02/21/16 6:00am
02/21/2016 6:00 AM

February is the month of presidents’ birthdays — two of our greatest, Washington and Lincoln. I remember a cartoon in Esquire many years ago, Lincoln and Washington in a room, Lincoln saying, “George, is February 12 your birthday or mine?” It was funny because the question was real for many people — which was whose and whose was when. This amusing uncertainty was eliminated by creating Presidents’ Day, a cop-out if ever there was one.

Washington/Lincoln: Lincoln/Washington — the endless comparisons are inevitable. There always seemed to be many more books about Lincoln, but important facts aside, Abe clearly wins the face-on-the-money contest, $5.01 to George’s $1.25. George, though, had a state named after him, plus the site of the government’s capitol and a great big bridge, while Abe had to settle for a tunnel, a city in Nebraska and a very pricey car.

The level of advice they received varied widely. Thomas Jefferson to Washington: “Delay is preferable to error”; 12-year-old Grace Bedell to Lincoln, on growing a beard: “You would look a great deal better, for your face is so thin.”

Regarding books, ‘Team of Rivals,’ Doris Kearns Goodman’s examination of the oppositional cabinet that Lincoln dared to put together, is an excellent study of Lincoln, and I just finished ‘Washington’s Crossing’ (David Hackett Fisher). I learned more about Washington and the Revolution than I ever learned in grammar school (which focused mostly on wooden false teeth, the chopped-down cherry tree that he admitted to, and the freezing cold at Valley Forge). This is a heart-thumping book, and if it looks too long, it’s not. If you exclude the copious appendices and the pages of maps and illustrations, you wind up with around 320 pages of inspirational, eye-opening material.

I don’t want to ignore the ever-romantic St. Valentine’s Day. Every couple has an “our song,” and my wife and I, back in the ’50s, decided on Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” — it was summer and we spent endless hours talking on the beach. Years passed and if the song happened to play on the radio we’d poke each other and grin. Then one time we really “listened” to the words and realized that the bridge went, “You made a vow that you would ever be true, but somehow that vow meant nothing to you.” Now Boone’s heart is aching as the waves are breaking over the sandy love letters, etc., etc. In the 1950s, love, apparently, was not only blind, but somewhat deaf, too. But we’re working away on year 58.

As an old year ends I like to decide which was the best book I’d read. There were three I considered: ‘Someone,’ Alice McDermott’s touching story of an ordinary young Irish woman in Brooklyn; ‘A God in Ruins,’ Kate Atkinson’s follow-up to “Life After Death”; and, my final choice, ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr), about a young blind girl in World War II France and a boyish German soldier disenchanted with his army’s cruelty. This is a beautifully written story of the faith, hope and charity that exists within us all.

Jerry CaseMr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].

11/23/14 8:00am
11/23/2014 8:00 AM

NY_Gold

It’s said that you can’t judge books by their covers, and you certainly can’t judge them by the four-color, over-the-top advertisements in various Sunday papers. Also, I’ve stopped paying attention to reviews by literary critics who could probably find levels of pseudo-psychology and Freudian innuendo in “See Dick Run and Jump.” So what’s left?  (more…)

10/19/14 6:00am
10/19/2014 6:00 AM

There aren’t many books you can buy in three different weights — the 100-pound version, the 30-pounder or the three-pound bantam weight — but the Oxford English Dictionary would be one. The 10-volume set requires a sturdy bookcase; the two-volume (four photographically reduced pages to a page complete with magnifying glass) is handier; and the entire immense work, on several CDs, would slip right into a knapsack.  (more…)

04/21/12 9:00am
04/21/2012 9:00 AM

April may well be the cruelest month: Fighting season begins again as the mountain passes thaw in Afghanistan, tornadoes rampage throughout the Midwest, taxes must be paid and we mourn the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both purportedly died April 23, 1616.

People in those days had such interesting lives and yet they were not tempted to write memoirs. I had no idea that when he wasn’t writing “Don Quixote,” Cervantes was collecting taxes, provisioning the ill-fated Armada, languishing in jail for “financial discrepancies” occasioned by the previous occupations, being sold into five years of slavery in Algeria and losing an arm fighting in the battle of Lepanto. All that, some poetry and plays and inventing the modern novel besides, made him a very busy man.

And Shakespeare, if he really was Shakespeare and not some earl or other, will always be with us. I’ve never liked the earl theories. They all seem to be based on some deep snobbery that says a mere glover’s son, a provincial, an actor for heaven’s sake, could not possibly have been able to write so well. One recent film, “Anonymous,” champions the notion that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Another, “Coriolanus,” takes a story from the first century, written as a play in the 17th century, and turns it into a blistering 20th-century political spectacle. Hollywood and the rest of us are not done with Shakespeare yet.

April is full of bookish events: Poetry Month, Library Week, Pulitzer Prizes. Partly because of Cervantes and Shakespeare, we are celebrating the first U.S. World Book Night on April 23.  World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books. Following its warm reception in England and Ireland last year, tens of thousands of people will go out into their communities to spread the joy and love of reading by giving out free World Book Night paperbacks. Two of those people will be Floyd Memorial Library director Lisa Richland, who will be giving out copies of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids,’ and me, who will be giving out Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’

It is a little like our day jobs, giving books to people, but it will be interesting to go out into the community instead of waiting for people to come to us. It will be different to give people books for them to keep forever instead of expecting them to be returned.

“The Things They Carried” is about soldiers during the Vietnam War and might be particularly meaningful to veterans of that or any other war, or to young people who may be contemplating military life. Actually, it is so well written and so important that I can’t imagine anybody, young or old, male or female, of whatever political persuasion, not being moved and uplifted by the sheer beauty and artistry of it. They say no one finishes a book the same person as when she started. Giving people books is a powerful responsibility and some serious fun.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what is up with those Pulitzer Prize people? For the first time since 1977, they declined to pick a winner in the fiction category. Finalists included ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace, both quite worthy works of fiction. What does not giving a prize mean, except some sort of dysfunction of the committee? Is it because it’s in New York? New York City has the dubious distinction of not having a one city/one book program like most other civilized places, even Long Island. Apparently the various committees could never agree on which book to choose so the city ends up with nada, zilch, bupkus while Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, etc., enjoy a month during which everyone is encouraged to read the same book and talk about it.

On Long Island, from Garden City to Greenport, from Massapequa to Montauk, many of us have been reading ‘The Lost Wife’ by Alyson Richman. Ms. Richman has been speaking at various Long Island libraries and there’s talk that the Nassau Library System is trying to organize a trip to Prague this fall to see some of the places described in the novel. One of which would be Terezin, the Nazi ghetto and way station to Auschwitz. The novel is cleverly constructed in the way the story moves backward and forward in time.

It is an amazing book and it makes me wish that Long Island had more mass transit and more cafés and park benches — those great places where if you see a perfect stranger reading the same book you are, or have just read, you can accost them and have an impromptu book discussion. Hmmm, there is a place near here that has mass transit, cafés and park benches, but you’re unlikely to find people reading the same book. Oh well, their loss; we provincials will have survived cruel April with our various bookish diversions, our Poetry Month, Library Week, Long Island Reads and World Book Night.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

08/26/11 11:49am
08/26/2011 11:49 AM

Men. Women. Power. Money. Sex. Truth. These are the final winding down days of the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged rape of an African hotel maid, and I keep wondering what Stieg Larsson, the journalist, would have had to say. Stieg Larsson was the author of the Millenium Trilogy — “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — published posthumously to huge success after his death at age 50. While he was alive, he wasn’t known as a novelist. He was a crusading left-wing, feminist, anti-racist journalist who published magazine articles and books that put him under death threats from Swedish Neo-Nazi groups. He had spent a year in Africa training female guerrillas how to use rocket launchers. He had strong feelings about sexual violence toward women. He might have had something interesting to say about the Strauss-Kahn story.

Now that he’s dead and can’t say anything at all, there are two new books out about him: “Stieg Larsson, Our Days in Stockholm: A Memoir of a Friendship” by Kurdo Baksi and “ ‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me” by Eva Gabrielsson, his life companion of 32 years. It is interesting how slippery word portraits are when they try to describe a person. Photographs taken by different people, in different lighting, at different ages, all are somehow believable as describing the same person. Written accounts by best friends, colleagues, girlfriends, seem to be better at describing the writer of the account than the subject.

I feel I know quite a lot about Kurdo Baksi and Eva Gabrielsson, who seem like perfectly decent people, although neither is a particularly gifted writer or original thinker. Neither seems to be writing a book that they are internally compelled to write. They have written books that will sell because the subject is of interest, and they have written books that champion their own sides of the story.

Eva’s is more compelling because she was Stieg’s lover for most of their lives, although you really don’t get much of an understanding of how their domestic and romantic life functioned on a day-to-day basis. He wrote her a love letter when he was 22 and returning from a near-death experience in Africa. She says he usually cooked dinner for her. Kurdo says his friend couldn’t cook at all. Kurdo says Stieg suffered from terrible insomnia and hardly slept. Which would explain how he managed to hold down a full-time job for money, work at least an equivalent of full time doing his own investigative reporting, editing and publishing, while reading voraciously both science fiction and murder mysteries, and last but not least, actually writing three, four, maybe five long novels.

Eva would have us believe that they slept together, although she really doesn’t give us any sense of the physical intimacy between them. She’s Swedish and shy and I’m not asking for prurient details, but I am curious. There is plenty of sex in his novels, of all sorts, described with great accuracy. If he was committed to Eva since they met at 18, were they each other’s only sexual partners? It seems highly unlikely, but there is no conflicting or corroborating information in either of these nonfiction books.

One story that both tell is that Stieg related a terrible event that happened when he was 15 years old. He was close by when three of his friends raped a girl they all knew, and he did nothing to stop it. A few days later he went to the girl and apologized for his inaction, but she would not forgive him and said he was just like the others. It’s a curious story, one that he tells about himself, one that “explains” both his political writing and his fiction. When will some investigative reporter go up to northern Sweden and try to find the people involved, or some other witnesses? Is this a true story or a story that a novelist might tell a few people to illuminate some deep truth about himself but that a journalist who respected truth would never write down or publish? In the book about honor killings that he co-wrote with Cecilia Englund, he says, “The cultural and anthropological models used to explain these tragedies speak to the form of oppression involved but do not explain it. And so in India, women are set on fire: they are murdered in the name of honor in Sicily: they are beaten up on Saturday night in Sweden … Yet culture does not explain why women all over the world are murdered, mutilated, mistreated by men.”

This was a problem he set out to understand and solve in different ways, and the sad thing is that he had only completely finished three of the planned 10 books of the series, whose working title was “The Men Who Hate Women,” when he died. If only he were still around and working, we would have more complicated books, whether mysteries like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” police procedurals like “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” political thrillers like “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” or nonfiction exposés about honor killings or hate crimes. He would be even closer to being the grown-up embodiment of both his childhood literary heroes, Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, characters invented by Astrid Lindgren and beloved by children all over the world, just as his own characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are admired and beloved by adult readers all over the world for their courage against injustice.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

08/14/11 3:31pm
08/14/2011 3:31 PM

I was reading about a recent Yankee game and came across this: “ … a triple that was misplayed by centerfielder Nyjer Morgan. Morgan sprinted toward the warning track in pursuit of the well-struck ball, but crashed violently into the padding and fell to the dirt.” My first thought was “old-time sports writing has returned.” It’s rare today to find dramatic descriptions of plays or players, which is fine, I guess, but when I saw “well-struck” and “fell to the dirt” I was back in the ’40s and ’50s when writers like Joe Williams, Dick Young and Joe Trimble covered the games.

I have a scrapbook of World Series newspaper articles from those Yankee/Dodger/Giant years, when the writing, surely florid, stoked your imagination. Here’s the report of a huge play in the sixth game of the ’47 Series:

“Little Al, hydrant high and running like a bunny with his tail afire, raced back, back, back. He finally turned and stuck out his gloved right hand as the ball was about to clear the bullpen barrier … ” Phew! All you Brooklyn/Bronx fans know who Al was, and just relived that moment. Few of us actually saw it — TV sets were few and far between — but we experienced it the next morning, hot off the presses.

Today’s writers understand that replay after replay — in full color, in slo-mo, on every channel — has lessened the need for colorful descriptions, and cold facts work fine. Strike up the bland! But the morning after the second game of the ’51 Series brought us this: “The miracle Giants fell right out of those fleecy clouds of fantasy yesterday. Durocher’s darlings of destiny were dragged back to reality … ” New York City’s English teachers must have jumped with joy: the entire grammar school had certainly read that and “today’s lesson will be about alliteration.”

1952. Seventh game. With the bases loaded, the game on the line and the infielders in disarray, “Martin darted toward the mound as the ball descended rapidly, running out from under his hat and, with one frantic lunge, grabbed the pill at knee level.” The next morning it was read about, hashed, rehashed, revered and reviled. “Of all people, that Martin guy,” just as in ’51 it had been “Of all people, that Stanky guy.” Rizzuto never got over Stanky kicking the ball away.

Just one more. “Ever so briefly and ever so lightly, Brooklyn’s sad sky wept openly in the last half of the ninth inning. Perhaps the Brooklyn sky, black and frowning throughout the day, could restrain its tears no longer.” This after only the third game of the ’49 Series!

I don’t want to live in the past, but this upholstered writing (“shattering wallop,” “overpowering hurling,” “hustling scoop,” “squirming crowd”) embraced all the things we were being taught in school: see it, feel it and express it. It was also very enjoyable, something to anticipate the morning after a game.

A final note. The sportswriters used to say “flied out” but are now saying “flew out.” It’s probably better English, but the only player who maybe “flew out” to center field is Angel Pagan.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]

07/18/11 2:54pm
07/18/2011 2:54 PM

The results are in. Thanks to everyone who took the time to pin down their favorite books. Some of you named 10, many noted three, a few came up with one. One reader broke the bank with 27! Everybody moaned about the difficulty of choosing only 10 — some seemed upset with me for having the temerity to ask that of them. I heard from 32 people, who came up with an astounding 211 different titles.

Several entries were multiple volumes: the “Bounty Trilogy,” “The Lord of the Rings,” the three Long Island DeMilles; these were counted as one. That seemed fair, but then came the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, probably 40 books in all. I loved seeing them mentioned; it spoke of the joy of reading as a kid — my wife admitting to reading Nancy after “lights out” under a blanket, with a candle. Scary.

Authors were named — as in “anything by …” — with James Michener, Robert Parker, Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Leon Uris and many others being cited.

One woman used the term “seared by” when listing “Angela’s Ashes,” “Stones from the River” and “Say You Are One of Them,” perfectly expressing the experience of reading about troubled times, whether in Ireland, Germany or Africa. Most choices were toward the serious side, although Winnie the Pooh poked his head up a couple of times.

My nephew asked if anyone seemed self-conscious over a lack of classics on their list. Well, not that I could see, Huck Finn and “Wuthering Heights” each got three mentions, “War and Peace” two. Assorted single entries brought classics up to 15. Fiction was a hands-down, 86 percent winner; the nonfiction was generally historical or inspirational: presidents, wars, cups of tea and spiritual enlightenment.

There were titles I’d read, enjoyed and, sadly, forgotten. “The Princess Bride” was one, a delightful book. Oddly it recently resurfaced recently, when Peter Falk died; he played the grandfather in the movie. Others in this category were “Trinity,” “Shogun” and “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Murder and mayhem were prevalent, mostly by author rather than individual titles. We seem awfully fond of blood.

A handful of titles got three mentions: “The Poisonwood Bible,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “The Killer Angels,” “The Lovely Bones,” “The Mists of Avalon,” the Harry Potters and my all-time favorite, “Bang the Drum Slowly.” Three titles had over three: “Pillars of the Earth” (four), “The Grapes of Wrath” (six) and a resounding 12 for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” certainly no surprise.

Everyone out there seems to read anything and everything, with the focus on the delight of following made-up characters through the ins and outs and ups and downs of imagined experiences.

In 1998 The New Yorker featured “My 100 Greatest Books” by Steve Martin. I’ll include four; you’ll get the drift: “Prenup Loopholes” by Anon. Esq.; “Silas Marner” (first and last page only); “Victoria’s Secret Fall Catalogue”; and “Ulysses” (first sentence only).

It’s amusing when iconic 10 Best lists are seen for what they really are, exercises to debate and enjoy, but basically meaningless. Best movies, best restaurants, best songs, best actors —  hey, they’re your own personal lists. Anybody for “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew”?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]

07/06/11 2:27pm
07/06/2011 2:27 PM

I finally have an acceptable reason to dislike Philip Roth. I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was a kid, because we all did, snickering at the “dirty” parts. There were interesting stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I quickly tired of the later Zuckerman novels, and I don’t think it’s quite sporting for a novelist to engage his ex-wife in a public war of words as he did against the actress Claire Bloom, because the use of words is his profession, while hers is to say the words of others.

But now he has declared, in an interview with The Financial Times of London, “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. Why? I don’t know. I wised up.”

What does he mean that he wised up? He is now so wise that nobody else’s engagement with the craft that he has been practicing for 50 years is of any interest to him? People are allowed to limit their reading to what truly engages them, but if a man makes his living writing fiction, it seems the height of arrogance to not read it anymore.

England can give him their Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature and it won’t change my mind; I don’t like him and I won’t read his fiction.

So what fiction titles are going to be read this summer by interested and interesting people? Ann Patchett has a new novel, “State of Wonder,” that takes place in the Amazon jungle and in the world of pharmaceutical science, both extremely dangerous venues. Jean Auel has finally published “The Land of Painted Caves,” the long-awaited sixth and final book of the series “Earth’s Children” that started with “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” It hasn’t been getting unqualified raves from reviewers, but the faithful readers who slogged through the first five books will want to read this one regardless.

Kate Atkinson has a new novel, “Started Early, Took My Dog,” which continues with the exploits of former detective Jackson Brodie. Her books are genre-bending feats of literature that play with the conventions of murder mysteries or thrillers, neither condescending to them nor wholly being subsumed by them.

A first novel garnering a lot of favorable buzz is “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner. It takes place in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community and involves young love and magic.

Then there’s “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, which seems to be riding the same wave of zeitgeist nostalgia as Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris.” “The Paris Wife” is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, and features all those madcap American expatriates we meet in Woody Allen’s movie. Those characters also appear in two big, new nonfiction books that are flying off the shelves: David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and “Americans in Paris” by Charles Glass.

I’m not sure I accept the idea of imagining, in a novel, a real person whose children or grandchildren are still around, but authors are definitely doing it. A few years ago there was ‘Loving Frank,’ Nancy Horner’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was well written but seemed to me like a violation of some sort. The Woody Allen film is delightful and obviously a fantasy, but these novels tread some boundary between fiction and nonfiction that troubles my librarian soul. However, it seems clear that this summer, when you’re not lolling in the hammock with one of these books, you should be learning to Charleston, having your hair bobbed or drinking absinthe while singing jazz in French. You’ve got to get with the zeitgeist, mon ami, and this season it is Paris in the ’20s.

More summer books for nonfiction lovers might include “Bossypants” by Tina Fey, a really, really funny woman. Sarah Vowell isn’t funny in the same way, but her new book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” is an idiosyncratic take on the history of Hawaii.

Summer vacations used to mean road trips, but now that we can’t afford the gas we could just read “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway” by the aptly named Earl Swift. While we’re thinking about gas and oil, let’s get busy with Carl Safina’s latest book, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout.” Mr. Safina is a neighbor, an East Ender whose previous books — “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” “Voyage of the Turtle” and “The View from Lazy Point” — have won various honors and gotten him named one of the 100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.

Summer is all about nature, which makes me think of Henry David Thoreau. There are some wonderful programs and exhibits at the North Fork Audubon Society’s Red House Nature Center in Greenport that are based on the writings of that amazing American writer. Thoreau’s cantankerous Yankee spirit was echoing in my head when I started reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.

“Tinkers” is a small book, a first novel by a former rock drummer. It hasn’t much of a plot or any suspense. The first sentence reads, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and then the rest of the book, set in Maine, is his dying and his hallucinating. There are Indians, a nameless pond, a donkey named Prince Edward, a hermit, a tinker, a peripheral connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many clocks measuring time that is no longer linear for the dying man nor for the reader of this beautiful book. Maybe Americans can be transcendentalists.

Maybe reading fiction is how we can “wise up.”

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.