedily devoured all of Wallace's non-fiction, I've given up on Infinite Jest at least three times. Me & Thomas Pynchon's lauded fiction? That's a blog post all by itself. But, the good news comes last: Not giving up on DeLillo brought The Silence to me. That means there may be more DeLillo & Faulkner in my future and perhaps I'll crack Infinite Jest the next time. Pynchon? Stay tuned on that.      

Monday, June 7, 2021

Lonely On The Bell Curve

Back in early May, sometime after visiting the last exhibit in Graceland but before settling into a hotel room in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I misplaced an almost-full notepad. Dating back to November 2020, it contained ideas for blog posts. Since the March 2011 inception of my blog, I've reliably carried with me everywhere a notepad just like that misplaced one. 

I'm embarrassed to say misplacing notepad #13 (honest!) hasn't been easy to shake off. It's possible that the turmoil in my personal life from late 2020 through mid-April, two more seasons spent in the Covid cocoon, and the continuing aftermath of an "alternative facts" presidential election have contributed to me over-reacting to this loss. All the ideas captured in that notepad overlapped with those events. From past experience, I know even fragments from these pads have helped me make sense of my world, especially when those fragments later coalesced into a coherent blog post. I'm concerned that lost ideas from those seven months could threaten that sense-making.

Although I suspect I might be lonely on the bell curve today, if you find yourself in any part of this reflection, be sure to let me know. It helps.       

p.s. Apologies to any readers who receive notifications of my posts via their e-mail. I'm guessing some of you received two e-mails today, one about this post and another about my last post ("Marking the Fifth Decade") which was published on June 4I hope from here on you will receive e-mail notification for just my most recent post. 

Friday, June 4, 2021

Marking The Fifth Decade

Of the entries marking this series, this one - matching post number #1989 to the year 1989 - is the easiest one to write and will also be the shortest of the eight.  

Because 1989 was, without qualification, the richest single year of my life. In a lifetime of good fortune, the birth of my daughter on January 19 - just over ten months before my fortieth birthday - ensured the start of this particular decade, my fifth, would always remain my most memorable. 

What made 1989 special for you?   

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Seeking Redemption

Six years ago I bought the final edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide while developing a course on the intersection of music & film. Soon after - film buff that I am - I discovered this 1,611 page doorstop was becoming an invaluable resource, helping me uncover movie treasures I'd missed and reminding me of films worth a second look. In my home library, only the World Atlas is now more marked up than Maltin's tome. Anyone reading my annotations in these two books might be tempted to prescribe medication. (And don't get me started on what my first (1993) edition of Maltin's reference book - at a meager 1,520 pages - looks like; really, don't.)  

Which film did you recently watch a second time? If you recall it, how did the re-watch compare with your initial reaction? For me, re-discovering a sleeper is often more fun than re-watching a widely-seen or award-winning film. 

For example, the first time I saw A Simple Plan, I was aligned with Maltin's rating of two and one-half stars, out of four. This second time? I upgraded Sam Raimi's 1998 film to a solid three stars (with due respect to you, Leonard), especially taking note of Bill Paxton's under-stated lead performance, Billy Bob Thornton's exceptional portrayal as Paxton's limited brother, and the strong element of genuine surprise in this under-seen movie. Put this one on your list.

Contrast this with my recent re-watch of The Shining - a wildly popular film - which left me colder than the first time around. Jack Nicholson is among the best actors of his generation but in this film he seems unhinged from nearly his first scene. Consequently - to me at least - there is no surprise when Nicholson unravels. The film held no suspense for me the first time. On this re-watch, other flaws - cue the Shelley Duval hysterics - jumped out at me, notwithstanding the bona fides of director/auteur Stanley Kubrick.

I know, I know. Stanley Kubrick is .. Stanley Kubrick. OK, so at least give A Simple Plan a shot and let me know if this nobody blogger has redeemed himself.    

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Finally Climbing Out

Being in a movie theater yesterday for the first time since March 2020 brought into sharp focus how weird the last fifteen months have been. What recent signs have you detected hinting we may finally be climbing out of our collective hole, at least here in the U.S.? And for the remainder of 2021, what are you looking forward to doing that Covid stole from you in 2020?

* I'm eagerly anticipating upcoming face-to-face book club discussions as well as resuming meeting with a writers group I've belonged to since 2015.

* I really missed the fifth re-union with our Road Scholar travelling companions in 2020 and look forward to spending time with those fourteen later-in-life soulmates in Acadia National Park this October.

* Not spending time after February of last year with the activist group I joined soon after the 2016 election left a huge gap in my life. I'm thrilled that group is now done with ZOOM, beginning next month.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Despite our original plan to be on the road for over a month, 2021's Southern State Swing finished ahead of schedule. However, except for the Alabama coast and driving east to Savannah, we got to most of our planned destination spots. 

Aside from deciding to skip the southernmost portion of the trip, our abbreviated time away was further impacted because - other than our five glorious days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - we spent less time than planned at most of the other stops on our itinerary. Those truncated stops in turn affected the timing for ad hoc visits to some folks in the Carolinas and Virginia heading home. We've already decided a trip to Savannah - perhaps combined with a rendezvous with some of the Southern family & friends missed this time - is in our future.  

What will you remember most about your last vacation? I've already shared a few highlights with you here earlier in May. Indulge me as I now share a lowlight. At all costs, avoid Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. If Pigeon Forge is somewhere you yearn to re-visit, be sure to post a comment here to ensure you and I are never travel partners. Passing through that tacky tourist travesty, I sincerely expected to hear Neil Young warble Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. OMG.