Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Day Eloquence Died in Dallas

The marshes just north of Cape May, New Jersey were off to my right as I sped up the Garden State Parkway last August in the passenger seat of my father's air-conditioned, 1990s Jaguar sedan. A great blue heron daintily picked its way through the reeds, its long neck swaying ever so slowly as sea gulls swooped in from overhead and the long grasses blew back and forth in the early evening breeze, undulating like waves in the middle of the ocean. I was mesmerized by the scenery, particularly the vibrant greens and blues that were lit up by the day's dying sun rays.

I looked over at my dad, effortlessly driving. He was dressed in a button-down shirt, nice slacks and gleaming black leather shoes, a casual outfit for a Philadelphia lawyer. He didn't seem to notice the gift of nature just beyond the car's window. His eyes were on the road, but his mind was back in the early 1960s. His full attention was focused on the words of John F. Kennedy booming through the stereo speakers. Pure joy lit up his face as Kennedy's clipped upper-class New England accent came to us as clearly as the day's news on the radio.

It made me happy as well. After all, I was the one who had given him Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words by Robert Dallek for Father's Day two months earlier. It was clear that my dad knew the compact disc that came with the book by heart. When Kennedy's speech came on regarding the integration of the University of Mississippi, he put his fingers to his lips when he sensed that I was about to interrupt. When the speech ended, he said to me, "See how he did that. He included everybody. It was all of our responsibility to make sure that there were equal rights. It wasn't divisive. It was everyone's problem if one man was denied his rights."

I sat silent for a moment. I was amazed by Kennedy's words, not necessarily by their content, but by the words themselves. He assumed that he was speaking to an intelligent audience. His vocabulary would make an English professor proud, and yet he was easily understood. His words moved me. Me, the cynic who regards him as overrated. After all, I have rebelled against the mythology surrounding him for as long as I can remember. But here was a voice that beckoned. He peppered his speeches with phrases that make you stop and ponder and hope.

I told my dad that it made me sad to listen to these words. He assumed I was speaking of the assassination, but I wasn't. "No one speaks like that anymore," I said to him. "Clinton just droned on and on. His speeches were more filler than substance. I hated Reagan's 'aw shucks' act, and Bush truly sounds like a moron compared to Kennedy. It would be even more embarassing if you actually agreed with anything Bush said." As the sun glinted off a canoe in the marshes, I realized that our country's biggest problem might be that politicians don't believe in the people anymore. At least not the way Kennedy seemed to in those speeches.

It took me a few minutes to regain my equilibrium and step back from the abyss that is the Kennedy mystique. We were closing in on the diner where we would meet up with my wife and my sister's family for dinner. They were driving in my sister's minivan; perhaps they knew it was going to be a Kennedy-fest in the Jaguar. Immediately before leaving for the restaurant, my sister and I had given my dad his birthday present: a Kennedy action figure that sported a replica hand-crafted suit and came with a mini-biography and a timeline. Its best feature is that when you push the wool suit's lapel the President's unique vocal cadence comes to life, and the doll flawlessly delivers a dozen of his most famous phrases.

As we turned off the Garden State Parkway and Kennedy launched into a commencement address, my dad turned down the sound. "You know, I really think that Oswald acted alone," he said. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He had advanced every crackpot theory on the assassination since I was 10 years old. For awhile it was the Cubans, then it was the Russians, then it was the Russians and the Cubans, then it was the mobsters. He even entertained my crazy theory that it was Lyndon Johnson and the Texans. We had examined every angle, from Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to the grassy knoll, to the magic bullet theory, endlessly ruminating on the same facts and opinions until he'd come to the same conclusion that something just wasn't right. It was fishy. Fishy enough to fill a library with all of the tomes that I had given him and that he had eagerly read over the years. Including Gerald Posner's 1994 Case Closed that concluded Oswald had acted alone. My dad had quickly dismissed it at the time.

When I was 13, my father had a court case in Dallas. He took me down for the trial, and during the days, I ran around the book and record stores in town, swam in the hotel pool and drank enough Dr. Pepper to drown a small dog. In the evenings, we drove the route of the motorcade, slowing down in Dealey Plaza as my father measured out the distance to the grassy knoll in his mind and craned his neck back to see where Oswald's shots emanated from. Over and over again, we drove the route, as the rancid soda bubbled up in my throat. He gripped the wheel and muttered about how it didn't make sense, they were hiding something.

We finally arrived at the diner and stepped out of the car, into the sea-side humidity to wait for my sister. When I asked him how he had come to the conclusion that Oswald had acted alone, he simply said, "It's the only thing that makes sense." When I prodded him a little more, he told me that someone would have cracked by now if there was a big cover up. That, of course, had been my exact theory ever since giving up the Texas conspiracy 25 years ago. I decided not to remind him of that, as my adorable nephew and niece came bounding out of my sister's car and running over to us.

My Father's Day gift this year will reinforce his new belief about the assassination. Vincent Bugliosi, the author of Helter Skelter, the riveting account of Charles Manson's crimes, is weighing in on the Kennedy assassination with Reclaiming History. Bugliosi, a lawyer, prosecutes Oswald in the murder using forensic evidence, a reexamination of key witnesses and a healthy dose of common sense. In W.W. Norton's catalog copy, we are assured that in his 1,632 pages, Bugliosi picks apart every conspiracy theory, and that he will "shed fresh light on this American nightmare. At last we know what really happened. At last it all makes sense."

The book sounds huge, but I wonder how many pages you could fill with all of my father's thoughts, conjectures and ruminations on the assassination. Would 10,000 pages even be enough to cover all of the different conversations he has had on the topic?

All I can say is that it's about time that someone makes sense of it all. It's time for everyone to stop inventing paranoid conspiracy theories and perhaps try to understand just what it was that we lost that day in Dallas. It seems to me that the politicians have never forgiven us for that day. We are perpetually being punished by our nation's rulers with pandering platitudes and an endless barrage of inanities. Isn't there anyone out there who can treat the public with respect? Isn't there anyone who will say something -- anything -- as intelligent as Kennedy used to? Whether you agreed with the man or not, you can't help but appreciate his words.

Perhaps that's asking too much. Maybe it's enough to know that this summer I will be back in Cape May with my family, and as the sun sets on another fine day, my father will start up the endless conversation about the wonders of John F. Kennedy. I will hold silent for a moment, allowing the myth to take hold before I mention how he set Vietnam in motion, blundered on Cuba and hesitated on civil rights. Ah, but he did it all so eloquently.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Angst of Winter

This year, Colorado's winter is relentless. We opened with 33 inches of snow the week before Christmas, and we've suffered through at least a half-dozen snow storms since. Valentine's Day was cold and miserable, and yesterday, one of the nicer days of 2007, featured wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. It would be a great time to hibernate with a good book. Unfortunately, hardly anyone can get themselves into the book store to find one in this miserable weather.

We've had a few brief thaws over the last few weeks, most notably Elizabeth Gilbert's appearance to promote Eat, Pray, Love. Almost 300 people (290 women) were crammed into our ballroom, and while a storm raged outside, the temperature inside soared up to 80 degrees as Gilbert told of her trips to the warmer climes of India, Indonesia and Italy. In the audience, coats were removed, sweat was wiped from brows and books were clutched in moistened palms.

But for the most part, it's been a harsh season. The back story of the past two months in publishing is even worse than the gloomy weather. One of the nation's top wholesalers, Advanced Marketing Service, has declared bankruptcy, and a look at their list of creditors is almost a complete roster of American publishers. Random House is at the front of the line with more than $40 million owed to them. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster also have a lot of money sitting out there. Further down the list are dozens of small and medium sized publishers that might not be able to stay afloat if they are forced to write off large invoices.

All of this has made for a squeamish buying season. The books we have aren't exactly flying off the shelves because we've made a habit of closing the store early due to ferocious storms, the publishers are getting skittish about their marketing funds and author tours because they are out millions of dollars, and to top it all off, Advance Marketing Service owns Publishers Group West, which is the distributor and sales force for hundreds of key small presses. It was sad to page through the PGW catalog the other day while my sales rep was trying to put a dignified face on the impending doom of the company as she told me which books were "postponed" because there wasn't enough money to print them.

I'm looking forward to spring in a way that I have not done since moving out to Colorado and learning to ski 15 years ago. Only one thing really keeps me going these days:

Pitchers and Catchers Report

Spring training opened on Thursday for most Major League teams. My favorite squad, the Philadelphia Phillies, is hoping to improve upon last season's second-place finish with an influx of new pitching, an emphasis on fundamentals and perhaps a few prayers thrown in. This is the Phillies' 125th season, and the team has managed to win only one championship. But here in the chill of February, I feel optimistic that number two is possible.

To prepare for the season, I read Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game by New York Times reporter George Vecsey. I actually read this out loud with my wife. She did most of the reading while I closed my eyes and imagined sun-dappled Ebbet's Field in 1954 or Babe Ruth slicing a line-drive homer through the humidity of Yankee Stadium in 1927.

It's a miracle that my wife read a baseball book. She's not really a sports fan, although she has grown tolerant and even a little fond of college basketball after being dragged to the University of Colorado games for the last six years. [Editor's Note: I beg to differ. More than just "a little fond," I have become quite a fan of college basketball. I am even looking forward to March Madness with great anticipation.] The baseball book arrived in the mail one day last summer, and as I was cooking dinner (there is a price to pay for taking your wife to countless sporting events) she started reading the preface about Stan Musial. She was hooked by Vecsey's poetic language, his gift of storytelling and his description of Musial's bizarre corkscrew batting stance.
Vecsey, in chapters that read almost like perfect self-contained essays, recounts the history of baseball from its pre-Civil War roots, to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, to Jackie Robinson's breakthrough with the Dodgers in 1947, through today's steroid-plagued summers of Barry Bonds. My wife would frequently look up from the page to comment on the writing or the colorful history of baseball and ask me an insightful question about interleague trades or the designated hitter. In those moments, it almost seemed that she understood the mania that takes hold of me every spring when I know that we are on the verge of a new chapter of baseball history. Perhaps she will come to forgive me for never failing to point out, whenever our wedding is mentioned, that the Phillies were in first place on the day we said our vows.

I am also reading Donald Honig's Baseball: When the Grass was Real. Honig's book is a series of first-person narratives of Major League players from the 1920s through the 1940s. Written in 1975, when astroturf fields were the norm, the title seems curious now that every park in the National League is back to real grass. Honig owes a debt to Lawrence Ritter's classic, The Glory of Their Times, which was written in the 1960s and features players talking about their experiences during the turn of the twentieth century.

The most touching story in Honig's book is told by Wes Ferrell, a great pitcher from the 1930s. Towards the end of his career, Ferrell was traded to the Yankees, and he was in spring training when Lou Gehrig's body began to fail him. Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse, the strongest player in all of baseball, a player who never missed a game in 14 seasons.

"In workouts you'd see him straining and huffing and puffing, running as hard as he could, and not getting anywhere. The fellows would laugh and kid him. 'Hey, Lou, you're getting old.' That sort of thing. Nobody knew the truth." By the end of training camp, as the players begin to realize Gehrig just wasn't the same, Ferrell writes of seeing Gehrig walking across the grass in tennis shoes rather than cleats: "he was sliding his feet as he went along, instead of picking them up and putting them down. Looking back now, I realize why. His muscles were so deteriorated that just the effort of lifting his feet a few inches to walk had already become too much. God, it was sad to see -- Lou Gehrig having to slide his feet along the grass to move himself."
Almost every year baseball breaks my heart. I don't mean little disappointments, like a summer romance falling apart because the sweethearts are headed off to two different colleges. I mean the kind of hurt where you lie awake half the night for weeks, replaying how things went wrong. Either the Phillies don't make it to the playoffs, or if they do, they meet some dramatic ending like Joe Carter's series-ending homer in 1993 for the Blue Jays that gets replayed over and over again in highlights shows every year.
In the cold days of winter, as the players start playing catch in Arizona and Florida, it makes you feel young and vigorous just to watch them whip the ball back and forth in a perfect line. But by the end of August, when teams are scraping by day-to-day just to stay in the pennant race, half the pitchers hindered by nagging injuries, some even lost for the season, and a favored aging hitter can't catch up to some minor leaguer's hotshot fastball anymore, you realize what a fantasy it all is. We are all destined to shuffle along the grass eventually.

It's that realization that always sends me scurrying back for a good novel as the leaves begin to fall and I need an escape from the physical realities of the world. It's what makes winter so peaceful and almost healing. All those pitchers will come back with fresh arms, and maybe the aging slugger, who is actually a few years younger than I am, just had an injury he wasn't telling anyone about. His swing will be as good as new, now that spring training is here again.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Emperor's Critics

I was mesmerized last weekend reading Claire Messud's new novel, The Emperor's Children. That was surprising, because it took me a week to read the first 100 pages or so. But suddenly I became absolutely absorbed in the escapades of the single, forlorn, thirtyish Marina, Danielle and Julius as they negotiated the trendy world of pre-9/11 literary New York. This doesn't usually happen to me. I'm a very measured reader. I don't typically enjoy books where every chapter ends on a note of suspense.

The Emperor's Children's plot doesn't feature mysterious twists and turns, but I constantly wanted to know what happened next with these characters and their little intrigues. Messud is a dexterous writer, and she handles her characters and various storylines with great aplomb. The most fascinating characters are the outsiders who upset the cosy little world of petty jealousies that the three friends from Brown University have fallen into.

Marina's father, Murray, a famous left-wing essayist and journalistic adventurer, starts a secret email correspondence with his daughter's best friend, Danielle. Marina's cousin, Bootie Tubb, a fiercely idealistic and unrealistic autodidact, holds everyone, especially Murray, to his extreme standards of academic purity and moral truth. And finally there is the slimey Australian Ludovic Seeley, who has come to the United States to foment a revolution by editing a cultural magazine, financed by a Rupert Murdoch-like magnate. Like Bootie, Ludovic's magazine also seeks to expose the truth. Ludovic is both repelled and fascinated by Murray, and he has eyes for the beautiful Marina.

It's all a satirical literary soap opera with priveleged people who have managed to delay growing up, grousing about the truth while sipping wine. How did I become so fascinated by it? I think, that I, too, was drawn in and revolted by Murray. He's a man who loves to live, a man who is often in the moment, so much unlike the characters in his daughter's generation. Would Booty or Ludovic manage to bring him down to their own narrow opinions of truth and morality? Would his affairs be exposed and he be shown for a hypocrite?

In the end, most of this is seen for its petty posturing. When September 11 comes, it changes the world for all of these characters in profound ways. I give high marks to Messud for seamlessly using 9/11 as a plot device. It seems natural, and although it is rendered as a tragic event, it turns out to be strangely freeing for at least one of the novel's characters. I find it interesting that today's New York, with its status scuffles and celebrity obsessions, more closely resembles the pre-9/11 world of these characters than the world immediately after 9/11. At times, I had to remind myself that I was reading about a naive world before Islamic terrorism had hit home. How quickly we've reverted back to old habits in some ways.

By Sunday morning, I was shocked to find that I had finished the novel. It was supposed to last me through the entire weekend. I was suffering from separation anxiety. In desperation, I turned to the internet, in hopes of reading about Messud or maybe even hearing an interview with her. In my search, I stumbled upon a wonderful site for reviews and information on books, movies and other cultural affairs called

For Messud's book, there were dozens of links to reviews on the site. The site shows the first paragraph of each review, then notes whether the review is positive, negative or mixed. For the second time in one weekend I was transfixed, as I pored over review after review (almost all positive.) In fact, the only outright negative review came from the Sydney Morning Herald. Perhaps the depiction of the sleazy Australian biased them against the book.

The site also gave The Emperor's Children an overall score of an 85. What the heck is that, I wondered? It turns out that the site assigns a score to each review based on how positive or negative it is. It then tabulates the various reviews that a book gets from newspapers and magazines around the world into a single score. Messud's rating placed her ninth among books released in 2006 that had received at least seven reviews. I was surprised that it placed that high. A few of the characters, most notably Marina's gay friend Julius, were under-developed. And while I haven't read 10 books better than Emperor's Children in 2006, I sure hope all of the combined reviewers have.

Here are the top 10 reviewed books for 2006 from
1. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
3. The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos.
4. Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh.
5. The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis.
6. People's Act of Love by James Meek.
7. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.
8. Heat by Bill Buford.
9. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud.
10. After This by Alice McDermott.