Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Couldn't Keep it to Myself

Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters), Wally Lamb, editor

Lamb, who wrote one of my favorite books, I Know This Much is True, was asked in 1999 to give a lecture on writing as part of the education program at York Correctional Institute, a maximum security prison in Connecticut. He did so as a favor, but after two hours he was hooked: There were several female inmates who asked him to teach them how to write. Lamb agreed, and he began giving a class every other Thursday—which he continues to do today.

According to the introduction the writing, at first, was terrible—flat, disorganized, and mostly of the pity-party type. But Lamb, a teacher by trade, was patient and skillful. The women came to realize that writing was an outlet for their anger, hurt, and shame, that it was a method whereby the secrets hidden in the dark recesses of their souls might be revealed.

The result of three years of writing is this book. It contains the stories of ten women of all colors and ages, and not a "poor me" is to be read. They write about their families of origin, their children and husbands, addictions, life in prison, gang life and, most of all, their childhoods. One story broke my heart: titled "Thefts", a little girl of twelve was impregnated by her father, sent away for the gestation period and birth, and I can tell you no more because of spoilage.

The purpose of this book is not to debate the nature-vs-nurture question, which probably cannot be answered anyway. But Lamb gives a meaningful statistic, born out by the stories: of the ten contributors, eight had been battered and nine sexually abused.

Obviously, this book is not for the casual reader. Lamb may have over-edited in places, but it did not take away from the horror these women have endured. To say that I liked this book makes me sound like a ghoul, but I have a reason for giving it four-and-a-half stars: see Throwaway Women.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

OMADD and Other Stuff

I am not a medical researcher, but I think I’ve discovered a new disease: OMADD, pronounced Oh-Mad. Old Man Attention Deficit Disorder. And I have it. Since my last post on January 6, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what I’ve been up to. Or down to, for that matter.

I know that I’ve read two or three books, subjects unknown, so that has been a waste of Martha’s good money. With OMADD, I only need one book because every time I read it it will be brand-spanking-new to me. I think I’ll order a copy of The Little Engine That Could, one of my all-time favorites. If I remember, that is.

My long-term attention, however, seems unaffected. And that, in my usual roundabout gasbaggy way, is really the subject of whatever this is. I have decided, with no aforethought of course, to reveal some things about me that are still on my mental hard disk.

1. During my first attempt at college, the one that made Animal House look tame, my fraternity and our sister sorority took a field trip to Lake Placid, NY. The girls paid for the bus and accommodations, while we fellows bought the beer and a sandwich or two. Maybe some pretzels. We thought it was a fair split because some of those girls were real boozers.

The point of the story is that several of us visited Mount Van Hoevenberg and, daring each other, we took a bobsled ride on the Olympic bobsled run. It was a four-person sled: a professional driver and brakeman with two idiots between them. “What do I have to do?” I asked. “Nothing,” the driver replied. “Just hold on to those knobs and enjoy the ride.” Enjoy the ride my ass. I was scared skinny and have stayed that way ever since. The good news is my companion was a pulchritudinous redhead, so I had double the knobs to hold on to. When the ride was over and we realized we were still alive, the redhead and I fell in like over a few beers in the lodge. And a pretzel. And she never even noticed that I had wet my pants.

2. I was a member of a drum and bugle corps (pronounced “core”), back in the days when they were all male and the minimum age to participate was eighteen. Called “senior corps,” they were all about precision marching and music that could (and did) knock your socks off. The senior circuit was confined to the upper east coast and Canada, and each summer weekend we were competing in a different city: Philadelphia one week, Montreal the next.

The thing of it is, we were good. Real good. And we practiced hard. Real hard. We had an eighty-five man horn line (as opposed to about fifty), including six contra-bass horns that rested on a fellow’s shoulder. You could hear us from a mile away. We were the "Crusaders": We marched in the Macy’s and Orange Bowl Parades, and in the spring of 1965, played in Carnegie Hall with seven other corps.

Carnegie Hall. I will never forget performing on that stage where hundreds of musical legends have stood. It was a fitting swan song to my bugling days, too. I quit the corps to be with my Mom, who was dying of cancer, and even though the Crusaders won the national championship that year, the last few months with her were precious.

3. November 1978. I buy a Western novel at the grocery store while Martha is shopping for groceries. December 1978. I buy a Western novel from the same series at the drugstore while Martha is shopping for drugs. It joins the first one I bought in my “To Be Read” pile. October 2008. I buy a Western novel from the same series from Amazon.

November 1978 to October 2008. 360 months. Exactly 30 years. Published once a month, I am the proud owner of 360 Western novels, not a one of which I have ever read. Each one is encased in its own Ziploc bag to preserve its bookly freshness. I mean these books are mint, have never been exposed to humidity, and are stored in the dark recesses of my closet. Once or twice a year I open my closet to air out my socks, so the books get a nice airing too.

So why do I continue to collect something I will never read, eat, or shave with? Because I have to. What if I opened the newspaper tomorrow and the headline said, “MAN AUCTIONS FULL MINT SET OF 361 LONGARM NOVELS ON E-BAY FOR 1.4 MILLION DOLLARS!!!.”

Boy, would I feel terrible. 30 years of collecting right down the drain because I didn’t buy #361, or #362, or #363 . . .

[Click on the photo and notice the number in the "L". Also, please note that this is NOT a meme--those of you who know me know I hate memes.]

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

January Hangover

The holidays are over, shopping and wrapping done, decorations up, decorations down, gifts returned to the stores for cash to pay the electric bill for the decorations, greeting cards sent, Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" until you puke, cooking and cleaning, relatives and their bratty kids (who found all the shit you stashed under the bed while cleaning), putting up the tree, taking down the tree, office parties, cocktail parties, sneaking a nip or two in the closet and the pantry, smiling for an entire month—-boy oh boy was it fun!

But now that your adrenalin level has returned to low, you're pooped. Dragging ass. Bummed out. You feel, and look like, crap. You manage to make it out of bed, only to collapse on the couch. And then you can't get out of couch. You can't do a thing with your hair—not only on your head, but everywhere.

In truth, you feel exactly like the rag rug by the front door or on the mud porch, the one everybody wiped their filthy boots, shoes, and flip-flops on.

Don't worry, though, because you have almost eleven months to recover before the fun starts all over again . . .

Friday, January 02, 2009

Blog o' the Day: Attila the Mom

If you're in the mood to laugh until you wet your pants (and who isn't?), spend about five minutes reading Cheaper Than Therapy: Spanx For the Memories... by the Mistress of Comedy Writing, aka Attila the Mom. It is a heart-warming story of how she spent New Year's Eve.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Reviewing 2008

If you're thinking that I'm going to tell you how crappy 2008 was for Martha and me, forget it. That would be whining, pissing, moaning, and complaining, and I'm not very fond of whining, pissing, moaning and complaining. There were some bright spots, of course. We're both still alive and married to each other, we adopted our little maniac dog "Irish", and I got a whole lotta reading done.

The reason for the latter is because I spent more of 2008 in a prone position than I did erect (no wisecracks, please). I finished 58 books this year, only 4 of which were non-fiction. I love stories, I need stories, and I found several storytellers I hadn't read before.

THE BEST OF 2008, in no particular order:

Interpreter of Maladies, a book of short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Namesake, a novel, both by Jhumpa Lahiri. Born and raised in London and now living in Rhode Island, Lahiri writes about Indian immigrants to America, Calcutta, Bengali and Hindu customs and culture—but mostly she writes about . . . people. Like Khalad Hosseini, she makes writing seem effortless: Her wonderful prose made me care about all of her characters, like I was a family relative instead of just a reader.

Garnethill, Exile, Resolution, by Denise Mina. Hop an imaginary plane to Glasgow, Scotland, where Mina resides and the locale of her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen O'Donnell, Mina's protagonist, is one of the most unique amateur crime solvers I have ever run across. But crime solving is just a slice of O'Donnell—her incredibly dysfunctional family and Maureen's own psychological problems make up the bulk of these stories. Glasgow is a tough city, and so is Mina's writing: She is gritty, extremely profane, and totally in tune with the seamy side of life. Unlike Mina's book Deception, Back Bay Books did not Americanize these three: Glaswegian slang, euphemisms, and names for "stuff" make the books all the more authentic. A caveat: Read the trilogy in order or it ain't gonna make no sense to ye.

Jar City, Silence of the Grave, Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason. Board our imaginary airplane again to Reykjavik, Iceland and three thrillers starring D.I. Erlendur Sveinsson. Indridason's writing is spare and tightly-woven, probably a good definition of Iceland itself. The stories are absorbing, and there is none of the police station/problems with superiors that are a trademark of police procedurals. An interesting fact about Reykjavik: The telephone book lists only given names because no one uses a surname; imagine opening the Chicago phone book and looking for "Bob." Of the three novels I liked the second one best—Silence of the Grave—because it revolves around a bastard of a wife- and child-beater . . .

The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion, by William Faulkner. We need a time machine to take us to rural Mississippi in the first half of the 20th century for these three novels, known as The Snopes Trilogy. The Snopes, a large clan of misfits and thieves, are headed by Flem Snopes, quite possibly the most evil character in American fiction. Reading and understanding Faulkner isn't always easy but his stories, often missing details or left open-ended, purposely challenged me to make conclusions and bounce them off other readers on LibraryThing. In short, reading Faulkner is a participatory exercise.

Finally, there is Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora, by Pierre Berg. This is a place we want neither a plane nor a time machine to take us, but we also cannot forget what the Germans wrought. I reviewed the book here.

TWO STINKERS FOR 2008, in no particular order:

And wouldn't you know it, both of them are still on the bestseller list.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. This is Wroblewski's first book and it took him nine years to write it. I thought it was going to take me that long to get through its 576 pages, and I nearly quit it a dozen times. But I'm a cheap bastard when it comes to expensive hardcovers, so I kept plowing on. Finally, the action picked up around page 330 and the rest of the book was okay. Briefly, a "Sawtelle" was a new breed of dog, bred by a family named . . . Sawtelle . . . on a farm in Wisconsin. The problem I had with the book was threefold: There was a lot of correspondence relating to dog DNA and the breeding of a perfect one; pages and pages of dog training (sit, stay, roll over) without any descriptions of exactly how the training is done; and worst of all, the characters were as flat as the paper they were written on. Oprah liked it, though, so I guess I must be wrong.

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. This is the college prof who died at 47 of cancer, leaving three children under the age of five. As a legacy to the kids who will never know him, he gave a last lecture about himself at Carnegie Mellon University. His early death was of course unfortunate, and his legacy idea was a good one. The problem I had with Pausch was his gigantic ego (a name-dropper extraordinaire) and his profound advice that readers are eating up. Profundities like "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." And "Time is all you have . . ." And my favorite advice from the anal area, "Stay organized." I'm sure that Pausch's children will cherish their Dad's video and writing, but I sure didn't.

MY FAVORITE BOOK OF 2008, in no particular order:

We have a tie, ladies and gentlemen: Faulkner's The Hamletand Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies.

Not a bad year at all. Stephen King's book of short stories, Just After Sunsetwas quite good. There were some disappointments (Ken Follett, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, and Wally Lamb), but that's because I expect excellence from my favorite contemporary authors every time out. I enjoyed Bernard Cornwell a great deal: I read nine of his historical novels during the year and, thanks to some nice person at HarperCollins, I'm presently reading an advance reader's copy of Agincourt, the most famous battle of the One Hundred Years War, to be released to the public on January 20th.

So to all my bloggerly friends who read, I wish all of you a readerly 2009.

[All books link to their detail page on so you can read more about them. IF you happen to buy one, I receive about 4 cents commission.]