Keeping It Short (A Story About Books)

Man, I don’t how they do it. They being the book bloggers I’ve come across who not only read an incredible number of books — three and up per week — but somehow also find the time, and have the brain power, to write sharp and detailed reviews about them. My little ol’ head spins madly just thinking about those folks’ accomplishments. Even in the days of yore when I read books aplenty I’d never have been able to follow them up quickly with well-plotted, good quality commentaries. Uh-uh. That kind of mental grandeur and endurance I do not possess, and never did. To put it a related way, my thoughts do not exactly flow in structured torrents along my neural pathways to my typing fingers. Hell, I’m lucky if a writing session produces 150 words that fit together in a useable manner. All I can say is that I stand in awe of those book bloggers. To repeat, I don’t know how they do it. (Lynne LeGrow, whose blog is called Fictionophile, is an example of what I’m talking about. Click here to find her blog.)

I bring up all of this partly because this is the first opus I’ve written that touches upon my book-reading activities. As I alluded to moments ago, I used to consume more than my share of books, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Leafing through a list that I’ve been keeping since 1970, I see that I knocked off 45 volumes in 1971, for instance, and 59 in 1983. The latter is my highest-ever yearly total.

Alas, my bookish endeavors came to a grinding halt in February 2015 when I reached the final page of Birds Of America, a collection of cool short stories by Lorrie Moore. That’s when the dark months set in, months marked by so much fretting about my place in the universe and in the kitchen, I became a cowering wreck. Books could wait. Oh well, it might have been worse. Like, if Trump had been elected president. What? You mean he is president? Holy crap! Let me outta here!

But the dark times didn’t last forever. Quite amazingly, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up a book that had been hanging around the house for a pretty long while. I ran through it in five or six days. And one day after finishing it I headed to a local library and took out a work that I almost immediately set upon. Two days later I reached its end. Bravo, Neil, bravo! Back in the book-reading saddle I am, and probably will remain there for a decent spell.

Book number one, The Outermost House, by Henry Beston, was right up my alley. In fact, it is surprising that I hadn’t turned its pages ages ago, as it is set on Cape Cod, a locale I’ve gotten to know and crazily love over the last 20 years. The Outermost House describes the months (autumn 1926 till autumn 1927) that Beston spent living in semi-solitude, housing himself in a two room cabin in the dunes of Cape Cod’s raw and wild Atlantic Ocean coastline. Many times I’ve trod on the very sands and wetlands that grabbed hold of Beston’s heart and spirit.

Beston’s book has become one of the so-called classics, remaining in print since hitting the marketplace in 1928, and apparently still selling pretty nicely. I loved it. Beston writes gracefully and has an eye for subject matter that you don’t frequently cross paths with, such as his lengthy descriptions of the differing types of sounds made by the ocean waves and surf. Next time I’m on The Cape I’m going to have his book in hand as I investigate some of the observations that his keen senses and abstract mind came up with. I won’t be able to check out his cabin, though. A violent storm in 1978 destroyed it.

Now that I think about it, I believe I had the notion in the back of my head for a while to reacquaint myself with books, and that I knew I’d have book-reading success only by taking baby steps. By which I mean I wasn’t about to tackle monsters like Dickens’ David Copperfield or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, both of which ain’t that far from the 1,000 page mark. No, whatever I was to read would have to be short, and The Outermost House fit the bill just fine. Its 218 pages are endowed with a large typeface and spacious margins. Perfect. So, I seized the moment and gave the dark months a hardy wave goodbye.

As with The Outermost House, short also needed to apply to the next book I opened if I were to have any hope of establishing a bit of book-reading momentum. Which is why I bow to the memory of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, whose remarkably slim The Means Of Escape, an okay-but-could-be-better short story collection, became the second title I conquered this month. I tell you, a more ideal specimen for length-phobic and trepidatious book readers would be hard to find. You want short? Hey, The Means Of Escape numbers only 117 pages, and a bunch of them are blanks that separate one story from another. The pages that actually contain printed words total a very genial and genteel 96. My kind of book, for sure!

On the living room sofa I began to gloat about my accomplishments to my wife Sandy as the final pages of The Means Of Escape drew within sight. “Can you believe it?” I said. “I’m about to finish my second book in a nine or ten day period.”

Sandy gave me one of those looks. And then she gave Penelope Fitzgerald’s micro-tome one of those looks. “That’s not a book,” she said. “That doesn’t count as a book.”

Oh yeah? I beg to differ. Was it sitting on a library shelf? You bet it was. Does it have a front and a back cover? Damn straight.

It counts!

 

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Porchfest: A Very Good Idea

Good ideas . . . some people get ’em like crazy. Others, not so much. I’m near the bottom of the barrel of the latter grouping. I had a good idea about 50 years ago, when it dawned on me that grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches might be improved upon by adding a schmear of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard. Genius visited me that day, but hasn’t made an appearance since. Such, as we know, is life.

Which smoothly brings us to a remarkably good idea that some folks came up with nine years ago: a neighborhood outdoor music festival called Porchfest. When I first heard earlier this month about Porchfest’s existence I smacked myself on the forehead and said: “Yo, cowboy. This is so obvious. How come you never thought of it?” And then I remembered once again that, sadly, genius ain’t no friend of mine.

What’s a Porchfest? Well, it is a day of music played on some of the porches of a porch-heavy community. The shows are free to the public. What could be better? After all, porches, when you think about it, are small covered stages easy to get close to, making them perfect for intimate musical experiences. All that a Porchfest organizing committee need do is convince a bunch of homeowners in a neighborhood to allow musicians to play at their houses, and find a bigger bunch of musical acts to climb aboard. Then you set up a schedule so that audience members know the addresses of the porches, and encourage said listeners to roam from site to site, the better to get a big dose of vibrations.

The first Porchfest took place in 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Since then, musicians and music lovers throughout the USA, and in a few Canadian cities, have picked up on the notion and staged their own Porchfests. Each Porchchfest is independent of the others and, I’m pretty sure, is a low budget and DIY type of operation. But watch out! The power of Porchfests is undeniable and irresistible. As a few more years go by, I predict that Porchfests will cross the oceans and conquer the world!

Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.

Which even more smoothly brings us to a recent Saturday in a section of West Philadelphia (part of The City Of Brotherly Love) that contains scads of old and sturdy rowhouses and twins in possession of porches. As ideal a location for a Porchfest as any on our planet. And where, indeed, the first West Philly Porchfest took place, the baby of a group of organizers who recognized that the Porchfest idea was very worth pursuing. (Lots of info about West Philly Porchfest’s genesis and design may be discovered by clicking here and also here).

I Think Like Midnight.
I Think Like Midnight.
Emily Zeitlyn.
Emily Zeitlyn.

West Philly Porchfest’s boundaries were broad, about 12 blocks east to west and likewise north to south, encompassing much of what has come to be known as University City due to the area’s proximity to the University of Pennsylvania. Over 30 porches participated. The event began at noon on June 4 and ended at 6 PM. I was an attendee, taking in parts of six shows during a two-and-a-half-hour period. Man, I loved it. I heard an acoustic folky rock trio (Darlington); two singer-songwriters (Jon Veit and Emily Zeitlyn); a damn good jam session between, of all things, an African-drum percussionist, a fiddle player, an acoustic guitarist and a flugelhornist; a vocal-less rock band (I Think Like Midnight) that, to my ears, sounded like a cross between The Grateful Dead and Television; and a folky duo that smoked and crunched. I’m going to zero in on the duo, who go by the name Driftwood Soldier, because I liked them the best of the acts that I caught. I seemed not to be alone in that. They drew the biggest crowd, around 80 people, that I saw all day, and the loudest applause too.

Driftwood Soldier.
Driftwood Soldier.

Owen Lyman-Schmidt is Driftwood Soldier’s singer, mandolin strummer and songwriter. Bobby Szafranski is the band’s not-your-average electric bassist. Both guys pitch in to move the groove by banging on percussion instruments with their feet. I tell you, Driftwood Soldier has it. Owen sang, in a wild and wooly baritone, about underdogs, colorful characters, people who deserve better than they’ve got. He reminded me a lot of the late Dave Van Ronk. And Bobby sent the tunes aloft with bass lines that gleamed and grinned. I would not be surprised if Driftwood Soldier breaks through nationally one of these days, though to-date they are unknowns. They are that good. And they’ve got the work ethic that might lead to fame and glory, touring our fair nation with gusto. Thanks to the wondrousness of the Internet, you may watch Driftwood Soldier performing their song Rosalee by clicking right here.

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You know, I lived in University City during the 1970s and 80s on a beautiful, tree-filled block oh so close to a few of the shows I watched the other day. I liked the area mucho back then, and still do. I go back now and again. On the day of Porchfest it was fun walking the streets upon which I’ve trod so many times before. And it was equally swell strolling through Clark Park, a lovely place, a hub of peace and calm in University City. Kids were playing, food truck and farmers’ market vendors were vending, and teenagers and adults were milling around. The coolest sight I saw in the park was a little girl climbing all over the Charles Dickens statue. That’s right, Charles Dickens. It’s the only statue of him in the USA. And, apparently, one of only two in the world. The other, by the way, is in Australia, not Great Britain. A good idea would be for the Brits to commission and erect a Dickens statue too, since Dickens  — duh — was one of their own.

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