Friday, September 29, 2006

John, by Cynthia Lennon

It's about time we heard Cynthia's side of the story...

She knew him when. She was a Liverpool girl when he was just a Liverpool bloke. They fell in love, she got pregnant, they got married. The Beatles got famous, Brian died, the Maharishi disappointed. John discovered LSD, Yoko, heroin. Cynthia tells the story well; with or without a ghost writer, her voice comes through. This book doesn't break any new ground, but anyone who wants to know everything about the Beatles needs to read it. It sent me back to the Anthology to review the official version of how Cynthia was replaced by Yoko.

Not trying too hard to tie everything together, I will mention two other things.

(1) Today I watched The Lake House, a nice PG love story with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It features a beautiful song by Paul McCartney, "This Never Happened Before"--my husband recognized Paul's voice before I did, which shocked me.

(2) Today at work, Sarah, a former co-worker visited the office with her 6-month-old baby. Fun times. Sarah lives in Las Vegas now, and her husband is an executive at one of the big hotels there. There was some event at the hotel recently (I didn't get the details of the event, it's the nature of conversation when a 6-month-old is present, the dialog tends to be fragmented) At any rate, Paul McCartney was performing or appearing at the hotel, and Sarah and her husband attended the after-party. She said she was just standing around, chatting, and she looked up and There. He. Was. Paul freakin' McCartney, right in front of her. She's a level-headed type, not easily rattled; she's Swiss, very sophisticated, not some teeny-bopper. But she was, in this case, non-plussed, at a loss, verklempt. Paul and she "locked eyes" she said, and then he reached over and touched her on the arm and said, "'s'all right." Her impulse was to reach and touch his arm in return, but when she made that gesture, the bodyguards moved in, and the moment was over. So today, I touched someone who recently touched and was touched by Paul McCartney.

I've thought about this before: what must it be like to live your entire adult life as someone to whom everyone reacts with awe. It's like being the Dalai Lama, but nobody annointed you, there's nothing official, you're just one of the 10 most popular people on the planet. Amazing. In my opinion, Paul handles it very well. He will always be my favorite Beatle. And that's not just because John dumped Cynthia for Yoko.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Achenboodle Book Drive

Cassandra S. is a frequent commenter on Joel Achenbach's Washington Post blog. She lives in rural North Carolina. She's a grandma who faces hardships every day, but works to make the world a better place. She works with the local kids, tutoring in math and reading during the school year. Some of the commenters on Achenblog (colloquially known as "boodlers") have decided to help Cassandra's kids by sending books for her to use in the program. Yellojkt wrote it all up on his blog, including book lists, in case any of my readers want to jump on this bandwagon. Information on where to send the books is available by emailing me (kbertocci at or yellojkt (see the link).

The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie

I bought this book last spring at a bookstore in Key West--a lovely small bookstore the likes of which cannot be sustained by any normal American town. But being located a half block off Duval Street means that thousands of pedestrians pass by every week and also that the real estate prices are too high for Borders to even think about staking out the necessary square footage to establish one of their cookie-cutter superstores, so there it is, the Key West Island Bookstore, at 513 Fleming Street.

It's no secret I am a book snob, and I don't usually read "beach books"--my feeling is, that's why there are magazines. But I was in a light reading mood, looking over the pile of books in the "Key West section" of the store, and Alison Lurie is a Pulitzer Prize winner (albeit one I was unfamiliar with) so I picked up The Last Resort.

Lurie's tale of a New England professor and his wife who relocate to Key West in hopes of ameliorating their lives turned out to be the kind of book I usually don't read, but it was enjoyable anyway. Key West is its own reality and it is hopeless to try to convey its essence. If you are not there, you won't understand, and if you are there, you don't need anybody to describe it to you. Nevertheless, Lurie, who has been a part-time Key West resident for many years, makes a brave effort at describing the kind of disconnect people experience when they arrive on the island and establish residence.

I like this passage, that deals with the bright yellow multicar tram that tours the island, the Conch Tour Train.

Molly...had never been on the train, though it passed her house continually. The day she and her husband first moved in, the loudspeaker had called the tourists' attention to a large tropical tree with loose, flaky bark that grew in their side yard. "On your left, just ahead, you will see a fine specimen of one of Key West's native trees. It is a gumbo limbo, but natives call it the tourist tree, because it is always red and peeling."

The first time Molly and her husband heard this joke they laughed. They heard it again soon afterward, and then at regular intervals until sunset. It did no good to shut the windows; the loudspeaker was clearly audible through the uninsulated walls of the house. Polite calls to the Conch Train office over the next few weeks accomplished nothing; the woman who answered the phone appeared to think that Molly should feel honored to have her tree noticed.

After hearing the joke approximately every twenty minutes for two weeks, Molly and her husband discussed having the tree removed. But it turned out that the gumbo limbo was a protected species; any tree service that destroyed it would lose its license and be liable for heavy damages, as would the Hopkinses. An acquaintance suggested pouring bleach into the roots, but the gumbo limbo appeared to like bleach.

Finally, after getting permission from the Historical Prservation Society (a lengthy process), Molly and her husband put up a fence which cut off their view and darkened the yard, but concealed the trunk of the tree. On one memorable day at the end of the season, the Conch Train passed in silence.

Now, that is funny, and it does express the typical reaction a northerner would have in that situation. But here's the problem: if you have that reaction, you don't belong in Key West. You will have to change or leave. These characters have a small victory over the island but they will lose the war. You can be whoever you want to be in Key West but you can't change the culture. I remember the apartment I lived in for two and a half years where the Conch Train was always saying, "...Key West was discovered in 1544 by Ponce de Leon..." [According to more reliable sources, the date was 1513, but this is something else you can't get worked up about: in Key West, people make up stories. Get over it.] I loved having the Conch Train going by--I liked waving to the tourists and smiling at them.

The Last Resort is an uncomplicated book with mostly two-dimensional characters. The plot is a straight line. The writing is skillful and the setting is suitably exotic. It's a perfect "beach read"--if you like that sort of thing.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Until I Find You, by John Irving

One day this summer, I was in the Memphis airport, passing time in a bookstore while waiting for my flight. I already had magazines to read on the plane and I had no intention of buying a book. When I saw John Irving's latest, it was a pleasant surprise; I hadn't heard anything about it. I picked it up, fanned through the pages. I reminded myself that I had no plans to buy any books. I put it down and walked away, out of the store. I sat down in the waiting area--for maybe five minutes. Then I went back, as if driven by forces outside my control, and bought it. It's a lovely book, 824 pages long. The cover is flesh colored on the bottom half and the title is "tattooed" on it, "Until I find you," on a banner across a broken heart.

John Irving is one of my favorite authors, although this book didn't do anything to move him higher in my esteem. His place in my writer pantheon is cemented by two things: Cider House Rules, which I think is one of the best novels of the 20th century, and Irving's love and respect for Charles Dickens, which may be even as great as my own. I've read all of Irving's books. They have disappointed me, more often than not, but when he's good, he's really delightful, so I'll continue to read whatever he publishes.

Until I Find You is interesting in its use of point of view: much of the story is told as remembered by the main character, Jack Burns. Over and over the narrator emphasizes the unreliability of the narrative, so that makes everything a mystery all the time. Quite often the reader learns that something presented earlier was not true, and then the correction may be corrected further later on. That could be irritating, but I didn't mind because the story wasn't all that emotionally engaging--possibly because of the repeated warnings, I didn't feel betrayed.

What I will remember about this book is the seediness of it, the creepy way Irving presents the theme of child sexual abuse. He manages to convey the events almost without moral content. Everything is told from Jack's point of view, and he doesn't really know that he's being abused. The psychological repercussions are shown but not really discussed. I was reminded of the theme in A Widow for One Year, when the middle-aged woman who has lost her two teenaged sons in an accident seduces a young man because he reminds her of one of her sons. It's presented as reasonable, but it's not, it's really sick. Similar themes run through Until I Find You--Jack is victimized by a series of older girls and women, all with weird rationalizations that he has no defense against.

The story line rambles--800+ pages is long enough to have the characters tour Canada, Europe, and California, for Jack to go from age four to all grown up, and to finally find his father, after searching for him, literally, spiritually, and metaphorically, throughout the book. I'd say the storyline doesn't merit all those pages. Les Miserables, Don Quixote, War and Peace--some books deserve that much paper. This one should probably spent a little more time in the editing process, and saved some trees.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The New Wheels

First off, I have to say that starting this blog back up has not gone very smoothly. It turns out that reading, thinking and living all interfere in a major way with blogging. I'll have to cut down somewhere.

Anyway, I got a new bicycle last week (new to me, anyway)--it's red and it says "Key West" on the frame; I guess that's the model, like my car is a Toyota Tercel and my bike is a Sun Key West. Love it. It has 8 speeds, and some of them are fairly fast if the appropriate amount of muscle power is applied.

I celebrated the new vehicle by taking it out Saturday and riding to Boynton Beach and back--according to Expedia, that's 42 miles roundtrip. And it is a beautiful ride, along the beach, with lots of views of sand and surf, as well as glimpses of multi-million dollar mansions.

Here's the view from the beach where I decided to turn around and head for home.

Looking north:

Looking south:

Oops, see that rain? I ran into it on my way home, so I ducked into a shelter at a different beach.

It was raining, but the sun was still shining, just like in the Nilsson song:

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes

Backing off of the northeast wind
Sailing on a summer breeze
Skipping over the ocean like a stone

So I sang that song for a while as I pedaled the rest of the way home.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester

Imagine that you could only have one book.

Would it be The Bible? Finnegan's Wake? The complete works of Shakespeare? What book could you imagine that would be endlessly edifying and useful, as well as dependably entertaining?

I refuse to make a choice, even hypothetically, that narrows all of literature to a single volume. However, if forced, one could do worse than to choose a really good dictionary. I love my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; I have copies at home and at work. But the original work that sought to define "the meaning of everything" in English was the Oxford English Dictionary.

In The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester has written the story of the OED, concentrating on the efforts of two men. James Murray, the professor, dedicated his life to the dictionary because he loved language, literature, and scholarship. W.C. Minor, the madman, shared those motivations, but he was also in need of an occupation to stave off the madness. His extreme dedication to the dictionary project was made possible by his incarceration in an insane asylum.

The process of creating the dictionary involved thousands of volunteers, combing through books in search of definitive and distinctive examples of words, which they sent, along with examples of their use, to the headquarters of the Oxford Press. From five million collected, 414,825 words were selected. The project took more than 68 years. (Murray was the first editor; at the time of his death the dictionary was about half finished.)

The professor and the madman were kindred spirits, despite the disparity in their social status. I felt that the defining exchange came late in their association, when Murray reached out to Minor in gratitude and friendship, offering him a distinctive gift. He sent him something only a few people on earth would recognize as a treasure (but the people who enjoy this book certainly agree it is)--the newly completed entry for the word "take." (It covered several pages and had taken months to compile.)

This is hardly a gripping adventure story. But there is drama in it, and passion. If you love words, it's worth a read. I enjoyed the feeling of being present at the creation of the great dictionary, which was an amazingly ambitious project and in its completion, a triumph of cooperative effort.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Coming Attractions

I think it's generally a mistake to announce plans for the future. So many things can go wrong and then you are forced to retract the announcement or revise it or just leave it hanging there, as a testament to your inability to master your environment.

However, I received an email today from saying the new Jonathan Franzen book has shipped, and I'm inspired by that. I fully intend to have a season of book reviews on Read-Think-Live. I have read quite a few books over the summer, so stand by, here's a list of some of the titles I'll be blogging about in the coming weeks.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester
The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie
The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth
Babes in Boyland, by Gina Barreca
Until I Find You, by John Irving
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson
The Moral Animal, by Robert Wright
John, by Cynthia Lennon
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon

. . . and, I didn't forget, I said I would review I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe.

. . . and the aforementioned Franzen book, The Discomfort Zone.

Stay tuned . . .

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I Voted

Today was the primary for state elections in Florida. Several people are running for governor and the two leading Democrats are pretty close.

It was rainy. When I showed up at my polling place I was the only one there.

I understand apathy, I understand that people are busy. I know how they feel; it seems like just one more thing to do in a life full of duties and chores. But, it's just the right thing to do, to take the time, pay attention to the issues and candidates and make the effort to vote.

I always think of the women who worked so hard for universal suffrage--nobody just handed us the vote as a gift. And the civil rights workers who gave their lives for voting rights--that happened in my lifetime. I can't take it lightly. Voting is important.

Here's a voting rights timeline for the United States. Here's the timeline for women's suffrage, by country (Switzerland: 1971!?).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Happy Labor Day

Today's holiday served its purpose for me, gave me an opportunity to step off the treadmill of activities for a while and contemplate the condition of workers in America. It's a good occasion to salute the Service Employees' International Union, they are doing some very good work and have been reaching out to people outside their ranks. Joining their affiliate organization, Purple Ocean, is a good way to support workers' rights, and their website is a source for news about developments that affect working people.

It's also a good day to remember a great, underappreciated hero of American history, Eugene Victor Debs. I will include below some excerpts from the 1918 speech that resulted in a prison sentence for Debs; close to a century has passed, but the words still ring true, too true.

June 16, 1918, Canton Ohio

...These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United States. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.
Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense! These autocrats, these tyrants, these red-handed robbers and murderers, the “patriots,” while the men who have the courage to stand face to face with them, speak the truth, and fight for their exploited victims—they are the disloyalists and traitors. If this be true, I want to take my place side by side with the traitors in this fight.
Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.

--Eugene V. Debs

Happy Labor Day, everybody.