Books That Are Short And Good

Fourteen months ago I wrote a piece (click here) about my successful attempt to re-enter the world of book-reading after a two-year hiatus from same. I’d taken baby steps, no doubt about it, but the two books I’d read at that point during 2017 (Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means Of Escape) had me bursting with pride at my accomplishment. I was back in the saddle!

One major reason for my choosing to read those two works was that they were très compact. As were nearly all of the five subsequent volumes that passed before my eyes in 2017. I don’t know, my attention span has shrunk like an icy dick in somewhat recent years. So, any book I’m apt to tackle is going to be on the easily consumed side in terms of page count and likely blessed with nice, big print. The days of possibly giving Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov a shot are gone, baby, gone. And I can live with that! Happily.

Well, I’m here to report that consistency continues to reign in my book selection process. So far this year I’ve etched three notches on my literary belt, and the books for which the notches were created average around 200 pages in length. Short, in other words.

Good books they are, too. And although dubbed novels, two of them come awfully damn close to being memoirs pure and simple. As for the third, also a novel, it’s a memoir at its core despite its many flights of fancy.

The first one that I took on, Big Sur (by Jack Kerouac), is a mass of jagged and breathless energy. It recounts Kerouac’s efforts, three years after 1957’s publication of On The Road made him famous, to get away from the fans and from the media attention that he felt were dragging him down. To a cabin in California’s idyllic Big Sur he retreated, soon to discover that he couldn’t escape his alcoholic and highly unsettled self. In Big Sur’s pages, Kerouac tears into himself pitilessly. The public might have thought of him as a cool guy, a free-flying bird. But in reality, uh-uh. The so-called and supposed King Of The Beatniks, Kerouac wasn’t destined for many more years on our orb. He passed in 1969 at age 47.

Next up was Portrait Of The Artist, As An Old Man. Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, completed it shortly before his demise, at age 76, in 1999. Catch-22, which entered the world in 1960, was Heller’s first and most popular book. I’d say that Portrait, of whose existence I was unaware until noticing it sitting all lonesome on a library shelf in March, deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This is the book that I mentioned above wherein flights of fancy flourish.

I tell you, this book made me squirm, not because it’s creepy or weird in any way. No, this is Heller’s account of a novelist (himself with a fictitious name) whose muse has bolted south. But needing to write (“He had nothing better to do with his leisure than to try writing another novel . . . ” Heller notes in one of many permutations on the notion throughout the book), our hero keeps coming up with one lame or unworkable story idea after another. Man, I can relate! Funny, human, almost adorable, Portrait is a satiric picture of a man determined not to give up, for lack of anything better to do, come what may.

I’ve known of Charles Bukowski for eons, but never read a word of the zillions he put to paper until I decided to give Post Office a spin. It’s Bukowski’s telling of his career during the 1950s and 60s as a mail carrier and letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, and of his life during the hours when he wasn’t on the job. Crazy anecdotes and bushels of nastily humorous lines fly from Bukowski’s pen. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Bukowski wasn’t cut out to work within a bureaucracy. A model employee he never was nor ever wanted to be. A hard-liver, a heavy drinker, a denizen of society’s underside, a street poet and a true character, it’s amazing that he hung onto his job for as long as he did.

Bukowski was and remains a cult literary figure, primarily known for his poems. I get the feeling, though, that quite a few millions of folks are into his work. That’s a big cult. I might relax with another of his “fictional” novels one of these days, because rapid-paced Post Office pleased me. Apparently totally at ease with his drinking, race-track frequenting and disheveled lifestyle, Bukowski comes across as a guy I’d probably have enjoyed talking to, but maybe for not too long. His energy would have swallowed me whole. Despite holding the antithesis of a holistic orientation, Bukowski hung around for a decent amount of time, his tenure ending at age 73 in 1994.

Okay, that’s enough about those three guys. It’s time to get back to what this publication mainly is all about. Me. Hell, if I don’t write about myself, who the f*ck will?

But, appropriately, I’ll keep it short. Getting back to my short attention span, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly when and how it developed. Maybe it settled upon me as a result of societal osmosis, since cultural analysts and pundits have been saying for 20 or so years that most peoples’ attention spans are skimpy. Whatever the reasons may be for the state of mine, I’m not sure if I can or want to elongate it, to bring it back to where it once was during the decades I spent in the academic and paid-employment worlds.

But hey, maybe I just stumbled upon the key. It could be that when I hung up my career spikes in 2009, when additional hours each day became mine to deal with as I chose, my ability to stay focused began to slip. Now I kind of flit from one thing to another. Not that I mind flitting, to tell you the truth. I’ve gotten used to it and maybe even like it. In fact, in a day or two I’m going to flit over to a local library and scour its racks for a shorty. It’s time to etch another notch on my literary belt.

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I Didn’t Expect To See THAT!

One of the things I like about writing stories for this here website is that the process sometimes leads me to examine the way I live my life, to notice my tendencies and to become more aware of my likes and dislikes. In other words, I’ve come to get a better, more organized sense of who I am since I began pecking away at my computer’s keyboard two and a half years ago, launching this blog into heavenly cyberspace.

And who am I, you ask? Holy crap, you think I’m nuts enough to lay myself bare in this article? Well, maybe I am that nuts, but I’m going to restrain myself. Instead, I plan to leave all of the juicy details for the blockbuster memoir that I’ve just now decided to begin work on soon. Do, Re, Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi will be its title. In it you will learn all there is to know about mi . . . I mean, me.

Gentle readers, I apologize for the detour. Where was I heading? Ah yes . . .

Surprises. Pulling my thoughts together while writing stories has made me fully realize that I like surprises. The good ones, that is. Not the bad, an example of which would be having Donnie Trump knock on my door on Halloween night and yell BOO! at me at the top of his lungs. That miserable motherf**ker wouldn’t even need to wear a devilish costume. In civilian garb he’s more than frightening enough.

Good surprises came my way quite a few times during the Cape Cod vacation that my wife Sandy and I indulged in last month. They weren’t of the knock-your-socks-off variety, but I found them hip in a modest sort of way. And here’s the thing: Sandy and I have explored Cape Cod’s territory so relentlessly over the 20 years that we’ve been vacationing there, I no longer expect to come upon something that I deem to be cool and that I also haven’t seen or experienced in ages, if ever. But as they say, you never know. Let’s take a look at the two incidents that startled my eyes the most.

Sandy and I were in Provincetown in mid-afternoon on the twelfth day of October, ambling along Commercial Street, one of the town’s two main drags. The air was warm and the Sun, though fairly low in the sky, was ridiculously bright. I must have been lost in a daydream, for it was only at the last minute that I became aware of a very large orange and black object, a school bus, taking up all kinds of space in fairly narrow Commercial Street and also in Law Street, the really narrow side street from which the vehicle’s driver was attempting to make a right turn.

The driver was in a tough situation. If he had continued to bear right he’d have delivered a mighty blow to the building occupied by kmoe, a high-class wares establishment. How would the driver, who had only inches of wriggle room, get out of his predicament? Would he get out of it? I was fascinated by the spectacle. It struck me as not only comical but bordering on the surreal, giddily out of place in quaint, artsy, cute-as-a-button Provincetown.

Well, if it had been me behind the wheel, I shudder to think what might have ensued. No doubt Provincetown soon would have been saying a eulogy for the picket fence across Commercial Street from kmoe and/or for the shrubbery a breath away from the bus’s rear. And kmoe itself would have had to close for extensive renovations.

In the end, thankfully, all was happily resolved. With assistance from a good Samaritan who took up position in the middle of Commercial Street and provided verbal and hand-gesture guidance, the bus eventually was freed. Hallelujah!

Why in the world, though, had the bus been on Law Street? Provincetown has more skinny streets than Imelda Marcos has pairs of shoes, and they ain’t welcoming to anything bigger than a pickup truck. The bus driver must have been zoning out or simply in the mood to add some dollops of excitement to an otherwise placid day. I’ll never know.

Sixteen days later I decided to go for a fairly long hike along some Atlantic Ocean sands. The rented house that Sandy and I called home, in the town of Orleans, is oh so close to the ocean, so I stuck my feet into a pair of sneakers and headed out the door.

By way of an ocean inlet I reached Nauset Beach in a handful of minutes. It was a lovely day, on the warm side, and the ocean waters, in the midst of low tide, were pretty calm. I strode southward with little in mind except to enjoy the views and to nod and smile like a good neighbor at whomever I crossed paths with. And I had my eyes open for seals, as they commonly cruise in the ocean on their way to the sand islets, just offshore Cape Cod’s southeastern coast, that serve as safe havens for them. I didn’t notice any of those creatures though. I did, however, dig the sight of a small group of seagulls that were in shallow water, a pebble’s throw beyond the mud flats left behind by the low tide. They seemed very cool, calm and collected.

After 30 or 40 minutes of all of this I made the command decision to reverse direction and find my way home.

It was during this return journey that I noticed a couple of folks sloshing around in the mud flats. Throwing aside all concerns about dirtying my bright white sneakers — hey, I’m nothing if not a manly man! — I began to slosh around too, enjoying the heck out of the day. I moseyed northward in the flats, and with each step my admiration for their soppy, primitive beauty grew. They needed to be documented, so I pulled out my iPhone and got its camera ready. I positioned myself just so, the Sun to my back, and was about to press the button. But what was that dark image that had entered the scene? I blinked twice before realizing that it was my shadow, a shadow of someone readying to snap a photograph.

Was it possible that I’d never noticed my own shadow on a beach before? If I had, I didn’t recall the prior occasion(s), which isn’t too unbelievable considering the sieve-like consistency of my cranium’s contents. In any case, I recognized the fact that the design, a most unexpected addition, enhanced the loveliness of the mud flats. I pressed the iPhone camera’s button. And it is with the resultant photograph that I now take my leave of you.

Till next time, amigos.

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(If you click on the photos, larger images will open in separate windows)

The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh: In Memory Of My Father

Since April 2015, the month in which I began to blog, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on these pages, a fact that pretty well blows my mind. I doubt if I churned out that much product during my high school and collegiate careers combined. Luckily I’ve enjoyed doing the writing, and plan to keep on truckin’.

As Father’s Day 2016 approached I wondered what new article, in memory of my father, I might compose. After some thought I decided to republish the essay that I penned for last year’s Father’s Day. It is titled The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh. There’s something about this story that gets to me. I hope it will do the same for you, whether you’ve read it before or not. Here it is:

 

My father came to live with me and my wife Sandy in Philadelphia soon after his 90th birthday, in 1999. He had been living alone on Long Island, but health issues necessitated his relocation. Good doctoring in the Philadelphia suburbs improved his physical condition quickly, but there was no cure for the declining state of his kidneys. He became a dialysis patient one year after he moved in with us, and he remained on dialysis till his death in 2005 at age 96.

My father was in pretty good shape until the final nine or so months of his life. He loved getting out of the house and joining Sandy and me and others at restaurants, concerts, museums, you name it. On this Father’s Day I’ll relate one incident that I look back on fondly. It was the day that he and I and my brother had a private viewing of a rarely-seen Van Gogh oil painting at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
There are several known photographs of Vincent van Gogh, though they are not fully authenticated. This photo is believed to be from about 1886.

Vincent van Gogh is one of my two favorite artists. The other is Paul Cézanne. I never can decide which of the two I like best. For wordsmanship, however, I go with Vincent. In spring 2001 I read all 800+ of his mesmerizing letters, in their English translation. My father got a kick from this. He told people that I was becoming a Van Gogh expert, which was hardly the case. But my semi-obsession with Van Gogh was rock solid, and it is here that the story really begins.

One day in January 2002 I poked around some Van Gogh websites and discovered that the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which Sandy and my father and I frequented, owned five Van Gogh oils. Yet, I had never seen more than four of them on display there. The painting that I wasn’t familiar with was Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Most experts believe that Vincent painted it in summer 1886, a few months after he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and to contemplate the new techniques and perspectives, most notably those of Impressionism, that had been invigorating the French art scene. Why wasn’t the painting on display? I needed to know.

A few days later, from my desk at work, I dialed the museum and got connected to an assistant curator. I asked about the mystery painting. She told me that the museum did occasionally bring it from storage to the public galleries, but that it had been a long time since that had happened. We chatted a little and then I said thanks and was about to hang up. But before I could the curator asked “Would you like to see it?” Huh? Huh? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yes ma’am, I would.

My father was about to turn 93, on January 19, 2002. A few days before that, to help our dad celebrate his birthday, my brother Richard planned to fly to Philadelphia from his California home. I explained this to the curator and asked her if my brother and father could come along with me (Sandy, chained to her job, wasn’t free to get mid-day time off from work). Sure, she said. Fairly stunned, I set the date for Friday January 18, a non-dialysis day. I knew that something special had just occurred.

The momentous day arrived. We drove to the museum and were met in the west wing by the curator. She was a lively and lovely person and probably was getting as big a charge out of the situation as anyone. Down an elevator we all went to one level of the museum’s cavernous underbelly. We followed our hostess along a long corridor, walking past many locked rooms. At our consecrated storage area she unlocked the door and we entered. Perpendicular to one of the room’s sides were very large moveable display panels. All of them were in their retracted positions. The curator pulled out one of the panels, both sides of which were covered with paintings, maybe 20 per side. I noticed a Chagall on the side facing us. Can’t recall what else. Except of course for a work near the left edge on the top row. The Van Gogh.

Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies.
Copyright Philadelphia Museum Of Art

It was show time. The curator wheeled over a tall moveable step ladder. Richie and I went up first. What did I make of Vincent’s oil? Well, Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies doesn’t have the brilliant color schemes that Vincent was developing in Paris. It is dark, with lots of deepened greens. Maybe that’s why the museum doesn’t bring it out of storage too often. But they should. With Vincent, there’s always something to admire. I took in his trademark broad brush strokes, the intense tangles of flower stems. The greens upon greens.

Richie and I and our benefactor were excited and happy for my father when his turn came. My dad was excited and happy too, a muted gleeful smile on his face, his eyes on alert. I’m sure he knew how lucky he was to do what he was about to do. Holding the ladder rails carefully, up he climbed. Admirable mobility for a guy one day away from the big 93. He gazed at the painting for a good long spell, longer I think than my brother or I had. He spouted words of admiration. He was having a ball. Finally he came back down. Thank you, thank you, thank you we said to the wonderful curator.

Over the following years, my father and brother and I talked about our museum visit many times among ourselves and with friends and relatives. Always with a grin. Always feeling a tingle. And so, I dedicate this Father’s Day essay to Hyman Scheinin, he whom I’m sure is the only nonagenarian ever to climb a step ladder to go eye to eye with Van Gogh.

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