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Monday, November 30, 2020

My Richard Ford Path

Of the many fine authors I've become newly familiar with since stopping full time work in 2010, a handful really stand out. I'm so grateful my reading path over the last ten years led me to Richard Ford.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: In The Midst Of Solitude

After first finishing Ford's memoir - Between Them - a short time later I made my way to The Sportswriter, the first of his four novels featuring Frank Bascombe. The entry in my book journal for that novel ended up being the longest one I've ever written largely because as I wrote, my appreciation for what Ford had accomplished kept deepening. His prose is so stripped down it sometimes feels as though he's reciting his straightforward stories. His magic is disarming and difficult to describe but few pages ever go by without a hard-earned, understated insight. And his dialogue has the ring of truth. There is more Frank Bascombe in my reading future.

Canada was the latest stop on my Richard Ford path. "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."  Those sentences - the first two in Ford's 2012 novel - personify how matter-of-fact this modern-day master is. No fireworks, no silly surprises, no showy metaphors. Over the 400+ pages of Canada, Ford keeps the flame low, expertly maintaining the sense of quotidian doom clearly telegraphed by the novel's opening. It's extraordinary. 

Good literature has given me many gifts. Foremost among those gifts is a heightened understanding of people. Richard Ford's work has significantly enhanced that understanding.      

Friday, November 27, 2020

Conditional Maxim Messing

 "Don't judge a book by its cover."

With respect to people, I support that hoary maxim. But after a lifetime of reading, I cannot support it with respect to books. Paperbacks often give me more reasons to judge a book by its cover, but hard covers - especially as they are marketed nowadays - also give me ample ammunition.

First reliable judging criterion are the breathless and frequently cliched book jacket descriptions. If you doubt me, here's a challenge: Randomly select ten books from the shelf of a library or bookstore. I'd wager no fewer than 20% of those jackets will use the word "unforgettable" describing the contents therein. Go ahead, try this; I'll wait.

OK, if those gushing book jackets don't turn you off as they do me, let's turn to the blurbs. First off, if all the blurbs are written by other authors, i.e. none come from reviews, that's a sign you've got a turkey in your hands. But even if those sly marketers are savvy enough to intersperse reviews with the blurbs - BTW, did you know some authors accept $$$ to blurb for the authors whose book they're promoting? - look carefully at the source of said reviews. If not one review excerpt comes from a publication you've heard of - politics aside - even money the book you're holding can indeed be judged by its cover.

Still not persuaded that the maxim opening this post has little merit with respect to actual books? OK, I've failed in today's mission. Since that means all bets are off, I'll add a few cranky wholly arbitrary other reasons to judge a book by its cover or nearby neighborhood: 1.) If it's a novel, the focus is actual historical event(s), and the title includes the word "wife", beware. In the near future, I suspect the same will apply to the word "husband". 2.) With memoirs, be wary if the author had unfailingly progressive parents. This is not hard to figure out. That sanctimonious though often superfluous fact is frequently mentioned early in a memoir and I've even seen it in a few author bios on covers. Trust me here: If you see a mention like this, you are in for some serious shaming about the tarnished political bona fides of your parents, unless both your folks were conscientious objectors, marched across the Pettus bridge with MLK, and stayed "woke" until their dying days. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Key Learnings: Year 71

Beginning with the inception of my blog in 2011, the post published on my birthday has been devoted to a few things I've learned over the previous year. I've particularly enjoyed those times when a reader has joined me, birthday aside. When was the last time you took inventory of some key things you've recently learned? Why not join me and do so today?  

* During this year it dawned on me that, for better or worse, I rarely use any of my three abiding passions - music, literature, film - for pure entertainment. Especially since stopping full time work in 2010, most of my listening, nearly all of my reading, and even the majority of my film viewing are aimed at educating myself, however marginally. If a song, a book, or a film is merely distracting, my inclination is to switch to something that could help me become a better musician, a more discerning reader, a more educated cinephile. Learning this about myself makes me neither happy nor unhappy. It is simply who I've become. 

* Given the challenges Covid-19 inflicted on all of us in 2020, recognizing how precious my family and friends are to me was a powerful, if obvious, key learning this year.

* I don't plan to give up on long form writing. But the more I read and write, each time I cross paths with a new excellent short form writer - essayist, songwriter, columnist - the closer I get to being happy with what I'm able to do with the short form. This may not technically be a learning from this past year. But the "getting closer to being happy" part is new, so I'm counting it. 

At the risk of being redundant, it's a lot more fun when one of you joins in on posts like this. I'm not  above begging. I began this blog with the sincere hope that I'd learn about some of you. Please? 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Goal For Year 72

Of the by-products I've derived from committing to the discipline of blogging nearly eleven years ago, one of the most beneficial has been to publicly declare one or more goals on the day before my birthday each year. It's possible procrastination would have won the day if I hadn't announced here some things I had postponed getting to in the years before I began blogging. 

Why not join me this year - as a select few of you have done in the past - and declare a goal of yours? Forget the birthday. What is something you commit to accomplishing by November 22, 2021? Either follow my lead and go modest - as I did in 2019 - or go big. I'm going small again this year primarily because I'm aiming to keep my ten year batting average in respectable Ted Williams territory - i.e. .333.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Goal For Year 71  

This next year, I will have at least twelve jam sessions with other musicians to help me more fully integrate the 300 (now 310) jazz standards I memorized between 2011-2019.  FYI, that memorization project was a goal declared on the eve of my 63rd year. See what I mean about the benefit of publicly declaring a goal? I hope you'll join me this year. What's the downside? 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Goal For Year 63


Friday, November 20, 2020

Words For The Ages, Line Sixteen

 "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes.": Billy Joel 

Although both Paul Simon and Lennon/McCartney preceded Billy Joel with this sentiment (Paul Simon in the last stanza of Leaves That Are Green and the Lennon/McCartney composition entitled Hello Goodbye in its entirety), Billy's succinct phrase - from Say Goodbye To Hollywood - has more of an aphoristic ring to it. And that's what I've been aiming for since introducing Words For The Ages over three years ago. What terse Billy Joel lyrical phrase - one that can stand alone - would you nominate as words for the ages?

Despite the way the rock press has pilloried Billy Joel - and his crybaby response to the critics - his music has always appealed to me. Though he's not my favorite popular song lyricist - that distinction belongs to either Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, or Paul Simon depending on the day - he's in the top fifty for sure. End-to-end, my favorite lyric of Billy's is a tie between Summer, Highland Falls and Until the Night. How about you? Got a favorite end-to-end song - musically or lyrically - from Billy Joel's catalog?

While we're on the subject, which lyricist would you like to see featured next in my august series? So far, in order, I've covered Kris Kristofferson, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Pete Townsend, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters, Don Henley & JD Souther, Paul Simon, and Dan Fogelberg. After listing those, it's hard to overlook how old and white that group is. I will rectify that in iteration number seventeen. In the meanwhile, keep your suggestions for lyricists and/or pithy phrases coming.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Open Letter To Joe

Dear Joe; Congratulations on winning the Presidential election. Over seventy eight and a half million Americans hope that voting for you was a good decision. I suspect a fair number of the over seventy two million Americans who voted for your opponent are unhappy at best; some of those folks are probably angry. And though I'm sure the people advising you are smart, I hope you'll indulge this unknown blogger as he offers one piece of unsolicited advice.   

When the Covid-19 vaccine begins being administered, and our country starts clawing its way back to something resembling normal, take the high road, please. Make it a priority to publicly and repeatedly acknowledge the role your predecessor's administration had in funding and supporting Operation Warp Speed. Do this not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because of how much we need to heal as a nation. If we continue demonizing each other and ignoring any progress we make instead of emphasizing what we have in common and lauding a job well done, I'm worried about the country my adult daughter and any children she may ever have will soon inherit. The political path we're on at present is unsustainable.

In the meanwhile, if you need live music for your inauguration, you can reach me via this blog.

Pat Barton


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Veteran I'll Always Miss

Although my late parents are rarely far from my mind, like many people, I get most lost thinking of them on their birthdays, on the day they were married, and on the day each of them passed away. And I suspect my Dad crosses my mind a bit more often because he was with me almost twenty years more than Mom.

I'm also frequently caught off guard when something conjures up Dad. Was he on my mind early today because it's Veteran's Day? Or, would I have noticed that pair of paint-splattered boots on the guy in my coffee shop this morning - flashing to Dad immediately - no matter what day it was? What was the last visual cue you recall noticing that triggered a memory of someone precious you've lost?

Grabbing my coffee, I briefly considered engaging the stranger wearing those boots. I thought to ask him some harmless question, perhaps share with him the way his boots gave me a wistful moment. It's possible my decision not to do so made my subsequent long drive to visit my ailing sister more lonely. I do recall not long ago engaging a different stranger - this one sporting a WWII vet's hat - in that same coffee shop. I don't recall how that earlier interaction went but as the day winds down, some small part of me wishes I'd engaged that stranger this morning, if only to make Dad seem more vivid, at least for that brief moment.    

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Friends I've Never Met

 

Each time I see this inspirational sign on a lawn, my addled list making brain goes into overdrive. If a mailbox is readily accessible without trespassing, I rejoice because ...  

Returning home, I peruse my book journals, consult my film log, scour my music collection. Then I compile a list that will allow me to anonymously commune with soulmates. 

Depending on the day, my schedule, and how many of the equally meaningful beliefs from the sign I want to address, my soon-to-be-inserted-in-the-mailbox list will vary in length. My next gift to friends I've never met - addressing belief #1 - will include these fortifying suggestions:

Suggested reading: Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead novel

Suggested viewing: 13th, Ava DuVernay documentary 

Suggested listening: American Skin, Bruce Springsteen song 

Your turn: Pick another of the beliefs and make your suggestions to these friends I've never met. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Don't Miss This One

Whenever I'm knocked out by a film more than a few years old, especially one I've never heard anyone mention, my first thought is "How did this get by me?" Aside from regular conversations with my actress daughter and reading any film review I come across, I also scan the movie selections on my cable stations way too frequently. All that movie geekiness and still Goldstone (2016) snuck up on me. 

It could be this winner escaped me because of its nondescript title. Or, maybe a film with no big names set in Australia didn't entice reviewers from newspapers and magazines I routinely read. It's even possible my own biases let this gem slip by. If I had read a review - though I don't recall doing so - and that review said the two main characters were police officers, I might not have paid as close attention. I'm not proud of this particular filter of mine, but denying it exists would be dishonest. 

Don't let any of your filters interfere with seeking out this sleeper. Nuanced script, superb direction, two charismatic lead performances by Aaron Pedersen & Alex Powell and a sly supporting performance by the criminally underutilized Jackie Weaver. I had one tiny quibble involving an automobile near the end of the film, but the climactic gun scene just prior to that and the stunning cinematography highlighting the wide-open Australian landscape throughout the film more than absolved the automobile misstep.

After you see Goldstone be sure to check back in with me. We movie geeks have to stick together. Who else will have us?   


Friday, November 6, 2020

Second Time Around

 As captivated as I was the first time, re-reading The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was an even richer experience. I highly recommend Hannah Tinti's 2017 novel, old-fashioned in all the best ways. 

The last time you enjoyed a re-read, what was most notable for you? This time I noticed how artfully the author created her secondary characters, made the first and last scenes thematically congruent, and I was less ambivalent about Samuel's unconventional parenting choices. It's possible that last piece is connected to some disturbing novels I've read since 2017 that featured some loathsome single Dads. 

I'm pleased about my deeper admiration for Samuel Hawley this second time around considering the book club I selected it for. Duly chastened when my last selection for this particular group was uniformly disliked, this year I opted for accessible, without any compromise re the quality of the prose. And though there are more likable characters in Tinti's novel than there were in my last selection, her book is not without its dark side. I'm anticipating far fewer groans at this discussion. We'll see. 


Monday, November 2, 2020

The Day After Tomorrow And Beyond

Even though in all likelihood the final results won't be known, the day after tomorrow could end up being a memorable one. Aside from hoping your candidate prevails, what else do you hope will happen or not happen on the day after tomorrow and in the weeks to follow?

* I hope the winner and loser accept the results with grace. I hope supporters of both, including myself, do the same. 

* I hope the winner sincerely vows to seek common ground with the opposing party over the next four years. If the next President gets a split Congress, I hope whichever chamber is the opposing party works in concert with the President and its sister chamber. If both chambers of Congress end up being the opposing party to the new President, I hope Congress does not reflexively obstruct everything the new President proposes. 

* I hope the consistent message the winner delivers in the weeks ahead is the need for unity and what we have in common as Americans. 

Is anyone else on the bell curve as weary with our broken system of governance as I am? Although the last four years have been hard, our slide toward demonizing the opposition and legislative entropy didn't begin in 2016. I remain convinced term limits for all members of Congress, combined with strict oversight over the influence of lobbyists, would be two big steps in the right direction. But I'm not naive. I'll settle for what I hope for in my three bullets above. What are your hopes for the day after tomorrow and beyond?