Showing posts with label Louis Begley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Begley. Show all posts

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Compare and Contrast

In a sense, this is a continuation of the previous entry, setting down my thoughts on two books I read on our recent cruise.  But, as a reminder, my comments are not "reviews" of the books, although aspects of what I write might so qualify.  These are obviously my personal impressions and how the content often relates to my own life.  There are plenty of excellent reviews of both all over the Web.

These novels were as unlike as they were alike, I know a confusing contradiction.  If I was an English teacher I would assign them for the classic compare and contrast assignment. Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending is about the meaning of memory in one's life (or how we prefer to remember things, or how the gaps in our memory are as significant as those moments we remember) whereas Louis Begley's Shipwreck, is about an unidentified narrator who is approached by a stranger who over the course of three days confides a story of exacting detail, with the impeccable memory of an observant writer (who is indeed the stranger).  In a sense, they both have elements of mystery novels, with endings that leave as many questions as answers.  Each have three major characters, are both first person narratives (although Begley's book is "told" through the unidentified narrator), with the introspective view of character driven novels.  They are each concerned with the unexamined life, anxieties of self doubt, Begley's set in a middle age crisis while Barnes' is looking back from the perspective of a retired protagonist.  Begley's novel has many erotic elements while the sexuality of Barnes' novel is one of sexual frustration, the young woman who latches onto Begley's protagonist bordering on nymphomania while Barnes protagonist's main love interest is completely repressed.  And we all like to see a little bit of ourselves in what we read, with both protagonists expressing parts of my own, such as Tony in Barnes' book, "I had wanted life not to bother me too much." (Playing it safe in one's personal life and career.)   And, like John in Begley's novel, "I'm no good at joining groups and rather proud of my misanthropy."  Both lines resonate.

I began with Barnes' book, and as it is a novella, a fast and engaging read.  As I have a greater interest in contemporary American literature, Julian Barnes, an English writer of a number of novels and short stories, was a departure for me.  Perhaps it is the "Downton Abbey influence" that has awakened a long dormant interest in English writers.  Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens were among my earlier reading interests.  I need to go back to them. Most recently, I've been drawn to Ian McEwan's workbut I had heard much about Barnes, so why not start with a Booker Prize winning novel?

The three main characters in the novel are the narrator/protagonist, Tony (who is now divorced and retired), Veronica, perhaps the love of his life (or perhaps not?) when he was in school, and Adrian, a brilliant schoolmate who commits suicide later in life.  Along with two other friends, we are treated to a description of English school life of the 60s, and Tony's obsession with Veronica which culminates in one dry hump and Tony masturbating while visiting Veronica at her parents' house.  Meanwhile, Veronica finally pairs off with the intellectually gifted Adrian, leaving Tony bereft.  Later, we learn that he wrote a letter to Adrian, about Veronica (and more -- don't want to reveal any spoilers), a letter he has completely forgotten until some forty years later, and his complicity in a series of events that may (or may have not?) have led to Adrian's suicide, Veronica's unhappiness (although that seems to be her natural state), and an institutionalized (now adult) child (there are interpretations of whose child it might be; I have mine, not to be revealed here).  The letter begins, Dear Adrian -- or rather Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter) so one can imagine its contents. 

But all of this is woven in memory, faulty, unreliable memory.  After all, what is memory other than certain significant moments in our life, with great gaps in between?  And memories are sometimes stories we tell ourselves about our life -- almost a form of cognitive dissonance -- and perhaps I told some here in this blog.  There is certainly large chucks of personal information I've written about, but they are my interpretations of the past, not necessarily the same past as one would have witnessed via a video tape.  And, perhaps, the most important memories are the ones I've chosen to forget or not to reveal (there is a fine line when writing in this space).

That is why Barnes' novel appeals so much to me.  Tony Webster's memories may be self serving, or maybe not:  How often do we tell our own life story?  How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?  And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.  Told to others, but -- mainly -- to ourselves. As Veronica accuses Tony, in the beginning and at the end, an accusation he even considers for his epitaph: “Tony Webster — He Never Got It.” 

Is what we remember called history or is history the accurate recounting of memory? When Tony first meets Adrian Finn at school, he seems to be a shy, introspective boy.  The school master is discussing the causes of WW I and puts the question to Finn,  Finn, you've been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were, our Serbian gunman....Would you care to give us the benefit of your thoughts?"  One can only imagine the impact the heretofore unknown Finn had on his schoolmates with the remainder of the exchange (and his answer feeds into the heart of the novel, memory and consequences):
"I don't know, sir."
"What don't you know?"
"Well, in one sense, I can't know what it is that I don't know. That's philosophically self-evident." He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. "Indeed, isn't the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it's all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is-was-a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That's one of the central problems of history, isn't it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us."

Once Adrian was long gone, Tony, from the perspective of a senior citizen, ruminates about him and in so doing, the inadequacies of his own life: From the beginning, he had always seen more clearly than the rest of us. While we luxuriated in the doldrums of adolescence, imagining our routine discontent to be an original response to the human condition, Adrian was already looking farther ahead and wider around. He felt life more clearly too-even, perhaps especially, when he came to decide that it wasn't worth the candle. Compared to him, I had always been a muddler, unable to learn much from the few lessons life provided me with. In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came.

Tony had imagined a different kind of retirement (as a retired person myself, I can vouch for the veracity of this observation -- it's profound) : Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don't you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business. Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire-and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records-in words, sound, pictures-you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. (Perhaps this blog is the wrong kind of record-keeping.)

The novel is not all about looking back though and it's ending (or the "sense of an ending") is filled with unanswered questions, intentional vagaries, and the reader has to make his own interpretations.  I found myself rereading the end several times to come up with my own conclusions, I guess the hallmark of a good mystery novel.  Barnes book is well worth reading.

What a change of pace with Begley's Shipwreck (an ironic title given I was reading this on board a ship, although, thankfully, not the Costa Concordia).

Like the old joke goes, a man walks into a bar (the L’Entre Deux Mondes -- which could be anywhere), and then.....Well in this case, it's not a joke, unless you consider three days of story-telling to a stranger in a bar, over innumerable drinks, a preposterous tall story.  The man who has walked into the "between two worlds" is the famous author, John North, going up to a stranger to tell the entire content of the book I was about to read.  The stranger is never named, and although he is the "narrator" mostly he is conveying, word for word, what he is hearing from North.  He is us, the reader, although he does have a few things to say, especially at the strange initial meeting, describing North as this man so like me in appearance and demeanor, from the crown of his neatly barbered head to the tips of his brogues, well worn but beautifully polished.  Listen, he said. Listen, I will tell you a story I have never told before.  If you hear me out, you will see why.  I would have been a fool to tell it.  With you, somehow I feel secure.  Call it instinct or impulse or fate -- your choice.

And so the story begins, involving three major characters, North, his wife Lydia, and North's dalliance with a young French journalist who he met when she interviewed him for the Paris Vogue magazine, Lea Morini.  To me, there were several dimensions to this novel, the story itself of choices made, how North cheats on his wife, who he dearly loves, acknowledges the dangers of his extramarital affair, but is so hopeless to end because of, to put it mildly, the incredible sex (mostly in Paris), realizing later in the tale how the walls are closing in on him and what limited choices he has for ending the affair.  It's a good tale, and the title of the book foreshadows its conclusion, but, like Barnes' book, it is an ending that leaves some questions.  But what really interested me is that North is a writer, so why tell the tale verbally to a stranger?

Begley, who comes to the literary world late in life after a hugely successful career as an attorney, writes with the lapidary precision of his former profession.  And I don't mean this in a negative way as he is a pleasure to read, words chosen carefully and gracefully as well.  His novels exude erudition and in my opinion he has become one of the best writers today.  His Schmidt trilogy alone makes him a novelist of importance.  One could say that Shipwreck is somewhat a variation of the Schmidt novels, the older man with the younger woman, but it is much, much more than that.  In particular, Schmidt is an attorney, just like Begley WAS, but North is a writer, just like Begley IS.  So to me, the many passages about writing, and a description of the literary scene, held my close attention.

North has written an "important" novel, The Anthill, which takes place in Paris, one that is being made into a film, and he is currently working on a new novel, Loss. Although an accomplished novelist, he is racked by self-doubt (perhaps like Begley?), questioning whether his writing is REALLY that good.  His wonderful, faithful wife, Lydia, is his biggest supporter, but nonetheless, his doubts remain.  One has to wonder whether this is universal of all good writers.  At one point, North goes to the shelves of his library:

There are things you do only when you are alone. I sauntered over to the shelves reserved for the first editions of my novels and their translations and stroked the familiar spines. Then, as though under a compulsion I was unable to resist, I took down first the new book and later all the others and looked at certain passages. I was to remain in my armchair the whole night and the next day, and most of the night that followed, with hardly any pause, although I suspected that I had a fever. I reread my production. At a certain point, entire sentences I had written seemed to disintegrate like figures in a kaleidoscope when you turn the tube, only my words did not regroup and coalesce as new wonders of color and design. They lay on the page like so many vulgar, odious pieces of shattered glass. The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them. Not even my second novel, the one that won all the prizes and was said to confirm my standing as an important novelist. No, they all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books. Novels that are not embarrassingly bad but lead you to wonder why the author had bothered. Unless, of course, he had only a small ambition: to earn a modest sum of money and short-lived renown.......And what should one think of a man who writes such books, he continued, where does he belong if not to the race of trimmers, men who live without infamy and without praise, envious of any other fate?

The self-doubt of the nature and quality of his work is again expressed in the context of the movie that was being made of his award-winning The Anthill.  I found this fascinating as Begley's About Schmidt was adapted for the screen, and the movie bore little resemblance to the novel.  I wonder what Begley thought about it, how much he might have protested.  The novel is much better than the movie and I had to erase the memory of the movie from my mind to read the novel.  I could never get the lead, though, Jack Nicholson, out of my head and that's the way I see Schmidtie in my mind's eye.  Again, North labors with the anxiety that his work is poor:  The proposition was brutally simple and dreadful to consider: if the books are no good, if they are unnecessary books, then my life, of which I had given up so much in order to write them, had been wasted. What set me off was nothing directly concerning Loss; its progress had been slow, but I was moving along and, from time to time, when I reread and corrected the text I was even amused and surprised. I couldn't imagine where I had gotten some of the stuff I had written down, but I was glad to see it was there. The screen adaptation of The Anthill was the immediate cause. I received from the producer a text he described as the almost final version of the screenplay. According to the contract, I had the right to review it and send in my suggestions, revisions, and so on for his and his colleagues' consideration. Nothing more than that. As drama, the screenplay struck me as pretty good. Certainly, it wouldn't put audiences to sleep. I was distressed, though, by the sentimentality of the story and the main characters. That was certainly not what I had intended, what I remembered writing, and that is not, I made quite sure of it, a defect of the novel, which I very conscientiously reread. But was it not possible that the screenwriter- I knew him and knew he was no fool-had seen through some flaw at the core of my book? Something I had not been conscious of that he had brought to the surface? And there was a touch of vulgarity to the screenplay. Had my book invited it? Or, equally sad, was there such a huge and unsuspected gulf that separated me from most of my readers? I asked Lydia her opinion. She reassured me: there was no such flaw and no such gulf. In that case, was she the only reader who understood me?

But Begley must have learned much about the craft of screenwriting when About Schmidt was filmed, as North is concurrently working on adaptation of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, detailing the distinction between the two arts: Writing a screenplay based on a great novel is foremost a labor of simplification. I don't mean only the plot, although particularly in the case of a Victorian novel teeming with secondary characters and subplots, severe pruning is required, but also the intellectual content. A film has to convey its message by images and relatively few words; it has little tolerance for complexity or irony or tergiversations. I found the work exceedingly difficult, beyond anything I had anticipated. And, I should add, depressing: I care about words more than images, and yet I was constantly sacrificing words and their connotations. You might tell me that through images film conveys a vast amount of information that words can only attempt to approximate, and you would be right, but approximation is precious in itself, because it bears the author's stamp. All in all, it seemed to me that my screenplay was worth much less than the book, and that the same would be true of the film. The best I could say, to comfort myself, was that I had avoided pushing Eliot's work toward melodrama.

The most introspective passage about writing comes from North when he turns back to his new novel, Loss, which he had abandoned for awhile.  The process of writing and revision he describes, I bet, comes closest to Begley's own painstaking prose: The manuscript of Loss was waiting for me; finishing it, I decided, was a challenge I had to meet. I reread the hundred eighty or so pages anxiously, and was relieved to find I didn't completely distrust or dislike the story I had written. It would be a rather short novel in an age when it seemed that the proof of serious purpose and rich imagination was to write a work of eight hundred pages without a plot and without a single memorable character. But my method of composition has always been to write down all that I have to say on a given subject and stop. To strain for more is like adding Hamburger Helper. Usually, after so long a separation from a text, I would start by reviewing it from the first to the last page, making big and small changes as I went along. This time I was astonished to discover that I did not need to do that. Nor did I feel that I had to do over the chapter I had finished just before I left for Spetsai in order to jump-start the book or get back in the mood. Those are tricks I have used successfully when I have felt stuck. Quite miraculously, there seemed to be no obstacle to resuming work right away, at a steady pace. I welcomed the arduous task and the heavy fatigue I felt at the end of each day: these were, I thought, the only possible means of reestablishing my physical and mental health. By the beginning of August, I was able to hand to Lydia, always my first reader, a completed first draft. I decided that I would revise it only if her judgment was favorable. You must understand that revisions are a task to which I invariably look forward, however long I estimate they may take, because at least the book is palpably there. It's a blessing to be relieved of every writer's recurring nightmare: that he will find himself, perhaps without warning, unable to complete what he has begun.

So, there it is, the "other" story in Shipwreck, about the creative process.  But getting back to the plot, one knows that North's liaison with Lea is moving to some sort of conclusion; in fact, it must move in that direction as North loves his wife Lydia, and one can carry on a duplicitous life for just so long without disastrous consequences.  And while telling the end of the novel is not my intention, the very last line is not a spoiler -- North says to the stranger who has listened to all of this know more about me now than anyone else alive. Indeed, and this may refer as much to Begley the writer, as the protagonist North.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"The Master" and" Mistler's Exit"

As I said at the conclusion of my entry covering our river cruise, one of my favorite pastimes on board any vessel is to read some good books.  Alas, a river cruise is such an active one, reading time was limited, but between various ports, I managed to read two novels by familiar authors.  They were purposely selected for the trip because I admire their fine work and they share Europe as their geographic focal point.

First, I enjoyed The Master by Colm Tóibín, and a hat tip to my son, Chris, for sending it to me after he had read it. Chris is a writer of sorts, and this is a writer's book, an interior exploration about how one's life experiences subliminally enter the writing process.  I had read his book, Brooklyn, a couple years ago and at that time said "there are similarities to the work of Henry James, contrasting the old world to the new, and written by a man about a female protagonist -- a remarkable novel well worth reading. One cannot help but contrast Brooklyn to James' Portrait of a Lady." 

The Master is in fact a highly fictionalized account of Henry James' life during the last decade of the 19th century.  Born into a family of wealth and intellect, Henry essentially becomes condemned to a life of inner loneliness, although he was well traveled and had family and friends.  Tóibín shows the subtle absorption of those relationships into James' fiction, particularly his sister Alice, his attraction to Minny Temple, his cousin, and later, to a relative of James Fenimore Cooper, Constance Fenimore Woulson (all three of these women die during his lifetime, Constance by suicide). But James' life was one of sexual ambivalence -- as he was equally attracted to three men.  There is Hammond ( a manservant), Oliver Wendell Homes (after he had returned from the Civil War), and Hendrik Andersen (a sculptor).  Tóibín walks the line as many historians do -- that perhaps James was "hopelessly celibate" (as James described himself in one of his own letters). 

These relationships, as well as his travels -- to America and throughout Europe, are incorporated into his fiction, and Tóibín imagines how and why in this spellbinding novel, so exacting in its prose.  As an example, here is what he writes when Alice dies: Alice was dead now, Aunt Kate was in her grave, the parents who noticed nothing also lay inert under the ground, and William was miles away in his own world, where he would stay.  And there was silence now in Kensington, not a sound in the house, except the sound, like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort.

In many ways, The Master shares some of the characteristics of the next novel I managed to finish during the trip, Mistler's Exit. This is also a tale of loneliness, written by one of America's most unique novelists, Louis Begley.  I say "unique" as here is a novelist, a very fine writer, who came to his craft decades after being a renowned international attorney, an unusual path for a writer (although ironically Henry James attended Harvard Law School -- as did Begley --, but for only a year as James had no intentions of becoming a lawyer).  And I say "loneliness" as the protagonist's sense of solitude is suddenly self-imposed after he receives the diagnosis of inoperable cancer and decides to make a clandestine visit to Venice for a week, keeping the reason for the visit from his wife and only son, in order to take in the city one last time and to think about how to break the news to his family.  Instead, he is followed by a young female photojournalist with whom he has intense sex in Venice, although he remains emotionally removed from it.  Characters come and go, old acquaintances, including a girl he loved in college, but never slept with at the time.  He would like to do so now, but "this time he would not cheat," a double meaning in the work.

Thomas Mistler was born into a privileged family, his father a successful banker, but Mistler charts his own course, breaking from his father's expectations of a successor and instead builds an international advertising business.  Begley writes with an eruditeness that is only rivaled by his classmate in Harvard, John Updike, unique in American literature where the norm is great writing often coming from authors not nearly as well educated. 

It is a fine introduction to Begley's style, very reminiscent of the "Schmidt" trilogy.  In fact, sometimes I thought of Mistler as "Schmidtie," but if you like this work, you will like his trilogy.

The epigraph to the novel, taken from Jacques Chardonne's Demi-Jour, makes a fitting ending to this entry, a reminder to live every moment as one's last and how meaningless "things" are in one's life.  I certainly found that out when we returned from the trip.--.......

Too bad about what men will lose; they'll never notice it,  Everything ends well because everything ends.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Went to a Garden Party

Ann and I celebrated my 70th birthday on a cruise with our two sons, Chris and Jon, the first time we've been together for such an extended period since they were kids.  But families find a way of settling into a familiar groove, wondering what the years have really done to us all (as a family) other than just growing older.  In this regard I quote Robert Mazzocco's poignant poem about families.  In many ways it describes my relationship with my parents more than our sons' relationship with us, but the echoes of the poem reverberate through generations, indeed, "dynasties" in their own way...


 Family voices: you still can hear them,
 ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
 your father’s voice, even your mother’s voice.

 The older we get,
 the more you’ll hear them,
 though no one else does.

 Just as you still can see them, all over
 your body, though, of course, no one else must:
 family scars and family kisses.

Copyright © by Robert Mazzocco

This was brought home even more vividly by my reading during this time, particularly the two literary biographies, Hemingway's Boat, and Cheever, A Life.  More on them later.

The trip itself was a Caribbean cruise.  Ann and I have been on many before, but not with both our boys. This particular one was on Royal Caribbean's 'Vision of the Seas', an older ship, a little tired, but nicely laid out and with the bonus of a relatively quiet solarium, adults only, where I could alternatively read, and swim in their salt water pool, while Jon and Ann engaged in a battle of Scrabble and Chris worked on his laptop (new job, one he loves). The other bonus was having a balcony from which we could watch port arrivals and departures, and where I could while away more reading time, listening to the seas breaking against the hull.  Early mornings I would get up to the fitness center to compete for space on one of the treadmills and stationary bikes, endeavoring to offset some of the food intake.  The cuisine happened to be good, better than we expected for such a cruise.  The trick was to avoid the bread and minimize the desserts.

But the best feature of the cruise itself was the itinerary, two days at sea and then a new port every five days, St. Croix, St. Maarten, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Kitts.  We had been to all before, except Dominica.

So we set out for the Ft. Lauderdale Port Everglades Pier in high spirits co-mingled with a bit of apprehension about celebrating my 70th birthday this way, only to arrive on the ship with the shocking news of the Newtown, CT tragedy that morning.  Such heartbreak to begin our 10 day holiday.  And it hit so close to our previous home in Weston, a familiar territory as we lived only about a dozen miles from Newtown for 25 years, knew people there, particularly employees of my publishing company.  But no matter where this insane act might have taken place, it just underscored the abysmal record we have as a nation, a popular culture that is consumed by violence -- just look at the best-selling video games and some of the compost concocted by Hollywood -- and the Eleventh Commandment (in the form of the 2nd Amendment) -- promoted by the NRA and the like.  Hey, I want to carry a Bazooka, it's my right!  How many of these disasters do we have to live through before banning military style weaponry?  I have no pollyanna notion that this solves the problem, as no doubt the most violent criminal elements will find anything they want, but over time it will make it more difficult for the casual crazy to get his hands on such a weapon.  The absurdity of arming guards in schools to ward off those with arms might be a short term deterrent, but not a solution, although the gun makers might be delighted --  let's have a shoot out at the O.K. Corral Public School!

Colorado had reiterated the right to bear arms in public places.  That got them the movie theater shooting.

Thus, it was on such a down note that we sailed out of Ft. Lauderdale.  Twenty four hours later, on my actual birthday, we were now attempting to move into full cruise mode and try to temporarily leave the world's troubles behind for a few days. After dinner and a celebratory birthday cake, too sinful for words, we decided to attend that evening's entertainment.  What an ironic twist that on this night, my actual 70th birthday, the show in the ship's Masquerade Theater, was "Ricky Nelson Remembered"

performed by Ricky's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson.

How appropriate, one of my boyhood idols, being honored by his two sons, on my birthday with my two sons, pictured here on the ship:

and here when Chris had his 16th birthday:

I asked them whether they had ever heard of the Ozzie and Harriet Show (of course not) and I tried to explain something about that early TV feel-good sitcom -- covering a real family -- and the rise of the youngest son, Ricky, to become the first TV-made rock star.  I was a teenager at the time, going through my "Elvis" stage, although the rockabilly songs of Carl Perkins and  Gene Vincent appealed to me more.  Ricky's songs were cut more from that mold and so he was put on my hit list for some precious 45's which I played in my attic bedroom to drown out my parents.  I entitled this blog entry "Garden Party" as it is a song that resonates more for me in retirement than when he sang it for the simple reason that "you see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself," one of the main reasons I write this blog.

After two days at sea, we arrived at our first port, St. Croix, an island we vacationed on 36 years ago when Jonathan was only 3 months old.  This is not the kind of island one wants to visit on a cruise ship for one day, and I suppose the same could be said for the other islands on the itinerary other than Dominica, it's capital, Roseau, being right at the dock (which only accommodates one ship, thankfully, and is very walkable.

In Dominica our mission was to get away from the ubiquitous shops that populate the immediate area where the ships dock at every island (in fact, in some places, that's all you can walk to) and as soon as we emerged from that area it was a different world.  Although mostly impoverished as are so many of the islands and although we walked through some very rundown areas, the people were extremely friendly.   

It is an island I would like to spend some more time on, nicknamed the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean" for its pristine beauty   

Our immediate goal was to find the island's Botanical Gardens, which we did and enjoyed the tropical flora and fauna, particularly the Spiny Bamboo House which rises cathedral like.  The tenacity of how things grow in the tropics was underscored by an African baobab tree that was felled by Hurricane David in 1979 on top of a school bus and today,  crushed bus and tree branch are still there for all to marvel over, and have been left untouched with the tree still stubbornly alive and well.

Returning to the ship we walked many side roads with various local scenes.

The boys went on while Ann and I lingered on the grounds of the pretty public library finding, eureka!, free Wi-Fi there.  Armed with our iPhones we caught up on some email, me in a few minutes, Ann (with many more friends than I) more than a few minutes.  Meanwhile, I decided to explore the inside of the library.  After all, my publishing company focused on the library market, but mostly the university level, but it's always fun to visit a library in another land, in this case a remote Caribbean island with just a few rooms of books. 

Inside, every shelf was populated by well arranged books, but, more importantly, nearly every chair was occupied by a reader. This is a library that still focuses on the printed word, not electronic delivery.  I began to peruse the reference shelves curious whether they included any of the books I published.  To my delight one of the first titles my eyes fell on was our edition of Tom Inge's 2 Volume, Handbook of American Popular Culture and even more satisfying after examining the copies was to see they've been heavily used over the years. This was sort of the full circle for me as I remember proposing the reference book program that was aimed at public libraries in the mid 1970s and in fact, this Handbook had been on the list of specific titles to be developed and it was published in 1978.  There I was on the island of Dominica 34 years later holding in my hand the result of that idea and having the satisfaction that it had been used so many times by the good people of the island.

Ironically, in today's Internet world, such a Handbook would be unpublishable, except electronically, and maybe the search engines would even obviate that. 

Back on the ship, we continued over the next couple of days to the remaining ports, Antigua and St. Kitts, which Ann and I had visited before but, for our son, Jonathan, they represented the 100th and 101st country in his itinerant life, intent on seeing all countries in the world by the time he's my age.  I believe he'll do it.

As I've written many times before, the best part of cruising (for me) is the time I have to read (why is being home more time consuming than traveling?).  And what struck me from my reading as I was traveling with my family?  Each family has its unique story.  This cruise I devoured Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through Cheever, A Life, by Blake Bailey who I think is emerging as the preeminent literary biographer.  He brought Yates to life, and now Cheever.

Amazing to read about Hemingway and Cheever, so different in their writing and how they approached life and, yet again, such dysfunctional family lives (not as bad as Yates who led a depressed life in addition to being a drunk like Cheever)  And for me amazing, the crisscrossing of aspects of their lives and mine, not that I'm a literary anything, but places and cultural commonalities galore.

The focus of Hendrikson's biography is indeed Hemingway's boat, a 1934 38 foot Wheeler, made in my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY, named "Pilar' of Key West.  It had a 75 HP Chrysler reduction gear engine and a 40 HP Lycoming straight drive for trolling.  He could run the boat at 16 knots with both engines (although that was rare).  Ironically, the dimensions of his boat are about the same as mine.  The 'Swept Away' is also 38 feet, holds about the same amount of fuel (330 gallons vs. 'Pilar's 300 gallons) and the same amount of fresh water, 100 gallons.

But of course "Hem" fished the boat and fished it hard, off of Cuba and Bimini in the Bahamas.  The entire biography circles around the boat, the manufacturer, and the mates who ran the boat.  It is more about his life and times than his writing.

The Cheever biography is as much about his writing as the man itself.  His life was one of self doubt, always seeking approbation, unsure of his sexuality, and like Yates, one that gradually became consumed by alcoholism.  During WW II he was in the infantry and was a week from being shipped off to Europe when he landed an assignment with the Signal Corps writing documentary films, ironically the same branch of the service as my father and Cheever's "office" was in Astoria, Queens, the same place my father's business landed before it was forced to close its doors.  Most men from Cheever's unit were shipped off a week later and died on Utah beach, the same destiny that would have befallen him. Lucky for him and us or we would not have most of the short stories (and all of the novels) from one of most important writers.

Cheever is closely identified with the New Yorker school of writing as was his younger contemporary (and rival) John Updike, probably the most important American writer of the late 20th century along with Philip Roth.  Updike and Cheever while respecting one another, kept an eye out for the other as well, particularly Cheever who felt inferior in many ways to Updike, particularly because of his younger colleague's Harvard education (Cheever went to the school of hard knocks as did Richard Yates).  While the careers of Cheever and Updike were constantly crisscrossing, Yates was an outsider, never achieving the distinction of a New Yorker published short story. 

Between the two biographies, I read another novel by Louis Begley who is beginning to impress me as the next great American writer, but at the age of 79, he might not have enough time to establish an even greater reputation since switching his profession from the law to creative writing.  After the Schmidt trilogy, I wanted to know more about the man, and chose his very autobiographical Matters of Honor in which his persona is occupied by two characters, Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who was hidden as a child during World War II, with his mother and father, and therefore survived, who becomes an international attorney, and Sam Standish, the narrator, who becomes an author.  Of course, Begley is both people and it is interesting how he orchestrates many characters in the novel in this coming of age story, from Henry and Sam being Harvard roommates in the 1950s and then their rise to the pinnacle of their careers later in life.  Begley's struggle with anti-Semitism and the meaning of friendship constantly surfaces.  This is the work of a mature novelist in every way.

So I shared my 70th birthday with my family and some of my favorite authors.  My Garden Party was swell.