Archive for the 'Books' Category

Jul 28 2014

The New Kingmakers — book review

Steven O'Grady is the co-founder of Redmonk, a developer-focused tech analyst firm, and a very smart analyst at that. I first got to know him in 2006 via my old boss at Lenovo, the  CMO Deepak Advani who had a deep interest in Open Source and developer relations from his days at IBM. O'Grady and his co-founding partner James Governor gave us invaluable insights into the Open Source market, something that was unexpectedly crucial to Lenovo's digital marketing focus as unbeknownst to us, one of the iconic Thinkpad laptops had been embraced as a reference platform to simplify hardware driver development for new distros.

Steven is also a great fan of all things Red Sox (his blog "Wicked Clevah" is one of the few I read) and is a striper fisherman up on the coast of Maine where he works and lives. So our orbits have overlapped on a few vectors.

This past spring he published with O'Reilly Media a very compelling argument that developers are the "new kingmakers" in contemporary IT and corporate digital strategy because of their crucial role in building value, defending against disruption, and making the technology decisions formerly reserved for procurement teams and the CIO. The result is a complete over-turning of the way organizations select and deploy technology, putting the developers in charge of the tools and standards that govern IT-enabled innovation and operations. We intuitively figured that out at Lenovo under the premise that when anyone makes a technology decision -- "what phone should I buy? what laptop? what software?" -- they turn to the most technical and expert person in their network. For those of us trying to build an influencer model online to sell computers, that audience was comprised of developers. Make them happy, give them what they need in terms of information and content, and they in turn will be the ones who declare if your technology is crap or not.

O'Grady nails the impact that the developer community is having on tech -- from standards to commercial software to the way companies hire and retain the best coding talent they can find. His point is going to be very bleak new to the marketing teams at B2B tech companies. All those white papers and conferences and drive to get to the CEO and the COO and the CMO and the CIO ..... guess what? Developers could care less and they are the ones who matter.

"In the latter half of the 20th century, developers were effectively beholden to their employers. The tools they needed to be productive -- hardware and software -- just were not affordable on an individual basis. Developers wishing to build even something as trivial as a website were confronted by an unfortunate reality: most of the necessary building blocks were available only under commercial licenses. Operating systems, databases, web and application servers, and development tools all required money. To get anything done, developers needed someone to write checks for the tools they needed. That meant either raising the capital to buy the necessary pieces, or -- more often -- requesting that an employer or other third party purchase them on the developer’s behalf.

"The new century, however, has ushered in profound and permanent shifts in the relationship between developer and employer. No longer is the former at the mercy of the latter’s budget. With the cost of development down by an order of magnitude or mode, the throttle on developer creativity has been removed, setting the stage for a Cambrian explosion of projects.

"Four major disruptions drove this shift: open source, the cloud, the Internet, and seed-stage financing."

Basically, the point is that the company may buy one set of technology but developers will be developers and build stuff with the tools they want to use, not the tools the CIO negotiated a good price for out on the golf course.  Rather than put up with "official" technology, developers just get stuff done with the right tools -- generally free tools -- that get the job done.

"....the balance of power began to tilt in favor of developers. Developers, not their bosses, became the kingmakers. Technology selection increasingly wasn’t determined by committee or bake offs or who played golf with the CIO, but by what developers decided, on their own, to use.

"MySQL salespeople used to walk into businesses, for example, only to be told that they were wasting their time because the business wasn’t using any MySQL. At which point the MySQL salesperson would reply, “That’s interesting, because your organization has downloaded the package 5,000 times in the last two years.” This was and is the new balance of power. Not for every technology sector, of course, but for more every year."

This is a very concise and accessible book -- aimed at the marketers and executive management of companies who rely on developers to build their success.  In my bookshelf of tech books that matter, this one will have a long shelf life. If you're managing digital strategy,  evaluating tech vendors, or trying to market hardware and software, this book can be digested in less than two hours and will, trust me, have an impact on how you see the new world.

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Apr 07 2014

Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I've blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends' hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah's Geronimo Rex.

Here's what I wrote on Amazon:

"For nearly twenty years I've been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as "Bloody Watson" and "Emperor Watson" for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen's masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity's Rainbow, White Noise ....

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson's death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing -- and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson's sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius' quest is a reminder to the reader -- this is a true story. Matthiessen's research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson's lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men's Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel."

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Oct 25 2013

The Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club

Published by under Books,Rowing,sculling

You can't buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston's Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.

David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club's archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous "coffee table" book printed privately for the membership.

Which is a shame, as I'd stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.

The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.

The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men's club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.

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Sep 09 2013

Three Books I’d Like to Write But Won’t

Published by under Books,General

Book writing pays about a nickel an hour, so other than inflating one's resume in this modern attention economy, why bother? Anyway, here's three non-fiction book ideas that should be written but won't be written by me:

1. The Seedy Underbelly of the Internet: someone needs to get into the semi-sleazy, ethically challenged, weird world of spammers, hate bloggers, affiliate marketers, SEO whores, search toolbar installers, pay-per-posters, belly-fat miracle advertisers that buzz away on the edges of the noblest ambitions of the Interwebs. This is the desperate world of the grifters who exploit every technical advance and loophole from permalinks and trackbacks to page rank and SERP. They are work-at-homers, con men and women who produce garish content-marketing blogs, conduct seminars on how you too can make a stack of cash from Facebook and Twitter, whoring out your content link blog, and play the affiliate marketing game. They put pictures of girls with cleavage on their fake avatars, invite you to be their LinkedIn friend, then send you a message extolling their polystyrene packaging plant in South Korea. They scrape your blog posts and call them their own. They run automated spam bots that write semi-coherent comments on your blog. They pick epic flame battles with other scammers and revel in being hated. These are the true geniuses of precision marketing.

I get depressed just thinking about researching that one.

blogger

2. Conference Whore: if I were a rich man, and had nothing to do all day, I would spend my time attending a full year's worth of conferences and idea-fests like Davos, Burning Man, Demo, TED, a Microsoft Sharepoint convention in New Orleans, SIGGRAPH, Le Web, Forrester Consumer Experience, DrupalCon, CES ...... A life spent in airport lounges, business class, fancy golf resorts on the edge of San Diego, Palm Springs, Tahoe, a world of registration tables, name tags hung around the neck, keynotes, panel discussions, calls to raise my hand if I've ever ...., breakout sessions, hashtags and live-tweeting, questions from the audience (please wait for the microphone), networking events, happy hours, breakfast buffets, bio breaks. This would amazingly depressing -- a year on the road tracking the idea circuit, a perpetual junket in the weird alternate reality of the face-to-face event. To make it doubly depressing, combine Conference Whore with the Underbelly pitch and do nothing but attend sleazy marketing seminars on how to make a million buying domain names ....

The year of living at conferences would be very unhealthy, probably worth 25 pounds in ass fat and would probably lead to some sort of psychological warping.

(search for "conference badges" on Flickr. Tara Hunt is amazing)

badges

3. Ziff Knew Weeds: The rise of the tech press in the 70s and 80s hasn't been written, but should, before the original old guard passes away.  The title comes from my ex-boss, the late Bill Ziff, who was a super smart eccentric polymath who legend had it would strike up bizarre conversations with his employees about roadside weeds (he was an accomplished amateur botanist) .

From the first newletters and enthusiast bibles, to breakthrough pieces like Stewart Brand in Rolling Stone, the battling empires of Pat McGovern and Bill Ziff for dominance of the PC industry through PC World vs. PC Magazine, PC Week vs InfoWorld, MacWorld vs. MacWeek, Computerworld, Computershopper, Release 1.0 ..... the power of the tech press, a blend of geeks and old newspaper hacks and the sleazy tactics they deployed from dumpster diving in Silicon Valley to read Apple's trash to bribing teen-age printers apprentices in Iowa with t-shirts to cough up the first copies of IBM's user manuals, partying with Bill Gates at Comdex, refereeing epic pissing matches between boy wonders who would go onto become the richest men in the world, snorting coke in the review lab on deadline night .... The tech press of Boston and Silicon Valley chronicled the wild birth of an industry that changed the world, until they were waylaid by the Internet and put out of work by a new crop of gossipping gadget bloggers.

 

Anyway - there's three free book ideas for anyone with the patience and gumption to tackle them.

6 responses so far

Sep 03 2013

What I’m reading, Labor Day weekend

My fellow Kettleer fan and baseball wiseman Jim D. loaned me "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey" by Edward Achorn. Faithful readers know my guilty pleasure is reading baseball books and this has been one of the best, introducing me to the history of the game in its earliest years after the Civil War, focusing on the 1883 pennant race between the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics. The title is appropriate. Some players were drunks, syphilitics, cheats, brawlers, racists and stars. All were colorful and all were hard men -- playing barehanded, pitching until their arms could pitch no more, crashing through fences, and fighting for room to play in outfields mobbed with spectators.

The game was coming out of a low period of gambling and cheating., but showmen such as St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe knew how to repackage the game for the working man by playing on their only day off (Sunday) and serving beer (he owned a bar and brewery). The result was the birth of the national pastime.

Second up, Alec Wilkinson writes about Cape Cod's Great White Sharks in the September 9 issue of The New Yorker.  Shark porn is an industry unto itself, fueling the annual Shark Week, weirdness like Sharknado, and other oddities that play to whatever deep horror we have about the evils of the deep. I have a family member who has some sort of amazing Bloomberg terminal alert set to shark attacks, and not a day goes by without some forwarded link to a horror story about a decapitated abalone fisherman. Bottom line: "Don't get out of the boat."

Wilkinson tells the story about how Great Whites have always been around the Cape, killing a teenager in the 30s in Mattapoisett, freaking out Henry David Thoreau during his walk down the peninsula, and now coming back in droves to a diner stocked with a ton of grey seals who are booming thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that made it highly illegal for commercial fishermen to keep their population down with an onboard .30-.30.

The piece focuses on the Ocearch expedition that just wrapped up its second summer off of Monomoy Island catching and tagging Great Whites aboard a specially equipped former Bering Sea crabber.  I printed out a copy from the New Yorker's horrible digital edition and my son and I spent a happy half hour reading it together, me handing over each page to him as I finished them.

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Aug 23 2013

Baseball Scorekeeper

Published by under Baseball,Books

I switched scorebooks this summer in the interest of checking out some alternatives. I started scoring with the free cards the Cotuit Kettleers used to hand out as recently as 2009, but have since migrated to spiral-bound books of scoring blanks.

The standby for me for the past three seasons  has been C.S. Peterson's Scoremaster. I would order one or two every spring from Amazon for $7 (though the vendor claims a massive discount from a list price of $30 which is absurd because I don't remember paying close to that).

Here's a scoresheet from Peterson:

petersons

 

Apologies in advance as the scan doesn't do much justice to the detail on the form, but there it is. Pretty dense, kind of cramped, but it did the job for the most part and didn't have any obvious irritations.

Peterson's is a good book. I'm familiar with it, it has a pitch count tracker which one can see on the far right. It is soft covered so it isn't very rigid in the lap and it has no pockets to stash ticket stubs, 50-50 raffle tickers, or other detritrus picked up at the ball park.

This summer I tried something new, a very trendy super scorebook complete with an introduction, a set of how-to-score instructions, a fold-out cheat sheet with common symbols and abbreviations, and yes, a memento pocket inside of the back cover.  This version is called the Baseball Scorekeeper and is priced at $13.56 onb Amazon, twice the Peterson price. It even has co-authors, Stuart Miller and Zack Hemple.

I liked it. It was a little basic but it also got the job done, it just didn't get to the level of obsessive detail that Peterson's does. The lack of a pitch count tracker was an issue, and the player hit column just noted hits, not doubles, triples, etc.

scorekeeper

 

I'd recommend the Scorekeeper to a beginner, wish Peterson's came in a hardcover version and while I'm giving advice, would tell the Scorekeeper guys to consider an elastic band of some sort -- like Moleskin notebooks have -- to help hold the thing together when it is folded open and both sides are in use.

Next season I'll try something else.

And to hell with scorekeeping apps. Yes yes yes I've heard of Gamechanger, and have tried the iScore app. Only douchebags take tablets to ballgames unless they're getting paid to bring one there. Give me paper and pencil and a bag of peanuts in the shell.

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Apr 08 2013

Down Around Midnight

Published by under Books,Cape Cod,General

I confess a morbid fascination with plane crashes. I've watched enough of them on YouTube to know I will never go to an airshow, fly on a Russian airline, or find myself in the grandstands at the Reno air races. The funny thing is I've never been afraid of flying and have grown to actually enjoy severe turbulence as a perverse airborne amusement park ride.

I take that back: I was afraid of flying from 1995 to 2000 when I flew between Hyannis here on Cape Cod and New York's La Guardia airport on a little regional airline, Colgan Air, and its fleet of Beechcraft 1900s. I nicknamed the planes "The Flying Cigar Tubes of Death" – not because they were infamous, but because they were cramped little things that one sort of crouched down and crawled into. I always made it a point to sit in one of the exit row seats over the wings, not wanting to wrestle some old lady for the right to be first off should the pilot have to put it down in Long Island Sound or the woods around Hyannis. There were some wild rides on those planes, true white knuckle oh-my-god flights with people screaming and praying out loud as we rocked our way blind through the fog in a March noreaster, convinced we were moments away from meeting our Maker.

The worst thing about that commuter airline was the fact that there were two takeoffs and landings on each leg. The flight always stopped at Nantucket, an airport allegedly built on the foggiest part of the island by the Navy so student pilots could practice in the worst conditions.

This past weekend I indulged my secret vice for plane crashes by reading Cape Cod author Robert Sabbag's Down Around Midnight, his account of surviving the crash of Air New England Flight 248 one foggy June night in 1979 while returning from LaGuardia. He was in his early 30s, riding the fame of his book Snowblind, a best-selling non-fiction account of the world of cocaine smuggling. With $5,000 tucked into his sock, Sabbag was minding his own business as the DeHavilland DHC 6 Otter made its approach over Yarmouthport into Hyannis around 11 pm in a thick fog. Up front, at the controls, the pilot, George Parmenter, was at the end of a 14 hour day. Tired, of questionable health at the age of 61, the vice-president of Air New England made his last mistake and put the plane into the thick woods of a Boy Scout camp near Willow Street and Route 6. Right on page one of the 200-page book, Sabbag gets to the point:

"The plane hit the trees at 123 knots. It lost its wings as it crashed. They were sheared off, taking the fuel tanks with them, as the rest of it slammed through the forest. In an explosion of tearing sheet metal, it ripped a path through the timber, cutting through thick stands of oak and pine for a distance of three hundred feet. Whatever memories time erases, it will never erase the memory of it."

It took Sabbag thirty years before he could tell the story, pushed into confronting the event by the discovery of an old day planner he found in a box of personal financial records, the pages soaked in fuel, leaves and pieces of twigs from the woods still in between the cover slashed by some violent force. He goes through the story as any good reporter would, interviewing the other passengers in the cabin (those that would talk to him), but he also doesn't hide his own biases and theories as to who and what were to blame for the Cape's worst commercial air disaster.

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Underneath the lurid details of an aviation catastrophe lies one of the better stories about life on Cape Cod, a perceptive and accurate look at the regular people who live here year round, the nurses and the firemen and EMTs who found him, back broken in the woods, and carried him out to a long recovery.

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Feb 07 2013

Indiscretion: Charles Dubow

Published by under Books,General

My friend Charles Dubow published his first novel, Indiscretion, this week. Tonight he will read from it at the Barnes and Nobles at 150 E. 86th St. at 7 pm. I won't be there thanks to the "historic" blizzard forecasted to obliterate Cape Cod tomorrow.

This isn't a "review" for two reasons:

  1. I haven't read the book(I read an unfinished draft two summers ago)
  2. I am too friendly with the author to be trusted as an objective critic.

What this post is, I suppose, is pure praise and congratulation for my friend -- the author and his fine writing -- and a strong, heartfelt recommendation that you give him your money and buy his first novel and read it, trusting me that you will be happy you did.

dubow

We were introduced in the mid-90s by Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI, the lifestyle supplement to Forbes Magazine. I was putting Forbes' various magazines online and the excellent content published by Chris was a priority for me. I described my need to enhance his magazine with original, online-only content and that I was willing to budget and fund a position to be the online editor, reporting jointly to both Chris and myself. Chris knew just the guy and made the introduction to Charles.

Charles was part of the original gang that launched Forbes onto the web. We were given a bleak second floor office a few blocks uptown from the Forbes headquarters near Union Square and set about building an open newsroom. But Charles insisted on his own office. He really insisted on his own office to the point that we gave in and gave him a little veal pen of an office with a door which he furnished with an oriental rug, an antique floor lamp, and a spavined old leather chair. None of us were aware of the future at the time, but that newsroom launched some amazing careers. Om Malik and GigaOm. Adam Penenberg and the Shattered Glass scandal. And now Charles and his first novel.

Charles is a man born out of time. Always impeccably dressed, hair slicked back (you'd almost expect him to wear an ascot), a true raconteur who tells stories in a droll, classical tone of voice that isn't English but isn't American either. A hybrid diction punctuated with a charming stammer, a knowing leer, and a great laugh. There are three or four people in my life who's judgment and recommendations of books I trust completely. Charles is one of them. His passion for obscure British travel writers, introducing me to the novels of William Boyd, to Colin the bartender at the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, to his fondness for 12-year old Macallan, the Chicken Hash at Twenty-One, giving me his late father's bowtie collection......he's one of a kind, a man from another era, the last person you'd expect to see hanging around the dingy newsroom of an online magazine. But he did and he not only made Forbes.com a better place, he delivered one of the strongest categories on that site and repeated that magic at Businessweek.com and then Bloomberg.

Now, at the age of 49 he is a novelist. If there was ever hope that a writer can deliver a masterpiece later in life, Charles is an inspiration. That isn't to say he hadn't tried before. He had. Only this time he knew he had something worth publishing.  I've written unpublished novels and the agony of being a writer is knowing when the work is good or not. Charles kept plugging away until he found his voice. His perseverance is his reader's gain.

I was honored when he asked me to read the first draft of Indiscretion in 2010. He asked to borrow the details of a story I told him about deliberately crashing a car into a seawall while wearing my hockey pads as well as the name of the Yale hockey rink ("The Whale") for his tragic hero, a successful novelist who throws it all away for a younger woman. I read the Word Doc on my iPad, beginning with some apprehension because one never knows about friends and first drafts.

"This is actually really good," I said to my wife after ten pages.  Two days later, as I finished, I told her Charles had written an amazing novel, one more than deserving of publication, one that could -- dare I jinx it? -- become a bestseller.

I wrote up some notes and made some suggestions, but the book was unfinished. Even unfinished it was a very good, if not great book. After Charles sold it to William Morrow he offered to send me the final manuscript, but I demurred, pre-ordered it on Amazon , and told him I'd wait for the actual book and not some digital version.

Indiscretion is the story of an ideal couple and the loss of their marriage by the intrusion of another woman. It is told by a family friend, Walter, and is set in New York, the  Hamptons, Paris and Rome.  Charles limns great characters, is a strong structuralist, has a knowing ear for dialogue, and ... in the hands of a lesser writer, could have easily let the novel slip into the category of beach reading.  What elevates the book and saves it from the salacious category of yet another adultery story set in classy places is the verisimilitude of the details, the fact that Charles lived and lives in this world and to cite the trite exhortation given to every writer to write about what they know, Charles actually knows this milieu and never has to fake it.

The word "gatsbyesque" is being rolled out by nearly every one of the first reviews of Indiscretion. I confess I made comparisons to Fitzgerald's masterpiece as I read the draft. But Fitzgerald was always the writer standing on the sidewalk, nose pressed to the glass, looking into the bright restaurant filled with the people he envied, just a guy from St. Paul. Minnesota who was bedazzled by the world of the wealthy.

Charles grew up in the restaurant, and that experience imbues the novel with a precision and truth that saves it from becoming a Judith Krantz cliche and elevates it to one of the more outstanding depictions of Manhattan-Hamptons life I have ever read.

I predict great things and tip my hat to him for persevering with his dream.

Here's a link to an early review by Richard Z. Santos at Kirkus.

The book can be found on Amazon here.

 

3 responses so far

Nov 20 2012

Current reading list

Published by under Books,Reading

I've been juggling the usual reading list, relying primarily on my Google Nexus 7 tablet as my Kindle delivery device. Good tablet. I highly recommend it.

BurrI've never read any Gore Vidal, and on the occasion of his passing away earlier this year bought a paperback edition of Burr, his fictionalization of the life of Aaron Burr. Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in perhaps the most famous duel in history; was Jefferson's vice-president, a hero of the Revolutionary War and, in Vidal's portrayal, a licentious, thoughtful, and scheming political survivor whom history has tarred and feathered while deifying Hamilton. I recommend it.

Proud TowerIf I could write history I would want to write like Barbara Tuchman. Her Guns of August, and Distant Mirror are personal favorites. Taken in the same vein of other historical authors who manage to make history sing (e.g. David McCullough and William Manchester), Tuchman is the best. Proud Tower is a look at the decline of aristocratic power structures in the two decades before World War I - with exquisite cameos of the best and the brightest in Parliament, Congress, and even the anarchist bomb throwers that presage our modern terrorism crisis.

DeadheadNick Baumgartner at the New Yorker has written a great personal account of being a Deadhead, a compulsive collector of the band's trove of user-shared bootleg taps of their shows, the fate of the band's archive and where it stands today in a warehouse in Burbank California. Which reminds me to do something with the two cases of 90 minute Maxell cassettes sitting in my attic.

Readwrite on Outing Trolls: interesting piece in ReadWrite (where the Fake Steve Jobs, my buddy Dan Lyons is now editor in chief) on the use of social media to "out" trolls and racists.  I confess to being a fan of the troll subculture -- finding some of the old USENET trolls to be among the more demented disruptors  and jokesters ever known. The rise of 4Chan, Reddit, etc. has given birth to an entirely weird subculture (my favorite being the SecondLife griefers "W-hat"). The example of the Tumblr blog devoted to outing adolescent racists who used Twitter and Facebook to express their ignorance after the recent election is depressing.

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Jun 07 2012

The Sadness of Ray Bradbury

Published by under Books

I'm a take-it-or-leave-it Science Fiction fan. Ray Bradbury was never a favorite author, but I did tolerate Fahrenheit 451 when it was shoved down my throat on some summer reading list. He passed away this week, and this morning's New York Times delivers an outstanding send-off to a writer who deserves a lot of credit for bridging the gulf between the lurid pulp covers of tentacled aliens and calliphygian space nymphs to the world of serious letters. Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Herbert .... there's quite a few "serious" sci-fi writers, but none really hit a chord with me.

The current New Yorker carried a brief but oh-very-sad reminiscence by Bradbury, possibly his last published piece. In it he talks about launching paper hot air balloons into the evening skies with his grandfather and watching their flickering light and beauty fade into the darkness with tears streaming down his five-year old cheeks.

"But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.

We stood watching it for at least ten minutes, until we could no longer see it. By then, tears were streaming down my face, and Grandpa, not looking at me, would at last clear his throat and shuffle his feet. The relatives would begin to go into the house or around the lawn to their houses, leaving me to brush the tears away with fingers sulfured by the firecrackers. Late that night, I dreamed the fire balloon came back and drifted by my window."

So sad and so beautiful and now I want to go read more of the same.

2 responses so far

Apr 23 2012

Lit’ry Life – April 22

Published by under Books,General,Reading

I have some catching up to do with my reading recommendations. A lot of my time has been spent in marine diesel and electronics manuals the past week as I get ready to recommission my sloop for the summer season. If you want to know how to bleed the air from a diesel engine's fuel system or replace an AC shore power circuit, I am your man. Rather than dig through every thing I've read over the past two weeks -- and there have been some great long-form reads -- I'll devote this edition of the Lit'ry Life to:

Digital Behavior Modification

Stephen Marche's piece in the Atlantic Monthly, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?  is a good companion to Sherry Turkle's oped in the New York Times Sunday opinion section, The Flight From Conversation and Gary Wilson's TedX talk on The Great Porn Experiment. Taken as a trifecta of content, it is a compelling and depressing sociological attack on the behavior modification the Age of Information Overload is having on our relatively slow-to-evolve brains.

Many other better informed critics have written at length on the alarming rise of a technically driven dystopia.   The argument that social/communication technologies from Twitter to text messaging are making us  more alienated from each other, not more connected is gaining empirical steam. Technology is blamed for everything from driving attention deficit disorder diagnoses through the roof to making men weird hairy-palmed porn addicts.

At my advanced age (soon to turn 54) I'm ready to plead guilty to technical senescence and invoke my AARP status as an aging luddite who just doesn't get it anymore. Just as my parent's generation was confused by blinking VCR clocks and the concept of "right click/left click" it may be my turn to lag the tech curve when it comes to location sharing, status updates, incessant liking, linking, curating and filming my skateboard disasters with a GoPro camera strapped to my hoodie. I may tag a food truck with my Google Glasses in a couple years, but ....if you haven't noticed already, I've all but given up on Facebook as am astounded by my friends who post every beer, every Kony viral video view, every I'm-On-Vacation-And-You-Aren't photo in the hope that someone will take notice and comment. I could care less about my Klout score. The only time I read Twitter is to check out some vile new comedian's inappropriate 140-character quip. Going to LinkedIn is an exercise in who's-viewed-my-profile narcissism.

The good news is I sense my own kids are indifferent to technically driven communications. One doesn't have a Facebook profile and vows he never will. The other two dismiss Facebook as a 40-something loser haven. Only one has a Twitter account. They prefer text messages over phone calls and email. For the most part they look at technology as a platform for entertainment -- be it a game or a song or a movie/tv show. So there is hope.

Read the depressing tales above then step away from the screens and get outdoors.

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Apr 18 2012

No Pulitzer for Fiction?

Published by under Books

Insane.  The Pulitzer committee couldn't agree on the best novel of 2011, so let the prize go unrewarded. The second time that's happened since 1974 when Thomas Pynchon's masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow, blew the committee's minds.

I would have given it to The Art of Fielding or The Pale King, but no, the Pulitzer Committee couldn't get its head around the category and left it unrewarded.

Three judges, all esteemed, and they couldn't pull the trigger on three nominations.  The finalists were: "Train Dreams," by Denis Johnson; "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell and "The Pale King," by the late David Foster Wallace. 

Of the three, the only one I read was Pale King, which was a posthumously stitched together mess of a novel and inferior to his masterwork, Infinite Jest. I still maintain Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding was the book to beat. What do I know? One very deservedly unpublished novel in the bottom drawer of the desk and countless failed starts later, and I still think I can write my masterpiece.

Unrelated, but in the department of artists-to-praise: prayers to Levon Helm who is knocking on heaven's door.

 

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Apr 09 2012

Lit’ry life: April 9, 2012

Published by under Books,Reading

I missed last week, so a little catching up to do.

New Yorker, April 2 issue: Robert Caro's account of the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson on Airforce One following JFK's assassination is a strange, almost non sequituresque reminder of a day in history I remember vividly from my very impressionable five year-old's memory bank. I grew up in Texas, outside of Houston, and recall being strangely ashamed of the state I had come to consider my own, despite the best efforts of the neighborhood kids to pummel me in the sandbox for being a Yankee.

Economist:  the special section on the future of Cuba was fascinated.  I figured it was time to get ready and smart about some big changes after the Castro brothers fade away and Venezula's Chavez ends his paternal support of the island in the vacuum left by the Soviet decline. This section is a good solid primer. The most recent issue takes a look at the rise of China's military.

Newsweek: the commemorative issue on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles was .... meh.  I have the usual baby boomer's sentimental investment in the Fab Four but am not what would consider a rabid fan.

Sunday New York Times: April 8. The front page piece on the friendship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and would-be GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney was pretty profound on an unspoken level in terms of expatiating the unique role that business education and the management consulting culture is having on global politics and leadership. Where the military or law were once the most common crucible for a politician's career (see John McCain and President Obama/Clinton),  the rise of the technocrat in the age of the Davos Man is becoming more and more inescapable a trend.

Books On the Kindle:  I finally finished Fermor's Roumeli, a great travelogue of northern Greece from one of the best Hellenicophiles since Lord Byron and have indulged myself with another baseball book from Padre's pitcher Dirk Hayhurst (The Bullpen Gospels) -- Out of My League.  It's a slow starter, but I will abide.

Longform.org: I discovered a chilling 2000 New Yorker piece by Alec Wilkinson about Hadden Clark, the cross-dressing-cannibalistic-serial killer who used to call Wellfleet his home. For some reason the outer Cape's unsolved murders really creep me out. From Tony Costa, the 1907s In His Garden lady-killer whom Norman Mailer drew from in Tough Guys Don't Dance, to the Christa Worthington murder in Truro in 2002 -- the Outer Cape, in all its scrub pine remoteness, has one other big unsolved mystery: the case of the Lady in the Dunes. Clark copped to that murder, but it was never conclusively pinned on him. Now the current theory is she may have been done in by Whitey Bulger.  Wilkinson delivers a great piece of crime writing which reminds me to buy his book about his year on the Wellfleet police force.

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Mar 07 2012

The Lit’ry Life: week of March 7

Published by under Books,General,Reading

Fans of the longform are probably aware of Instapaper, but in case you haven't, I'd highly recommend installing this useful utility which lets you save web pages/articles for consumption later.

The New York Times extols the virtues of Amazon's Singles program -- low priced, long essays from known and unknown writers.  Lawrence Lessig on campaign finance, Jeff Jarvis on Leonard DaVinci, and much more. Prices are usually under $2.00. Check out the catalogue, I am even tempted to write up my church adventures and submit it to Amazon versus a classic book publisher.

New to the coffee table this week is filmcomment, a bi-monthly journal of film criticism published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and an unexpected benefit of membership in that august society of wanna-be auteurs. The M arch/April issue has a piece (unavailable online) on two of my favorite film makers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: the Flemish brother duo who have won more Cannes Film Festival awards than any other film makers in history.

"...the Dardennes have come to be the most acute observers of the new European proletariat, deprived of all protection by the implosion of the Eastern Bloc and the weakening of traditional social safety nets, as churches and unions become less and less powerful for their constituents. Without the support of these institutions, the Dardennes' characters are reduced to a state of vulnerability."

In the men-wh0-climb-mountains genre, Atlantic Monthly has American climbing legend Ed Viesturs recount his first oxygen-less ascent of Everest, the 1990 "Peace Climb"

" Climbing without oxygen and sleeping without oxygen, I didn't think I could spend the night at 28,000 feet. The "Death Zone" simply means that above a certain altitude, you can't live forever. You could lie in your tent, flat on your back, eat a bunch of food, drink water, and your body would still slowly wither away, because there's not enough oxygen to build tissue. "

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Feb 29 2012

Good reads from the last week of February ’12

Dorade: Max Kaleoff is a fellow blogger and New York digital marketing guy (Clickable) I've known for over six years. We've struck up a friendship over our shared love of wooden sailboats. He even grew up on one, a Sparkman & Stephens yawl. I'll let him tell the tale:

"I lived on a 52-foot sparkman-stephens yawl named Magic Venture until I was eight years old. Didn't have running water or electricity or non-coal heat -- ever. Had the boat until I was 22. Rebuilt it along the way at Gannon & Benjamin shipyard in Martha's Vineyard along the way."

Max recommended a book review from the Wall Street Journal about one of S&S's most famous boats, the Dorade. Published by the Boston publisher, David R. Godine  (I interned there in 1980), Dorade is going into my bookshelf very soon. This boat is as much an icon of American yachting as Finisterre or any Herreshoff  design.

From the review:

"Boats, like people, have yarns to spin, some better than others. Dorade, the low-slung wooden yawl that revolutionized ocean racing nearly a century ago and launched the career of America's greatest modern yacht designer, has a rich tale to tell. Indeed, it's still unfolding.

At 82, the graceful dowager still slices through whitecaps on the West Coast, where she is in the hands of her 15th owner—or caretaker, as he might more aptly be described. "She was, and is, unique," writes Douglas D. Adkins in "Dorade: The History of an Ocean Racing Yacht. "On one hand, lovely and dainty, and on the other purposeful and determined. She is still an icon of a certain beauty in yacht design.''

Lewis Dvorkin on the Long Form movement

Lew Dvorkin runs Forbes.com these days. We were colleagues in the 90s when I ran the place and he was on the magazine side editing cover stories under Jim Michaels. Lew went on to run AOL's homepage -- making him arguably one of the most powerful traffic generators on the planet at the time (a link from AOL to Forbes.com in September 1999 on the occasion of the annual list of the richest 400 Americans, generated so much traffic that Forbes.com crashed went dark for three days under the traffic load, my first and lasting lesson on flash traffic capacity planning) -- he's recrafted Forbes.com into an interesting exercise in "open journalism", opening the platform and tools to not only the paid staff of Forbes, but select outside contributors. The net result is a little like Huffington Post, but to draw too close a parallel would be a disservice.

Lew has written two excellent columns about the new strategy and how it fits into his view that online journalism can foster and support long-form reporting/writing over multiple screens as opposed to his earlier view that USA Today-style "news nuggets" and bullet-form journalism was best suited to the attention-deficit medium known as the web. I agree with his observation that "Store-and-read-later" apps such as Instapaper,  digests such as Longform.org, and the ability to push long form content onto e-readers is helping to drive the renaissance.

Anyway, two good reads for anyone interested in the future of journalism, online writing, and the state of Forbes.com

How Long-Form Journalism Is Finding Its Digital Audience: Part I

Long-Form Journalism, Part II: The Challenge for Reporters, and What Forbes Is Doing About It

 

More Sailing Fun:

Bloomberg Pursuits has a piece by Aaron Kuriloff on the state of the art in ocean racing, and the tale of one ill-fated hedge funded super yacht, the Rambler 100 that capsized during last summer Fastnet. A very fast boat this boat was, especially for a monohull:

"In one 24-hour period during that passage, she logged 582 nautical miles, just 14 shy of the record for a monohull (catamarans and trimarans go faster). That’s an average speed of 24.25 nautical miles per hour, or knots, equal to about 28 miles per hour. "

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Feb 25 2012

The Lit’ry Life: February 25, 2012

Published by under Books,General

Here's the first stab at a "reader's digest" from the periodicals, dailies and slicks that crossed my gaze this week.

The first macro theme to catch up on is the rise of "big data" in driving business decisions. This meme has gathered steam lately as terms like "predictive analytics" gain traction with the business trendy and buzzwordy set. The New York Times captures the moment with Charles Duhigg's piece about how Target knows you're pregnant but conceals that knowledge from you. How Companies Know Your Secrets.

I'll try to anthologize some other greatest hits about the rise of data, but having spent six months on the topic for a major, unnamed public relations firm, I can assure you, there is fewer places in the world that give more credence to Einstein's observation that not everything that matters can be measured and not all that can be measured matters, than social media metrics and data analysis. Expect to see some trees die in as big think pieces emerge about social media data analysis replacing traditional political polls in the 2012 presidential election.

Going back to the greatest hits of 2012, and straying from the intent of only recommending long-form stuff that originated on paper, I commend the list on Longform.org (a holy place for me as it should be for you) of last year's (2011) best essays. One jumped out from Grantland, the multi-author sports blog that ESPN let Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy columnist, launch last year as his own vanity project. Good writing, sometimes achingly funny, and more indepth than the other off-piste sports blogs like Deadspin.  Longform nominated The Greatest Paper That Ever Died as one of its top ten picks of 2011. It's an oral history of the launch and spectacular crash of the first national sports daily newspaper, The National Sports Daily. The format alone is worth checking out.

Current on the book list is a biography of the often-overlooked British mountaineer, Andrew "Sandy" Irving, who died at the age of 22 near the summit of Mount Everest. Fearless on Everest: The Search for Sandy Irvine,  is by his great niece, Julie Summers, and as such is largely written in an adoring tone that is lightened when she casually mentions she found his hickory cross-country skis from 1920 Spitsbergen expedition in a dis-used squash court on the family estate. Irvine died on the mountain in June, 1924 with the better known George Mallory, who uttered the famous "Because it is there" line when asked by a reporter to explain the drive to be the first to climb the world's tallest peak. There's some good mystery as to whether or not Irvine and Mallory actually made the summit before meeting their demise, as a Chinese climber some fifty years later reported seeing the corpse of an "old English" near the peak. Mallory's body was found and identified only a few years ago, but Irvine remains a mystery. If you want to read about the quintessential British hero-figure in the tragic Scott tradition, then this book will entertain. Otherwise, spend your mountaineering literature time elsewhere.

In Woodenboat's winter edition is a feature on Managing the Dream, which discusses the quixiotic drive by some people to build their own wooden boat in their backyard and then sail the seas aboard it. The sobering reality is they might be better off spending one-tenth the cash on a used Fiberglas boat and get sailing sooner than later. Tales of moving boats under construction from one backyard to another, the high price of lumber, and the years and years of work was enough to scare me out of the dream (which I've never had as I am an inveterate thumb hammerer of the first degree). Woodenboat is going to be a problem to link into. I can't get into the online edition, even as a print subscriber, as I suspect the good publishers in Brooklin, Maine just punted the digital version to a third-party newsstand who doesn't have the ability to let print buyers cross the electronic paywall. When motivated I will try to crack the code.

That's it for this week. I am falling behind on the New Yorker and have to empty my Cape Cod mailbox this morning after a week in New York.

 

 

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Feb 21 2012

Reviving the Lit’ry Life

Published by under Books,Journalism

George V. Higgins was one of the best contemporary authors in the state of Massachusetts and elsewhere as far as the crime genre goes. His masterpiece (and first novel) is considered to be The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which opens with one of my favorite first sentences:

"Jackie Brown at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns."

Image links to a Boston College Law Review appreciation of Higgins and his work.

Higgins died in 1999, before reaching the age of 60, but his impact will be felt far longer. I write of him not in appreciation, although I do appreciate him, but because the other day I found myself wading through a stack of magazines -- those glossy sheets of paper stapled or glued together that had their Golden Age in the 1950s through 2000 -- flipping with my finger through a iPad cluttered with apps from some other "magazines" and I suddenly remembered Higgins' weekly column in the Boston Globe's Op-Ed section:  The Lit'ry Life in which he randomly related his reading through the books, magazines and papers from the week before. Higgins inherited that column from its original author, George Frazier, perhaps the most elegant columnist in the city of Boston.

I wish there was an example I could quote, but the column was immensely useful to me as a reference and recommendation source for great long-form essays and journalism. From the Atlantic to Harpers, Time to Foreign Affairs, Higgins somehow find the time in between  his law practice and his novels to read and read some more and then summarize that in a succinct 200 words every week.

Not wanting to waste an opportunity, I figure it's time to do the same, especially since an avalanche of reading material comes out of my post office box every week and it seems like a full time hobby just to skim it all. Add to that my vow not to become overloaded with junk information from the Internets and the Facebook, but to focus on quality, and well, heck, I might as well make a habit of noting what I'm reading and think you should too.

So, first off, the basis of my reading ramblings are:

  • The Atlantic Monthly: both in print and online. This was the crown jewel of Boston publishing until it decamped for Washington, DC, but the writing is superb and I am a devout fan of James Fallows.
  • The Economist: again, both online and in print. This is the magazine that, like cod liver oil, is taken dutifully as a chore but is good for you.  While one might joke about reading a six-page exploration of the economy in the Maldive Islands, the business coverage is superb and the columns tart and succinct. All I know about the Euro Zone, I owe to the Economist.
  • The New Yorker: online only. A joy to read in the post-Tina Brown era. David Remnick continues to produce a masterpiece. Any publication that publishes John McPhee and Roger Angell is fine by me.
  • Monocle: print, haven't checked out their website. This recent (and expensive) addition to my stack, is a uber-trendy global style monthly  edited by Tyler Brule (there are all sorts of diacretical marks in Brule, but darned if I can find the keys to produce them) the founder of the late 90s style bible Wallpaper (which I never read). Monocle is part Economist, part GQ, part hipster e-zine.
  • WoodenBoat: print only. I believe the noblest manmade object is a wooden boat, and this monthly is a pleasure to read for any armchair maritime historian or sufferer of boat lust.
  • The New York Times: I still get it in print and read it both on paper and the iPad. The Sunday Magazine is a favorite, as is the Book Review. David Carr and Gretchen Morgenson and Nick Bilton and John Markoff and ....the talent goes on and on.
  • Wired: I only read it on the iPad. That is continues to march along is a bit of surprise. Anything as ahead of its time as Wired was from the beginning seems doomed to age and wither soonest, but not Wired.
  • Cape Cod Times and the Barnstable Patriot: local news I read online (and pay for). Disclaimer, I am a former Cape Cod Times "special" writer, having spent the summer of 1980 beginning my journalism career in the newsroom on Main Street in Hyannis.

All of these have one key thing in common: I pay for them and probably will continue to pay for them. Notable omissions: The Boston Globe which I probably should read for the Red Sox coverage. Forbes (I spent 13 years there, and grew so accustomed to receiving a box of first-run freebies every two weeks that when I left in 2000 I never got around to paying for a subscription).

So, going forward, I'll try to find the time every week to write a synopsis of what I've read and recommend as well as what books are loaded in the Kindle. Right now I'm just beginning Gore Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, and finished over the weekend Steven Pressfield's account of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. More to come later.

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Dec 29 2011

Some words I like …..

Published by under Books

Thanks to my father, I collect weird words. He taught me all sorts of obscurities when I was young, drilled me on vocabulary at the dinner table, and made it a point to have me read the vocabulary feature in every Reader's Digest. I still am in the habit of writing down the ones I don't know in the flyleaf of whatever book I'm reading, or in a note file on my phone and then look them up later. Not looking up an unknown word seems .... ignorant to me. It's there. It must be decoded.

Sesquepedalianism is a lost art, especially under the pressure of the "simple-and-direct" school of writing personified by the late Raymond Carver, where less is always more. Only a very brave few souls would ever drop one of these into a conversation, but every so often I find myself slipping a sedulous (showing dedication)  or an eleemosynary (related to charity) into conversation, but it's truly dickheaded. My old writing teacher, John Hersey, was merciless in hunting down and destroying any lifeless latinate compound words. He'd turn over in his grave if he listened to a modern business consultant sling around bullshit buzzwords like "disintermediate" and "paradigm."

This list is courtesy of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British author and adventurer whom I've grown fond of since learning of him via his obituary earlier in 2011. I culled these from his two-volume memoir of his walk across Europe in the late 1930s from Holland to the Black Sea. A few of these are religious terms, which I became interested in during my 52-churches sojourn.

  • Paschal candle: a large candle blessed and lit on Holy Saturday and placed by the altar until Pentecost.
  • Myrmidons: a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly
  • Serried:  standing close together
  • Lappet:  a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals or a loose or overlapping part of a garment.
  • Pallium: a woollen vestment conferred by the Pope on an archbishop, consisting of a narrow circular band placed round the shoulders with a short lappet hanging from front and back or  a man’s large rectangular cloak, especially as worn by Greek philosophical and religious teachers.
  • Monstrance: an open or transparent receptacle in which the consecrated Host is displayed for veneration.
  • Chairoscuro: the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.
  • Postillion: a person who rides the leading nearside (left-hand side) horse of a team or pair drawing a coach or carriage, especially when there is no coachman.
  • Equipage: the equipment for a particular purpose.
  • Dolman: a long Turkish robe open in front, a woman’s loose cloak with cape-like sleeves.
  • Moufflon: a small wild sheep with chestnut-brown wool, found in mountainous country from Iran to Asia Minor. It is the ancestor of the domestic sheep.
  • Syncope:  temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure or the omission of sounds or letters from within a word, for example when library is pronounced.
  • Puissant: having great power or influence.
  • Congener: a thing or person of the same kind or category as another.

The downside of learning this uselessness is the immense frustration posed by Words With Friends when you try to play a perfectly valid word like "fisc" and get told by the thumb-sucker's Zynga dictionary that it isn't a word.

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Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

Published by under Books

I was a big fan and now he is dead all too soon at 62. The ciggies and gin will do that to you I guess, but they did nothing but sharpen his mordant feisty wit.

I wrote over a year ago after finishing his memoir - "Hitch-22":

"Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever."

Buy and read him. He's worth it.

 

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Dec 06 2011

And So It Goes: the Vonnegut biography

I just finished Charles Shield's  biography of Kurt Vonnegut: And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life  largely on the strength of Christopher Buckley's  review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I've read most of Vonnegut's novels, but wouldn't necessarily put anything other than Slaughterhouse 5 on a list of must-read literature.  Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater: I read them, enjoyed some, didn't enjoy others, but would not rank Vonnegut among my favorite authors of the late 20th century's post-modernist school.

I'm not a big fan of literary biographies because they tend to be so predictable  in their accounts of misfit personas, alcohol consumption, failed marriages, alienated children, ambiguous sexual preferences, and the simple bleak fact that most authors go quietly insane over the course of their lifetimes thanks to sitting alone for hours at a time at their typewriters.  Dysfunction sells books. Normalcy does not. Read enough literary biographies and you'll come to believe that all authors are miserable human beings, and other than some rubbernecking urge to watch them self-destruct, there is little in their lives that is commendable. Any biography of Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hunter S., Jack Kerouac, Hemingway usually is a catalog of misfit urges and terrible behavior.

Vonnegut smoked too much, drank too much, divorced his wife after 30 years of marriage, and was petulant when reviewers trashed his work.  He fooled around, screwed over his agents and publishers, and preened a little in the 1970s as a modern Mark Twain after Slaughterhouse made him rich and famous. He was also fairly prolific, wrote some good novels, was a hero to the counterculture and very much a man of his time. That he died old and unhappy - well, I would argue happy 84-year olds are fewer than ill and unhappy ones.

Although Shields enjoyed "official" status and access to Vonnegut in the writer's final months, Mark Vonnegut wrote one reviewer to assassinate Shield's account as a fabrication:

"I'm happy to reassure you that Kurt did not die a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure.

Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There's a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky, but not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.
It's too good a bit to go away, but Kurt had next to no interest in investments or expensive things and never bought Dow stock.

Why don't people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to. Not a perfect man or father and I'll grant you two failed marriages.

My best regards to someone whose affection and respect for my father shines on."

I met Vonnegut in the late 1990s at a big Forbes event. He was quite avuncular and we sp0ke a few minutes about life in Barnstable Village here on Cape Cod in the 50s through the 70s. Vonnegut moved to Osterville in the early 50's, rented an office over the Osterville Package Store on Wianno Ave., mentions Cotuit Bay as the place where Eliot Rosewater's mother died in a boating accident (aboard a Cotuit Skiff I like to imagine), and then moved to the northside, to Scudder Lane in Barnstable Village where his wife Jane raised their three children and his late sister's four.

Vonnegut owned the first Saab dealership in the U.S. -- which failed -- but when I drove a 900 purchased from Hyannis Saab I always liked to think it had some psychic connection to Kurt.

Vonnegut bailed on Cape Cod in the 70s, shacked up with the photographer Jill Krementz (whom he eventually married), bought a townhouse on West 48th Street, and then a place in the Hamptons -- transforming him from a "Cape Cod Writer" (of which there are very few) to a classic New York Literary Luminary. He made some returns to Barnstable, but never called it home again after leaving.

His books were popular with my parents and their friends in the late 60s and 70s, and I recall the excitement whenever a new Vonnegut novel was published. Again, they didn't do as much for me as Barth, Pynchon, and Heller. All of whom faded when the new realism emerged in the late 70s with Raymond Carver and his ilk.

As for the biography, well, if you want to get a little depressed, then by all means, go right ahead. If you're a writer looking for some profound life's lesson, then it comes down to this the guy worked his ass off and found success when he figured out how to tell the story of how he survived the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Other than that -- it's petty stuff.

 

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