Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The World According to Mr. Rogers by Fred Rogers and I'm Proud Of You by Tim Madigan

One winter quarter in college, I got depressed and the one thing that made me feel better was watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, despite the fact that I was probably 20. It just felt warm and good and helped get me out of my funk. As a little kid growing up in Western PA, it never occurred to me that people everywhere watched Mr. Roger’s—it just seemed like a local Pittsburgh show (it was). After losing my Father in June, I knew I would turn to a book to help me begin to deal with the loss. People made several kind suggestions and other books seemed to be exactly what I should be reading at a time like this (Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People came to mind). Instead, I turned to Mr. Rogers. These two books, one a collection of quotes by Fred Rogers and the other, the story of a friendship between a Texas journalist and Mr. Rogers really were helpful to me. From what I have learned, it seems like Fred really walked the walk and lived his life according to some very basic principles-- respect, honesty, faith, fairness, love—all those things he dealt with on his show for all those years. To buy into the caricature of Fred Rogers (“Can you say ‘dandelion’? I knew you could.”) is a mistake. It seems to me that Fred was the embodiment of the religious principles he held close and it gave me a lot to think about. Hokey as it sounds, I really believe the world is a decidedly better place because of him.

My Life In and Out of the Rough: The Truth Behind All That Bullshit You Think You Know About Me by John Daly

Say what you will about Daly but this is a guy who knows who he is and won’t back down from that. What you get is Daly telling his own story, dispelling some of the myths, correcting some outright lies and shooting straight from the hip. He’s a golfer and a damn good one but he’s also got a gambling problem like you can’t believe, smokes and drinks far too much and knows he could fall off the wagon anytime. His refreshing honesty was what made the book readable. Daly’s no writer but there’s a story to tell and he’s not going to leave that to someone else. Like so much else in his life, he takes responsibility for himself and his actions (past, present and future) and that’s way more than can be said for many other “wild” public figures.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Easter Rising by Michael Patrick MacDonald

A few years back, McDonald wrote the brilliant All Souls, a painful memoir of growing up in the Old Colony housing projects in the Irish-mob controlled, white slums of South Boston and the many tragedies that befell his large Irish-Catholic family because of drugs, guns and the insulating ignorance of the community. This sort of picks up where he left off-- his family is struggling and he’s depressed so he finds the nascent Boston punk rock scene, fits in a little, grows up a little and then he goes to Ireland and everything is all wild Irish roses. (The Ireland trips reminded me of the tacked on “Communism-will-solve-all-your-problems” ending from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was just as unsatisfying.) MacDonald certainly writes well enough but Easter Rising just isn’t All Souls. I’ve said it before—I’m suspect of people who write their memoirs before the age of forty and even moreso of those who then write a second or third, especially if you aren’t some notable public figure or have gone on to do remarkable things between books. As much as I admire the author, his story, and his skills, it just didn't involve me as I had hoped.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Complicated Shadows by Graeme Thompson

Oh goody. Another Elvis Costello biography that is assembled from old newspaper and magazine pieces and interviews with everyone but the man himself. I've been down this road before how many times only to be left horribly unsatisfied by the books and turning to the back catalogue of CDs to let the music do the talking. Surprisingly, this one doesn't suck. (Take that Tony Clayton-Lea! And that! David Gouldstone, you moping, misogynistic hack!) It was informative (well, it is a biography), fairly insightful, and well-paced. I suppose I'll never be fully satisfied until we hear the whole story from Elvoid's own lips, but this is perhaps the best of the many clip jobs published over the years.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Marannis

Greg Coates was my neighbor when I was a kid. He wasn’t a baseball fan at all (though he counted a lenticular Pete Rose baseball card he got from of a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes among his prized possessions--go figure), but I will never forget the New Year’s Day, 1973, when he knocked on my door and told me Roberto Clemente had been killed in a plane crash. Clemente had been among my first heroes and now he became my first martyr. Marannis gives Clemente’s life the Gold Glove treatment. He neither paints Roberto as a saint (though in many ways, he was) nor as a tragic hero (he was) but as a man who was far more complex than he was given credit in his day. In 18 years with the same team, he had 16 Gold Gloves, 4 batting championships, a lifetime .326 batting average and achieved 3000 hits in his very last at bat despite being continually labeled a malingerer and a hypochondriac throughout his career. He was the epitome of power, speed, grace (except when running to first) and hustle and Marannis does a wonderful job telling a very complete story.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

I had never read Julian Barnes and was always told I should read Julian Barnes so I read Julian Barnes. Having read him, it begs the question: what is the deal with Julian Barnes? I can’t say I disliked the book, a fictionalized account of an actual, early 20th century legal case where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle defended an unknown half-Indian barrister named George Edjali in court, a legal matter that became quite the cause celebre in England. Told in chapters alternating each man’s voice, it’s well-written and interesting, especially for fans of Conan Doyle from a historical POV. However, I got done with it and didn’t know what it was I had just read. It wasn’t particularly laborious, though the prose style is dense and slower than say, Nick Hornby, though that may just be the Barnes style but it wasn’t engrossing or evocative or thrilling either. This jury is out on Julian Barnes.

The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra

Hendra, a founder of National Lampoon and an actor, perhaps best-known as Ian Faith, Spinal Tap’s beleaguered manager, wrote Father Joe, a controversial memoir that was admired by critics and readers last year but hailed as horseshit by his daughter who claims he sexually abused her. (Hendra refutes the charges.) This is his first go at fiction and it's not a bad start.

The idea: in the not too distant future, the Messiah returns to an
America that has allowed its arch conservative leadership to let the Bible mix so freely with the ship of state that the US is little more than a painfully uptight, fundamentalist Christian theocracy where heresy is an actual crime on the books. (I suppose some might embrace this vision of America as heaven and others as absolute hell. That's for others to wrestle with.) A young Hispanic man and a very motley crew of followers start to try to spread the word and, naturally, all hell breaks loose. I thought it was reminiscent of Richard Bach’s Illusions but a little less heavy-handed and the narrator, a down and out journo had a good voice. Tolstoy, it ain’t--the villain was a bit on the cartoon-y side and it's obvious where Hendra sits on the political fence. Still, an enjoyable, light read with some insightful social commentary about where we may be headed if the Democrats don't learn to fundraise more effectively.

Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex

A great way to start off the year--I was laughing out loud on page 5! Wax is a professor as well as a comedian and he acquits himself admirably on both counts. This isn’t as lightweight as Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish and not as cutesy. Be prepared--this is a bit more academic than the jacket copy leads you to believe, though not so much as to be off-putting. I thought it was really a marvelous, funny look at the language and the layers and layers and layers of actual experiences that went into the creation of so many Yiddish words and phrases.