Monday, December 28, 2009

Sam Savage

I know very little about the writer Sam Savage, author of two terrific novels. I read them in reverse order. The second, "The Cry of the Sloth" was one of my favorites for 2009. I just read his first novel, "Firmin", the autobiography of a rat who lived in a bookstore in Scollay Square. Where? Scollay Square was a Boston neighborhood that was bulldozed, completely wiped out, in the late 1950s to make way for the ugly and barren Government Center. Scollay Square was home to pimps, hookers, thieves, strippers, sailors, crooks and the like. As such it was the bustling heart of the city, the alternative to sometimes chilly Friday afternoons in Symphony Hall. (A digression: My mother's first cousin, Mary Elizabeth Corbett, became the voluptuous Marie Cord, headliner at the majestic and infamous Old Howard, complete with swinging tassels. Go ahead, laugh. Marie died young on Christmas Day 1963, but to this day her elderly siblings live in a fine house she bought and paid for). Firmin, our rat friend, is not only born in a bookstore-in a nest made of shredded bits of Moby Dick, but he becomes a voracious reader himself. He eats up great books, often literally. He falls in love with Ginger Rogers, whose films he sees regularly at the Rialto Theater-which becomes a porno house at the stroke of each midnight. Firmin also falls in love with Norman, proprietor of the bookshop, but Norman resorts to rat poison and that's the end of THAT Romance. Ultimately Firmin is adopted by the down at heel writer and philosopher Jerry Magoon, who likes rats. Alas, the street life catches up with our Jerry and finishes him off. Leaving Firmin in a cleaned up neighborhood devoid of interest and humanity-the very qualities this novel has in abundance!

All I know about Sam Savage is what I read in his brief author bio: advanced degrees from Yale, born 1940 in South Carolina, now living in Madison Wisconsin. He's a complete original. Read "Firmin" and "The Cry of the Sloth"-put them on your Best Book list of 2010. Thanks Sam, whoever you are!

Here's an excerpt:

And you don't have to believe stories to love them. I love all stories. I love the progression of beginning, middle and end. I love the slow accumulation of meaning, the misty landscapes of the imagination, the mazy walks, the wooded sleeps, the reflecting pools, the tragic twists and comic stumbles. The only literature I cannot abide is rat literature. Including mouse literature. I despise good natured old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. I piss down the throats of Mickey Mouse and Stuart Little. Affable, shuffling, cute they stick in my craw like fish bones.
--Sam Savage, "Firmin" pp.37-38 Coffee House Press

Friday, December 11, 2009

Books in 2009

Early this morning I was reading in bed, it was still dark out but it was time to get going. I had 10 pages left to read of John Irving's new novel Last Night in Twisted River. I'll get back to it tonight. I loved this book. John Irving rules!

Also on my reading table:
To Serve Them All My Days by R.L. Delderfield
-a World War I vet's life teaching in an English public school


Ted Kennedy's autobiography, "True Compass"

and the books I've finished most recently I've really loved:

Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte

The Humbling, Phillip Roth. I'm not much of a Roth fan, although I did like The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. But I loved The Humbling, the story of what it means to be an artist. This short novel made me run out and re read Isaak Dinesen's sublime Babette's Feast, then I read The Humbling again.

My most unforgettable books in 2009:

The Humbling-Phillip Roth
Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte
No Future Without Forgiveness-Desmond Tutu
The Help-Kathryn Stockett
An Infinity of Little Hours-Nancy Klein Maguire
Zeitoun-Dave Eggers
Last Night in Twisted River-John Irving


These are the books I read in 2009. *= a favorite

Thomas Beecham, An Obsession with Music--John Lucas
The Reluctant Fundamentalist-Moshin Hamid
War as They Knew It-Rosenberg
Chic-Bob Hunter (OSU football great Chic Harley)

Homeboy-Seth Morgan

Laura Keene -V. Bryon (Keene was the actress manager on stage at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot, starring in "Our American Cousin". There was a lot to her story).

Moth Smoke-Moshin Hamid
Mrs. Astor Regrets-Meryl Gordon

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran--Homan Madj
Love,Work, Children-Cheryl Mendelssohn
The Scarlet Letters-Louis Auchincloss

Embracing the Wide Sky-Daniel Tamnent
Verdi-Julian Budden

Cakes and Ale-Somerset Maugham
*Animals Make Us Human-Temple Grandin
In Spite of Myself-Christopher Plummer

*No Future Without Forgiveness-Desmond Tutu
War Journal-Richard Engel
Theatre-Somerset Maugham

*An Evil Cradling-Brian Keenan-an Irishman kidnapped in the Middle East

Victor Fleming-Michael Sgrabin-the bio of the director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind

Lincoln-Gore Vidal
The Violent Bears it Away-Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O'Connor-Brad Gooch

Inside the Recording Studio-Peter Andry

*The Last Dickens-Matthew Pearl unfolding the mystery of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

*The Believers-Zoe Heller
Murder in the Marais-Cora Black
Rough Weather-Robert Parker

Falconer-John Cheever
*Cutting for Stone-Abraham Verghese
Cheever-Blake Bailey

White Heat: Emily Dickinson and Thomas Higginson-Brenda Wineapple
Music Therapy: Death and Grief-Chava Sekeles

Now or Never-Jack Cafferty
The Lady Elizabeth-Alison Weir

"*The Unlikely Disciple-Kevin Roose-undercover at a fundamentalist Christian university

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson and the Lincoln Memorial-Raymond Arsenault
The Last Lion: Ted Kennedy -ed. Boston Globe

Manic-Terry Cleary

*Joseph P. Kennedy Presents-Cari Beauchamp--the patriarch's years in Hollywood, with and without Gloria Sanson

*Columbine-Dave Cullen harrowing

*The Help-Kathryn Stockett. READ THIS BOOK

Go Down Together-The Story of Bonnie and Clyde--Jeff Guinn

*Closing Time-Joe Queenan

*Brooklyn-Colm Toibin
The Gardner Heist-Ulrich Boser

*An Infinity of Little Hours-Nancy Klein Maguire-the lives of Cistercian monks in England. Magnificent book.

Dead Line -Brian McGrory
*Gabriel Garcia Marquez-Gerald Martin
Horse Boy-Rupert Isaacson
Peace Mom-Cindy Sheehan

Requiem Mass-Dufresne
A Whole New Mind-Daniel Pink hope for those of us who are right brained!

*The Unit-Nikki Holmquist

A Drink Before Dying-Dennis Lehane

Remembering Laughter-Wallace Stegner
Losing Mum and Pup-Christopher Buckley
Crossing to Safety-Wallace Stegner

Strange Child of Chaos: Norman Treigle-Brian Morgan

*The Speed Queen-Stewart O'Nan

Answered Prayers-Truman Capote
Father Joe-Tony Hendra

*Parallel Play-Tim Page a struggle with Asperger syndrome
A Pale View of Hills-Kazuko Ishiguro

*A singer's Silent Sounds-Linda Esther Gray-what happens to an opera star who loses her voice

Siegfried-Harry Mulish--what if Hitler had a son?
Homer and Langley-E.L. Doctorow

The Confessions of Edward Day-Valerie Martin
The Biographer's Tale-A.S. Byatt

*The Cry of the Sloth-Sam Savage-a compulsive letter writer and curmudgeon. My type of fella!

That Old Cape Magic-Richard Russo

Born Round-Frank Bruni
Tenors-John Potter
This is Where I leave You-Trotter

Strength in What Remains-Tracy Kidder
*Zeitoun-Dave Eggers--one family survives Katrina
The Queen Mother-Hugo Vickers

Intervention-Robin Cook

The Mammy-Brendan O'Carroll
The Friends of Eddie Coyle-George Higgins
Busted-Art Schlicter

*Wolf Hall-Hilary Patel Man Booker prize winner-the life of Thomas Cromwell at the dangerous court of Henry VIII

A Strange Eventful History: Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Gordon Craig--Michael Holyroyd

*Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte
Sinatra-Anthony Summers
*The Humbling-Phillip Roth
Put Out the Flags-Evelyn Waugh
*Invisible-Paul Auster

*Practicing Catholic-James Carroll

*Last Night in Twisted River-John Irving

*Firmin-Sam Savage-READ THIS

Offical Book Club Selection-Kathy Griffin

Lit-Mary Carr

New York Trilogy-Paul Auster

The Man Who Saved Christmas-Les Standiford

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

John Irving's "Last Night in Twisted River"

I love John Irving's books and this new one is a honey. What I especially admire among Irving's themes is the profound love between fathers and sons. Especially the concern and protectionism of an older father to a growing son. None of this Oedipal crap that gets in the way. I understand John Irving didn't know anything about his own biological father-who had been a war hero during WWII-until very recently, and that Irving has three boys of his own. Lucky boys.

I'm further attracted in "Last Night in Twisted River" by advice given to writers:

"In the media, real life was more important than fiction; those elements of a novel that were, at least, based on personal experience were of more interest to the general public than those pieces of the novel writing process that were 'merely' made up. In any work of fiction, weren't those things that really happened to the writer-or perhaps, to someone the writer had intimately known-more authentic, more verifiably true, than anything anyone could imagine? (This was a common belief, even though a fiction writer's job was imagining, truly, a whole story-as Danny had subversively said, whenever he was given the opportunity to defend the fiction in fiction writing-because real life stories were never whole, never complete in the ways novels could be.)"
John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River, pp. 372-373

Friday, December 04, 2009

Cardinal Cushing

Richard Cardinal Cushing (1895-1970) was archbishop of Boston during my Boston Irish Catholic youth. I remember him as the ancient gravelly voiced prelate rumbling the rosary of the radio. He seemed to have a gift for public relations and established a power base in my politically minded hometown. He wasn't afraid of controversy and he was known as good copy. I remember during the busing riots in Boston in the mid 70s, after his death, my parents saying "Cushing would walk right into Southie and tell them all to knock it off." He was known as a friend of the Kennedys (surprisingly, not always a good thing in Boston) and his support of Jacqueline Kennedy at her marriage to Onassis was cited as contributing to his resignation in 1968--his resignation was not accepted by the Vatican, which continued to criticize the President's widow. Cushing was said to me discouraged and angered at the volume of hate mail he received in support of her.

I thought of Cardinal Cushing again while reading "Practising Catholic" by James Carroll. A lot it is a re evaluation of Cushing, who if remembered at all is as a sodden old man. Cushing stood up to the conservative movements tying to overtake Vatican II. He complained loudly when the sessions were conducted in Latin. He wouldn't tolerate the anti Semitic rants of Father Feeney and he practically invented the dialogue between Catholicism and other faiths. Cushing's sister was married to a Jew-very dicey in Boston 80 years ago-and the Cardinal's love for his sister and her husband enabled him to face down criticism and hierarchical nonsense and embrace people as he found them. No Nulla salus ex Ecclesia for this Ironmonger's son. If Cushing himself wasn't a comfortable man he made Catholicism a structure to embrace all of humanity. Yes, he took the Nuns to the Dodge 'em cars at Nantasket Beach-he dodged the Curia too, and seemed to remember the working people who made up the church in his day. I'm sure he would have hit abusive clergy right up side the head, and they woulda been history, goddammit!

Cardinal Cushing awaits a serious biographer.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What do you read in the gym?

Readers of this blog will know of my misadventure last year in moving a large, heavy, bulky elliptical machine from the top of my house to the bottom. Suffice it to say that unlike Humpty Dumpty, who I otherwise resemble, the machine was put back together again and had a few more good months before a final collapse. It is now in pieces, in the basement, with cobwebs and worse, like the old wreck that rode it for years--me. The old wreck has joined the local gym, the better to abuse the Ellipticals (ellipticii?) Stairmasters, Precors or whatever over there. The sight of me growling and huffing away resembles a polar bear in acute bowel distress no doubt, but I at least try to read while running, the better to improve my mid while my girth grows, Elliptcii or not.

What do you read in the gym? I've found that trash and smut work best, but I'm, usually too embarrassed to take my own advice. Recently, "The Lost Diary of Mary Queen of Scots" by Erickson had me mired in chick lit lite, historical fantasy with Mary Stuart consorting with Elizabeth I in a mud bath, alas not what you think. This was too fuzzy (muddy?) even for me, but I did finish the book. Better was Anthony Summers's bio of Frank Sinatra. Our Tony (!) has mafia on the brain, and the best bedfellows weren't Mia or Ava Gardner but Sam Giancana with the Kennedys. Who needs Marilyn?

Michael Holyrood's very, very long book about Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and Gordon Craig and all their friends and relations over 100 years of the British and European theatre (re please, theatre) was, like this sentence, long, long, long. I kept thinking as I pounded away, Are these people ever going to die?! They did. A bio of the Queen Mum was okay, if you like twee and lilacs. I kept hoping she'd beat up a chamber maid or do a hit and run on the Duchess of Windsor or at least spill a little of the pink gin, but no. William Shawcross's new 1000 page "authorized" bio of the late Royal Mother is on my list. The papers thanked the abdication crisis for adding a little spice to the sugar, even a spot of bother but that isn't until page 431! I may lose weight on that one. "The Tenors" had the attractive Placido-Luciano-Jose buddy boy photo on the dust jacket, but you'd better want to know about Heddle Nash and the rest of 'em too.

And then there's "Practising Catholic" by James Carroll. He focuses on the 60s,when he was studying for the priesthood with the socially aware Paulist Fathers, and its nice to see a hero made of the Prince of my youth, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who survives today in memory as an irascible old guy with more than a touch of the Irish virus. His diplomatic skills and bloody smarts are shown time and again. Reading light this is not, but a provocative, sometimes infuriating bloody good read it certainly is. Books like this will keep me going to the gym. Tell me I'm losing weight. Go ahead, lie to me!