Category Archives: books

Thirsting for knowledge and understanding at a bookstore

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Imagine a bookstore as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to read, think, and reflect.

Reporting for The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen writes about Pages, a bookstore and cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, which serves that very role for Syrian refugees. The bookstore’s founder, Samir al-Kadri, wants nothing less than to “change the lives of Syrian youth”:

“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”

More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.

Not surprisingly, the most popular titles at Pages reflect a longing for their home country and a recognition of the terrible situation they left behind:

Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.

The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to [Syrian President] Assad’s police state.

Let’s treasure our access to books

As I read this article, I thought about how easy it is for some of us to take for granted access to books.

I’m especially spoiled in this regard. I live in Boston, which, despite the general demise of brick and mortar bookstores, continues to offer abundant choices for buying and borrowing books. But even beyond such overly bookish locales, good books can be readily obtained via bookstores, online booksellers, used book sales, and libraries. Those on limited budgets can put together a very respectable personal library if they have a sharp eye for bargains.

It should humble the more fortunate among us that young refugees go to Pages bookstore in Istanbul in search of a safe and comforting place to read and learn. Let’s think about that the next time we’re tempted to watch a reality TV show or get caught up in a Tweet storm between politicians or celebrities. A bookstore, library, or simple shelf of books at home is a much better option for enriching our minds and souls.

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My late 20th century middlebrow center of gravity

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Deliciously burning tops of mouths since 1974 (photo: Stouffers.com)

Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:

  1. My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
  2. I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
  3. I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
  4. I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
  5. I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
  6. Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
  7. I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
  8. I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
  9. Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
  10. I miss American Heritage magazine.
  11. I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
  12. I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
  13. My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
  14. Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
  15. Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
  16. I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
  17. My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
  18. I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
  19. Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
  20. Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
  21. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
  22. I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
  23. I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
  24. Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
  25. There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.

A nostalgic afternoon in Manhattan

Yet another photo of the split pea soup at the Cozy…4 stars! (photo: DY)

Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.

As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.

I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!

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The Strand was a mecca and refuge when I lived in NYC (photo: DY)

Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.

“Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway”

I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.

Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!

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A weekly staple of my NYC days (photo: DY)

When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.

The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.

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If you can figure this out, you can split the atom (photo: DY)

Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.

And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!

As the weather turns cold, the small screen becomes a strong draw

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Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.

When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.

Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.

Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)

Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.

What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.

A door stopper of a look at Stephen King’s body of work

I stumbled upon George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion (2015) at one of the local bookstores earlier this week. After checking out the table of contents and skimming a few chapters, I knew I was going to buy it. This is an exhaustive (just under 600 pp.) examination of King’s body of work and life, and a much needed update of Beahm’s original 1989 edition. You don’t have to be a fanatic devotee of King’s books to appreciate this volume; earnest fandom will do.

If you want to gauge the influence of, and regard for, a contemporary writer, check out whether others are writing books and articles about the author that go beyond reviews of their latest work. If the answer is yes, it means that their work — however “popular” or grounded in a certain genre — has achieved a certain literary quality. There are plenty of writers who continually churn out bestsellers. Few of them, however, inspire others to write books and articles about their books. J.K. Rowling has achieved this status with Harry Potter and Co. The late Stieg Larsson has managed to do so with only three books, his Millennium trilogy crime novels published posthumously.

And then, of course, there’s Stephen King. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about King’s work last November:

On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. . . . King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come.

What distinguishes these authors from other writers of best sellers is that their work has a level of intellectual depth — perhaps with a psychological, social, historical, or philosophical angle — that invites commentary, speculation, and discussion.

So . . . let’s say you’re an avid reader who, like me, has trouble sticking with the classics or the “Great Books.” But you also may not want to spend your time on books that are here today, gone tomorrow. If Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, or even Dickens aren’t commanding your attention span, then you could do much worse than spending quality time with modern authors whose work has invited commentary, speculation, and discussion.

Origins of book geekdom

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This Facebook meme from Buzzfeed caught my attention over the weekend, leading with the tagline “Your dream was to have a gigantic library in your home when you grew up.”

Now, I have to admit that I was not a classic child bookworm. In fact, my reading tastes as a kid were far from being “literary,” and once I got beyond the storybooks our parents would read with us, I resisted just about any type of fiction. In grade school, I preferred books about history, trains, planes, tornadoes, and science. As I went into high school and then college, books about sports and politics appeared on my radar screen. In college I would discover horror, mystery, and suspense novels.

It wasn’t until well until my adult years, in any case, when I started referring to my book collection as a personal library. This was due in part to the fact that the (then cheap) Brooklyn apartment shares I lived in didn’t lend themselves to the use of such lofty labels. But as the dozens of books grew into the hundreds of books, a library they were becoming.

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These memories were tapped the other day when I received the latest catalog from bookseller Edward R. Hamilton, a company that has been in business for many decades, specializing in sales of remaindered books. When I was in college, I would pore over their book catalogs in search of bargains that would stretch the dollars I saved up from working at a local drugstore chain. Several times a year, I would make my selections ever-so-carefully, write them down on the order form, and mail it away. I then eagerly waited for my books to be delivered.

Growing up in northwest Indiana, there wasn’t much in the way of bookstores. A major shopping mall had these tiny, hole-in-the-wall B.Dalton and Waldenbooks stores, but their selections were limited. Mail order booksellers like Edward R. Hamilton and Barnes & Noble (then exclusively based in New York City) were a revelation. I would actually feel my pulse race when their hefty catalogs arrived.

Of course, today it’s all different, with book buying options galore. And now that I live in Boston — a city tailor made for book lovers — the local choices are plentiful, even in this era of decline for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Year two at Hogwarts

Last week I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series. A few days ago I started in on book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve never been one for fantasy literature. But I’m now comprehending what the Harry Potter hype has been all about. J.K. Rowling is a brilliant, clever, imaginative, and socially intelligent story teller. And going from book one to two, I am bearing witness to her growth as a writer.

Of course, I may be biased because the stories are placed in a school setting. Hogwarts is basically a junior high and high school boarding institution, albeit a quite unusual one. But because of ongoing references to specific books and courses — a wonderfully imagined “curriculum” on Rowling’s part — it also feels like a sort of Cambridge or Oxford for junior apprentice witches and wizards.

I don’t know if I’ll read the entire series straight through, but I’m betting that I will finish the books by sometime in the fall. It’s fun to lose myself in that world, so I’ll savor the stories rather than speed through them. No need for a Nimbus two thousand here.

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I may be just embarking on year two at Hogwarts, but in real life I’m finishing another academic year. Grading final exams and papers isn’t nearly as bad as taking them, but nevertheless I still manage to summon the procrastinatory habits that served me so well steadily in college and law school. This has been an exhausting semester for reasons that have little to do with my courses or students — let’s just say that the internal politics and drama of academic institutions can be very draining and unnecessary — so I will be happy to close it out.

On a local note, we’re finally seeing some real spring weather here in Boston. I shot the picture below on late Wednesday afternoon. It’s right outside my subway stop in Jamaica Plain, and after exiting the station I sat down on one of the benches and did a bit of reading and catching up on e-mails. For a while I forgot about the pile of exams and papers awaiting me!

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Will I ever again be a Mad Scientist?

One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.

With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!

Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.

I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?

Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.

The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.

I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.

For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.

Adult student enrolling in Hogwarts

Many years ago, my long-time friends the Driscolls gave me the first two books in the Harry Potter series. Give them a try, they said. All five family members were big Harry Potter fans, and they thought that I might enjoy the books.

I did give the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K.), at least a half-hearted try. But after a couple of chapters, I put it aside. I’ve never been into the fantasy genre, and despite the legion of grown-up Harry Potter aficionados, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was all about.

Fast-forward to this week. It dawned on me that I’ve read rave comments about the Harry Potter series from favorite writers, ranging from Stephen King to Brené Brown, praising the stories and their insights on the human condition. I’ve also admired author J.K. Rowling for her down-to-earth demeanor and sense of social responsibility. So I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of giving Sorcerer’s Stone another try, and several friends share effusive praise for the books.

(Slight spoilers ahead…)

I’m now about 100 pages into Sorcerer’s Stone. Folks have cautioned me that it’s a little slow going at first, that the set-up takes a while to build, and that the story won’t start to sparkle until later in the book.

And yet, I already find it charming, engaging, and very, very clever. Of course, as someone steeped in workplace anti-bullying work, I couldn’t help but to pick up on the bullying themes in Harry’s life with the Dursley family. Now Harry is preparing to enter Hogwarts, and I’m excited for him. With Hagrid’s help, he is picking out his school supplies. Rowling captures beautifully the anticipation and nerves that go with starting a new school.

I haven’t read many fantasy or children’s books, but I can tell a great storyteller from an okay one, and this early foray into Harry Potter’s world is enough to show me that Rowling is a brilliant writer. Her ability to create vivid detail and her sense of empathy and humor come through from the start.

Being something of an Anglophile, I love the little references to London, including the Underground and Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at the King’s Cross rail station. As someone who has been around schools and public transportation all my adult life, maybe I’m already identifying with parts of the story!

On Facebook, one of my friends suggested that I suspend my grown up reader’s worldview and let the inner child in me enjoy the stories. The only problem is that I didn’t like to read fiction as a child. I emphatically preferred non-fiction, and my 11-year-old self would’ve rebelled at having to read the Harry Potter stories. Even today, I estimate that some 80 percent of my personal library is non-fiction.

No, mine is more a tale of arrested reading development. Call me a late bloomer, but it’s a twist that I’ve had to go deep into adulthood to be “ready” for the Harry Potter series.

It may take me another week to finish Sorcerer’s Stone, as lately, I haven’t been one to rush through novels and stories. But I’ve already got Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ready to go, so it appears that I am matriculating into Hogwarts as an adult student. Better late than never.

Server down + St. Pat’s Day = Playing hooky

Not to be seen alone, in my case, completely so!

Not to be seen alone, in my case, completely so!

It’s spring break week at my university, and I’ve been using the time to get caught up on a variety of writing projects and other commitments. Yesterday I intended to dive into edits of a couple of articles I’m working on, but the university server was down and I couldn’t access the files I needed. It was St. Patrick’s Day anyway, so I figured, why not take the afternoon off? And that I did.

It started with a matinee viewing of “The Witch,” a chilling film set in 1630s New England, some 60 years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Here’s how IMDB describes it:

William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. ‘The Witch’ is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey for an inescapable evil.

Pictured above are the father, William (Ralph Ineson), holding his oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The cast is excellent, with Taylor-Joy delivering an especially exceptional performance.

Please don’t be concerned that I was disturbing fellow movie goers by snapping that photo with my iPhone camera. You see, there was no one else in that theatre. (That’s a first for me.) Although “The Witch” has received strong reviews, it has been out for a while, and I guess St. Pat’s revelers were in no mood to watch a movie that might cause them to feel guilty about their earthly behaviors.

After the movie, I walked over to the nearby Brattle Book Shop, my favorite used bookstore in the Greater Boston area, and found a few affordable goodies, including a couple of gifts for friends. I visit the Brattle at least once a month, sometimes more often. When the weather is decent, their big draw is an array of outdoor book carts in their adjoining lot, containing thousands of wonderful bargains priced at $5, $3, and $1.

However, higher end collectors will also find plenty of treasures in their rare book room. Here’s a photo of an item they sold for a tidy sum. Nope, despite my love of anything Gershwin, I was not the buyer. (I’m opting to pay my mortgage this year instead.) But I did pick up a couple of songbooks with selections from that era for only five bucks a pop. Not a bad deal if I say so myself.

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