Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Another New Year. Another Day....



....Another Hour. Another Minute.  Who's counting?

I guess I am, grateful to have made it to 2014, in spite of health impediments which modern medicine has helped me to hurdle thus far.

The best summation of the year we've just left was written by Dave Barry in the Washington Post.  Humor is the idyllic tonic living in an insanely changing world (of course, it's always been changing -- but speed and its almost freakish nature seem to define change nowadays). So here is the link to Barry’s Review of 2013, the Year of the Zombies. 

Between Christmas and New Years some of Ann's family visited, her brother Stan who lives in California, his daughter with her husband and their two children, plus Ann's cousins who live in Florida brought their two daughters and their kids.  In all there were 16 of us for a family get-together brunch, including five children ranging in age from three to 15.  I had prepared for the preteen and teenage kids by cleaning our pool deck, arranging lounge chairs, and our outdoor table.  I even put my hands on my Nerf football thinking, hey, it might be fun for them to toss that around.  I'll even partake -- I can still throw a spiral, although not very far anymore.

But they all arrived with their iPods/iPhones/iPads/tablets/laptops and most of the day they were "plugged" into Wifi, and that was it for them.  No play. Not having grandkids, I guess I've lost touch in what interests that generation.  It certainly is something I did not expect. 

The one child I could relate to was 3 year old Zack as he is too young for an iPhone (are you listening Apple, a lost opportunity?).  I forgot how active a toddler could be so I had fun leading him around by the hand, even getting him up on my boat so he could sit in the captain's chair while I explained some of the instruments (his carefully steering the vessel while it sat on its lift).  Here's a very brief (22 seconds) video of us:
video

We celebrated the New Year with friends, a festive dinner first, and then we watched PBS' Great Performances concert of Sondheim's brilliant Company with the New York Philharmonic and an all-star cast, including such luminaries as Neil Patrick Harris (as Bobby), Patti LuPone (as Joanne), Stephen Colbert (as Harry), and Jon Cryer (as David).  Luckily I had recorded the performance so we can enjoy it frequently.  While Sondheim went on to more sophisticated musicals latter in his life, this was groundbreaking work in 1970, his conversational music soaring.  And the message of "Being Alive" and having "Company" was perfect for the New Year.

I've been trying to "catch up" with my reading before the New Year and I recently finished two books, both unlikely reads for me, the first recommended by my son, Jonathan, and the second by my friend Emily.  These novels, in an odd way, invite comparison, although they are as different as night and day.

Unfortunately, I read The Fault in Our Stars on an old version of the Kindle, one that used to be Jonathan's and so he lent me the "book" on that device.  It was the first book I have ever read in a manner and it proved to be the frustrating experience I once imagined  -- as I was not able to easily make notes for later review (although I understand that this is now a cinch in later versions of the Kindle) and if I accidentally pushed the wrong button, the screen reverted to the beginning and I had to find my place over again (luckily, the book isn't very long). 

It's classified as a Young Adult novel so I wondered what business I had reading it, but it had a profound effect on me -- as the protagonist is a cancer victim and has trouble breathing, dragging around one of those oxygen canisters, something she simply accepts.  It covers the subject of living one's life and dealing with one's death, not to mention the suffering cancer victims must endure.  I'm probably the last person on earth to hear of its author, John Green, but he is one hell of a writer.  He sort of reminds me of Jonathan Tropper, but with something more profound to say.

Hazel and Augustus (Gus) are two teenage cancer victims, who meet in a cancer support group and fall in love.  It (surprisingly) is not maudlin, and the level of the writing and the philosophical themes examined about the nature of life and death, make this a novel suitable for adult consumption and contemplation.  And it is the kind of novel that just breezes along, almost impossible to put down, the reader forming a real emotional attachment to the main characters. 

Hazel longs to know more about a novel she has read and is mystified by "An Imperial Affliction" written by an author, Peter van Houten, who lives in Amsterdam and has set his story there.  Houten's novel is about a girl dying of cancer and so the implications for Hazel are clear; however the novel has a sudden ending, rather like life itself, without ever revealing what happens to the characters.  This naturally leaves Hazel in a bind, but thanks to the equivalent of a "last wish" foundation, Hazel and Gus are cleared to travel to Amsterdam to actually meet Houten himself and try to discover the true outcome. And as often happens in real life, they are disappointed to learn that Houten is a hopeless alcoholic recluse but it is there where Hazel and Gus consummate their love. 

The writing is exquisite at times, Gus writing about Hazel in a letter: "She walks lightly upon the earth.  Hazel knows the truth:  We're as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we're not likely to do either."

The ending is, as you might imagine, heart-wrenching, but it is surprising, and to go any further here would be to reveal spoilers.  I loved reading this book (which not surprisingly is now being made into a movie).  So, John Green goes onto my never ending radar list of contemporary American writers to watch.

Contrast that to the novel I just finished, Emma Who Saved my Life by Wilton Barnhardt, a coming of age story narrated by the protagonist, Gil Freeman, who leaves his home town in Illinois to become an actor in NYC in the 1970's, moving in with two women who have artistic aspirations themselves.  As he says in retrospect, I can't quite retrieve the young man with all that faith -- where did he get that energy?  Didn't he know the odds against being an actor -- or Emma being a poet, or Lisa being a painter?  How did he have so much faith in the world?  No, it wasn't all stupidity and it wasn't all innocence and youth.  I think New York was there too, egging us on.

Indeed, New York City, is the other major "character" in the novel, and Barnhardt covers all of the city, boroughs included, so for me, it was a nostalgic tour, having lived in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.  The novel is as much a love song to NYC as it is a story about the characters, and of the times, each chapter representing a year in the life of the characters, starting with 1974 and ending with 1983.  As such it spans the political spectrum from Nixon, to Ford, to Carter, to Reagan, not to mention the changing mores of the times, drugs, sexual liberation, etc.  Reading the novel was like reliving the times and it's hard to believe that this was Barnhardt's first novel.  I think of influences such as Joseph Heller and J. D. Salinger for some of its humor -- and in parts it is a very funny novel.

But while Hazel and Gus consummate their love, Gil's love for Emma (and it is that love which "saves" his life) essentially goes unrequited (you'll have to read the novel to the very end to understand why I qualify the issue).  And while we root for Hazel and Gus, Barnhardt's characters are totally self indulgent and if they ever had to deal with Hazel and Gus' issues, they'd have a hard time.

Although Gil does become an actor and finally makes it to Broadway, he learns that like so many actors he is really mediocre, and he learns it the hard way, first by playing opposite an actress who was once a film star and has come to Broadway, a Rosemary Campbell, to the delight of her adoring fans, Gil knowing that she is a facade of an actress, commenting,

I always wondered if Rosemary knew who the president was, or what year it was, or if World War II was over. Her world had no connection to fact or modern life or normalness or strife and conflict of any kind. One could fantasize about her limo getting hijacked to the South Bronx and her getting turned out somewhere along Southern Boulevard to walk back to the East Side (although with her charmed life she might well have walked back without incident). Scary thing, this kind of insularity that happens with American presidents so they don't even know what's happening and what everyone is thinking, and American pop stars in their own little fantasy worlds-god, the cossetings, the emoluments, the unsparing and unceasing effort not to contradict the SUCCESS, these crazy Howard Hughes worlds of yes men and twenty personal bodyguard-staff -people scurrying about to make sure you never have to soil your hand with opening a door or taking a cap off a pen. I guess you live in that nonsense long enough and you too can be Rosemary Campbell with all the dimension and scope of a touched-up airbrush '30s movie still

And the real truth about his acting is revealed to Gil with another big role, a leading one, but off Broadway, opposite a Reisa Goldbaum:

But, I'm telling you, it's truly difficult to leave the stage. For so long people ask, friends call up: What are you up to? And you tell them I'm mad this week because I'm Hamlet, or I'm drunk and homosexual this week because I'm Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and next month I'll be nobody at all in an evening of Beckett pieces. Then one day you put all those people away, all the masks, all the gestures and reserves of carefully processed emotion, and people ask you what role are you working on this month ... and for once it's your own life, the hardest role of the bunch. You gotta say the lines with a straight face. I was not a great actor. For me acting was pretending I was someone; learn the accent, develop a little shtick, put on the makeup, use every trick I knew and half the time you'd believe I was who I said I was. But you look at a Reisa Goldbaum, someone with a natural gift, and you see that she can reach down into a deep and rich humanity and draw up a true-to-life Williams heroine, a Greek tragic figure, an Ophelia, a Neil Simon one-liner queen. I put on the trappings, she had it in her heart. There was only one role in my heart, only one in my repertoire that could draw upon everything I had, only one I could pull off, in New York or goddam Peoria: myself.

But ultimately, it's the city itself that overpowers Gil:
Emma, you and your poetry, me and my acting-what are we trying to do? We can't top this city. We poor would-be artists can't compete with or improve on the rich density of human experience on any random, average, slow summer night in New York-who are we trying to kid? In the overheard conversation in the elevator, in the five minutes of talk the panhandler gives you before hitting you for the handout, in the brief give-and-take when you are going out and the cleaning lady is coming in-there are the real stories, incredible, heart-breaking and ridiculous, there are the command performances, the Great American Novels but forever unwritten, untoppable, and so beautifully unaware.

Finally, Gil's exits from NY with the realization: Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to be said for the American Dream.  But you wake up from Dreams.  Emma goes her way and so does Lisa (who sells out to marriage much earlier in the novel and is yuppiefied).

As a first novel, it is an admirable piece of work, another "can't be put down" page turner, and in the case of this edition, a real hardcover book (not a Kindle -- one of the reasons I can quote extensively from it with ease to demonstrate Barnhardt's writing).  Plus, as it was originally published in 1989, there are some nice bookmaking features, the deckled edges, headbands and footbands, the three piece binding, but, best of all, endpapers photographed by Jerry Speier and hand-colored by Doris Borowsky.  You can't get this on a Kindle!

A Happy New Year to all.