Top Picks of 2004

Here are my top picks for 2004.
The Winners
1. The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The Honorable Mentions
1. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
2. All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki
3. The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
4. Black Money by Ross Macdonald

Il Colore Ritrovato

Excerpt from Il Colore Ritrovato
To the question what is the difference between Venice and Milan other than a difference in tone, in the sunlight, and in the air, the answer is that Milan is where you busy yourself with the world as if what you did really mattered, and there time seems not to exist. But in Venice time seems to stop, you are busy only if you are a fool, and you see the truth of your life. And, whereas in Milan beauty is overcome by futility, in Venice futility is overcome by beauty.
It isn’t because of the architecture or the art, the things that people go to look at and strain to preserve. The quality of Venice that accomplishes what religion so often cannot is that Venice has made peace with the waters. It is not merely pleasant that the sea flows through, grasping the city like the tendrils of a vine, and, depending upon the light, making alleys and avenues of emerald or sapphire, it is a brave acceptance of dissolution and an unflinching settlement with death. Though in Venice you may sit in courtyards of stone, and your heels may click up marble stairs, you cannot move without riding upon or crossing the waters that someday will carry you in dissolution to the sea. To have made peace with their presence is the great achievement of Venice, and not what tourists come to see.
What Rosanna can do with her voice–the sublime elevation that is the province of artists, anyone can do in Venice if he knows what to look for and what to ignore. Should you concentrate there on the exquisite, or should you study too closely the monuments and museums, you will miss it, for it comes gently and without effort, and moves as slowly as the tide.
Despite the fact that you are more likely to feel this quality if you are not distracted by luxury, I registered at the Celestia. The streets near San Marco are far too crowded and not as interesting as those quieter areas on other islands and in other districts, and they have a deficit of greenery and sunlight. And the Celestia, with its 2,600-count linen and stage-lit suites, is the kind of luxury that removes one from the spirit of life, but I went there anyway almost as a way of spiting Rosanna, who was paying for it, and because that is where we always stayed in Venice, and I wanted to accumulate more hotel-stay points. In that I am compulsive. Once I start laying-in a store of a certain commodity, like money, I get very enthusiastic about building it up.
Also, I’m somewhat known in Venice, and were I to stay in a less than perfect hotel word might get out that either Rosanna or I were not doing as well as was expected, and in the public eye position is not half as important as direction of travel. People are clever, and just as they find comets and shooting stars more of interest than simple pinpoints of light, they wisely ignore the fixed points of a career in favor of its trajectory.
I arrived in the evening, swam for a kilometer in the indoor pool, bumping on occasion into an old lady who was shaped like a frog and kept wandering blindly into my lane, and then I had dinner in my suite. Because I’m unused to sleeping with the sound of air-conditioning and in curtain-drawn darkness–at home the light of the moon and stars filters through the trees as they rustle unevenly in the wind–I slept as if anesthetized, and the next morning, parted from my current life, I woke up as if the world was new to me, as it used to be every morning when I awoke when I was young.
Still, I look my age, which is right and proper, so when I walked to the Accademia to “check out” the Bellini I stopped feeling like a youth, because I was brought back by the registering glances of passersby, the deference, the treatment one receives instantly and with neither word nor touch from strangers on the street. Young people look at you only quickly, as they would a post or a gate, saving their more intense concentration for one another. This, for someone of my age, constitutes the kind of dismissal for which, not inexplicably, one can actually be grateful. And for someone of my age it is a pleasure when older people look at you knowingly–for what you have seen, what you have done, for the wars you have lived through, the pains you feel, the energy you lack, and your bittersweet knowledge that you are not young anymore.
So by the time I paid admission to the Accademia I was in a state of perfect balance, my youth fresh in feeling and memory, my age clearly in mind, my reconciliation of the years that had passed with the years that were to come much like the reconciliation in Venice of land and sea.
The first thing you do in the Accademia is go upstairs, and this I did, rising into the same kind of rarefied world into which Rosanna provides entrance with her voice, and into which she had sent me to see what had happened when the paintings had been made young again, how it had been done, and how their colors, liberated from the sadness and fatigue of centuries, shone through.

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The Pacific

Great writing…
Reprint of excerpt from first story is here.
Every story I read is better than the next. Il colore Ritrovato was great, and it keeps spiralling upward. Just finished Perfection, where a 13 year old Hasidic Jew teaches Mickey Mantle about baseball/God. Also a great story about the rich post-IPO guy whose wife leaves him to contemplate his awesome Hamptons house alone b/c he can’t handle her chaos. He sits outside watching the sun move across the horizon, reading, and smells smoke; turns to find it is his house burning, so he just flips his chair around to watch his house burn. Also a story about WWII parachuter behind enemy lines who crashes into a building yet survives to call in enemy positions. Also a story about a contractor and his crew who renevate a widow’s new apartment for free once they realize her husband died in the WTC on 9/11.

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My Life

Reminder to get Clinton’s reading list for his travels through Europe/USSR.
Great– Just returned the library book without getting Clinton’s bibliography for his European travels during Oxford years. Must work on that.
Regardless, this was an interesting book– it took 500 pages to get him into the White House, and those were the best pages in my mind. I admit to skimming the final 500 pages of policy decisions, Rabin, Helmut, Yeltsin, Gingrich, etc. etc. Also I admit to stopping and reading the personal elements of those years like the family deaths, Chelsea’s graduation, and the Monica Lewinsky details. But the first 500 pages were gold– info on his childhood, high school years, Georgetown, Oxford, Yale, and early Arkansas years when he was trying to change the world and getting ousted after his first term as governor b/c of it. Then he stormed back and won the next governor’s election. It sounds like the biggest mistake of his first presidental term was not having a team of seasoned Washington insiders who could deal with the press, etc. Plus the pressure of having a New Right Congress led by Newt Gingrich (coincidentally, Newt was a Congressman from my district in GA, he divorced my highschool geometry teacher while she was in the hospital recovering from CANCER. He later divorced his second wife after he was discovered having an affair with another much younger woman. And I just saw him get off a JFK-SFO flight, so I’m feeling particularly bad about him).
At points, I felt like the book was swaying me against Clinton. I have admired his policies from afar, but the book almost felt like he was spinning things in my face. But I still feel he’s an intelligent, driven man, with his heart in the right place.

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The Gay Place

Three separate novels make up this fantastic look into 1950s Texas politics and life in Austin. Written by a LBJ staffer. The characters of Arthur Fenstemaker, governor, his aide Jay McGown, and leftist Kermit appear in all 3 stories.
Book 1: The Flea Circus
Roy Sherwood is the recipient of Governor Fenstemaker’s maneuverings in this story, as the governor needs state senate help to get a bill passed. Roy is having an affair with Ouida, who is married to another state legislator. The gang goes to bars drinking pitchers of beer, and then spills out to Ouida’s country house where her husband jumps from a plane in an act of derring-do.
Book 2: Room Enough to Caper
Junior senator Neil Christiansen returns home to think about announcing his first campaign for the position (he was appointed by the governor after the senator’s death). Governor’s machinations of his opponent (shouting match at a fundraiser where opponent questions Neil’s brother’s leftist tendancies which left him dead in a South American revolutionary town) push Neil into declaring his hat into the ring. Meanwhile, tries halfheartedly to rediscover his marriage & 2 daughters while sleeping with the bookstore clerk (his brother John Tom left behind a bookstore which Neil still runs). Eventually wins re-election, but hollow victory as Andrea (his wife) is nowhere to be found by phone. Ends as he climbs onto a fountain in front of the DC capitol.
Book 3: Country Pleasures
The governor and Jay become the main focus of this story, along with Jay’s ex wife actress Vicki McGown. The governor’s party drives out to the set of a film that Vicki is working on, causing tensions between Jay & Sarah (Jay’s girlfriend & governor’s secretary) as Vicki attempts to lure Jay back home. Their daughter, Victoria Anne, shows up and Jay immediately begins planning how he can take custody of her. Vicki takes the governor, Jay, and Hoot Gibson (the chauffeur) off on a joyride to visit an old Mexican village, where the governor drunkenly signs over Texas back to the Mexicans. A nighttime walk instigated by actor Greg Calhoun to hunt jackrabbits ends with Jay/Vicki/daughter walking home and getting lost, while Greg & Sarah make out in the desert. Party at the governor’s house interrupted by the call to announce anti-segregation march at the capitol. Jay goes back to the capitol, awaits the governor to no avail. Eventually goes back to the country house where he finds the governor’s body in a bed drenched with Vicki’s perfume. Sarah cowers in a nearby bedroom in a panic.

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Susan Sontag’s Death

Susan Sontag, a writer who had tremendous impact on me years ago, is now deceased. Sontag’s “On Photography” transformed my picture taking from an unthinking snapping to a thoughtful consideration of where I was prior to clicking the camera. Experience the moment while you’re there, don’t focus on trying to get the perfect shot so you can live the experience for the first time from your living room after you get your pics developed. “Death Kit” was a freakish but well written book I forced upon my Atlanta book club. I still am not sure what happened in the tunnel.
Fare thee well, Susan.

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Satchmo

Some good info on how Louie got started in on the trumpet– basically he was in reform school at the time b/c of firing a gun off during a New Years celebration. I had to give up once I found out I wasn’t visiting New Orleans after all. Maybe if I plan a trip back there, I’ll pick this back up.

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A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

Book 1: Francie, the 11 year old girl, on life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before it got hip. Life in poverty, wrangling a week’s worth of food from stale bread and bones with meat clinging to it. A drunk father whose on-again off-again job as a singer/waiter didn’t do much to pay the bills. Collecting junk to sell on Saturdays and clinging to the precious pennies, half for the bank, half to be spent on treats. A mother who cleans 3 apartment buildings. Francie the avid reader, going to the library every day, working her way through the authors alphabetically, reading a book a day. On Saturdays, breaking from this, and asking the librarian for a recommendation. The unfriendly librarian doesn’t know she is being worshipped by Francie, and continues to recommend the same 2 books over and over.
Books 2-4
I meant to catch up with this after each book, but travel got in the way.
I love this book! Fabulous fabulous! I can’t believe I read this in 6th grade- I wonder what I got from it then? It is such a great book I think I will give it as Xmas gifts to everyone I know.

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The House of Mirth

Finished this one on the plane; I really enjoyed her words. There were parts of this that had me tearing up & actual tears rolled down my face. Lily gradually decends into poverty & futility, turning into a working girl (at a hat shop) after being on the heights of fashion for years. Her beauty works against her, and her gentle spirit that refuses to accuse Bertha Dorset of her crimes. Bertha cuts Lily in Europe, by throwing her off the yacht. This in turn causes all of Lily’s other friends to follow suit, since they sheepishly follow what the monied class does. Morbid look into the olden days when women were raised to look lovely and have no other skills or goals except marriage.

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All Over Creation

I love Ozeki. She knows how to weave disparate threads into a unified story. Environmentalist “Seeds” group descends upon Liberty Falls, Idaho, to protest the genetically engineered seeds that don’t allow themselves to propogate. Yumi descends upon Liberty Falls again to tend her dying father, for the first time since running away post-abortion at age 15. Cassie, Yumi’s best friend from ages ago, trying to have kids but sterile from fertilizers in the soil. Yumi lives in Pahoa, Hawaii on the Big Island. She brings her 3 kids: Phoenix, Ocean, and the baby. Her history teacher, Eliot Rhoades, who got her preggers at age 15, returns as a PR man. Recommended, naturally.

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