10/07/11 12:46pm

September’s book club selection was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematical genius. I felt as though school had started and this was required reading, clearly not something I’d ever have chosen myself. I read it, though, and it is wonderfully written, totally absorbing and totally different from the movie. It’s still not clear to me what Diophantine equations or algebraic manifolds are, but the book is written in such a way that while these things are mentioned, there’s no need to know what they are — knowing that they’re really complicated is enough. Nash was well ahead of his time, pulling breakthrough theorems and complex solutions right out of his head and finally, of course, journeying down the road to madness and back.

I set out to find other writings that involved mathematics, focusing on nonfiction, and along the way discovered this limerick:
’Tis a favorite project of mine
A new value of Pi to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3.14159.

I also found a play, ‘The Adding Machine’ by Elmer Rice, written in 1929. A strange affair: Mr. Zero works in an undefined office writing down small sums (1.29, 3.73, 8.67 and so on), then adding them up. He’s been doing this for 25 years. His wife, Mrs. Zero, is also in the play, as are their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. Well, Zero’s boss comes to his desk, announces that he has purchased an adding machine, has hired a young girl to operate it, and Mr. Zero is 86’d. Zero kills the boss, etc., etc., but I found the premise chillingly relevant to today, as jobs performed by people inexorably disappear and the men and women of our world are left to find different work. I didn’t have access to the entire play, which was fine with me; it was very depressing.

Numbers run from fascinating to frightening, depending on each person’s ease with them. Nuns and brothers pounded the times tables into my head and those rhythms occasionally pop back up in odd formats and float around like some old song. As in “Eight eights are 64, multiply by seven, when you’re done, carry one, and take away 11,” etc. Pretty spooky.

When David Auburn’s play ‘Proof’ opened on Broadway in 2000, it was highly acclaimed and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine, a brilliant young woman, “speaks” to her dead father, a former college mathematics professor. He had severe mental issues; she wonders if she does. Along the way a notebook containing a new math proof is discovered in a desk drawer. Everyone assumes the father wrote it but Catherine says no, she did, and the play develops around her fragility and the family tensions that result from her claim. A fine play, it was also a successful movie, with Gwy­neth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis.

I close with MIT’s fight song, loudly rendered at sporting events:
Secant, tangent, cosine, sine
3 point 1 4 1 5 9
Achieve, team, achieve!

How cool is that?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

06/21/11 6:52am

The big box book store in Riverhead has cookbooks everywhere, and each one you pick up is more colorful than the one you just put down. They’re all over the place — up front in the New & Recommended displays, lining the shelves in the Cooking section and stacked like flapjacks on the 30% Off tables. They’re written by people I’ve never heard of, who probably can cook, and by celebrities from every field, who probably don’t know a chafing dish from a satellite dish. They come in endless designs and dimensions, and to flip through them is almost as good as eating.

My wife has 41 cookbooks. It was 40 until two weeks ago when the Southold Book Cottage served up “Grilling,” 384 pages, for $2. It is stuffed with succulent pictures of grilled beef, pork and fish (oh, yeah, and vegetables). I was ready for a feast — Salivation Day had arrived — but “Grilling” disappeared into the cookbook complex to meet its new extended family.

Disappointed, I questioned this, and was reminded of her large, wooden recipe box and the two loose-leaf recipe books, which I then hauled out and commenced the count. The box contained 554 recipes, the green folder 339, the white 596. There were clippings from newspapers, magazines (from doctor’s offices!) and catalogs, along with handwritten file cards from friends, relatives and, it seemed, enemies (poached hamburgers with apricots?).

“Don’t forget our gourmet club,” she said, and 26 years of recipes from those bimonthly affairs entered the crowded kitchen. Some quick arithmetic, cookbook offerings included, yielded just under 6,000 possible meals.

My saintly, gray-haired mother was not a great cook (when it’s smoking it’s cooking, when it’s black it’s done), but I remember her Fannie Farmer cookbook that stood alone on the counter. My wife is a stupendous cook, and I asked how she chose any given meal from this stunning array of choices.

“It’s all in the imagination,” she said. “I might find tilapia on sale, or chicken or bok choy. Maybe there are coupons for black beans, or red potatoes or artichoke hearts or … ”

The list continued, but apparently she shops, comes home, gets out all 6,000 recipes and begins slicing and dicing, stirring and shirring, mashing and mushing — all totally in her head! And shazam! A previously unknown dish is born. Racetrack handicappers might say “Stir Fry, out of Julia Child, by Craig Claiborne.” Problem? Well, I can’t respond to “What would you like for dinner?” because these dishes have no identifying names.

I spoke with several other friends, intense cooking people, who basically said the same thing: Cookbooks form a research library, an idea factory, from which imaginative meals spring. One such friend has accumulated over 800 of them. (What’s for lunch, Fran?) Some standards are relished by all: Good Housekeeping, Joy of Cooking, New York Times, Silver Palate, but, sadly, Fannie Farmer’s name never came up. Sorry, Mom.

July Fourth is coming soon. Let’s celebrate the recipe that created our country — pinches and dashes of every imaginable nationality, color and religion mix-mastered into a concoction the entire world envies. God bless the cook.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

05/23/11 12:45pm

I have no clue how many books are published every year in America. Oxford University Press NY was closing in on 400 in 1997, the year I retired, an inconsequential number when compared to the Doubledays, Putnams and Knopfs, which churn them out like so many Saltines. The number must be in the multi-thousands — you can even buy sweatshirts that mourn, “So Many Books, So Little Time.” True, for books are locked in furious combat with so many movies, so many ballgames, so many Netflix, so many microbreweries, so many blogs, tweets, restaurants, columnists and naps. (Now that’s a lot of sweatshirts — So Many Sweatshirts, So Little Time, I suppose.) Life’s highway is in gridlock, with so many So Manys that it’s hard to find an open lane.

I try to absorb the book reviews, take friends’ suggestions, follow family recommendations, heed best-seller lists, notice when favorite authors strike again (Godspeed, Robert Parker) and obey book club pronouncements, but an awful lot of good books pass me right by as I wrestle with all the So Manys.

I just finished a book club selection that was published in 2009, a book I’d never even heard of, and a book that might replace another title on my 10 Best List. Colum McCann’s stunning language skills and intricate plot construction made “Let the Great World Spin” a reading experience that left me exhausted. New York City people — from Park Avenue, from the projects, from Greenwich Village, the courts and the streets — were shuffled into a book that was at once bleak, humorous, hopeless and hopeful. After about 80 pages I had that “what the heck’s happening?” feeling, a feeling that often causes me to give up, but McCann had snagged me, his writing insisting that I continue, which I did. Three thumbs up.

Here’s an idea: Why don’t you send me your 10 Best List? I’ll do a tally and report back. One might be the book that really started you reading, others those that made you laugh, or cry, or gasp, or learn. We’ll discover whether we’re Jane Austen or Danielle Steele people; William Faulkner and Edith Wharton or Richard Russo and Anna Quindlen. Feel free to be totally honest; I’ve said this before, but someone told me never to apologize for anything I read. (Although P.J. O’Rourke said, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.) My email’s below; subject: 10 Best.

A while back I wrote about the intrusive “of” — as in “not too big of a deal” — wondering where it had wandered in from. Well, the mystery is solved: It has divorced the word “couple” and moved on. I’d forgiven sportswriters for “Jones had a couple singles,” figured they were imitating Damon Runyon, breezy for the bar crowd. But then, in a certain five-pound Sunday newspaper, an editorial page writer began an article with “When a couple dozen brawny firemen…” I thought, “civilization has finally collapsed,” but now, after seeing it a couple times, I’m not going to make too big of a fuss.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

04/26/11 7:22am

We are fortunate in having two female writers, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver, who, with great regularity, turn out complex and beautifully written books.

Atwood has written more than 70 books. I have read several, and while there’s always excitement about starting another, there’s also trepidation. I’m leery about missing something, something subtle that goes right over my head, or even something basic that eludes me. She’s forever laying groundwork for a plot twist or a character flaw, some thread that I’m supposed to catch. She demands concentration as I cruise along admiring the wonderful flow of language.

The effort is worth it, though, when a passage like this appears, from ‘Moral Disorder,’ about a mid-20s girl questioning her life: “But what if I missed a turn somewhere — missed my own future? … I’d make one hesitation or one departure too many and then I’d have run out of choices; I’d be standing all alone, like the cheese in the children’s song about the farmer taking a wife. Hi-ho the derry-o, the cheese stands alone, they used to sing about this cheese, and everyone would … make fun of it.” Simple and poignant, the paralyzing self-doubt is vivid.

My wife and I were vacationing. I had brought a too-quickly finished murder book, she a paperback of Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye.’ Halfway through Wednesday my book ended. Now what? My wife promptly ripped off the first 100 pages of her book, handed them to me and continued reading. When I’d finished those she ripped off more. And so it went. We enjoyed the book so much we rubber-banded the pieces together and mailed it to her sister in Georgia.

In 1998 Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ made my 10 Best List. In this story of a fanatical American missionary, who hauls his wife and three daughters off to Africa, the author creates three entirely different young women and follows them through situations good, bad and worse, their strong personalities in play and often clashing. The story line is excellent, but the daughters’ intensity really carries the tale. I totally believed that I knew them, understood their points of view. I became involved with them, worrying, smiling, cringing, as though they were real people. I’ll never understand how authors pull this off, but here’s Ursula Le Guin on the subject: “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.”

These two authors create wonderful nonsense.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

02/28/11 8:00am

There are 10 Commandments, several sins against the Holy Spirit, innumerable offenses that cry to heaven for vengeance and surely many other lists of forbidden acts from congregations unknown to me. Yet one such act has been able to fly under the radar and avoid the spotlight, maybe even bargained off the table by Moses up there on the mountaintop. Commandment No. 11 should definitely be “Thou shalt not throw out books.”

I am a good boy, and I do not throw out books. My wife, pure as the driven white stuff in all other matters, will have to face the music at the Pearlies, and confess that she does. She also leads me into temptation, saying things like, “That carton in the garage that says ‘JERRY’S BOOKS’ is from when we moved from Centerport to Fort Salonga 23 years ago.” There are two not too subtle messages here: 1) You’ll never read any of those books and 2) You’ll never read any of those books. She’ll discover today, as she reads this, that two years ago I rooted around among those books, plucked out “The Caine Mutiny” and reread it. (It was so good I put it back in the carton.)

Throw out books? I’m looking at our bookcase and there’s a copy of “This Is My Best,” a compilation of writing by 93 American authors, copyright 1942. I’ve rarely looked at it since then but after all, it was my father’s book. It’s also two inches thick, looks terrific in the bookcase and contains six Ogden Nash poems.

Oh, here’s “The Best of H.T. Webster” from 1953. Anybody remember H.T. Webster? Yes, the cartoonist who created Casper Milquetoast, “The Timid Soul.” A treasure. Look, here’s a 4 1/4- by six-inch book, “Barrack Room Ballads and Ditties” by Rudyard Kipling, circa 1899. A beauty — three-color stamped cover, two-color title page, printed endpapers …

But those are sort of exotic. Why do I have six hardbound Elmore Leonards, including 1985’s “Glitz”? Why are there endless clusters of John Irving, Robert Parker and Barbara Kingsolver paperbacks? Why is there a brittle and brown 1972 paperback of “The Maltese Falcon”? Why are there three Spanish college textbooks? And why is David McCullough’s 1,120-page “Truman” taking up all that space? (I know the answer to this — I actually finished it and remain extraordinarily pleased with myself.) And where’s my “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?”

Oh, there is something else. I saw a rare book company’s ad offering an original 1926 “Winnie the Pooh” for $8,200. My copy is from 1935, the 114th printing (truly), but hey, hope is the thing with feathers.

I do have my “Lucky to Be a Yankee,” Joe DiMaggio’s 1946 autobiography — the first and only printing, in pretty good shape. In my mind I see an old guy living in an old house on Old Shipyard Lane calling me up saying, “I read your latest column. I’ll give you [pick one: $8,200 / $820 / $82 / $8.20 / $.82] for the DiMaggio book.”

Then there’s my 1945 first printing of Weegee’s “Naked City,” Weegee being the famous New York City photographer who … oh, never mind.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

01/28/11 1:01pm

It’s interesting how good books locate me. A friend suggests one, a book review stands out, a cover might catch my eye. My next-door neighbor brought over a bagful he had finished — a couple of mysteries, a nature book and Aaron Lansky’s ‘Outwitting History.’ Curious, I opened the Lansky book and started to read. What a terrific story.

In 1980, Lansky and his friends embarked on a 25-year crusade to rescue Yiddish books from destruction. Yiddish, a conversational dialect, had been vilified, judged as vulgar by the purists, and left for dead. In rented trucks Lansky’s crew scoured the East Coast, from Canada to Florida for books — 500 books here, 5,000 there — retrieved from families who had inherited them but could not read them, from publishing companies that could not sell them, from warehouses where they had been left and forgotten for decades, and even from dumpsters, surely destined for oblivion. They later expanded their efforts to all the major American cities, then on to South America and Europe. They saved an astounding 1,500,000 books, and a dying culture as well.

Not only did I like this book, I plucked a great quote from it. Lansky, physically and emotionally drained from his efforts, considered packing it in. A friend quoted Perek, a 2,000-year-old Hebrew text: “It’s not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He persevered and went on to found the National Yiddish Book Center.

The Perek quote reminded me of a sign we had at work: “If you’re gonna do it, do it; if you’re not gonna do it, then don’t do it; but don’t say you’re gonna do it and then not do it.” I like inspirational stuff like this and remember Ray Nitschke, the ferocious 1960s Packers linebacker, who said to an interviewer, “I’ve never played in a losing game.” The reporter said, “But you lost to the Giants three weeks ago,” and Nitschke replied, “Oh, sure, sometimes the clock runs out while we’re behind, but that’s not losing.”

Such tenacity can be inspiring in real life, as in Lansky and in Greg Mortenson’s ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ as well as in fictional characters like the meshuggener Captain Ahab and the little engine that could.

Life would be difficult without words, and words would be difficult without grammar. In the mid-’70s my teenage daughter said something like, “It’s not too big of a deal,” and I remember wondering where the “of” had come from. Wasn’t “too big a deal” good enough? Sometime later I was listening to a tape of Bobby Thompson’s stunning home run and the announcer, Russ Hodges, said, “Lockman, with not too big of a lead off second.” This was said in 1951, and now you hear and read it everywhere. Are there any English teachers out there? Give us the truth! I can handle the truth! What’s up with the “of”?

Finally, a sort of mystical quote from the movie “La Talante,” which I send out to my wife as St. Valentine’s Day approaches. “I saw you before I met you.” My impossible dream, certainly.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

11/29/10 4:08pm

The Christmas catalogs are pouring in and I’m in a quandary over what to put on my personal wish list. It’s the colors of the clothes that confound me; I don’t know how to choose among the stupendously imaginative choices that are offered. I was leaning towards a coal jacket, gunmetal pants, a rust shirt, a graphite tie and shale socks but didn’t want to look like I’d just emerged from some West Virginia mine shaft — in a quarry, not a quandary. Maybe a birch, willow, sprig, twig and hickory presentation — uh-oh, here comes the Southold brush pickup truck; better not.

Something in cheddar? Petrol? Thunderstorm? Boy, I’d love the job of naming all the colors of all the sweaters and all the blouses and all the pants and all the ties and … What would you think of a Windex, Pepto-Bismol and fried egg ensemble ?

•••

Many Christmas cards feature the Star of Bethlehem, which the ever-romantic scientists have probably pinned down as Guacamole’s Comet, which vaporized in mid-May of 1187. I prefer the guiding star legend and, as a matter of fact, I like stars in general. I still might look up and do the “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight …” thing (hey, you never know), and it was surely my mother who first sang “Twinkle twinkle, little star” to me.

Actually, that quatrain is the first of five in “The Star,” a poem written by Jane Taylor (1783-1824), well before Hallmark. Here’s the second stanza:

When the blazing sun is set,
When the grass with dew is wet,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

The familiar part is sung to a melody written by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I looked for other songs with “star” in their titles and found surprisingly few. “Star Dust” and “Starry, Starry Night,” surely, then those opportunities to wish upon one, to swing on one and to watch them fall on Alabama.

While it’s strange that star appears in so few notable song or movie titles (“A Star is Born,” “Star Wars”), it’s even more star-tling how few book titles contain the word. Of all the books listed on the three “100 Best…” lists I have, granting many repeats, there are none. Bupkus. “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”  by Douglas Adams was No. 72 on the Radcliffe College list — close, but no cigar. Curious, I went to the library’s catalog and scrolled through nearly 300 “star” entries. I found lots of Star Trek and Star Wars, many sports star biographies, too many Hollywood bimbo bios, countless children’s books and three let’s say significant entries: “A Star Called Henry” (Roddy Doyle), “A Shooting Star” (Wallace Stegner) and the terrific “Son of the Morning Star,” Evan Connell’s account of Custer, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn.

So hey, all you nascent authors out there, brighten our lives with a “star” title; the sky’s the limit.

Finally, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one. Peace in the valley.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

11/01/10 3:58pm

I came across a 1996 article by Wendy Wasserstein about New York City. She was decrying the presence of big box stores and fast-food restaurants and ended by saying, “You would never meet Nathan Detroit at a Starbucks counter.” With that, all the Broadway characters Damon Runyon created came to mind: Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Jones, Madame La Gimp and, of course, good old reliable Nathan.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s Runyon, hanging out in Broadway bars and hotels, captured the voice of the seamier side of the city, a voice probably no longer heard. According to The Dictionary of Slang, he overheard many unusual words and made them part of our everyday language: “cheaters” for glasses, “equalizer” and “shiv” for gun and knife, and “the shorts” for a lack of funds, among many. I still smile remembering the four hustlers out on the river “watching the boat race between the Harvards and the Yales” and trying to figure out a way to fix the outcome. They do.

With great humor Runyon tells about the gamblers and gangsters that inhabit Times Square. The writing is stylized, but is it still enjoyable? As Benny Southstreet might say, “a little more than somewhat.”

In the ’50s and ’60s Joseph Mitchell, writing for The New Yorker, brought us stories of real-life people and, along the way, made McSorley’s saloon famous. He loved certain sections of the city — the waterfront, the Bowery, the Village — and wrote about the people who worked or lived there and the characters who wandered the streets and navigated the gin mills.

Most famous of these was Joe Gould, a slight, disheveled Harvard graduate, better known as Professor Sea Gull, who constantly spoke of writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” filling dozens of composition books. Reputed to be nine million words and growing, it turned out, sadly, not to exist at all. Mitchell wrote about the fearless Mohawk Indians, gliding along the high steel beams of New York’s bridges and skyscrapers, riveting the city together, and of Gypsy neighborhoods, with their sometimes borderline methods of making money. These and many more are compiled in the matchless “Up in the Old Hotel.”

In later years Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin wrote wonderfully about New York City, and Pete Hamill’s autobiographical “Downtown: My Manhattan” is a tough and tender recollection of growing up in the tenements, in the schools and on the streets. In Hamill’s “Snow in August,” 14-year-old Michael Devlin responds to Rabbi Judah Hirsch’s request to turn on the lights of the synagogue for the Sabbath, and a personal relationship begins. The rabbi helps Michael with his troubles with the Falcons gang; Michael helps the rabbi with his English. The novel paints a picture of a New York City we can only hope exists.

So Manhattan is, what, 100 miles to the west? And we take the Jitney, see a show, maybe hit a museum or ogle the windows on Fifth. A nice day, but when do we just sit and listen to the voices of New York? These authors let us do exactly that.


Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.