Words on Books... and a few other things from time to time

27 July 2014

I ask myself...

Self, in the year 2014, sixty-nine years after the end of world war two, at age 69, should I be driving a new German Porsche through Alsace? Should I be visiting, say, Colmar, one of “Europe’s Most Beautiful Villages”?

Bearing German licence plates and registration, no less.

The destruction of the first world war no longer attaches to living memories. Most participants in the second world war are no longer among us. It’s their grandsons and daughters we’ll be talking with, ordering food from, asking directions. No hard feelings.

"Everywhere we searched we found bodies, floating in the rivers, trampled on the roads, bloated in the ditches, rotting in the bunkers, pretzeled into foxholes, burned in the tanks, buried in the snow, sprawled in doorways, splattered in gutters, dismembered in minefields, and even literally blown up into trees." (GI quoted in The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson)

Towns have been rebuilt and uniforms buried. One might imagine the reality of war never existed here. How does one NOT think of the Colmar pocket where three weeks of infantry advance in early 1945 cost 20,000 Franco-American casualties and more than 22,000 Germans killed or missing?

“Pulverizing the Reich from above now intensified with a fury no nation had ever endured,” Atkinson writes. 

German prisoner Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut wrote his parents from Dresden:

“We were put to work carrying corpses from air raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”

My first time visiting France and Germany and Italy was during the spring and summer of 1963. I hitchhiked through pretty much every Western European country. In all those places the signs of world war had already disappeared. I imagined I could see bullet holes on the sides of churches and wondered what had once existed in one vacant lot or another; but in fact a miraculous reconstruction had already completed. Eighteen years after the war fields were full of ripening wheat, orchards burst forth in bloom everywhere, the dead were long buried and towns completely rebuilt.

Germans I met were friends with everyone, very much including young Americans.

Italian children shouted “Tedesco! Tedesco!” from pedestrian overpasses and were overjoyed when we shouted back “Americano!” “Canadese!” ... They remembered what their parents had told them about the dark days of German occupation and postwar starvation.

They call it “cucina povera” for a reason, after all.

So who the hell am I to ponder the morality of parading my German car through the streets of France? Is my ego so inflated? Could it seriously matter to anyone but me?

An insistent voice reminds me it all happened a very long time ago but it is not OK to forget.

Perhaps it is exactly the right thing – to cross borders without passports, to buy German, spend French, speak Italian, and be American. Perhaps after all, the best revenge is a happy life.

My father, a second generation Catholic from Bohemia, survived the invasions of north Africa and Sicily, returning home in time to create me in 1944/5. He hated the war and didn’t want to talk about it.

My mother, a second generation Jew from western Russia, would never buy or ride in a Volkswagen, no matter how popular and hip the Beatle became. Was she right to remember?

Am I right to forget?

27 May 2013

Memorial Day in the USA. Bach’s Suite No. 2 for solo cello in D minor.

People we love; people we love and have lost.

When my mother died, I played this piece for myself and for her. Today, remembering my father, I craved the solace of the minor key, very slow... I play the Prelude and my mind wanders. It’s freeing.

I linger on the first A... That particular note, open string, no fingers, is the most banal note on a cello, the first tuned. Bach transforms it into a lament with the D and F that precede it. Each note that follows is pulled toward the minor against the tuning A. After Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Menuet I, the second Menuet moves into the more relaxed D Major but for only 32 bars. Then back to what otherwise would be the most optimistic movement, the lovely Gigue. This time in D minor it’s as wistful as Bach ever allows himself to be. Even the victorious final run of fast notes to a final D on the A string feels melancholy, not triumphant.

I played the whole thing today after not touching my instrument for a week, long fingernails and all. It felt wonderful to hear it again on this gorgeous Italian cello. I ignored the bowings, the fingerings, the dynamics, even the note lengths, and just winged it – the way, I imagine, Baroque players approached music – the notes only a faint parchment map – the music made up as one went along, according to time and place and what the room allows. I like it that way. I could rip through the rhythmic places and enjoy the underlying drumbeat, sing the sad songs slowly -- after all, unlike a human voice, the cello bow can retake endlessly without pausing for the slightest breath.

In describing the second Suite in his book The Cello Suites  Eric Siblin writes, “in March 1931, after a concert in Geneva, Casals was handed a telegram that brought news of his mother’s death.”

A month later “...elections ended the monarchy. The Second Spanish Republic, desperately desired by Casals for so long, had come into being.”

It’s a most satisfying piece to play when you’re feeling blue. It gives one hope.

07 October 2012

Good Italy, Bad Italy


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Early Sunday I walked around my neighborhood on the northerly outskirts of the old city carrying a jacketless copy of the new book by former Economist editor Bill Emmott: Good Italy, Bad Italy, Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future (Yale University Press).

With the colorful cover removed I imagined this smallish black book would shout BIBLE – THAT STRANGER FOR SOME UNKNOWN REASON SEEMS TO BE CARRYING A BIBLE -- rather than a societal critique – THIS IS THE FOREIGNER WHO THINKS HE CAN JUDGE US!

I carried my little black book into the bar this morning, and it sat next to cappuccino e cornetto while I attempted to read about James Bond in the local newspaper.

Later it accompanied me to a haircut, my first ever in Italy, and rested next to clippers, razor and spray bottles. I requested: trim, not too short, and please note the hair above my ears grows faster than the hair remaining on the top of my head. As it turned out I had located an artist of hair. Electric razor and comb made quick circles through my tangle; straight razor never nicked, and we were done in less than a half hour.

Throughout, he chatted in Chinese with his partner, a young woman who watched him closely as if to learn the trade. I tipped him at the end and took his photo, both of which puzzled him greatly.

I looked more closely at my little black book and realized the title glistens from the spine in LARGE GOLD LETTERS. It remained discreet mainly because Italians refuse to look at strangers. They glance once and that’s it. Eyes never meet, never, unless you are buying something or asking a question. It’s like New York, or any city: it’s much safer not to look directly at anyone.

In Good Italy, Bad Italy, Emmott argues against the well-known explanation for Italy’s many troubles, the North-South divide. Italians told him , “There is not one Italy but two, the North and the South.” For an economist like Emmott to try to average them, or think of them as one, is akin to saying someone is on the average comfortable with his head in an oven and feet in the freezer.

Emmott denies the differences matter more than other underlying explanations for the state Italy’s in. “Corrupt politicians aren’t only in the South, and nor are mafiosi, alas, and if we look at other popular worries such as third-rate universities, tensions over immigration or falling competitiveness, they are plainly national issues, not regional ones.”

He argues there is a “divide between selfish, closed, unmeritocratic and often criminal ways of doing things, and more open, community-minded and progressive ways. It is a divide that is just as powerful and sometimes destructive within regions as it is between them.”

There’s a lot to this – a powerful metaphor and a refreshing way to parse the Italian soul.

To support his argument there is Una Mala Italia, Emmott refers to his work exposing the corruption of the Berlusconi government, calling the past 20 years “essentially wasted.” To prove there is another Italy, Una Buona Italia, he points to organizations such as RENA, the Network for National Excellence. “Italy still leads Europe in the proportion of its people, young and old, who volunteer to do unpaid community or charitable work... Italian companies lead the world in selling fitness equipment, sunglasses, cashmere clothing, light aircraft, chocolate, children’s cartoons... There are new anti-mafia movements, towns that have found new post-industrial life or have pushed out the criminals.”

Looking good, Italy. Except for the financial crises, the immense political mess, enervating pessimism and so on. Immigrants give haircuts and serve your morning coffee. Fewer native Italians are having children, there are not enough jobs, a significant sector of young people live outside the country’s borders in order to make new opportunities for themselves.

And that’s only the first few chapters. It’s going to be interesting to see how Emmott supports his theory that Good Italy may prevail.

03 October 2012

My Diary in Bologna, the Red City


Sunday, September 30, 2012

in the University district along Via Zamboni
Had trouble finding the #10 lodgings on Via Raimondi ... a mother and daughter kindly phoned Stefano (the landlord) on my behalf, and his father, visiting, answered and said he’d be right down. But he took awhile to appear, because I was on the wrong block. The actual number is 10/3 which is farther along the street and across a road from #10... there are four keys – front door, elevator, and two for the heavily barred apartment door. Reminds me of New York.

Walking here I witnessed a medieval religious pageant on the Piazza Maggiore (that’s what those seats and tents and stage were for) in front of Basilica di S. Petronio. Then some kind of demonstration in the next square, then near the train station a demonstration soccer match on a small artificial grass field netted all around, including overhead, with two five-man teams of young boys, all teens. Real referee, lots of people watching, and I enjoyed witnessing the skill of the players. First time that one second of soccer actually entertained me. I stopped for lunch along the way just off Via dell’Independenza – a large four-cheese pizza that I couldn’t finish, and a green salad and frizzy water.

Happy conversation with father and Stefano, then father left to catch the train, Stefano left to join someone for snacks at 6, and I had the place to myself, putting things away and hanging them up, trying to figure out how things work. Let’s see: you turn the handle on the window up and the top opens. To the right and the whole thing swings open. To the bottom to lock it. Remember this or the whole thing falls out on top of your head. I cannot find a single waste basket, except under the kitchen sink.

The room is small, as expected, with a depressing view of apartment block backsides. Tonight it’s raining with thunder and lightning, so going out to explore isn’t likely, but it’s still early.

The neighborhood is uninspiring – apartment buildings block after block, and at the end of this street a huge brick edifice housing a high school and associated rooms of higher learning. To get back to the central historical zone is an easy walk – about 5-10 minutes to the edge, then another 5-10 to Piazza Maggiore, the very center of things.

The price here is 27E a night plus the cost of acquiring wifi; very very cheap compared to other options.

As I write this Joselyn is still in the air... it’s 8 pm here, so she must have another 4-5 hours of flying to go. Thinking of you, Ms. J.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What a different day today. Not a moment to go into any mode but straight ahead. Went to bed early, woke up early. Out the door to explore the neighborhood. First few blocks were empty except for people going to work or school. A few turns and a few guesses and suddenly discovered a couple of bars (had cappuccino and an apple tart), a store for fruit, another store run by father and son, with an entire wall of wines, a great number of dried cured pig legs, a.k.a. prosciuto, pasta made on the premises, and all the cheese and dried tomatoes you’d ever want.

Back home a quick breakfast of yogurt and the doorbell rang, with my new teacher AnnaMaria standing outside on the sidewalk to meet me. We took the bus to school, and proceeded to have a four hour nonstop conversation, ended by the 1 pm arrival of Andrea, and then lunch with Andrea, Andrea’s wife Daniela, (they’ve been married 35 years, were sweethearts for years before that, and she’s known as the Technical Expert in the family!) and Patricia, an American student about my age, from Maine. Lunch turned into another bout of Italian conversation. Daniela’s food was great – two different pastas, a salad, then stuffed veal rolls, bread, wine and water.

onward for 3 km...
At this point it began to rain. As we stepped into Andrea’s car it was raining in torrents. It didn’t stop for hours. We drove to a high vista point shared by Chiesa San Luca, a church dedicated to the Madonna. It stands at the end (or the beginning, depending on direction) of THREE KILOMETERS of continuous portici – those famous overhanging passageways. These run all the way into the old city in one continuous flow. The ones here were built only a few centuries ago (not old by local standards) to keep religious processions dry, and to shelter the pilgrims who came to worship. When he was young, Andrea said, he used to see pilgrims arriving on their knees (it’s a steep climb) but no more these days. This led to a conversation about the changing place of religion in Italian life, just one in a series of dozens of intriguing conversations we like to call Italian Lessons.

A LETTER FROM JOSELYN (who flew home two weeks before me):

Hi T,

Finally I am settled in near the airport...

I arrived to very warm weather. It's hitting records and will be over 100 degrees in Livermore tomorrow. The 49ers shut down the Jets today 37 - 0 and the Giants beat the Padres 7 - 5 so all is well in sports. I am feeling cold symptoms which I could feel gradually appear and worsen on the plane as the cold air and air conditioning got me. What can you do? ... The a - hole German customs guy toyed with me by telling me it would take 30 minutes for me to stand there (not true) and then delayed giving me my passport. When I asked for it he leisurely said he had to check it. Bad vibes. Then I dropped my passport and the next guy told me to calm down, sit down and I hadn't lost it. If I had sat down I would have been at the back of a long line and not seen my passport handed to a security guard.

Then the lines at the gate! First a line to get a security stamp on our boarding pass then another series of lines extending all the way down the escalator walkway, to board us instead of calling our number. I wish I wrote down all the unhappy comments I heard in this process. The Germans just want power is what I concluded.

Flight was fine, and my seat was second row after Business class, so I got some free wine they had left over in a wine shaped plastic cup. I gave my wine coupon to the lady next to me and had wine using another coupon with my grilled chicken lunch... I watched 3 movies and 30 Rock! Batman and Men in Black 3 and a stupid movie about a bunch of couples expecting babies. Anything to make the time go by. The only other thing about the flight was a bit of turbulence on the way from Bologna to Frankfurt, otherwise all was smooth and on time.

I'm ready for a hot bath and hope to watch 60 Minutes. The tap water with ice tastes fine here. Hetch Hetchy.

Miss you, love you! Enjoy scola or however it is spelled.

the J

A LETTER FROM MARTINA DENTILLI (my Italian teacher who lives in Istanbul – we use Skype for weekly lessons) whom we finally met in person the day before our 10 day cruise from Istanbul to Venice). Martina wrote about Joselyn: “come sta justline? e' in california? salutala da parte mia! mi e' piaciuta molto, mi sembra una donna molto sensibile con un'anima molto nobile!” Which translates: “How is Joselyn doing? Is she in California? Greetings to her from me! I liked her a lot, it seems to me she is a very sensible woman with a noble spirit!”

I could not agree more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In Bologna, la citta’ rossa, the streets are named after famous long-gone Communists and Famous Victories : Via Stalingrada, Via Rosa Luxembourg (it is strange to watch a bus go by with ROSA LUXEMBOURG in huge bright letters. For some reason streets here also are named after famous English writers (Via W. Shakespeare) and French writers (Via Stendhal). These are the very streets I got lost amongst on my way to school this morning.

I took the #27 instead of the #25. Two innocent numbers, one innocent bus, which took me into a strange land of patriotic victories and foreign writers. This is how I get to meet Italians.

In one bar the owner pulled out a battered little red book of street names and could not locate Via Guarducci, my destination. By the look of the book, any street created after the death of Mussolini wouldn’t be in there anyway.

She painfully slowly and painfully loudly read down a list of alphabetically proximate names, the entire bar enjoying this pause in their caffe drinking: “Guaboni! Guacamole! Guerrelooni! Grabaroni!” No Gurarducci. Her husband ended the episode by pointing out the door (in the wrong direction, but who knew) and saying in Italian, “There are a lot of new streets over there... but who could remember their names? You’ll have to look around.”

A few minutes later I was turned in the seeming right direction by a well-dressed man equipped with the latest in smart phones. While sliding around on the little screen he cursed gently as he lost the maps app several times. We appeared to discover I was either (1) on the wrong side of the autostrada, I think he said, or (2) I was several kilometers in the wrong direction.

So I started off (again in the wrong direction, but who could tell or really care at that point) thinking “I am an idiot I am an idiot” in Italian. It even sounds better in Italian: “Sono idiota sono idiota!"

A woman sweeping the street in front of an unlikely to-be-open store serving soccer teams with all needed equipment, including, but not limited to, free weights, tacchetti, pantacalcio, pallone calcio training, calzettoni – turned out to be the angel of the morning.

She ceased sweeping and spent ten minutes patiently explaining where I was, where I needed to go, even to the extent of Xeroxing the correct page of a detailed street map, yellow-highlighting the correct street, and better, calling Daniela at home for further directions (luckily she was at home). I shall forever remember the courtesy shown me by the two people at 3C Sport international sas, costruzione e vendita accessori brevettati per il calcio, via S. Campagnoli 2, 40128 Bologna, phone 051/325105 and email to gianniceneri@libero.it

Andrea, Daniela, la nipote, AnnaMaria at Bolognalingua.com
When I finally arrived at Andrea’s house, walking in as if I knew what I was doing, I gracefully gulped down the proffered cup of coffee, proclaimed my idiocy, and the lessons began.

These consist of sitting across from my teacher at a table upstairs in an unused study/bedroom, sun (or rain) streaming in through half-opened iron-barred windows, and talking.

There is structure to this, but mainly, we talk. I listen, I speak, we discuss whatever comes up; we turn to yesterday’s homework and go through it, stopping when I have questions or don’t know whether a particular preposition should be di, al, in, alle, gli, or perhaps dagli, fra, negli, in, di, eccolo, per, in, nella, agli, ai, or dei. Or in again.

I swear this is fun. I swear it!

Besides the streets named for Communists and writers, and, no doubt, Communist writers, Bologna has the customary streets named for famous patriots. I have not yet located the ubiquitous Via Cavour, but there has to be one. There is Via Garibaldi, Via dell’Indipendenza, Piazza della Resistenza, Piazza VIII Agosto. There’s a Piazza Roosevelt (and in Ravenna: Piazza John F. Kennedy) but no Piazza dedicated to Hoover, Nixon, or any other Republican.

Bologna, the red city. Named for its red bricks, or the red plaster on the red bricks, or the Red Party, or all of it.

Aha! In looking over the city map I have now discovered Piazza Cavour!


Wednesday, October 3, 2012, continued...

On Monday everything seemed to be open and working, once one gets used to the local hours. Bars open first, then stores. Everything’s going great at noon, beginning to close by 12:30. First the stores slam down their steel doors, then the restaurants stop serving (about 2:30, you can tell because they turn out the lights on the wine bottle display) and even some bars are closed. By 5 in the afternoon things are starting to reopen. That was what I saw on Monday.

On Tuesday we had a general national strike led by transit workers. No buses to school. All taxis busy because no buses. All streets jammed with traffic because everyone’s taking their car and all taxis are ferrying workers.

Wednesday, today, we have construction in the casino which I thought for a moment meant “in the basement of this apartment building” but actually means, in Stefano’s colorful words, big mess today – a casino (originally: bordello or brothel) indicating a mess, shambles, botch, cock-up, balls-up, raising hell. The water is announced to be off between 10 am and 3 -- except the water continued to run after 3 pm. I don’t know whom to believe, Stefano, or the worker downstairs who gave different hours.

Monday: normal. Tuesday: strike. Wednesday: casino.

Medieval procession in P. Maggiore
Thursday we have a grand party to celebrate Bologna’s patron saint, Santa Petronio. We shall have pastoral visits, photo shows, flag tossing, open-air concerts, moments of silence, comedians in dialect, a religous concert for Vespers, homage to the statue of S. Petronio, an outdoor choral concert featuring something modern, and at the very end “Il Mago di Oz” or the Wizard of Oz performed by the group “Qdi4" for absolutely no logical reason whatsoever. Maybe Qdi4 had an open date?

Tomorrow what we will not have is places to buy food or restaurants in which to order food. Some bars are expected to open, the irreligious ones.

Therefore, on the way home today I stopped by a small store and discovered some perfect take-home. For 28.88 Euro I rounded up a couple of meals worth of lasagna, ravioli (not really ravioli but I don’t know what else to call it), chicken leg, roasted peppers, meatballs with peas (I know; it looks better than it sounds), two short loaves of bread with cheese inside, and a fruit torte the woman said is typical of Bologna, but I didn’t write down the name – something that sounded like cross-hatch-ia or close.

I just checked: it’s 4 pm and the water’s still running. More school tomorrow.


12 July 2012

Are You Listening, Librarians?

I swear on a stack of novels I didn't dream this: Today I saw a Bookmobile in my adopted hometown of Caspar. A big fat vision of a white truck, emerging from the noontime fog. It had parked itself on the gravel between Community Center and Shul.

As in a dream, driver Dave Frick stood at the door and welcomed me in. "Stay a while," Dave said. "Don't worry about the exact time. Our next stop is lunch."

So I browsed. I wandered through a windowless interior packed with books. It felt like stepping into a small boat, a very literary boat. The floor dipped and rocked each time I put my weight down. "You ought to try driving this on the curves," Dave said when I asked if anyone ever got seasick in the bookmobile.

I took out a library card from librarian-in-training Robert Parmenter, my first in years. As a bookstore owner I didn't need the library. Now, I do.

No one else visited the bookmobile boat while I was there. "Caspar is one of our smaller stops," Dave explained. "But we did have five people here before you."

Dave and Robert promised to return on alternate Wednesdays, and handed me the new schedule. Navarro, Comptche, Floodgate, Philo, Boonville, and Manchester, Stewart's Point, Sea Ranch, Gualala and Anchor Bay. Westport, Cleone, Elk and Albion. At first I couldn't see Caspar, where we live, because the schedule hides us over on the North County side of the page, not the Coast side.

Before the big white truck gets to Caspar it has visited the prisoners in Chamberlin Creek and Parlin Fork, and they get first pick. It seems the right thing to do – they're in their cells or out fighting fires or digging trenches to help fight fires. Reading is the way out of there, if only in one's mind. We freer citizens, on the other hand, can sleep in and go kayaking or restauranting whenever we want.

So you can figure that when the bookmobile gets to Caspar, the books remaining on the shelves have already been rejected by prisoners of the state. That would explain the huge selection of books for children, and romance-type novels. I couldn't find a single copy of Dig Yourself Out of Prison or Tried & True Escape Methodologies. Those were already lent out.

Wherever the library thinks Caspar is, at least they are showing up. Thanks to the enthusiastic passage of Mendocino County Measure A, funds from a new sales tax levy are becoming available to pay for more bookmobile stops, more books, more open hours, more librarians. This is a very good thing. In the bookmobile today, new librarian Robert was being trained by driver Dave, because the driver used to also be the librarian back when there were fewer dollars hanging around.

Because of Measure A the library has added Hopland, Caspar and Cleone to the bookmobile stops. Anyone who climbs aboard may request books from libraries in three counties. Keep them for four weeks. Return them to any branch. Download audio books online. E books coming soon.

I phoned the Fort Bragg Branch Library for some additional information, and was referred to the Ukiah Branch Library. The library in Ukiah is the mother ship, administrative headquarters, the place where all questions are finally answered. It clearly is not a branch but more like the entire tree trunk from which the other libraries, modest in size and intention, branch off. Why does the county call Ukiah a Branch Library?

Round Valley contains the only county library not called a branch. Maybe Round Valley is where the missing tree trunk is located. If anything is a branch it has to be the bookmobile. Why don't they call the truck a branch? Are you listening, librarians? Ukiah isn't a branch, it's the Main Library. They figured all this out in San Francisco years ago with the help of a few sarcastic three dots in Herb Caen's column. Why not here?

I'm starting a campaign to get to the bottom of this. What's a branch and what is not? Why is Caspar on the wrong side of the printed schedule? Why doesn't the bookmobile get new shock absorbers now that there are more available dollars?

And why are all the librarians so nice, even when they have to deal with stupid questions like these?


Just now my lovely wife Joselyn read this script (she's my only editor) and commented, "That's funny. That's nice, to talk about the libraries. Now more people will use them and the bookstores will go out of business."

I replied: Libraries are to bookstores as elevators are to staircases. We need them all.

13 June 2012

Heroism and Determination

It would take a majorly good book to get me interested in any tale of a bicycle racer. He raced and won, or he lost, who cares? But this particular rider was a hero in more than one way.

During Italy's turbulent and dangerous WW II years Gino Bartali saved a number of Jewish refugees from certain death, risking his life as he pedaled past Fascist road blocks with forged identity papers hidden in the frame of his training bike.

The book that tells his story is The Road to Valor, A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation, written by the brother and sister team of Aili and Andres McConnon.

Brothers and sisters have started tea companies together, made movies and climbed mountains, even written books and created a literary magazine, but no other team has the experience, talent and perseverance to write such an impressive book. Aili is a Canadian journalist; her brother an historical researcher. Perfect.

The book gracefully blends factual narrative with novel-like effects.

"At the steep foot of the Vars, on a windswept slope high in the French Alps, Gino Bartali lost his temper. The two cyclists following him were drafting, riding so close to his back wheel that he was forced to be their shield against the icy wind and drag them along... Ahead of the trio, a lone figure was getting smaller as he cycled away along the muddy road, a coagulated laceration zigzagging its way up the barren escarpment, winding around craggy pinnacles, stunted fir trees, and piles of rock debris until it vanished into the cold mountain mist. Gino had to make his move now if he would have any chance of catching the leader disappearing into the fog before him."
This is how the book begins and ends – with a thrilling account of the unexpected triumph of Italian champion Gino Bartali winning the Tour de France in 1948 for a second time – ten years and a world war after his first victory.

Born in the first year of the first World War, Bartali grew up poor, riding his beat-up bike over the hilly, dusty roads near Florence. The popularity of the bicycle in Italy "opened up a new world of opportunity – and speed" at a time few could afford any other means of transit. When riders like Bartali raced, everyone knew from personal experience what it took to ride and win – Italians everywhere felt it in their bones and in their sore legs.

Gino Bartali first realized he could win races when he and his friends encountered amateur racers training along the steep Tuscan roads. "...On many climbs with me, they would lose," Gino recalled. "At first, even I was astounded and embarrassed by this discovery."

Mussolini's fascist government coopted Bartali's fame and directed his career in order to promote political goals. "Their training methods were transformed from ordinary preparation into a de facto showcase of all the advances of Fascist theory and planning."

With a young family to protect, Bartali could not overtly resist this unwelcome attention. But in private, and almost by accident, he fell in with the underground resistance and an ad hoc network of brave and sympathetic priests and nuns.

Bartali discovered that his fame made a perfect cover for these activities. He had every apparent reason to be riding roads in wartime. At German or Italian checkpoints he would sign autographs and kid around, all the while carrying life-saving forged documents from a print shop in Assisi to wherever they were needed. He also served a covert military function for the partisans, reporting on troop movements and the location of check points.

After the war Bartali resurrected his riding career. When all believed he was too old and exhausted by the war years, he convincingly, heroically, won the Tour de France one last time. His victory stunned Italy and incidentally helped quell the crisis brought on by the attempted assassination of the leader of the Italian Communist party. Italians about to fight each other unexpectedly found themselves sharing a drink and bragging about this marvelous rider and his astounding victory.

Like other heroes who survived the war years, Bartali rarely talked about his exploits. It took ten years of research and interviews to find new evidence and piece together this authentic and thrilling story. The Road to Valor is an unforgettable tale of heroism and determination.


The Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon. Crown hard cover $25. ISBN 9780307590640.

The authors' website for the book...

The publisher's website for the book...

Other brother-sister writing teams... and here... and here... just to prove it can be done.

07 June 2012

Ray Bradbury Transits Venus

This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books...

Crazy things happening this week. People pulled out welding masks and stared at the sun to watch a small black dot move slowly across the blazing surface.

How is it so many people own welding masks? I personally have never needed or used one. But I'm not all that handy around the house, either. I figure Venus is out there pretty much every evening and I can go stare at it without special glasses any time I want. The sun, too, but I don't stare at it. I know we won't have this Venus transit thing again in our lifetimes, but really, should I care?

I saw a gentleman stop his vehicle, pull out yet another welder's mask, turn his face to the sun for three seconds, put the mask down and drive off. Maybe he was looking for a better small black moving dot somewhere down the road? Crazy things.

Ray Bradbury died this week, during the transit of Venus, thus breaking his own promise to live past 100 and write more books, stories, novels, novellas, operas, and whatnot. He did pretty well. He made 91% of his goal, anyway.

The Ray Bradbury fans website tells this tale: "Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped."

I met Ray Bradbury once, 20 years ago when he was only 71 years old, and he looked the same as in most of his photos – overbearingly big black spectacles, rosy visage, subtle plaid shirt and tie, and stacks of his latest hardcover propped on the table in front of him.

I took one of his books (this was at a national booksellers convention) and thanked him for a lifetime of great writing. Actually, I mumbled something and I doubt he heard. I was awed in the presence of greatness.

In the current New Yorker, purely coincidentally – or was it? – there is a brief reminiscence by Bradbury of a few days when he was very young. It's beautifully, compactly written, and you have to wonder just how much his recent stroke really slowed him down. Up to the end he was writing as well as he ever did, perhaps in smaller formats, but just as well.

"... it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons... Even at that age," he writes, "I was beginning to perceive the endings of things..."

Bradbury blames Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter of Mars series for beginning the process that eventually led to his own story collection, The Martian Chronicles. He memorized all of John Carter and Tarzan, and "sat on my grandparents' front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen."

The child was obsessed. In fact, Bradbury describes those autumns as times when "I went a trifle mad." It may take some obsession, that species of creative craziness, to create books as good as Bradbury's.

Here are a few more of Bradbury's own words:

"Looking back I realize that I never had a day when I was depressed or suffered melancholia; the reason being that I discovered that I was alive and loved the gift and wanted to celebrate it in my story."

"I do not use my intellect to write my stories and books; I have a gut reaction to the things that my subconscious gives me. These are gifts that arrive early mornings and I get out of bed and hurry to the typewriter to get them down before they vanish."

From his introduction to Dandelion Wine:

"It is hard for me to believe that in one lifetime I have written so many stories. But on the other hand I often wonder what other writers do with their time. Writing for me is akin to breathing. It is not something I plan or schedule; it's something I just do."


Ray Bradbury in a few of his own words.

31 May 2012

All Things Considered meet After Due Consideration

This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books...

"All things considered" is a news show. It's also a cliche, "a hackneyed phrase which refers to the ultimate summing up of something when all aspects of it have been taken into account..."

I found "all things considered" alongside 1499 other cliches in Betty Kirkpatrick's 1996 book Cliches, Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained. Until I found the phrase between "all systems go" and "all things to all men" I hadn't realized the title of my favorite national news program was a soldier in the army of ideas that have "lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

Kirkpatrick believes the phrase "all things considered" first became popular about 125 years ago. It may have sounded fresh and newsy at NPR headquarters, but the successful overuse of the phrase now makes it sound rather passe.

Before a phrase becomes a cliche it has to be used widely and often. It may start life as a fresh way of expressing a well-known thought. "Once Upon a Time" it felt good to say "Have a nice day!" to strangers in a store; now when we use that cliche people throw up, or cover their ears with shopping bags, or pass laws against it.

"Have a nice day" grates like a lemon, and if I've just invented a new phrase, please use it until that becomes just another cliche.

I became intensely aware how much of our daily speech is expressed in cliched form when learning to speak Italian. We "have a nice day" and they – well they enjoy something along the lines of una bella giornata – not exactly a cliche, just a way of speaking. Not that Italians don't use cliches -- of course they do – but to transform ours into theirs – well, "reinventing the wheel" is "a hard act to follow." Actually, it's usually impossible.

We are "on the wagon" when we suspend drinking. Italians don't have that phrase – they have the words for "on" and "wagon" but not the phrase. They simply say sobrio or sober. It's much more fun to look for original Italian cliches – or more politely, idioms.

In Rome it rains buckets (catinelle), not cats and dogs. Here you "look like the cat that swallowed the canary." In Italy that would be putting on a foxy face (furbina). Either way, you're a bit smug, aren't you? In Italy to "put your hand on the fire" is to speak for someone; "a flower on the lips" is to speak confidentially.

Language is nothing more than an agreed-upon arrangement of sounds and letters that communicate thoughts. If our words and phrases always were new, language would fail us. We are forced to use the well-known tropes of everyday speech. What's new is how we arrange those familiar sounds and letters.

A professor once told his class, "If it's you, it's true. If it's you, it's new." When you speak for yourself you can't help being fresh and different. You lose your way when you only inhabit other people's thoughts. It's damn hard work to be fresh and authentic.

It's "an open secret" and "part of life's rich pattern" "from the cradle to the grave" "in the fullness of time." I certainly "hope we will always be friends." "I'll be in touch" because "a rose by any other name" is either "a fate worse than death" or "a feather in one's cap." Or not. We'll have to "wait and see" about that one.


Cliches: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained by Betty Kirkpatrick. St. Martin's Griffen paperback $16.99. ISBN 0312198442. This edition published January 15, 1999.

From the publisher: Betty Kirkpatrick is a writer and lexicographer. Editor of both the Bloomsbury Thesaurus and Roget's Thesaurus, she was formerly editor of the Chambers Twentieth-Century Dictionary. She lives in Scotland.

Here -- try on some business-style cliches for size.

24 May 2012

Twelve Desperate Miles

In this week's New Yorker magazine, a restaurant review begins:

"Remember that grilled cheese? The one you had when you were ten?... and you've never lost hope of stumbling upon that one delicious grilled cheese again?" And so forth, until this: "Well, you won't find it at the Bowery Diner..."

That is how I feel about Twelve Desperate Miles, the Epic Voyage of the SS Contessa by Tim Brady. It's a cheese sandwich alright, but not the one I'm craving.

My father, Joe Miksak, took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa. He was there in November, 1942, as the US and British armies fought their way across  Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, then across Sicily and onto the Italian mainland.

A boy's favorite question in the 1950's had to be the one my brother and I asked over and over: What did you do in the war, daddy? Joe made it clear he never was any kind of hero, just an obscure first lieutenant "in charge of washcloths." He watched antiaircraft guns light up the night sky. That was it for war stories.

Joe returned with beautiful tiles decorated in Arabic calligraphy, but kept his memories to himself. So when I heard about Twelve Desperate Miles I was hoping for some kind of insight into that time. What was it like to be there? What was it like for my father to be there?

The invasion tale is fully told in books such as An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. Twelve Desperate Miles focuses on one small part of that immense operation.

The SS Contessa was a classic "banana boat" owned by Standard Fruit Company. "Her shallow draft and good size... allowed her to gather large loads of fruit from riverside plantations without getting trapped in stream muck." This would turn out to be crucial in the coming invasion. In addition to sweet-scented fruit she carried well-to-do passengers in considerable comfort. Brochures said she was "not too large to permit delightful social relationships with fellow vacationists."

The Contessa started out carrying troops and supplies to England through dangerous U-boat filled waters. She made a number of trips before someone figured out she would be the perfect boat to carry volatile barrels of aviation fuel and live bombs across the Atlantic and up the shallow Sebou River to a French airfield. Her cargo would supply P-40 fighters in support of General Patton's invasion of Casablanca and help control the air above northwest Africa. Success could be crucial to the entire invasion.

An anti-Nazi French river pilot provided the needed expertise. His story is the story of this book. Tim Brady's account is engaging, complete and apparently very accurate.

Rene' Malevergne was the only man in the world able to pilot past every twist, turn and hidden sandbank in the Sebou. British spies smuggled him out of Morocco to England. Malevergne's identity was doubted, his worth underestimated. He journeyed to Washington, then back to Morocco where he had left his wife and two sons. The Contessa missed the convoy it was supposed to accompany and crossed the ocean completely alone. It was a harrowing journey, start to finish.

The supplies were landed but the fighter planes were not there to use it – just one more irony of that war. Malevergne later received both the US Navy Cross and the Silver Star. We know what he and others accomplished, but that's pretty much all we know. A careful reader will miss the emotional connection a better writer might provide.


Twelve Desperate Miles, The Epic WWII Voyage of the SS Contessa by Tim Brady. Crown hard cover $26. ISBN 9780307590374. 

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (Liberation Trilogy #01) by Rick Atkinson. Henry Holt & Company paperback $17. ISBN 0805087249.
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (Liberation Trilogy #02) by Rick Atkinson. Henry Holt & Company paperback $17. ISBN 080508861X.

22 May 2012

the 1920 earthquake erased from memory

Contrary to worldwide news reports, the earthquake on Sunday (20 May 2012) centered in the Italian region Emilia-Romagna about 40 km. north of the city of Bologna was not what it's being described in every news report I can locate – not "...a first for the region in centuries."

Nor should it have been "fairly surprising to seismologists."

Ninety-two years ago, on September 8-9, 1920, the New York Times reported "500 DIE IN ITALY, 20,000 HOMELESS AS QUAKES RECUR"... The paper reported the series of earthquakes took place in "The Emilia district... the communities suffering most today were Reggio, Ospedaletti, Bussana, Toano, and Cavola."

The article explained, "The Emilia embraces the district between the Apennines and the River Po and is dived into the eight provinces of Piacenza, Parka, Reggio, Modena, Bologna, Ferara, Ravenna and Forli. It covers an area of some 7,920 square miles and has a population of approxmately 2,500,000 persons."
So why are contemporary reporters in 2012, reporting the new quakes in the same region saying things such as:

"The strong quake rocked an area with a long history of earthquakes, yet one that has kept relatively quiet for hundreds of years."

"'There has not been a whole lot of action in that area,' Caruso said. 'The fact that they do have records of earthquakes going back a couple thousand years shows this area hasn't been seismically active for a long time,' he said.

and this: 

"Part of the problem is that the region around the epicenter of the quake (between the cities of Modena and Ferrara) is not as accustomed to earthquakes as in other parts of Italy, such as the North-East, Sicily, or the Apennine region (where l'Aquila is located). Until 2003, it was not even included in seismic hazard maps. 'The buildings which collapsed were mostly built before then, with no antiseismic measures at all,' says Calvi. 'In such cases, prefabricated buildings such as sheds and supermarkets are more at risk than houses, because of their weak structure.'

"In 2003, though, seismologists introduced a new map of seismic hazard across Italy, and the area of Sunday's earthquake was reclassified as one of medium risk. 'We were estimating a 10 per cent probability of an earthquake of this kind in that area over the next 450 years,' says Gianluca Valensise, a research director at INGV. 'This earthquake was a rare event, but not a surprising one.'"

Even Italian reports don't mention the shock of 1920. For example:

"Per quanto riguarda gli altri terremoti che possiamo considerare 'grandi' in Italia, quello del 1976 in Friuli e' stato di magnitudo 6.2, quello dell'Irpinia (1980) di magnitudo 6.8, quello di Umbria e Marche (1997) di magnitudo 5.6." (Regarding the other earthquakes that we consider 'big' in Italy, that of 1976 in Friuli , and was magnitude 6.2, the Irpinia (1980) with a magnitude of 6.8, that of Umbria and Marche (1997) with a magnitude of 5.6.)

It's as if the earthquake and aftershocks of 1920 in this part of Italy never happened!

17 May 2012

Words on Books Does Not Exhaust the Classificatory Possibilities

I recommend everyone go visit your local hospice thrift store and pick up a copy of the 1995 Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language by David Crystal.

You'll find it up near the cash desk, under glass, with the other valuable but vastly underpriced books. I don't remember what my copy cost, but it was not much for five pounds of scholarship and a lot of pretty charts and pictures.

This book was printed in Italy, which helps to explain its heft and quality; also that Cambridge University Press no doubt subsidized its publication with some left-over funds found in one of the colleges frequented by Erasmus of Rotterdam or someone very much like him.

Everywhere one browses one finds oneself entranced, as we like to say in Better English. Right now I'm peering at the section on Lexical Differences. These are the differences between aeroplane and airplane, oesophagus and esophagus, buses with one "s" and busses with two. The scholarship never intrudes entirely on the pure fun of discovering so many things you kind of knew, but didn't know for sure you knew, or didn't know, if you know what I mean.

Take one example: "This set of categories does not exhaust the classificatory possibilities, but it should be enough to suggest caution when working through an apparently simple list of equivalents..." Fussy paragraphs are balanced by maps and graphs. One of these makes clear why it is dangerous to drive on either side of the beltway, I mean ring road, in Britain.

Where we step on the gas, they press the accelerator. Our gas gauge is their petrol gauge. Side mirrors are wing mirrors and our fender is their wing, but attempt to fly with these wings and your car will end up on the verge, I mean in the ditch. Parking lights are sidelights, hoods bonnets, mudflaps splash guards. Some things don't change across the Atlantic, however. Steering wheels and speedometers are exactly the same words either side.

It's twenty of four here, but twenty TO four there. She's in heat here, and ON heat there. Californians have a new lease on life. The Brits have a new lease OF life.

Our popsicle is their ice lolly; and your everyday friendly crossing guard here becomes the lollipop man/woman over there. In Australia and other strange places the big stop sign carried across the street in front of a pack of snarling juveniles is called a lollipop, because it looks like one, although if I ever saw a lollipop that size I'd probably go into anaphylactic shock or something.

These "parallel prepositions" and "equivalent lexical items" (as we pseudo scholars will call them) remind me of an amusing group of faux language guides published in great numbers by Workman Press. These so-called guide books take you through a typical foreign language situation – in a cafĂ©, meeting someone, fending off unwanted advances, tasting an odd smelling cheese – and as you read down the page and study the words you discover the phrases are telling a story. Very funny, at least it was funny the first time I figured it out.

In Wicked Italian, as an example, a plausible set of phrases about checking in to your hotel, translated into modern Italian, becomes something else again:

"We made these reservations six months ago."

"Then we will sleep here in the lobby."

"We reserved a room with a view."

"The sheets are still damp."

"What is that smell?"

"Something is living in the bathroom."

"There is no hot water. The cold water is brown."

"Is this a towel or a postage stamp?"

... and, finally, "Four stars my ass! More like four dogs, I'd say!"

This passage is titled You Can Win at Hotel Negotiation. Most of the "Wicked" Language guides remain in print. You can find their absurdities not only in Italian, but also Wicked French, Greek, Irish, Japanese and Wicked Spanish.


Now in a revised second edition, and not at all expensive for what you get:

Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language published by Cambridge University Press. paperback $45. ISBN 0521530334. Revised edition published 2003.

Categorized under Foreign Language, Humor, and for some reason also Guidebooks:

Wicked Italian: For the Traveler by Howard Tomb (sic), illustrated by Jared Lee. Workman Publishing paperback $4.95. ISBN 0894806173.

10 May 2012

What an Astonishing Thing a Book Is

This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books...

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."     - Carl Sagan

These days easily before breakfast we can read an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, read the account and see photographs of a trip to Fukushima, Japan, where radiation and tsunami have devastated the lives of children, be sent a Carl Sagan quote by a friend on Facebook, read tributes to the late children's author Maurice Sendak, and be invited to a meeting of Expatriate writers in Rome, even though you currently are located 4,559 miles from Italy.

My parents' lives began in the final days of horse-drawn conveyances and the early days of automobiles. They both were teenagers in the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. They lived through two World Wars, the advent of radio, then TV and then the Internet, the booming 50's, and well into the our present age of 24-hour news anxiety.

I was born months before two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and continued through the terror of unstoppable polio and smallpox epidemics and their virtual eradication, the Joe McCarthy-led anti-Communist hysteria, wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, global terrorism and the overreaction to it, the assassination, impeachment and resignation of Presidents, the decline of public education, the rebirth of electric cars, the melting of the ice caps, the end of the Soviet Empire and our first black President, now personally in favor of the concept of same sex marriage.

Peering from space at those arcs of life you could easily imagine a sort of ever faster downward spiral into ignorance and conflict. Or you could look out the spaceship window to find the sun still shining, the air breathable, pets and friends happy most of the time, at least around here.

For me the adventure continues – skills to sharpen, things to learn, places to visit, people to meet. As I get older my world only gets larger. Since retirement a few years ago my wife and I have spent time in South America and Easter Island, in France, England, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Norway; soon we will visit Turkey, Crete and Croatia and Italy again. Plus Hawaii for fish and Arcata for chamber music.

Another arc of life began last August when granddaughter Nora arrived, a new perfect human. Along with Nora came a renewal of love and friendship with my daughter.

And throughout all these lives, new and not so new, are the books we've read and will soon read. Our various books are windows into other worlds, but more than that, the best of them ARE in fact other worlds. Each book on our shelves or stacked nearby glows with potential or radiates memories, awaits only one more open mind in order to speak again.

Before breakfast I spotted a cartoon that got me started on this essay today. Two gentlemen are conversing in a private library somewhere. One man is peering at a tall stack of empty bookshelves. Perched at eye level amid all the emptiness are several small metal things.

"Nook, Sony Reader," the first gentleman intones. "I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library."

The cartoon was posted on Facebook, and has elicited dozens of comments and 90 shares – among additional sets of friends. One comment stood out:

"A home without books is like a garden without flowers. It is like a place without sunshine in your heart. Electronic books will never replace the BEAUTY of a well designed book, of the joy holding its making and creation in your hands and enjoying a feast for your eyes."

No matter how beautiful a book may be, how big, how small, how the paper feels and the cover looks – reduced to an E book any book is the same size, shape and feel as all the others. No subtlety, no heft and weight, no beautiful paper or well-stitched binding. No physical difference from one reading unit to another.

The words remain, and you can make them yours. Civilization has been rendered more portable, but perhaps not more beautiful or useful.

03 May 2012

Books? or Gossip About Books?

We have our choice of topics for today's broadcast. Review and discuss (yes, Ms Yatsa, this WILL be on the test) these two excellent novels by espionage writer Joseph Kanon; or gossip from the perilous world of bookselling.

Books or gossip? OK – gossip first.

ITEM The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression is holding an auction to raise funds to publicize efforts against banned books. Items include the mockup of a children's book, a hand-sewn dress, and a three-foot high Wimpy Kid. Get your paddles ready. I wish them luck, but these are same things found in any bookstore's back closet, leaning up against torn flyers, sweat-soaked costumes and Curious George paperweights.

ITEM Target stores will stop selling Kindles from Amazon.com, but keep on selling all the other book-reading devices. Does Target see Amazon as an enemy rather than a partner? asks the Christian Science Monitor.

"After all, everything sold in Target is also offered by Amazon," one news report noted. "Target is trying to distance themselves from Amazon as much as possible because they recognize they are losing sales to them... Amazon's practice of undercutting the prices of traditional retailers certainly can't help their case, either."

ITEM Another long-term beef with Amazon concerns the collection – or more specifically the willful failure to collect – state sales taxes. It appears that Amazon is beginning to lose the argument, and that's a good thing for suffering state treasuries everywhere. The latest development is a new agreement between the state of Texas and Amazon.

"The deal... will require the online retailer to begin collecting and remitting sales tax to the state for purchases by Texas residents beginning July 1, 2012. The agreement also calls for Amazon.com to create at least 2,500 jobs and to make at least $200 million in capital investments in the state... In other states where Amazon.com has facilities, the online retailer has managed to score extended sales tax exemptions of two or more years by threatening to close down facilities or not opening up new ones... Texas would have none of it. Comptroller Susan Combs (said) she 'was very emphatic and insistent' that Amazon get its computer system up within 60 days to begin collecting sales tax."

Amazon also reached a deal to collect sales tax in Nevada, beginning January 1, 2014, or sooner (be still my heart) if Congress enacts a national sales tax reporting requirement.

ITEM We continue to read about people opening new bookstores, or second stores. This flies in the face of the common sense consensus that bookstores are dinosaurs. Any time I walk into one of those delightful dinosaurs, I find happy people happily browsing – even buying – real books from real booksellers.

In Ottawa, Canada, David Robbins of Octopus Books is opening a second location. "I prefer 'bold' to 'crazy,'" he said.

ITEM Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon, celebrates 20 years in business... And in failed-chainstore news, the vacant headquarters of Borders Books & Music is on the market for $6.9 million... a new store named Let's Read in Spanish has opened in San Jose, California... the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA, has been sold after 22 years, and will continue under new ownership... Left Bank Books in Searspoint, ME, is moving and expanding... In Minneapolis, Boneshaker Books, a volunteer-run progressive bookstore, has successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to expand... 

Although you can find gloomy publishing and bookselling news, it's much easier to find the uplifting and happy news. There is a lot of it.

And on the OTHER topic – you know, actual books, let me recommend writer Joseph Kanon with a "K". He writes with authority and "vivid sensory detail" as it says on the cover of Istanbul Passage, his latest. Kanon ranks with great spy novel authors such as John LeCarre and Alan Furst.

Scenes and characters linger in the mind long after closing the final pages. And that's one good way to judge a novel such as Kanon's Stardust, set in 1945 Hollywood. Do the characters last longer than spun sugar on a hot day? These books linger on the tongue.

Kanon's latest novel, Istanbul Passage, also set just after World War Two, begins:
"The first attempt had to be called off. It had taken days to arrange the boat and the safe house, and then, just a few hours before the pickup, the wind started, a poyraz, howling down from the northeast, scooping up water as it swept across the Black Sea. The Bosphorus waves, usually no higher than boat wakes by the time they reached the shuttered yalis along the shore, now churned and smashed against the landing docks. From the quay, Leon could barely make out the Asian side, strings of faint lights hidden behind a scrim of driving rain. Who would risk it? Even the workhorse ferries would be thrown off schedule, never mind a bribed fishing boat."
Gotta keep reading after that...


Alan Furst's home pages... And the same for Joseph Kanon ("where did you eat in Istanbul? and more)...

Stardust by Joseph Kanon. Washington Square Press paperback $15. ISBN 9781439156322.

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon. Atria Books hard cover $26. ISBN 9781439156414.

26 April 2012

Big Night – The Followup

Last week we were happy, gushing. We were about to give away books! Now we've done it, and we're even happier, even more gushing! And we gave away hundreds of thousands of free books both here and in Britain.

I took my box of specially marked copies of Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto and walked along Caspar beach. A couple sunning themselves against a photographically well-placed log was startled to be interrupted by an old guy toting a Rick Steves daypack full of novels, but they adapted quickly, not only accepting a copy, but posing for a quick snapshot.

I felt really, really good having made that connection, so I approached a trio of souls down by the surf line, two nearby husbands on lawn chairs, and a guy shading his eyes and staring out to sea, waiting for his ship to come in, or his son to come in from surfing, one of those. They all got books. So did the young Belgian mother in the campground laundry, the older gentleman walking across a parking lot, the woman in the camp store and the guy on the deck of the store.

I interrupted one of those we're-camping-so-let's-have-a-couple-of-drinks parties to give out two copies. At Russian Gulch State Park I screeched to a halt and gave a bicyclist a copy; another to the woman in the toll booth, another to a mother with two young children – "Really – you're giving me this book? Really? Why?" – and I startled awake a camper dozing off in the front seat of his sedan. I think he was the happiest of all the recipients, and he let me take his photo, too.

So much for my short, personal experience of the first annual World Book Night USA. I had fun, felt good, and nobody punched me out for bothering them. I plan to do it again next year. I hope YOU'LL do it next year, too.

Reports from all over:

My friend Paul Takushi at the UC Davis bookstore said, "Our store had eight Givers, including myself. None of them were college students. I think the college crowd here was largely oblivious to the event. If it's not in the school paper, not on the Daily Show, or not for extra credit for one of their classes, they're clueless.

"One of our Givers was going to take the Spanish version of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz to Folsom Prison. Another was going to visit foster homes in Sacramento. Stuff like that makes me teary. I walked around campus and downtown Davis. Whenever I approached someone the first thing I said was, 'I'm not selling anything and I'm not going to ask you to sign something.' I told them about World Book Night, then offered them the free book. (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie). Everyone seemed pretty happy to get a book. Nothing strange or super-uplifting happened to me. Just made me feel good to spread the WBN gospel."

Other reports: At Hicklebee's "We had about 20 people sign up. One man works in local jail. He was distributing them there. A staff member & friend walked around downtown San Jose and gave out books to homeless people, people in wheelchairs, anyone who happened along. The giver said she'd happily pay money to get to do it again!"

At Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, "I had a number of people who came in over the last week or so to ask what this was all about and wanted to know in plenty of time for next year. And some others asked how their organization or shelter or program could benefit. We're keeping lists in anticipation."

One book giver wrote a thank you note to the SF State University bookstore: "Giving books to eager and appreciative readers felt rewarding and meaningful. Clearly, people who received the books were even more inspired to read, as they felt honored to get a free copy..."

Novelist Cris Cander wrote on his blog: "To give away twenty copies of Peace like a River by Leif Enger, I chose a shelter for homeless, throwaway and runaway teens. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life... In the adjacent lunchroom, two dozen or so teenagers – many of them scarred, tattooed, broken-looking – talked and ate in small groups... the kids looked at me somewhat suspiciously. As I told them why I loved this incredible story of a young boy's journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother, it occurred to me that I might not be able to give away any books at all.

"Then one tall, thin boy raised his track-marked arm and said, 'I'd like a copy.' You would? I said, relieved. What's your name? 'Donny. I never had my own book before.' ... 'Me too. Can I have one?' 'And me.' They came one by one, and I pressed a brand-new copy into each of their hands. To a one, they thanked me with such sincerity I didn't think I could bear it."

Cander's report continues on his blog. I wasn't where he was, but yes, it really did feel that good.


If you are in the UK or Ireland, and who knows, you might be...

20 April 2012

Big Night

We are happy. We are gushing. We are giving away books!

"Little ol' Brookline, NH will be having its own World Book Night event at the Brookline Public Library. My book is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, which was the subject of an attempt to ban in the local schools. So, we'll be having a discussion about banned books as part of our event....

"... reception for Book Givers in Pittsfield, Massachusetts!"

"Yvonne Zipter: I am happy and excited to be providing copies of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping to residents at my YMCA. Only a few days now."

"Lindsay Alaimo:  I picked up my books for World Book Night USA. Thank you to The Concord Bookshop for the wonderful reception last night. I'm giving out The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold on Monday. Look for me and other book givers all day!"

"Stacey Biemiller Maisch: These books can't wait to be GIVEN away. No thievery required come Monday night!"

We are all excited, nationwide. It's a very good thing, all these free books, with the help of cooperating publishers, libraries, bookstores, YMCAs, and all the happy people on World Book Night, both givers and receivers, Monday, April 23.

If you didn't get a chance this time around to sign up to give away books, you can do it next year.

Last week the Mendocino contingent of givers, about seven of us, met at one of our local independent bookstores. We sipped wine – two colors of wine! – and talked about the almost 300 books we plan to give away, and how we plan to do it.

One person works at a local state park, so she's got a forest full of campers and a truck, and boy are the people in those tents going to be surprised when she hands them their free book. Books will also be given away at coffee shops, restaurants, urban and rural fire stations. One book giver plans to hang out at local laundromats. At the suggestion of that state park ranger person, I will carry a bunch of copies of Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto into the nooks and crannies of Russian Gulch State Park. Boy will those Russians be surprised!

We locals also are giving away The Stand by Stephen King; The History of Love by Nicole Krauss; Peace like a River by Leif Enger; Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card; and The Hunger Games, the wildly popular novel by Suzanne Collins.

World Book Night started in England only last year and expanded into the US this year where it also will be an annual thing. A million books – a million! – will be given away in one evening, both here and in the UK and Ireland. April 23 is the UNESCO International Day of the Book. And this date also honors William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes, both of whom died on April 23 in 1616.

First came World Book Day, which began in the UK and Ireland 15 years ago. Book tokens are given to schoolchildren. World Book Night, mostly for grownups,  began there and expanded to the United States.

Givers in Britain get to hand out books by Bill Bryson and Jane Austen and Bernard Cornwell and Roald Dahl and Cormac McCarthy and we don't. Maybe next year.

When I first heard of this project I applauded, but the cynic in me guessed that publishers were offloading unsold books onto unsuspecting light or non-readers. Not at all, as it happens. More than a dozen publishers have printed special World Book Night editions at their own expense, including shipping them around the country. Each of us givers will have 20 copies of one title culled from a carefully selected list of about 30.

Inside each specially marked box of books – actually, inside each book, is a Dear Reader letter:
"You are holding in your hands one of the free books especially printed for World Book Night... handed out by thousands of volunteers in communities across America as a celebration of the joy of books and reading... we hope you will seek out more books, and there is no better place to do so than in a bookstore or library. We are blessed with thousands of them in America, all staffed by people who have devoted their lives to telling others about books. They stand ready every day to introduce you to a good book you might fall in love with."
Find out more at www.worldbooknight dot org.


What is World Book Night USA?  If you are in the UK or Ireland, and who knows, you might be...

12 April 2012

Five Wrong Turns A Day -- Only Five?

Today we uncovered a scandal that has gone unreported – since 1988! 

In a thrift store copy of Frommer's Hawaii on $50 A Day, published in 1988, on page 7, is an invitation to join Frommer's $25-a-Day Travel Club – Save Money on All Your Travels. OK as far as it goes.

Until we turn to the back of the book where an advert reads "NOW, SAVE MONEY ON ALL YOUR TRAVELS! Join Arthur Frommer's $35-A-Day Travel Club."

In just 400 pages the cost of this Club inflated by 40%. "We don't have to tell you that inflation has hit Hawaii as it has everywhere else," the authors write. Yes, but 40%?

In 1987 the national inflation rate was 4.7% – high, but nothing like the inflating cost of the $25 to $35 dollar-a-day club.

I bring this up because I've been laughing out loud reading Doug Mack's new book Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

Mack's mother Patricia took a trip to Europe fifty years ago with the first Frommer's Guide – the most famous one, Europe On Five Dollars A Day. She kept a journal, sent back postcards, and her son one day came across the keepsakes and another copy of the Five Dollars A Day book. Son Doug decided to retrace his mother's steps following the same guide she once used.

No Google, no Trip Advisor – only his own naivete and that book. Adventure followed, some of it funny, other parts enlightening, boring, frustrating.

I once did what Doug's mother did – traveled Europe in the 1960s using Frommer as my guide. I've been to Europe many times since. I wouldn't use such a guide now, even if I could.

Doug Mack wanted to be in the same position his mother was all those years ago – first trip to the Continent, knowing very little about what would be there. Using the same book, now a half century out of date.

So, how did it go, and what did he discover? Lots, as it turns out. 

Take packing. Frommer recommended packing light, utilizing a lot of drip-dry Dacron. Frommer called for a tweed sports jacket and two neckties, among other things. At the time this was a startling improvement over, say the Fielding guides. Temple Fielding himself traveled with two large suitcases containing at least "35 handkerchiefs, ten shirts, ten ties, three pairs of silk pajamas," plus a briefcase, and a raffia basket holding "maraschino cherries, vermouth, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a portable Philips three-speed record-player, five records, and... a large nickel thermos with a wide mouth." Plus a yodeling alarm clock.

In his own packing, Mack writes, "just one pair of shoes but five shirts... zero suits, zero handkerchiefs." 

"I noticed my fellow Americans doing the same – the stereotypically informal, boorish Americans had given way to circumspect, well-attired ones. Good job, team. For example, I wore only black socks, because I had heard that white ones were the classic sign of the American tourist."

"Pierre: Ha! Look at that tourist with his camera and guide-book!

"Jacques: Wait, but observe his socks! They are ... black! 

"Pierre: Zut alors! You are correct! He is one of us! What a fool I am! Let us go speak to him in English and invite him to lunch!"

In Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Venice, Rome and Madrid, Mack began to realize that the beaten track is beaten for a good reason – that's where a lot of the good stuff is. Still, he notes, in Munich "amid jovial tourist crowds and pork-festooned pork... the authentic, historic character is rather overwhelmed by all the people who have come to marvel at the authentic, historical character."

Mack learned that "the most important travel app is the off button" and that "basic common sense and open-mindedness and willingness to go with the flow and trust the Goddess Serendipity" is the best way to travel, whether on or off the beaten track.

"Arthur Frommer, after all, was the one who said to the masses, 'You can do this.' You don't need a lot of instruction, really. Just get out there and make it up as you go along, guided not by rules or numbers but by an insatiable curiosity. No matter where you go or what your budget, you're bound to meet interesting people, learn about other cultures, see some cool things (and some not-so-cool things – but that's part of the experience) and come back alive and invigorated and slightly-but-in-a-good-way confused."

Staying on that tourist trail, Mack decided, can be an ethical decision. "These places... can handle the crowds... So please don't go beating new paths," he writes. "An ecotourist lodge in the middle of an otherwise-untouched beach or jungle may do its best to educate visitors about the place and be light on the land, but many of these places would be better off left alone."


Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide by Doug Mack. Penguin paperback $15. ISBN 9780399537325.

I wasn't able to find a copy for sale of the original Frommer's, but I did find:

Europe on Twenty Five Dollars a Day by George McDonald and Arthur Frommer.Simon & Schuster 1984 paperback in Good condition. Price: $1.49.

05 April 2012

Notes for a Short Lecture

Here begin my notes for a short lecture about -- “music” -- as if I could even begin to talk about all the things music means to me... but here's a start:

“To some it is Napoleon, to some it is a philosophical struggle, to me it is allegro con brio.”  Arturo Toscanini

Five of us attended Tuesday night a talk on the mathematics behind sound. We learned that people progressively lose their hearing, that school kids can keep ring tones secret from their teachers if pitched high enough, that sound is a transmission of energy, not a movement of molecules, although they seem to move a bit, too, and we saw this demonstrated by a Slinky.

All this, and I still don’t know (or know enough about)...

Why I prefer Mozart and Dvorak over most other composers. Well, I sort of know.

Why I like hearing music in the first place.

Why I listen to anything, but play only classical.

Why the best musicians turn professional and many then lose their love of performing.

What music does that makes it so pleasing – or unpleasant.

How the thought that we now need a series of chromatic eighth notes in a particular order at a particular tempo at specific pitches for a specific length of time with a slight emphasis on the second of each group of four, at an increasing volume that gradually separates itself from the surrounding sounds in order to bring the listener’s attention to itself – I don’t know how something inside the player can direct limbs and fingers to create the conditions – virtually instantly – to produce these particular notes in that particular way – and then to be able to repeat the sequence when needed.

Why one performer astounds and another bores.

How playing music is similar to learning a language. It is exactly like learning a language.

What one piece of music for cello is my favorite.

Can one separate the composer’s biography from the music? Should one?

Composer’s “signatures” – repeating tropes – and why no one objects to this kind of shorthand.

The alienated feeling in an orchestra vs in a small group; the dysfunction of groups.

Whatever happened to music / art / culture in the schools?

Why I like one cello more than another; why I like mine.

The effect of a bow on a particular instrument.

Why we think of “baroque” music (approx. 1600 - 1750) as so exotic it requires different instruments and bows and styles to play well; and we think that those things are just ‘normal’ and usual when playing “classical” music. In other words, why is one era exotic and another just the usual thing?

The answer may lie in the sheer volume of music written in the classical era – 1750 - 1900. That’s the sweet spot for great stuff and it’s when most modern instruments reached their final/highest development.

I’m talking here of classical music, because in truth, although I love many genres and hear lots of different kinds of music, I most prefer the classic classical kind of music – the music that was created from Bach to Brahms – 1700 to 1900. That is my particular sweet spot, and in that two hundred year period can be found more than enough meat to feed me the rest of my life.

The music I usually play spans maybe 200 years. The music I listen to (other than classical) spans only my lifetime – from the 1950s to the present. Life would not be worth living without the blues, early Bob Dylan, David Bromberg, John Prine, Ry Cooder. If I was deaf I’d feel it through the thumping and vibrations.

I started out on drums because the idea of banging on things appealed to me. A lot. Based on a written test I apparently aced, which was administered to graduating sixth graders in San Francisco, on the first day of Band, Mr Jenkins from the string orchestra entered the room, called my name, and asked me to drop the drumsticks and follow him next door, where another room full of junior high adolescents awaited. The tall girls and boys were put behind basses. The smallest people on violins. In the middle, violas; and I guess the regular-sized people on cellos. The rest is history.

We played on beat up instruments that had been banged upon and carried home for probably decades, predating the Civil War, or at least WW II. We used gut strings, which made our sound warm and appealing, but those strings were devilishly difficult to keep in tune and when one snapped it could slap you in the face. To this day I’m chary of staring down at the high quality steel strings on my current cello.

Think about it: A middle sized middle school in a middle sized city had a band teacher, a band room and all the instruments; and a string orchestra, a strings teacher, and all the instruments. I was there for two years. In the second year the people who had started with me were performing Beethoven’s Fifth symphony (well, parts of it) for the school assembly. Our school colors were red and gray. I’ve always liked red and gray together.

When I got to my private boy’s college prep high school, entrance by examination only, no tuition, music existed there because the charismatic English teacher (also a published writer) sponsored some boys who wanted to try playing in a string quartet. We performed for the school assembly, too. But the difference, even then – public schools could sustain large music programs – private schools maybe not so much. This is an important point: The boys who played instruments in high school and later, often got their start as I did, in a public school band or orchestra. These graduates still staff the bulk of amateur orchestras and fill the ranks of amateur chamber music workshops, and the audience for classical pieces. And we’re very very gray these days. Joselyn started on the violin in school.

My mother much preferred cello over drums, so she bought me lessons. Three memories stand out from that period: 1. At my teacher Bonnie Hampton’s house in Berkeley I glanced into what I remember as a dark, dimly lit room, and saw the famous Griller String Quartet talking with each other in rehearsal, with Colin Hampton on cello. They appeared to me as tired, strange, old men who smelled musty. I never heard them play. 2. One day at the SF Conservatory where Bonnie also taught, while waiting for my lesson I heard another cellist, my age, playing for the teacher. After a few seconds I had the startling realization that I would never be able to play nearly as beautifully, and I’d better think of a different career than music. 3. Lest you think I was always graceful about all this: I hated practicing so much that my mother ended up placing a kitchen timer in my room and starting it when I picked up my cello. At one point I reached into my closet and punched a fist sized hole through the side of the cello, right through the canvas case. The violin shop in Oakland fixed it as if it had never happened. I told my parents I had dropped it. They never disputed that tale, the same way they believed I hadn’t been leering at the bra ads in Sears catalogs.


Speaking of the best violins in the world... they are difficult to identify, even by experts, blindfolded.

About the difference between mechanically produced music (aka drum machines) and human made -- try this. If you have a metronome (you can download a metronome app on your smartypants phone, too), run it along with some slower piece of classical music -- the slow movement of a violin concerto or sonata, say... and you'll soon discover that the better the performance the more "wrong" the metronome. In other words, part of the music is to push and pull the beat as needed to create the most powerful effects... often subtle enough not be noticed, but the metronome will pick it up as it goes out of phase with how the piece started. Same true no doubt with jazz and many other genres.

An excellent book and the one I mentioned this morning -- esp. the chapter where the author Arnold Steinhardt (first violin, Guaneri String Quartet) tries to recreate the experience of playing well with others is titled Indivisible By Four, A String Quartet in Search of Harmony, available in paperback. I can't find this book on my shelves, or I'd loan it to you. I mistakenly today gave Richard the title The Four and the One by David Rounds, which is also an interesting book on string quartets, but not the one I had in mind. Steinhardt's two books (the other is a first rate memoir, Violin Dreams) are very much worth your reading time. Lots of fun.

Another book -- in answer to the question "what is your one favorite piece of cello music?" is The Cello Suites, JS Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin.