Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg

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I rarely read political memoirs – especially the ones by politicians getting ready to run for president. The last one I read was Bobby Jindal’s Leadership and Crisis in 2011. That doesn’t mean that I don’t find politics interesting. I usually watch the presidential elections like I’m watching a movie. Most of them have points of interest along the way. Some are better than others. And then occasionally I’m wishing that one might be just a movie – but, no, it’s real.

It was sometime in 2018 that I first heard of Pete Buttigieg and the possibility that he would run for President. Since he was a mayor of a medium-size Indiana town (South Bend), I was both skeptical and intrigued at the same time. As I’ve seen him interview and speak over the last few months, I’ve been leaning more in the intrigued direction. So that brought me to his recent book Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well-written the book is but after hearing him speak it shouldn’t surprise me. He’s very articulate but yet never condescends or talks down to anyone. His story-telling ability is equally as sharp and entertaining. I was impressed with the research he did to give the reader an idea of what South Bend, Indiana was like during its heyday of the 40’s and 50’s when Studebaker made the city thrive.  He shares his successes while being mayor of South Bend but doesn’t hesitate to share mistakes from which he learned. One of my favorite excerpts is his description of a Farmer’s Market on his running route:

Its feel is still homey, and jars of pickled eggs and strawberry preserves outnumber those of salsa and kombucha. Under its roof on a Saturday morning, it is as if American society never fractured after World War II. Korea vets in flannel shirts down from Michigan, accompanied by ruddy grandsons in Under Armour camo jackets, coexist peacefully with Montessori moms navigating strollers between clumps of grandparents eyeing big baskets of apples and small ones of plums. Trucker hats are worn without irony here; the hipsters are welcome but not in charge.

The book does give details about where he stands on varying political issues; however, I didn’t get the impression that was the significant purpose. Or he at least mixes them up with both broad strokes and intimate details of his growing up in a place he loves and his step-by-step journey into politics.

It’s less about a candidate and more about a man.

I’m wondering if I’ll have a good reason to remember this post in about a year.

 

 

 

Van Gogh: The Life

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With his plans for the Yellow House slipping toward failure, his yearning for that future poured onto the canvas as he labored more tenderly than ever before to express a transcendent truth through color and brushstroke: to capture the one human emotion shut out of the Cafe de la Gare, the most important one: the hope – no matter how faint or how far – of redemption.”Is this all,” he asked despairingly, “or is there more besides?”

If Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography Van Gogh: The Life does nothing else for me, it answers the question that, yes, the pronunciation of Vincent Van Gogh’s last name is not the way most (or most Americans, anyway) pronounce it with “gogh” rhyming with “go”. The biography never actually gives a correct pronunciation but simply states that the artist’s name is virtually unpronounceable.  I’ve wondered about this ever since I watched an episode of Dr. Who in which the Matt Smith version of the Doctor and his companion (Amy) go back in time to visit Vincent. They say his last name like they are clearing their throat which is closer to the Dutch way of saying it.

Of course, this biography is much more than an answer to that question. The authors combine a text book quality (it’s almost 900 pages) and a story-telling ability that make the book vastly informative while pulling the reader emotionally into the tragic life of one of our most well-known artists.

They take the common knowledge of Van Gogh or what might be called the “pop culture” aspects such as Starry Night, sunflowers, and the self-inflicted wound to his ear and let their story build to these and other events with fascinating details. I’ve said before that a good story doesn’t have to have a surprise ending, in fact, a story in which one might already know what happens but yet still makes one want to go there could actually be considered a better story. Van Gogh: The Life is an excellent example of this. For much of his life as an artist, Van Gogh consistently went against the advice of those closest to him and used only black and white, pen and ink drawings or charcoal and pencil. I enjoyed the manner in which the authors bring the reader (or at least this reader) along to the point of exasperation making them want to scream “Just use color! Stop with the black and white and use color!”

And Vincent eventually does.

One surprise aspect of the book, though, might be the case the authors make for Vincent’s untimely death not being a suicide. Suicide has become “legend” while the more likely scenario would be an accidental gunshot wound – from somebody else. Heartbreakingly, Vincent’s death propelled him to the astronomical fame he never even remotely found during his life.

I’ll add this as one of my favorite Van Gogh paintings even if it’s not as well-known as some of his others – Portrait of Camille Roulin:

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The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

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I understand enough of Viet Nam’s history now to know that the ground beneath my parents’ feet had always been shifting…so that by the time I was born, Viet Nam was not my country at all. I was only a small part of it.

Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do is the first “graphic” book I’ve read. It’s her story of how she was brought to the United States from Vietnam by her parents along with her siblings. She also includes the stories of her parents and grandparents as they grew up in Vietnam.

One small incident that stood out to me involved the books her family owned in Vietnam. After Saigon was captured by North Vietnam, Bui’s mother told her older sisters to quickly read the banned books before they had to burn them for fear of communist soldiers discovering them. Interesting that reading books was that important to them.

Just like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizerthis story is neither pro-West nor pro-East. One might simply call it pro-family or pro-humanity. It’s quite a beautiful story both in words and pictures.

 

A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War

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” ‘ The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it enitrely in beer and talk, without any reference to a clock!'”  – from a letter by J. R. R. Tolkien as quoted by Joseph Loconte.

Joseph Loconte’s short volume A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War: How J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918  focuses on what influenced Tolkien, Lewis and their writings during the wake of the First World War. In addition, Loconte delves into why the works of these two authors may have differed in theme and tone from many of the other authors of the time. While everyone seemed to suffer from the disillusionment caused by The Great War, Tolkien and Lewis maintained a persistent hope while their contemporaries (such as Ernest Hemingway) may not have.

The influence that resonated with me the most was the friendship itself between the two writers. More detailed biographies that I’ve read don’t hide the fact that the friendship had its share of bumps and strains. Loconte’s book doesn’t dismiss this fact but it emphasizes the lasting aspect of the relationship.

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When it comes to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien or the writings of some of my favorite “Lost Generation” writers, I’m not going to pick which ones I like better. All of them have had their impact on me. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to 1920’s Paris to hang out with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald like Owen Wilson did in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, of course I would jump at the chance. But if I had to choose between which group of authors I would want to hang out with over the course of thirty or forty years, I think I would choose Tolkien, Lewis and their crowd.

 

Everybody Behaves Badly

…this new Pamplona story already contained something for everyone. Its terse, innovative prose would titillate the literary crowd, and the simplicity of the style would make it accessible to mainstream readers. And if that deceptive simplicity didn’t do the trick, the story promised to stand alone as a scandalous roman a clef featuring dissolute representatives from the worlds of wealth and ambition.

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Things I found interesting from reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

  1. Non-fiction about fiction is my favorite kind of non-fiction.
  2. Hemingway epitomizes the theory that great artists have a selfish streak.
  3. Hemingway wasn’t just selfish; he was mean.
  4. The Sun Also Rises launched Hemingway into the literary stratosphere.
  5. The majority of this book is set when Hemingway was a no-name and F. Scott Fitzgerald was a superstar.
  6. In spite of Hemingway’s mean streak, he had a lot of people supporting his art.
  7. Sherwood Anderson was instrumental in introducing Hemingway to the Paris literary world, even though his popularity faded as Hemingway’s soared.
  8. The characters in The Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled portraits of people Hemingway knew and hung out with in Paris.
  9. This didn’t go over so well with the real-life people.
  10. Fitzgerald predicted that Hemingway would have to have a different wife for each of his novels.
  11. While he was writing each of his four major novels, he did have a different wife.
  12. Blume refers to Hemingway’s style as sparse, terse, bare-bones as many would describe his style, but also refers to it as “high-low”, in the sense that it appealed to both literary types and mainstream readers (see quotation above).

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

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I miss my friend. But I still have the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that we told together, the one we whispered into your ear, and that is going to carry on. If I were a mystic, Clarence’s and my friendship would lead me to believe that we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of God’s work.

Bruce Springsteen fills his autobiography Born to Run with gem-like paragraphs as the one above in which he reflects on the death of his renown saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Many reviews have already commented on the lyrical quality contained in much of the book but I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out a hardy “agree” in my own post.

It has been a while since I’ve read a rock bio and I don’t think I’ve reviewed one since I’ve been blogging. I evaluate rock bios on three categories: sex, drugs, rock and roll.

Sex: While making no profession of sainthood, Springsteen makes a point to say that his sex life was by no means that of the stereotypical rock star. He procedes to provide very few details. Given that I’m rarely interested in anyone’s conquests/escapades in this area, I found this refreshing.

Drugs: According to Springsteen, he never did any. If that’s true, maybe that’s why he is still able to play 4 hour concerts while getting close to age 70.

Rock and Roll: And of course that brings us to the rest of the book. The story I’m interested in hearing about and the story Springsteen is interested in telling. His relationship with the E Street Band, not without its ups and downs, appears to be a congenial one even while he makes no bones about the fact that he was indeed “The Boss”. He considers himself a benevolent dictator. The ins and outs of the music he wrote and created with these people and where the ideas for his albums came from never ceased to fascinate me.

One of the more minor and amusing anecdotes that I’m still thinking about involved Springsteen and a buddy taking one of many road trips from New Jersey to California. Apparently, the buddy was getting over a relationship and spent the first part of the trip riding shotgun hugging a giant teddy bear. Springsteen eventually pulled over and wrestled the bear away from the buddy telling him he was ruining their “Kerouac On The Road mojo.”

On one personal note, I admit I didn’t really “discover” Springsteen until I was around 40. Yes, as an older teen I was definitely aware of his music from his juggernaut album Born in the USA.  It wasn’t until decades later that I went back and listened to his follow up to that album, Tunnel of Love. I was amazed at how a rock star could lyrically portray so well the frightening and blissful messiness that is marriage. After that, I went back and listened to all of his albums. The characters he created and the stories he told in his music meshed with my enjoyment of literature like few other musicians have (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are two others).

On another personal and literary note, when I found out Springsteen considers Flannery O’Connor a major influence, it didn’t come as a surprise. On the one hand, Springsteen was raised Catholic and his lyrics are filled with Biblical and Catholic imagery just like O’Connor. On another hand, so many of the characters in Springsteen’s stories are people in need of redemption, some finding it and some not – just like O’Connor’s stories. And finally, not being Catholic myself, I’ve struggled to explain why I chose Catholicism as a topic for my 2016 Deal Me In short story project. When Springsteen discusses his Catholic influence, he hits on something that at least comes close to the reason for my intrigue with stories and authors from a Catholic background:

I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere…deep inside…I’m  still on the team.

This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in.  As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save…but not to damn…enough of that.

 

 

 

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

“Alone in my room, congested and exhausted, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I wanted to be a blank and be filled in.”

– from Walter Kirn in Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever as quoted by Alan Jacobs

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As the title might imply, Alan Jacobs’ slim book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is going to appeal mostly to those individuals who already love reading. Those who are not inclined to read for pleasure will probably gloss over this title.

He puts much of the book’s emphasis on a concept he calls “Whim”. Reading at Whim isn’t simply reading randomly and chaotically (that would be whim with a lower case ‘w’). True, according to Jacobs, Whim involves a little randomness and lack of plan; however, its a randomness based on knowing yourself as a reader. Jacobs tends to lightly make fun of all of those lists of books that everyone should read. Whim tends to not just include reading those works that are considered “literary” but any work that can bring true pleasure to the reader. At the same time, Jacobs encourages readers, at Whim, to begin exploring works that might go deeper than sheer entertainment. Reading for pleasure seems to be somewhere in between reading out of necessity (for education or for information) and reading for entertainment – although many times all of them can occur at the same time. I like the way he tied this lack of plan to those of us who were lucky enough to have parents and teachers who read to us:

Plan once appealed to me, but I have grown to be a natural worshiper of Serendepity and Whim; I can try to serve other gods, but my heart is never in it. I truly think I would rather read an indifferent book on a lark than a find one according to schedule and plan. And why not? After all, once upon a time we chose none of our reading: it all came to us unbidden, unanticipated, unknown, and from the hand of someone who loved us.

If you are an avid reader, this book will enjoyably reinforce what you already know.