Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Thursday, May 21, 2020


A labor of love over many years Explaining It to Someone: Learning From the Arts has been published and is available from Amazon in paperback at $18.95.  For those more digitally inclined, there is also a $3.99 Kindle edition.
The book’s very detailed Table of Contents serves as an index to the hundreds of writers, playwrights, songwriters, musicians, and performances that are described or reviewed.

The book began with the writing of this blog itself.  As a publisher, I have always been interested in good writing and meaningful reading but never imagined that I would have the creative juices to write myself, in particular the freedom from self censorship.  A writer’s life is not private, even if writing only fiction.  This blog was a liberating factor as it offered a platform for the discipline needed to write. 

I was particularly influenced by a book I read long before, Brenda Ueland’s, If You Want to Write; A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938.  She threw down the gauntlet for me: “At last I understood that writing was about this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling of truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it. If they did not – fine. They did not need to listen. That was all right too…. You should work from now on until you die, with real love and imagination and intelligence, at your writing or whatever work it is that you care about. If you do that, out of the mountains that you write some mole hills will be published…. But if nothing is ever published at all and you never make a cent, just the same it will be good that you have worked.”

I emphasize the last few words as they encapsulate my life.  To me it was not good enough to be the passive recipient of the cultural advantages I had in my life.  I felt compelled to share them, analyze them, say what they meant to me, and convey my unabashed exhilaration.

What I cover in Explaining It to Someone is eclectic to be sure.  It’s easier in many ways to deal with the works of a single writer.  Most of the work is related by the tether of my life experiences.  And, this is what distinguishes it from other works of criticism; I often relate it to personal experiences and the times.  These are times we all share.

When I read James Salter’s All That Is several years ago, the seeds of my (now) two published books were planted.  I ruminated over Salter’s epigram from this, his final novel, written thirty years after his last published work:

There comes a time when you
realize that everything is a dream
and only those things preserved in writing
have any possibility of being real

This made such an impression on me that I adopted his epigram for Explaining It to Someone as well. Yes, I said to myself, it is all well and good that I write this blog, but as a publisher, with deep roots in print editions, the digital world seems ephemeral.  Not that I have illusions that by appearing in print my writings magically become long-lived.  But they were NOT a dream, they ARE real and it is GOOD that I have worked.  It seemed inevitable that this volume, in particular, find its way to print (although editing concessions were made, and a Kindle edition exists as well).  
Although it is a companion work to my previously published Waiting for Someone to Explain It: The Rise of Contempt and Decline of Sense, it stands on its own.   Waiting for Someone is all things political and economics, borne out of frustration and disillusion, while Explaining It to Someone was written with passion about the arts.

It is ironic that I have chosen the non-traditional publishing route.  I did not see the commercial prospects of successfully landing this with a trade publisher or even a small press.  And I did not want constraints as to length, organization and content.  The irony about using the Amazon publishing platform is at one time during my publishing days, I dealt with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon when he was on his way up in the mid 1990’s (or perhaps I should say, up, up, and away!).

Little did I know that 25 years later they would become my publishing platform and Bezos the richest man in the world; unthinkable, and just over the last third of my life.

Using their platform and making your book professional requires either learning publishing software or hiring an intermediary to generate the two files that are necessary, one for on demand physical books and the other for the Kindle.  (Again, another irony not lost on me is a 1984 issue of Publishers’ Weekly carried an article on my vision for printing on demand).  I could learn the software, many people do, and if I was younger and wanted to spend precious time, that would have been my preferred route.  Instead I hired a company that specializes in the conversion process, BooknookBiz.  They have been very professional and I have a nice relationship with the owner, “Hitch.”  I enjoy our banter back and forth, her up to date digital knowledge vs. my circa 1960 -1970 production knowledge, the days when I was a “production guy.”

They initially estimated the present book would set out to 714 7 x 10” pages, way, way too large for me.  That’s when my antiquated production knowledge was brought to bear on the problem, resulting in an acceptable compromise, still a large book, 516 pages 6 x 9” and densely set, but readable. This relationship was reminiscent of the time when I handled printing and binding vendors, mostly in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Gone, gone are those days, but the memory lingers on.

The manuscript for this book went through three different editing passes before it was even submitted for conversion, and a major organizational effort (many thanks to my wife, Ann for her enduring help and insight).  In some respects it has the characteristics of a reference book because of the detailed table of contents. The more challenging post conversion issues were with the Kindle edition’s content page hyperlinks “landing” on the right spot in the 245,000 word text.

This might be the last book I write or the penultimate one, as I am thinking more about fiction and memoir perhaps in a couple of years if time and health are good to me, problematic given age and the pandemic, the latter being the stuff of dystopian science fiction only a few months ago. 

What I have to say in this book will be the formative foundation of any I might tackle in the future.  Indeed, most of the writers and musical artists I cover in Explaining It to Someone; Learning From the Arts are my teachers and I am their grateful and humble student.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Reading (Continued)

While living on the boat, we are able to catch up on our reading.  As I haven’t made the transition to the Kindle yet, we ship up a box of books for the summer and they sit on our little bookshelf on the boat, awaiting their turn.  Part of the fun is looking through them, deciding upon the next read.  I selected a number of novels, some recommended by our son, Jonathan.

It took a younger generation, Jonathan to be precise, to introduce me to some fresh, intelligent and extremely moving literature, not only Eric Puchner's Model Home which I thought was a fabulous first novel, and now his second recommendation, another first novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall which was published in 2001 (Puchner’s novel is more recent, 2010). 

These are extraordinary first novels, major literary talent.  Udall has published his follow up, widely praised as well, The Lonely Polygamist which I have yet to read.  Interestingly, both the Puchner and Udall novels are set in the west and southwest (when I think of that area, I think of the photograph below I took somewhere in the southwest years ago), perhaps the new home of the American dream or the American nightmare.  However, the two novels differ greatly in their perspectives and voice, Puchner reminding me somewhat of Updike, Cheever, and Yates, while Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is a little Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, Rule of the Bone and The Book of Mormon  oh, and throw in the Paul Newman film, Hombre, about a half breed Apache.

Udall writes a genuine Bildungsroman, our lovable but struggling protagonist Edgar Mint living out an upside down life (“In many ways, it occurs to me now, I have lived my life in reverse.  In the first half of my life I had to make all the hard choices and ride out the consequences, while in the second half I have lived the sheltered and uncluttered life of a child.”)  He is an orphan but like Oliver Twist has to go through a horrific childhood before emerging into the sunshine of a loving caretaker.

Along the way we meet his friends and his Fagins, the story gathering force and momentum as it unfolds, beginning with his self-assessment: “If my life could be contained in a word it would be this one: accident.”  From there it is one finely written calamity to the next culminating in a complete circle, Edgar achieving peace and a kind of maturity that only hardship can teach.

He is a half breed, part white (a “cowboy” father from Connecticut of all places!) and an Apache mother who becomes an alcoholic and deserts Edgar, who ends up in an orphanage from hell, not unlike those in Dickens’ novels. (“For the seven years my mother and I were together, I was nothing but an inconvenience to her, a burden, a source of pain, and her pregnancy with me was no exception.”)

Like the last book I read, Richard Ford’s Canadaits first paragraph is spellbinding: “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this:  when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close; my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.”

He actually dies but a young doctor, Barry Pinkley (even the names give homage to Dickens) brings him back to life and Pinkley becomes obsessed with Edgar’s well being afterwards (“Everyone agreed that my survival was either an absolute miracle or a freak happenstance…but there was also general agreement that simple survival was as far as the miracle would go: there was no chance on earth I was going to be anything but a mental and physical equivalent of a turnip.”)  But Edgar befriends an older man in the hospital, Art, and when Edgar is diagnosed with “Dysgraphia,” the “inability to write,” Art insists that they get Edgar a typewriter.  Even though Edgar confesses: “I have to say it was not love at first sight,” when he was given a Hermes Jubilee 2000 typewriter. It becomes his salvation and he carries the albatross of his enormous output in a trunk wherever he moves: great comic fiction with lots of dark humor driving the story.

Out of the hospital he is sent to the William Tecumseh Sherman School (“My first day of school at Willie Sherman and I was about to realize that I was no longer Saint Edgar the miracle-boy, hospital sweetheart, beloved by all, but a walking target, a chicken among the foxes.  Not only was I the new kid…[and] not only was I a crossbreed.”)

But our hero survives and he is finally placed with a foster family in Utah, a Mormon family, the Madsens, as dysfunctional as any other American family, but at least a warm bed for Edgar, who thinks that this is the answer to his salvation, even receiving Baptismal and endeavoring to learn the Mormon religion.  That too is not the answer for him, but he thinks he has developed a calling in life and that is to find the mailman and to forgive him (Edgar knows that the mailman thinks he had killed him).

While Barry Pinkley and his foster mother Lara Madsen figure prominently near the novel’s conclusion, it is ultimately from this “calling” that the novel culminates into one of the finest written last chapters that I’ve read in years, gripping in its emotional power and a testimony to Udall’s writing gifts by constructing the perfect coda. 

As I am merely about ten years late in discovering this novel, there are plenty of other sources for more information, but both Udall and Puncher are on my radar screen for fine writing in the future.

Before posting this I also finished Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem, another recommendation made by my son.  I do not mean to diminish its importance by not covering this novel with its own entry, but mysteries are not my usual reading fare and I feel a little off base reviewing the book.  But while a mystery, this novel is a brilliant piece of writing, with the very clever conceit of the main character, Lionel Essrog, having Tourette's syndrome which gives Lethem a platform for demonstrating his writing skills.  I’m also partial to Motherless Brooklyn as it is set not far from where I lived for almost ten years and through Lethem I could almost feel the macadam of the setting, Court Street, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. 

It shares some of the themes of Udall’s novel as well, a novel about an orphan, Dickensian characters, a coming of age story but in the form of a detective novel, our erstwhile hero endeavoring to find the murderer of his mentor, an underworld character, Frank Minna, who has rounded up Lionel and other orphans from the “St. Vincent Home for Boys” to serve his nefarious ends, not unlike, again, Oliver Twist’s upbringing.

The “language” of  Tourette's is like a coiled spring throughout Lethem’s tour de force: “I’m tightly wound. I’m a loose cannon.  Both – I’m tightly wound loose cannon a tight loose.  My whole life exists in the space between those words, tight, loose, and there isn’t any space there – they should be one word, tightloose.  I’m an air bag in a dashboard, packed up layer upon layer in readiness for that moment when I get to explode, expand all over you, fill every available space.  Unlike an airbag, though, I’m repacked the moment I’ve exploded, am tensed and ready again to explode – like some safety-film footage cut into a loop, all I do is compress and release, over and over, never saving or satisfying anyone, least myself.  Yet the tape plays on pointlessly, obsessive air bag exploding again and again while life itself goes on elsewhere, outside the range of these antic expenditures.”

 There is one surprise after another in these pages, a labyrinth that the reader is compelled to negotiate to a fitting ending.  Simply put: I loved reading Motherless Brooklyn. One is always rooting for Lionel, his eccentricities giving him a special place in literature and, no doubt, the mystery genre.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

King Time

What better way of ringing in the New Year than writing about the past? In my case, there is much more of that than the future. Sounds like a downer, but it's one of those facts we all have to own up to. Nothing like a good book to get one thinking about such things.

So, it was about time that I read Stephen King's new book about time, 11/22/63.

First, a confession. I am one of the few people on the face of the earth who had never read a Stephen King anything. Maybe it is my abhorrence of the horror genre or maybe it is because my literary taste finds me eschewing most books that make the best seller list. So why turn to King, later in his career and late in my life?

It took one of our habitual long summer Florida/Connecticut commutes to change my mind. We usually pick up a few books on tape (well, now, on CD), swapping our used ones for "new" used ones at a local used-book store (yes, they still exist, thankfully). On a whim, as I am interested in the art of writing, I picked up Stephen King's On Writing. It was good, in fact spellbinding, King being able to weave memoir with mentoring -- a no nonsense guide to being a good writer (simply put, hard work). I thought it fascinating, maybe because I was a captive audience driving along I95 for hours and hours, but thinking, hey, if I had instead invested those mega hours of my publishing career into King's prescription for becoming a published writer....what if? It got me thinking about the past. But I've always lived with nostalgia on my brain (witness many entries in this blog).

A slight detour in King's usual genre finally brought me to his fiction. I liked science fiction as a kid. In high school, before my senior year when I discovered Thomas Hardy, I had thought, as a nascent reader, that the epitome of fiction was H. G. Well's Time Machine. So, after hearing King's On Writing, I thought I'd like to read something of his if only he would depart his horror / suspense thing. And as if my wishes were granted by a paranormal power, along came King's 11/22/63, more historical and science fiction than anything else.

I ordered it from Amazon so Ann could give it to me for Christmas, but it arrived on the 48th anniversary of 11/22/63, soon after I had just posted a brief piece recounting my dark memory of Kennedy's assassination.

One of King's themes is that the past is harmonic -- that there are events that seem to reflect one another, or rhyme, in one's own life when juxtaposed to others. I guess I took the arrival of the book on that very day as a providential sign, an harmonic event, it was meant to be that I should start it immediately, even though I was in the middle of another book.

I will not dwell on plot here other than to say what any reader of the legion of book reviews already knows -- that the main character goes back in time with the intention of preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy and thus (he thinks) change history for the better. And I am not going to go into detail concerning the conceit he uses to rationalize the mechanics of Jake / George travelling back and forth from the present to sometime in 1958. Let's just call it a time portal.

King's writing is all about his characters and in 11/22/63 the tale is told as a first person account by our stalwart hero, Jake Epping (as he is named in the "Land of Ahead") AKA George Amberson (in the "Land of Ago"). It is as if Jake/George pulled up a chair and tapped the reader on the shoulder and said "I have a fascinating -- no unbelievable -- story to tell you, but it's true, so listen to every word" and you, the reader, feel thoroughly compelled to do so. King's tale is a page turner, moving along with an alacrity that makes the 900 or so pages fly by.

And while much of the book is almost conversational, there are those moments when King shows his mastery of suspense and horror, such as when George first returns to the past and decides, as an experiment which will ultimately lead to his main purpose of changing history, to prevent a murder that he knows is going to happen in the late 1950's. For me the most engaging invention of the novel was the invitation to live in the past once again. The scenes King paints are familiar ones, a land without cell phones, computers, color TVs (or any TVs at all in my case, remembering our first TV, a Dumont the size of Asia with a tiny screen, that arrived sometime in the late 40s in our household), seat belts, and when lyrics like "wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom" and "itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini" wafted the radio airwaves. Or to put it another way, gas that was 20 cents a gallon, and a pack of cigarettes costing about the same.

When George first goes to 1958, he has to board a bus: ."I let the working Joes go ahead of me, so I could watch how much money they put in the pole-mounted coin receptacle next to the driver's seat. I felt like an alien in a science fiction move, one who's trying to masquerade as an earthling. It was stupid -- I wanted to ride the city bus, not blow up the White House with a death-ray -- but that didn't change the feeling."
While King's supernatural / horror themes may be more latent in this book, they are nonetheless subliminally there, reminding us that we're all in this ship of time together and none will get out alive. There is a foreboding feeling to 11/22/63, all those moments of the past, all the choices that lead to the present, with the future becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of all of our lives.

King deals with several elements of what he thinks time travel might have involved, all interesting and plausible. Among these is his theory that time's "resistance to change is proportional to how much the future might be altered by any given act," something he mentions earlier in the novel and sort of foreshadows what eliminating Oswald might mean.

He also deals with the "butterfly effect." As his fellow time traveler, Al, puts it, "It means small events can have large, whatchamdingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later -- or four hundred -- there's an earthquake in Peru." (More foreshadowing.)

And the butterfly effect is the reason why, as George stalks Oswald, he decides to do nothing to even cross his path before it is time to act (that is, if he does act -- no spoiler here): "If there's a stupider metaphor than a chain of events in the English language, I don't know what it is. Chains...are strong. We use them to pull engine blocks out of trucks and to bind the arms and legs of dangerous prisoners. That was no longer reality as I understood it. Events are flimsy, I tell you, they are houses of cards, and by approaching Oswald -- let alone trying to warn him off a crime which he had not even conceived -- I would be giving away my only advantage. The butterfly would spread its wings, and Oswald's course would change. Little changes at first, maybe, but as the Bruce Springsteen song tells us, from small things, baby, big things one day come. They might be good changes, ones that would save the man who was now the junior senator from Massachusetts. But I didn't believe that. Because the past is obdurate."

At his most eloquent, King philosophizes about the "harmonics" of time watching as Jake/George - teachers both past and present - observe two students, Mike and Bobbi, dance the Lindy as had George and Sadie (the gal he falls in love with in the past): "The night's harmonic came during the encore...It's all of a piece, I thought. It's an echo so close to perfect you can't tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don't we all secretly know this? It's a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark."

It is also a well researched historical novel, with King mostly playing down the conspiracy theories while nonetheless providing for the remote possibility. He makes his historical characters real -- this is a Lee Harvey Oswald you get to know as a flesh and blood person (not someone most would want to know, but a real person). One especially feels sympathy for his wife, Marina, an abused woman in a strange land. In fact George draws a parallel (harmonics again) to his love, Sadie, thinking about taking Sadie to the future with him: "I could see her lost in 2011, eyeing every low-riding pair of pants and computer screen with awe and unease. I would never beat her or shout at her -- no not Sadie -- but she might still become my Marina Prusakova, living in a strange place and exiled from her homeland forever."

And it was satisfying to hold the book itself, an impressive tome with a fabulous jacket, one side depicting the past as we know it and the other the past that might have been. In On Writing, King insists that writers must be readers. 11/22/63 is a book to be read.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Marina Maiden Voyage

I've been unable to post the past few weeks as we were on the maiden voyage of a beautiful new ship, Oceania's Marina, the first built by Oceania, who's current fleet is made up by the smaller ships of the Renaissance Line which ceased operations about ten years ago. Although the Marina is now Oceania's largest ship, it is still relatively small by today's mega cruise ship standards, "only" 66,000 tons, 785 feet LOA, and 105 foot beam.
No rock climbing walls, water slides, ice skating rinks, merry go rounds, etc. on the Marina. This ship was built to the exacting standards of adults who like some of the traditional touches reminiscent of what it was like to cruise in the halcyon days of trans Atlantic crossings, before jet travel almost destroyed the industry, and before Disney-like, mega ships made the cruise industry a mass market destination. (Think of the difference between Masterpiece Theater's recent Downton Abbey and the movie Rambo.) I will defer my comments on the details of the ship as they can be easily gleaned from Oceania's website.

My entry is about the voyage itself and what it meant to us. Our cruise began in Barcelona, the ship having just been delivered from an Italian shipyard, so we flew overnight from Atlanta to meet the ship. We had visited Barcelona before so decided to go directly to the ship this time, after a brief bus tour on the way, which took us past throngs of visitors to the unfinished church La Sagrada Familia by Catalan architect Anton Gaudi. They had opened the church free of charge to all that day and it seems like everyone in Barcelona was there to show their respect and express their awe.

After boarding the Marina, we quickly learned the distinction between a "maiden voyage" and an "inaugural cruise." Maiden voyage is AKA a shakedown cruise. There were dozens of subcontractors on board the ship and over breakfast one morning, one said to me, imagine you built a brand new house and just moved in. That is what a maiden voyage is like, attending to all the last minute details that, no matter how good the builder and the architect might be, are still waiting to be observed and tested.

Compound this by putting your "new house" on the ocean, and it becomes a self-contained city that must manufacture its own fresh water, handle waste, supply its own propulsion and electricity, etc, and then be able to deal with the potential vicissitudes of what the ocean might throw your way. He said that part of their presence on board was not only to help with whatever issues arose, but to educate the crew and officers. There were lectures each day being given by the subcontractors in a private boardroom. When you think about all that could go wrong, in retrospect it is adventuresome for passengers to book a maiden voyage, particularly one scheduled to cross the Atlantic, eight days of running new engines and systems 24x7.

It is also a floating hotel, new staff, new kitchens, new housekeeping facilities. We were surprised to learn that some of the new staff had never served on a ship before. A young man from South Africa admitted he had never been on water, so it was no surprise that it took him a couple of days to get his sea legs, especially as those days were so windy and rough (20 foot seas in the Med) that we were unable to dock at our first scheduled port of Malaga, so we headed back out to sea. I made it a point to regularly check with our young South African friend who was assigned to the dining room and the buffet to clear tables to see how he was getting along and as the seas calmed, he beamed more and more, especially looking forward to our ultimate destination of Miami. South Beach, here he comes!

Actually, if I had to point out one subtle aspect of the staff on board this new ship it was how they interacted with each other. Of course you expect them to be courteous and friendly to the passengers, but they also seemed to have a great esprit de corps, always smiling, helping the other. That is where the fine training of the Oceana line showed. The ship is also stately, traditionally designed, beautiful woods, and large windows to bring in the light. Nothing garish here, other than the Martini Bar, but that, too fit in with the theme.

I'll also briefly point out that the cuisine and service on board were excellent, four specialty restaurants to choose from at no additional charge. In fact, to make up for some of the minor inconveniences of the maiden voyage, Oceania served wine and cocktails at meals at no additional charge, something that was unexpected and appreciated by all.

Perhaps the worst seas were as we transited the Strait of Gibraltar, that narrow funnel connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, where the saltier Mediterranean works its way westward below the Atlantic's flow, the less dense and less saltier Atlantic flowing eastward. Add to that mix the 50 mile per hour winds at the time, and the seas built, with one particularly large wave that knocked everyone over who were sitting on heavy high backed stools at the piano bar (thankfully, there were no injuries). These seas gradually abated as we approached our second scheduled port (now our first), Casablanca, the economic (but not the political) capital of Morocco. Fortunately, the weather was nice for our tour of the city, although in the back of my mind was the Egyptian uprising which was then underway in Cairo, not to mention the Tunisian riots. However, the poverty in Morocco, at least what we saw, is not as oppressive as in other Arab countries. According to Matt Schumann of Morocco Board "Moroccans love stability." Everywhere, though, one can see photos and posters of the current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI.

Casablanca reminded me of parts of Istanbul, with a moderate Muslim population. One thing in common too is the beautiful Mosque in Casablanca, one of the largest in the world, the Hassan II Mosque, built to overlook the Atlantic ocean which can be seen through its huge glass floor. Between the Mosque and the courtyard it can accommodate over 100,000 worshipers. It has the tallest minaret in the world. We were allowed in part way. I was carrying around the sheet music of "As Time Goes By" hoping to play it at Rick's Cafe, which of course is merely a recreated version for silly American tourists such as myself (I think the cafe is now in its fourth iteration), the film of course having been entirely shot in a Hollywood studio, so I finally decided to defer a visit. Actually, my favorite part of the tour, other than the Mosque, was the central marketplace, where real life takes place in the heart of Casablanca.

An amusing sidelight was a quarrel between our tour guide and the bus driver as the bus approached an underpass on the busy streets of Casablanca. The bus had the option of avoiding the underpass by going up the side road, but that would have meant more traffic and he clearly wanted no part of that. The tour guide seemed to be warning the driver (in Moroccan Arabic of course) that there would not be enough clearance for the bus, so as the driver approached the underpass, he stopped the bus, got out, and eyeballed the heights of each, cars behind blaring their horns, and he made the executive decision to proceed (by that time he would have had to back out100 yards of highway with a multitude of cars behind, so it was an expedient decision). We slowly crawled forward, the bus driver's smile beaming as we proceeded without incident until the scraping and crunching of metal against cement reverberated throughout the bus. Recriminations and hysteria erupted between the two. I had visions of waiting hours for another bus, walking this exhaust-fumed filled tunnel in Casablanca. (Perhaps letting air out of the tires might help?) However, since we were able to transit part of the way in, logic had it that we might be able to back up (with a little crunching) which we did to the extent that cars behind allowed. A policeman finally showed up (lucky for us, but not for the bus driver as it turned out) and was able to halt traffic so we could make our slow backward escape and, when free, the bus was ordered to pull over so the poor driver could be cited. Not a good day for him.

Back to the ship, we disembarked for our next port, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, in the Canary Islands. Tenerife is a volcanic island, with black volcanic sand on some beaches, but also beautiful sandy beaches imported from nearby Africa's Saharan desert. Our tour took us to the Village of Taganana which is high in the Anaga mountain range, also stopping at Pico del Inglés with views of the northern part of the Anaga mountain range somewhat shrouded in mist. Here we sampled local wine, goat cheese and delicious olives which no one could stop eating. Finally, on the return to the ship we toured San Cristóbal de La Laguna, which used to be the capital of the Canary Islands in ancient times.

That evening the ship cast off her lines for the 3,500 mile trip across the southern Atlantic. Many on board were concerned that the rough seas of the past couple of days would shadow us, but this is the time of the year when that would be the exception in this part of the Atlantic and in the following days the seas calmed to the point I could have taken my old 15' Boston Whaler across without incident (other than trying to hold enough fuel!).

This was our third Atlantic crossing. The first one was in 1977 when we took the old QE2 across. I was attending the Frankfurt Book Fair but thought I'd bring Ann (and Jonathan, who had just learned to walk), first to London via the ship and then finally flying home. I was intent on making the journey once in my life just to experience this mode of transportation, taken by countless travelers for centuries before, that I thought would completely disappear, not foreseeing the days of an entirely new leisure cruise industry with numerous "repositioning" cruises across the oceans.

The QE2 cruise was interesting on the one hand and a disaster on the other. It was still in the days of classes. I remember going off to dinner, we to the second class restaurant, dressed up, but rather informally, while those in 1st Class were off to dine in their formal finery, buttoned up in their tuxedos and gowns. One of my publishing competitors was traveling that way. We respectfully nodded to each other, but of course that was the extent of it. Sort of like opposing WW I pilots saluting one another in the sky. I liked 2nd class! On the other hand, the trip was in October, with traditional fall storms forming and blowing across the Atlantic, and the stately old QE2 was not stabilized, so the ship rolled for days, to the point of everyone getting seasick. Our poor son, who had just learned to walk, had to relearn after disembarking.

Things have drastically changed in the leisure cruise industry. Oceania has tried to retain some of the niceties of cruise years gone by, such as afternoon tea, but of course, other aspects of cruising are more egalitarian (other than the size and position of one's cabin). Many cruise lines have made their ships destinations onto themselves, sort of like giant floating theme parks, definitely not for us.

So what does one do for eight days at sea? The ship provides all sorts of entertainment (at night) and activities by day. Also, as the days became warmer, the pool area became an attractive destination. One could always tell who lived in cold climates as they squeezed in as much sun time as possible. Many chose to play games, bridge being popular and now Mah Jong as well (Ann being one of the movers and shakers organizing games each day, sometimes winning as much as $2.00!) She also attended the "Bon Appétit Culinary Center" so she could learn to cook the “finest cuisine at sea” and, indeed, the food on the Marina was 5 star in every dining venue. I started each day in the well-equipped gym with a half-hour on the treadmill. I was amused that according to the calorie read out, I burned enough to justify the prior evening's dessert.

We both liked to attend the lectures given by the Oceanographer who was traveling with us, Dr. Stuart Nelson. I've heard him speak before on another Oceania cruise, but as Ann says, he could read the phone book and be interesting.

But mostly during the languid afternoons, I'd find a quiet nook, or sit on the balcony of our room, watching the Ocean gently roll by, reading my books, almost finishing four novels during that period, two of which I brought and other two from the ship's library. So my literary friends for the journey were Canin, Shreve, Walter, and Casey.

The first one I read was America America by Ethan Canin. It was recommended by a good friend whose daughter knows the author, who teaches at Iowa writer's workshop, the same one where Carver, Cheever, and Irving have taught, some of my favorite authors. Canin was a discovery for me, reminding me very much of some of my other favorite writers such as Richard Russo and Russell Banks, with upstate northeast small town and family dynamic themes. It is also a coming of age novel, with shadows of Fitzgerald's Gatsby and its American dream focus (from which the novel derives its bold title) -- glimpses into the upper classes with the reminder that behind every great fortune is a great sin. Shifts in chronology make it interesting reading as well and sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one, and I look forward to the future work of Ethan Canin.
I discovered Anita Shreve's Rescue in the ship's library and as I like her writing, in particular the Weight of Water, Pilot's Wife, Sea Glass, and Body Surfing, I snapped up the copy while I was finishing America America. Rescue comes uncomfortably close to my personal life, not that I was an EMT, but married early, "rescuing" not only my first wife, but myself. It is about codependency and dysfunctional families and alcoholism, but it too is a coming of age novel, the two main characters becoming what they were meant to be in the end. It is a very sparse novel, written in typical fluid Shreve style, with a sense of immediacy. This is not a novel to be read for the plot. It's all about the characters and the writing.

So, finishing that book I calculated that I'd finish the other novel I had brought (more on that later) so I panicked as the other novels I had seen in the ship's library -- at least those that I might have been interested in reading -- I had already read, but then I came across an unexpected treasure, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. I'm wary reading books by the "younger generation" although I have a high regard for Jonathan Franzen's works -- who was born when I was graduating from high school. Jess Walter is even younger than Franzen, a Generation Xer, but I was intrigued by the title and the fact that Richard Russo wrote a brief testimonial which was conspicuous on the jacket. I trust Russo: "When it comes to explaining to me my own too often baffling nation, there's no one writing today whom I trust as completely as Jess Walter. His intelligence and sympathy and great wit inform every page--indeed every sentence--of his terrific new novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets.". That was enough for me to give it a try, and I am glad I did. (As I publisher, I was always dubious about the effectiveness of testimonial blurbs -- but they obviously work!)

This is a very funny but tragic book, a look at the financial debacle of the past few years and its impact on the main character, Matt Prior who had quit his job at the height of the financial boom to start a business web site that was to report news in verse, called He had borrowed to start his business while his wife became a compulsive shopper on EBay trying to resell petty merchandise at a profit ("everyone else is doing it!") and before they knew it their family, consisting of them, their two sons and Matt's increasingly senile father who is now living in their home, become embroiled in a financial nightmare. It is told, though, with the skill of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, updated for the world. Like Rescue, it is about some poor choices, but redemption is found at the end. It is a totally imaginative novel, one that seems so natural even though it is so satiric. In addition to Ethan Canin, I will be watching out for Jess Walter's future works.

Finally, I turned to the other novel I brought with me, John Casey's Spartina. I wanted to read this before Casey's sequel, Compass Rose, and also because it was a National Book Award–winning book. I was immediately drawn in because it is about the sea, and, in particular, an area we had regularly traversed in our own boat -- the waters off of Rhode Island. And it is about a commercial fishermen, one I might have met during my boating life, and the vicissitudes they endure because of their love of the sea (the main one, just trying to make a living). Dick Pierce is not only a fisherman but he is a boat-builder as well and he is building the boat of his dreams, one that is to provide for his family but also one that he views as a work of art. Casey brings his environment to life, whether it is in the cockpit of a fishing boat, heaving off the seas of Block Island, or the back marshes of the New England coast. Casey's writing is achingly heartfelt and even though I am not yet quite finished with the novel (I have a tendency to drag out those novels I am enjoying the most), I know this one will want to bring me to Compass Rose soon after.

The other benefit of a long cruise is meeting other people, and some of the photos I posted show us with other couples, all of whom we enjoyed being with. They were from all walks of life, and I'll mention that among the men were Mike, who happens to live nearby, and who was in the publishing business so we had acquaintances in common, Jim, who was an attaché to Henry Kissinger, John, who owned a food distribution business and retired for many years to a French mill house in Bordeaux, and Aubrey, a riotous Englishman with a droll sense of humor who sold wigs for a living and whose hand shake was like a vice -- I had to actually ice my hand that evening if I ever hoped to play the piano again!

All in all, an interesting, memorable experience, topped off by the traditional water cannon salute that greets a new ship, as we entered the Port of Miami. As a lark, I thought I'd try to capture the moment using my non-video digital camera, the first time I ever used the feature. Had I known it was going to work as well as it would , I would have done a better job with composition and zooming, but, nonetheless, I posted it on YouTube (also my first).

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Kindle is a Grinch

Ann wanted one thing for the holidays, a Kindle, so badly in fact, she opened that box from Amazon as soon as my gift arrived, activated the device and now she carries it with her wherever she goes.

But I was not thinking through the serious collateral damage in giving her such a Christmas present. It now deprives me of the one great gift giving pleasure I have had at this time of the year, deciding what books to give her, wrapping them carefully, taking such pleasure in hopefully guessing what she would love, handling those handsome books, some with deckled edges or beautiful illustrations, and then sharing the experience of watching her open them on Christmas morning. Simply put, I now no longer have anything that I love to buy for the holidays as I really don't enjoy almost any other gift giving.

The truth be told, I would also slip in a book or two that I know I would enjoy reading, maybe a recent novel by Anne Tyler who we both love. And that is another Kindle theft -- how does she share a downloaded Tyler novel with me after she is finished reading it if she is always on the Kindle?

I'm not a Luddite, and see the advantages of the Kindle, particularly for traveling, but apparently it is addictive -- once hooked, that is how one reads. The holidays have changed enough for us, having raised our children, they now living far away, so we have segued from the snowy family Christmases in Connecticut, the big fresh cut tree, setting up the train set for the kids and wrapping their presents, and let's not forget one another, to the artificial holidays here in Florida (although there is a wonderful tradition here to light luminaria all along our road on Christmas Eve) .

The only remnant of our own Christmas decorations is now a wreath on our door, but, still, there was always the anticipation of giving books for the holiday, a pleasure now stolen by the Kindle Grinch.

Nonetheless, from Christmases past, Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good-night!


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Taxing Question

How rich is too rich? Actually, I published a book by that title almost twenty years ago and some of its ideas are as relevant today as it was then (How Rich Is Too Rich; Income and Wealth in America by Herbert Inhaber and Sidney Carroll: Praeger, 1992). Two points from that book stuck with me. First, there is the very descriptive opening chapter of looking at income distribution as an imaginary "sixty minute grand parade," tax payers being the marchers, grouped by their height which would be representative of their incomes, the first marchers having the lowest income and the last the highest, with "height" determined by the "average" taxable income being equal to the "average" height of an individual American. The "parade" in effect is an X/Y graph, the Y axis being the income (height), and the X axis being the minutes of the "parade." The first few minutes one sees no marchers even though we can hear some noise. These are people with negative height, those who report the loss of money in that taxable year. It isn't until about ten minutes into the parade that we see marchers between 10 and 24 inches in height and it isn't until 36 minutes we see the so called "average height" taxpayer march by. With about only 20 minutes left, heights begin to rise dramatically. With the last five minutes giants appear, people whose heads are so high we can hardly make out their faces without binoculars. The marchers in the very last minute of the parade are so tall we can only see their feet. These are people of accumulated, sometimes inherited, wealth and in the last few seconds the marchers are the size of sky scrapers. In effect, the parade shows a slowly rising gradient until the far right of the curve when it begins a parabolic rise and then shoots straight up off the graph.

While the numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, the concept has not. Probably, if anything, the "parade" has become even more dramatic, more parabolic, with a steeper rise at the end. And, those at the end of the parade pay now less as a percentage of their income to the government than at any time before.

To listen to the Tea Partiers, a roll back of taxes of the very wealthiest to pre-Bush rates, is an evil, evil thing. Just think of the trickle-down effect that would be lost to the little folk who stand in line for the crumbs falling from the tables of the fabulously wealthy. It is ironic that these dire warnings of the effects of a tax increase on the wealthy are carried into battle on banners hoisted by "Joe the Plumbers" -- it shows the power of the conservative media and the most virulent impact of the Internet. It just makes no sense that the people near the middle of the parade should become pawns for the people at the very end.

Actually, I think the converse is true: it is an evil thing for people who have benefitted from being able to accumulate wealth in the greatest of all capitalist democracies, not to give back more for that opportunity. The argument goes that asking these people to pay more will remove the incentive for them to work, and maybe if we're talking about 70 percent of one's income that might be true. But in 2000, people reporting AGIs of more than $1 million paid 28% of their income as taxes vs. 23% five years later. In 2005 there were 304,000 households reporting income of more than $1 million, more than a trillion dollars of income or $3.375 million per household. And mind you of those, there are a few at the very end of the "parade" with incomes that have so many zeros they would be hard to read. The latter are sports stars, entertainers, and, of course, very, very successful entrepreneurs. Are they going to work "less hard" by paying an additional five percent overall? That five percent would mean another $50 billion going to the US Treasury, at least a beginning to address the ongoing deficit. And, of course, if you look at the $250,00 level as the cut off as suggested by President Obama, there is much more to be gleaned, but given the midterm elections, that level is probably going to be raised if it is not eliminated altogether.

The alternatives that are occasionally pushed by the Tea crowd, such as a flat tax, is, in effect, a regressive tax, with the lower income people having to pay the same taxes on necessities as the wealthy, which just further splits the great economic divide in this country. A national sales tax does the same thing and as we are now so dependent on consumer spending, that could be the death knell for the economy. No, a progressive tax structure has been this country's basis for supporting it's national programs and we have been able to grow in spite of these supposed "disincentives" of higher taxes at a higher bracket.

No doubt the current tax structure is hopelessly and needlessly complicated and THAT is where the discussion should also be focused. There are so many loopholes, that a revised graduated tax structure would not have much teeth without addressing those as well. And then there is the issue of capital gains and dividends. We certainly want to encourage taxpayers to reinvest in our equity markets.

The other point I never forgot from that book was its commentary on the estate tax, arguing against the estate tax altogether, provided there was an alternative system of "estate dispersion." Rather than taxing one's estate at death, it suggested a tax-free dispersement up to a certain level per recipient (rather than per estate). For argument's sake, call that $1 million per recipient. Amounts exceeding that would begin to be taxed on some kind of graduated basis. Those would be life time totals, so if an individual receives money from different inheritances, they would be accumulated and taxed on that scale. "No longer would the estate tax system generate an American royalty -- those freed from the need ever to be economically productive. This alternative system would generate for all the incentive that most of us have in the outcome of our own economic lives. No longer would a large part of our national wealth be beyond responsive use."

Now, the incredibly wealthy could give a million dollars each to a thousand different people, all tax free (if those recipients also received no other inheritances in their lifetimes). The point is that those thousand people would put that capital to work, rather than vesting a billion dollars in one's immediate family who might decide to simply live off the income and pass it on to the next generation, and the next. Or he/she could still leave more to the immediate family, but it would be subject to taxation, perhaps substantial taxation on a graduated basis.

"Wealth great enough to entitle one to membership in the elite comes from two sources -- enormous earnings or inheritance. Prudent public policy should allow those, who, through individual ingenuity, talent, or luck, gain a fortune to use and enjoy it for life...but if these individuals have the power to transmit immense wealth to others after death...they can write the rules controlling this wealth, possibly many generations into the future. This breaks the chain of personal effort that is tightly bound, for most of us, to personal reward. Economic resources, controlled by rules set up by the dead, are denied to those who might well be more productive."

If the Republicans and Tea Partiers interpret their gains to mean they now have carte blanche to keep the Bush tax cuts for the highest wealth tier -- people who would not be hurt by some roll back to pre-Bush tax levels -- the result will only increase the deficit further. There would seem to be no upside to such an action; in effect it is a spending initiative something they claim to condemn. Failure to make tax reforms that lead to a more graduated income tax and closing loopholes, and not having a sensible inheritance tax also just further drives a stake between the haves and the have-nots.

On a related subject, the so called "wealth effect" the Federal Reserve is trying to engineer with its QE2, is still another factor favoring the haves. This is convincingly analyzed by my fellow blogger over at Fund My Mutual Fund in his posting Who Will Any Form of Intermediate Term Wealth Effect Really Help? Not the Masses. It is well worth reading.

A tranquil reprive from QE2 and the upcoming taxation battle in Congress

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Bridge For the Ages

Perhaps there is a time and place for every book. Some are instant successes while others are discovered and appreciated or even become classics long after the author is deceased. Similarly, there is a time or place for a particular book in a reader’s life. For me, I should have read the one I recently finished, David McCullough’s “biography” of the Brooklyn Bridge (The Great Bridge, 1972) when I lived in Brooklyn during the 1960’s. I say “biography” rather than history as after reading his work, it feels like a living, breathing bulwark, a creation for the ages, one that was built while New York was just beginning to become a vertical city. When it was built, its 275-foot towers dwarfed everything in New York and Brooklyn, except Trinity Church, the tallest structure in Manhattan when it was built in 1846, at 281 feet. But the bridge’s two towers are massive as well.

Over the years, New York, and Brooklyn, grew around the bridge, and by the time I lived in Brooklyn, to most New Yorkers it was just part of the skyline. Although I appreciated its architecture, particularly the few times I had crossed the bridge on its walkways, I confess I was somewhat oblivious to its extraordinary engineering (particularly for the time) and its intricate history. After college in Brooklyn, I lived mostly in downtown Brooklyn, at 175 Willoughby Street and also at 234 Lincoln Place in the Park Slope section. After Chris was born in 1965, a favorite destination for a Sunday walk was the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the Brooklyn Bridge rising majestically at the north end.

Oh, had McCullough’s magnificent history been written before then. I might have had a greater appreciation for how the bridge transformed the city and the engineering genius and architectural greatness of the structure. McCullough writes a biography as a novel, putting the reader into the times and the minds of the main characters. It is his later work, such as his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of John Adams that is leading me to his earlier histories. Here is his finely crafted description of the completed bridge, prose worthy of any novel: “The very shabbiness and stunted scale of the old neighborhood beneath the tower worked to the advantage of the bridge, which by contrast seemed an embodiment of the noblest aspirations, majestic, heaven-directed, lifting into the light above the racket, the shabbiness, and the confusion of the waterfront, the way a great cathedral rises over the hovels of the faithful. And the twin archways in the tower, seen from the street level, looked like vast vacant windows to the sky. For a child seeing it at night, the tower could have been the dark and mighty work of medieval giants. Where on earth could one see so many stars framed in granite?”

The building of the bridge is a microcosm of everything that is great and deplorable about mankind. John Roebling, a German born engineer and builder of The Roebling Suspension Bridge, spanning the Ohio at Cincinnati, completed plans for the Brooklyn Bridge but an accident led to his death before work commenced in 1869. His son, Washington Roebling, also an engineer, took over the plans and the responsibilities of the bridge, but during the construction of the massive foundations – to the depth of almost 45 feet on the Brooklyn side and 78 feet on the New York side – he suffered the effects of the bends from being in one of the huge caissons that had to be constructed and sunk for that purpose. As a consequence, he had a nervous condition and supervised the remaining construction from home on Brooklyn Heights. He did not even have the strength to attend the opening (his wife, Emily, was his steadfast emissary for such occasions). Meanwhile he had to contend with charges of kickbacks (his family owned one of the suppliers of steel cables) and a changing political scene ranging from Boss Tweed to various showdowns with politicians trying to grab headlines for themselves. He was even asked to resign at one point; he refused and insisted they (the Directors of the New York Bridge Company) fire him, which he knew they dared not. Throughout it all, he survived to build a bridge for the ages. It enjoyed its one-hundredth birthday anniversary in 1983. Engineers have estimated it could last another one hundred before the cables have to be replaced and if they are, perhaps the bridge will go on forever.

Although I still visit New York occasionally, I have no reason to go downtown, other than, now, traveling on the East River by boat. We brought our own boat up from the Chesapeake some fifteen years ago, passing under the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Towers rising in the background. It would have been inconceivable that either landmark could be gone during my lifetime. But they both go on in my mind’s eye, with wonder.