Tag Archives: lunchtime reads

The art of living

A Man of Honor

My son is a big gangster-mafia book buff and is always offering a new paperback on some various crime lord.  Because that genre holds zero interest for me, I politely decline.  But eventually I have been worn down.  A Man of Honor, The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, has been my lunchtime read for the last few weeks.  It’s not gory, and it is well-written.  Bonanno liked to think of himself as the intellectual father of one of New York’s Five Families.  Allegedly Vito Corleone was based on Bonanno, which I could see, and I’m only halfway through the book.  Bonanno is smart, subtle, oh my goodness he is subtle.  He’s also witty, thoughtful, and well learned.  Yesterday I read about an inscription over the Teatro Massimo, a large theater in Italy.  Bonanno was visiting his homeland, and offered this quote, one he said he knew by heart:

Art renews people and reveals their lives.  Vain the pleasure from these scenes if you don’t contemplate them to prepare for the future.

Bonanno has been leading the reader up to where his downfall begins, which he doesn’t mind noting within the chapter.  He’s a straightforward kind of guy, but appreciates art, subtly, history.  He doesn’t come across as an out-for-blood gangster, preferring a quiet, orderly life.  He likes good food, outings with friends, loves his wife and children.  And if what he says about that quote is truthful, he is aware of art’s place in life.  Art and history both.

What strikes me most about this book, especially in my news-overload funk, is the simplicity of Bonanno’s heyday, the 1930s-1950s.  But it’s not just the times, it’s The Tradition, a Sicilian tradition, which Bonanno takes great pains to note is not that of America, even if he’s living in The Volcano (New York City).  It’s about people, a family.  He’s the Father, yet he never says Godfather.  Just a Father, which he does seem to liken to a god of sorts, a caretaker, a man who draws to him those who wish to be within a clan, some for ill-gotten purposes, but not all.  Bonanno gently chides those fathers who are American first, guiding their families like CEOs.  He sees that manner as very empty, all business-oriented.  His family is not run that way.

Not that those within his family were all angels.  This isn’t a book so much about Bonanno’s time in the mafia; it’s also a treatise on human relationships.  When he visits Italy, Bonanno is struck by the warmth of the people, which he doesn’t find in The Volcano.  True Italians exude friendliness, compassion, interest.  He notes that Italy’s government isn’t ideal, he’s not blind.  But the intimacy cannot be denied; these people care about one another, are truly one family.

Now, that was in the 1950s.  I’ve never been to Italy, who is to say those same values still hold in the twenty-first century?  Yet, I’d hazard a guess that compared to America, Italy might nudge us out for exemplary hospitality.  I live in a densely populated area of California, also in the probable technology capital of the world.  Silicon Valley buzzes with techie excitement, but in my opinion is lacking in humanity.  Often my soul feels squeezed, especially on the roadways; everyone is aching to get to their destination as quickly as possible, and if that means not very carefully, so be it.  I made myself a playlist filled with Audio Adrenaline, Relient K, Newsboys, and Rebecca St. James entitled Driving on 680/280, a freeway that runs from San Francisco to San Jose as 280, then goes north as 680 until it reaches I-80 in Fairfield.  Drivers traversing 680/280 at its most southern end basically live somewhere here in Silicon Valley, be it San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Fremont, etc.  And just from the way they drive, I feel like many of them have lost the notion of the art of living.

Life isn’t this moment; it’s the sum, the totality.  Yes, right now is all I have, but what I do now bumps into what occurs this afternoon, next week, six months down the road.  Bonanno led his family in a relatively quiet direction; his wasn’t the richest or most powerful, but he was dedicated to those who chose him as Father, and I await to read the machinations behind his downfall.  But most of us aren’t the leaders of organized crime ventures, or enormous corporations.  We’re just average joes, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night.  Yet, I’m brought back to that inscription; art renews people, reveals their lives.  Does that just apply to the artist?  No, I don’t think so.

In my writing, I expand on the themes of love, equality, and mercy.  But as an ordinary wife, mother, and dweller in Silicon Valley in 2013, I feel somewhat lost.  Maybe it’s just realizing my mid-forties are sliding toward turning fifty.  Cranky old lady springs to mind; perhaps there is no way to escape the gnawing sense of virtues lost, kindness and patience.  Recently I was grousing to my husband about it; humans have made great strides in erasing prejudice, but as if our hearts are only capable of a limited sense of tolerance, exasperation and disdain have gained invisible but concrete footholds.

Or maybe I’ve been living in a big city for too long.

It’s not just on the roadways I encounter this slight but tangible hostility.  Technology has made life easier; it has also opened up a vast array of ways for cruelty to be dispersed.  The better angels of our natures fight with the overwhelming sense of lesser upstanding qualities.  Sometimes all of America feels like a volcano, erupting in violence and mayhem.

There’s another quote: Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.  Perhaps that is also what the Teatro Massimo’s inscription alludes to.  There is little I can do as a single entity to battle corruption and anger, hatred and insolence.  Sometimes I feel like even my contributions in this corner of Silicon Valley go amiss.  But the inscription that Joseph Bonanno knew by heart calls out to me, wisdom I never would have discovered unless my son hand’t badgered me into reading it.  I probably won’t choose another mafia book, but one never knows from where inspiration and knowledge will strike.  Bonanno certainly wasn’t thinking about me as a possible reader when he wrote this book, just as I can’t fathom who might peruse my novels in years to come.  That alone lifts my heart to keep writing even when it feels difficult, or publishing seems fraught with roadblocks.  Art renews people and reveals their lives.  Vain the pleasure from these scenes if you don’t contemplate them to prepare for the future.

The longest chapter

Most weekdays I read while eating lunch.  I’ve been working on Buffalo Afternoon, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, and have been lost in the world she has created, a real world that at times feel very otherworldly; The Vietnam War.

Yesterday, I finally finished chapter 21.  It was the longest chapter I have read in ages, partly from its length.  Mostly in how many lunchtimes it took me to get through it, which wasn’t due to overt gore, only a combination of interruptions, a road trip, the weekend falling where it did, and yes, the subject.  Schaeffer didn’t stint on details; she made sure very little was left to the imagination, prose not sparse.  Not that it’s terribly bloody, although how it ended yesterday was a bit disturbing, especially since I was finishing my bagel.  But so honest, how could she not write those things?  She wasn’t there, but conducted extensive research, and I have no doubt that at least one thing which occurred in chapter 21 was true.  And probably more were too.

I read to learn something new, live a situation I otherwise would never experience.  I read for pleasure, for knowledge, to escape.  I read for research, which was why I bought this book in the first place.  But I am reading it now because I knew it was next, just one of those things.  And in reading it, I’m on a journey through a distant country, torn and amazing.  Parts are dead, only the stray beetle scurrying across the ruined landscape.  The men there are somewhat dead too, dead to the lives they left behind, dead to themselves.  And, too often, deceased.  Schaeffer doesn’t mince her words either, which at times is a relief.  But while reading chapter 21 I needed to take breaks, I couldn’t stay in Vietnam indefinitely   Those soldiers didn’t either, their tours lasting a year or thirteen months.  But at the time, it felt like forever.

In chapter 21, I felt there was no way out.

If Ms. Schaeffer was alive, I would write and thank her for that long chapter, tell her how beautifully she described a brutal, awful, and in my opinion unnecessary conflict.  She died last year, shortly after I came across this novel, so all I can do is tell anyone willing that Buffalo Afternoon is a fantastic novel, but not easy.  Not simple, but lasting, powerful, as heavy-hitting as anything I have ever read before.  Thousands of books exist, only a tiny fraction rising to where someone might catch a glimpse; Buffalo Afternoon needs to be one of those books for the subject matter and the timeless, precious, blatant and poetic prose Schaeffer chose to translate her vision, her view.  A view through the eyes of men lost in a jungle, lost in time.  The longest year of their lives; my musings about one extended chapter has nothing on what those men endured.

A little poetry in the fiction

Buffalo Afternoon is my current read, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s take on the Vietnam War.  I picked this up last year, after returning from The National Mall, a novel in mind.  Buffalo Afternoon was going to be research material, but every time I looked at it in my bookshelf, something said wait.

In the meantime, other books were read, a few written.  The novel I had in mind to write was pushed back some, not enough time this year to research it properly.  But last week I needed a new lunchtime read, and finally Schaeffer’s book went with me to the table, the cream cheese bagel waiting.  Now I’m enmeshed, no way out.  Not only will it assist in what I think I am going to write next (for NaNoWriMo), but the poetry of the prose won’t let me go.

My all time fave books, fiction and non, have that poetic element, and I think Buffalo Afternoon is going to join them.  It’s about the Vietnam War, but also Pete Bravado, an Italian American whose house has two distinct atmospheres, cozy daytimes with his mother, grandmother and aunt, then dark evenings with his father, a cold, ignorant man who hates books.  Schaeffer’s lyrical writing deepens a rift made apparent in the second chapter, Pete after the war, noting the gulf between father and son.  As Pete’s childhood unwinds, I’m transported to New York in the fifties, also pre-war Italy.  I’ve already spent some time in a Vietnamese village; this is the sort of novel that easily flits from here to there, all due to the language which tells many tales within one sentence.

I didn’t grow up on poetry, but my fave novelist Richard Brautigan is also a poet, and my favorite book of poetry reads like a novel; Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes recounts his courtship, marriage, and separation from fellow poet Sylvia Plath, ending with her suicide.  Plath’s poems caught my eye when I was a teen, but it was years later in England when Birthday Letters hit me, and now back in California I’ve found Buffalo Afternoon, also The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s meta-fictional account of his days in Vietnam.   It’s the poetry within these books that I am drawn to, time and again, also in Haywire, by Brooke Hayward.  I can’t adequately explain the narratives other than to compare them to poems.

In pondering my NaNo idea, I’ve been stuck at how to write it.  A sprawling tale covering several decades, do I just start at the beginning, or will flashbacks be necessary?  Buffalo Afternoon sets up the premise in the first chapter, “Two Voices”, placing the action in a Vietnamese village, then back in New York.  Then the past opens the tale, so many ways to tell a story.  That’s part of the plotting, not just what happens to who when, but in what order the writer spins out that information.  And then the how; how does the prose relay many stories, several characters?  When I read Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar or Haywire or The Things They Carried, I am inspired directly and vicariously.  I itch to convey what percolates in my gray matter; I also consider the wider scope of great literary beauty shoehorned into an older, Pocket-sized paperback with a small font.  How much poetry sits in those five hundred sixty-two pages, more than I can contemplate this early in the morning.  Not all my faves are that lengthy; In Watermelon Sugar is a slip, one hundred sixty-six pages, and the font isn’t squished.  Leisurely laid out over those pages is another form of poems, chapter by chapter noting tigers that speak while eating the locals, but those cats aren’t very good at arithmetic.  But like Schaeffer, Brautigan was an expert at challenging a reader while at the same time weaving a hypnotic magic, keeping me from setting down those books.

Yesterday when I finished lunch, I completed chapter six.  Seems I eat about half a bagel per chapter, along with carrots and dip.  If the chapter hadn’t been done, I would have sat at my kitchen table until it was.  Perhaps it seems odd that I stretch such a delicious book over the course of however many days it takes to eat a bagel and read; it’s savoring that novel, as I’ve done with other fantastic lunchtime tales.  Tomas O’Crohan’s The Islandman, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home; some books are meant to be ingested slowly, with great care.  There is nothing like the first time a book is read, and while at times I devour a story, occasionally I want to dawdle, allowing the incredible beauty into my brain and heart sentence by sentence.  I’m learning while enjoying, a little schooling alongside the entertainment.  And when the words are poetry in motion, I can’t help but take a deep breath, letting it out so slowly, wondering how the writer managed that marvel, that miracle, that utter gift in front of my eyes.  But they did, it’s there in black and white, for as long as that book holds together

Those words, as unreal as they might seem, are forever.  As a reader, and a writer, I am ever so grateful.

A ninety-two-year-old book

My husband doesn’t read fiction.  He prefers rock biographies or physics tomes or obscure and ancient books about Christianity.  He’s been working on The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins for months, written by Burnett Hillman Streeter in 1924.  (Our copy is a reprint by Macmillan from 1953.)  A couple of weeks ago, within the text, my spouse came across a book that Streeter contributed to and edited, The Spirit: God and His Relation To Man.  Also published by Macmillan, this collection of essays was published in 1920.  My husband found it on Amazon, but the private seller wanted almost forty dollars.  Then he located it on ABE for five bucks.  Shipping was another four, and it arrived on Friday.  The binding is a faded yellow, but the front and back are a lovely blue, except for an inch from the top, again a faded hue; it must have sat in a bookshelf that received afternoon sun.  Being my husband has the day off, we spent a lazy morning in the living room.  He studied his new book, while I edited a short story.  He read aloud a few bits here and there, then asked if I could pause to read a few paragraphs.  By this time I had stopped revising, instead removing all the extra spaces at the end of paragraphs, easier to interrupt that, as I knew he had plenty to share.

I found the content fascinating.  But just as intriguing was the book itself; ninety-two years old and in very good shape, except for the discolored binding.  The printing jumped out at me, as if I could see the letters’ indentations on the pages.  I might publish ebooks, but I adore print books, old and new.  Another of my husband’s recent reads is How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by John Fahey.  A paperback from 2000, the gorgeous cover is textured (which you can see on the link), and as my husband has prodded me to read a little, also very good on the inside.  I think it will be my next lunchtime read.

I will get to The Spirit eventually, but probably not at the noon hour.  (I’d be terrified of getting cream cheese on it!)  It’s the sort of book best digested while sitting on the sofa, admiring the message as well as how those words were laid onto the pages.  I would also ponder those who offered their insights.  We couldn’t find any information about Cyril W. Emmet other than he had been a vicar and the examining chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford.  Burnett Streeter has a brief Wikipedia write-up, as does Lily Dougall.  Our copy of The Spirit is from a Kentucky seminary, now will float around our house until we pass on.  I hope our kids won’t chuck it out; by then it will be well over a century old.

With all my recent considerations about legacies and such, just holding a book so ancient makes me shiver.  I don’t want these books lost.  Yes, they’ll end up on shelves, just like Big Day Coming, that Yo La Tengo bio I’ve been waxing about.  My husband just put it away, or was hoping to find space for it.  We reduced our collections when we moved back here five years ago, but print books have a way of muscling back into the house.  Ebooks are easy to store, ninety-two-year-old religious tomes not so much.

But we will find space for all these books, once we are done with them, and I hope my kids will do the same.  They might never read them, and maybe my descendents won’t ever open one of my novels.  But like me, Cyril Emmet and Burnett Streeter and Lily Dougall wrote their hearts, which became words printed onto pages.  Which became a book that languished in the Kentucky sun, but remains to this day.  Someday printed books may not exist, but I balance that with the knowledge that they touched my soul, and maybe I can carry those messages within my writing.  Not sure how I’ll squeeze musician John Fahey’s ruminations into the works, but if I can, you better believe I will.

Books slowly read

When the mood strikes, I can inhale a book.  Lately, I’ve adopted a habit of one daily chapter with my lunchtime tome.  Or not so heavy, depends on what strikes me, also what’s good to read alongside a cream cheese bagel.  Not everything is, but enough literature swirls so I am usually deep into some wonderful story or non-fictional curiosity.  Right now the lunch read is Big Day Coming by Jesse Jarnow, a story about American indie music, but mostly about Yo La Tengo, one of my favorite bands.  The last lunch read was Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, a fabulous, lyrical lit fic wonderland.  I took two chapters a day with that story, partially because chapters were short, and that I savored Mr. Nagata’s world set against Kafka’s, third and first POVs alternating perfectly.

But sometimes novels are read slowly because of the subject matter.  I don’t shy away from dark books; those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.  When I came across Andy Szpuk’s Sliding on the Snow Stone, I was a little hesitant, as I am a bit squeamish, but Andy noted the first chapter was the worst.  Still, I was faffing around, taking a chapter every few days, trying to get my head around the Holodomor, genocide enacted against Ukrainians by the Soviets during the early 1930s.  Then when World War II began, I ground to a halt.  The book sat untouched for days, while I tended other tasks, read about Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, founders of Yo La Tengo.  Easier to immerse myself in the late 70s and early 80s indie rock scene than face Nazis invading Ukraine.

I’ll get back to Ira and Georgia today, but last night my husband’s snores rattled, leaving me restless.  I got out of bed, then picked up my iPod.  Andy’s book was waiting, or rather his father’s life, tucked into a tiny device no one in the 1940s would have imagined.  But then, I have a hard time reconciling those years with my sedate, technology-crammed Silicon Valley world.  Coming on seventy years since the end of the war, eighty since the Holodomor, those events feel far more ancient, or I just wish they were.  Reading how the Soviets starved millions of Ukrainians, then how the Nazis were no better, I wondered how human beings can be so cruel, so brutal, so inhuman.  Yet, mayhem exists right here today, perhaps not reaching those levels of wickedness, or maybe it’s just less ugly.  Or that we see so much on TV and the internet, we are numb.

If you read Sliding on the Snow Stone, you won’t be left numb.

I finished the novel last night as my kids came and went, early twenty-somethings that while not ignorant of history, couldn’t fathom what Stefan endures.  Well, my twenty-two-year-old son is a huge WWII buff, but it’s one thing to read about in the safety of 2012.  It’s another to be there, where Andy Szpuk put me last night.  I wasn’t on my sofa, ceiling fan whirring above me.  I was trekking across Slovakia, trying to reach Germany, where Allied troops might take mercy on me.  I was covered in lice and filth from weeks without a bath, so hungry, wondering where I was, would I see my home again.  Feeling in the pit of hell, but, deep breath taken, a light shines, the tunnel ends.  But as one chapter closes, another begins.

Our attention spans are so brief, surfing to the next site or show or…  But just seventy years ago, which when a few decades are collected really isn’t that long a stretch, most of this planet fought an enormous war.  Battles have raged since, and will continue, yet not with that much carnage and ferocity.  I don’t mean the guns and bombs, but humans losing their humanity.  Souls were stripped, leaving fellow beings to suffer.  I’ll be glad when I sit in my sunny back garden in four hours, losing myself in young lovers trying to form a band.  But when I finish, heading back into the house, I hope I say a prayer of thanks; for Andy having written this book, for his father having survived those atrocities.  And that in my lifetime, hearts will grow less hard.  And that someone will read Sliding on the Snow Stone and find their own soul stirred.