08/10/12 11:00pm

Food and literature both sustain us and it is a wonderful thing when they do it together. The book ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel has been the occasion for much delicious collaboration this summer. I first read the book when it was published in 1989 and I remember liking it well enough, but it seemed somewhat slight and girlish compared to the giant works by other Latin American magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.

It was the first novel by a 25-year-old woman who had been working as a kindergarten teacher in her native Mexico. The novel became a huge success there and then was translated and published abroad and was an international best-seller. It was based on her own family stories and was organized into 12 chapters for the 12 months of the year, each chapter preceded by a recipe. Actually, the whole title is “Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.”

Reading it a second time this summer, and talking about it with the book discussion group, revised my original, somewhat dismissive, opinion. It is quite wonderful on its own terms and doesn’t deserve to stand in the shadow of its macho contemporaries.

The book was made into a film by the Mexican director Alfonso Arau, which was screened at Floyd Memorial Library as part of our summer Fantastic Food Film Fest. Members of the library’s book discussion group, who read the novel in July, were urged to come see the movie and participate in a post-film potluck supper and discussion. One of the participants had been at the New York premiere of the film 20 years ago and had been invited to the after-party at a Mexican restaurant, where the menu was created using the book’s recipes. In the book and film, eating these foods, made with much emotion by the protagonist Tita, causes huge spiritual and bodily upheavals in the people who eat them. Apparently, neither after the New York premiere nor after the Greenport screening was anybody seen running naked through golden fields and jumping up on a galloping horse ridden by a handsome Zapatista revolutionary — but you never know.

The author, Ms. Esquivel, was married for a while to the director, Mr. Arau, and has continued to write books, none of them as successful as her maiden effort. Many of them have not been translated into English. One of them that was translated and published here in 2006, ‘Malinche,’ is more of a historical novel about the woman who was translator for and mistress of the conquistador Cortés, with less magic realism and more polemical politicizing. I found it much less appealing than her first book. Often, a writer’s career that starts off with great success may falter a bit with a second book — the sophomore slump — but pick up again as the writer’s talent matures and deepens. In Ms. Esquivel’s case, maybe her first book will always be her best, but she has put her talents to other use, becoming a successful and respected political leader in her home district in Mexico City.

Sharing responses and opinions about literature can be done face to face sitting around a dinner table, in a discussion group or in a classroom. I learned about a new way to do it from my daughter, a school librarian. She helped the AP English class in Southold use an online “platform” to tweet and blog their responses to each other and their teachers. They still meet face to face in the classroom, but instead of little sticky notes or index cards and underlines, the students have an entire archive of relevant posts by themselves and their peers to cite, discuss and study.

Another family member, my sister, a classics scholar turned lawyer and a voracious reader of novels, used an interesting neologism the other night when we were sitting around the dinner table talking about books. She talked about “audibly reading” a book series, which means she was “reading” the books, “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, by listening with earbuds and an iPod to the text being read out loud by an actor. Other people at the dinner table then chimed in with discussions about their preferred or less preferred readers, everybody agreeing that Jim Dale did a bang-up job on the Harry Potter series. Yet again I was made to feel a bit of a dinosaur. My ears feel invaded if I put earbuds in them and I still prefer to hold the paper object and read with my eyes, but I accept that I am limiting myself and that it is an idiosyncratic preference, not a moral imperative. One thing about audible reading is that it allows for multitasking. You can exercise or clean house while audibly reading, not that I ever actually want to exercise or clean house.

Audible reading also allows one to imagine classrooms of the future where all first-graders might not be pressured to advance at the same speed in the skills we now associate with being literate. Some could be audibly reading while others are reading reading, but all of them could be parsing out meaning from words and stories, sharing their ideas and dreams and nourishing themselves. Buen provecho!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

07/13/12 12:55pm

Imagine that there is a science fiction book by someone like Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke that posits a distant planet where thousands of scientists from a hundred countries spend 10 billion dollars to build a 17-mile underground, circular tunnel that might help them find a tiny particle, the “God particle,” whose existence had been proposed 60 years before, but never proven. Without this particle, there is no mass, so nothing could actually exist. A thousand people line up to get into the auditorium and the scene has a rock concert vibe when two teams of scientists make the announcement that the elusive “God particle” had been found at last.

Oh, wait, that isn’t science fiction. It’s what really, truly happened in Geneva on July 4 here on our own Earth. There will soon be a book about it, ‘The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World’ by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who is good at explaining science to lay readers. I’m looking forward to finding out why and how this unseen force field interacts so that mass, gravity, the universe and all of us can exist. I’d like to know more about this than the joke: This particle walks into a church while the service is already in session. The priest asks, “What are you doing here?” and the Higgs Boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.” Ba-da-boom.

Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke, he was quoted recently in a New York Times essay by Tim Kreider. The article, “The Busy Trap,” has been making the rounds by email, Facebook and Twitter among people I know, most of them extremely busy but able to spare a few minutes to read the piece and then forward it to all the other busy people they know. It’s definitely worth reading (http://mobile.nytimes.com/article?a=941881&f=28&sub=Sunday). The Clarke quote — “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” — perfectly sums up our current zeitgeist. Not that Clarke was an anarchist or a slacker. He wrote prodigiously — “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Childhood’s End,” among other titles — both fiction and nonfiction, invented satellite communication systems, discovered underwater archeological sites in Sri Lanka and was knighted. He was not a lazy person. He was a creative person, and doing creative work is a way of playing.

In Genesis, God had a lot of fun working on creation, but when He got mad at Adam He sentenced him to work as a punishment. Work in and of itself is not a virtue and there are different kinds of work and different attitudes about it. Another thing I love about Clarke is that when asked if he was gay he said no, just mildly cheerful.

Another piece of the zeitgeist was the July/August cover story in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-t-have-it-all/9020/). It’s the same, but different from the Krieder piece. Ms. Slaughter says that the few women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, very rich or self-employed and that if we really want equal opportunity for all women, even ordinary ones, we need fundamental changes. She left a high-level government job to spend more time with her family, which is usually Washington-speak for being fired but, in her case, was really true and really her decision.

I’m not sure how all this rejection of work fits in with the current state of unemployment and the economic crises looming in Europe and America, but I’m convinced that if multinational teams of scientists can organize divinely playful experiments all about colliding tiny cosmic bumper cars in the dark, then multinational groups of thinkers can organize some divinely playful ways of making things work for people as human beings without total economic collapse. It may take 60 years, and much trial and error, but it’s happening already with people reading and sharing these essays about how to rethink our personal equations of time and money, family and ambition.

Much of the reading and sharing is taking place in cyberspace, which leads to the book on my bedside table, ‘This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information’ by Andy Greenberg. This is a fascinating look at the new forces aiming to obliterate the institutional secrecy of governments, banks, corporations and militaries. It took Daniel Ellsberg almost a year and thousands of his own dollars to photocopy the Pentagon Papers. It took Bradley Manning a few minutes of clicking to leak a trove of secret military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks.

The title is based on the boast written on Woody Guthrie’s guitar in 1943, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” That phrase, in turn, was painted on bomber airplanes during the Spanish Civil War. From actual weapons to the metaphorical weapon of protest songs to a subversive machine that is neither a photocopier nor even the Internet itself: the living idea in the minds of many people all over the globe that secrets equal tyranny and that the safety and survival of the world depends on transparency and the sharing of information. It is a powerful idea that now has a powerful tool to propel it forward.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

04/21/12 9:00am

April may well be the cruelest month: Fighting season begins again as the mountain passes thaw in Afghanistan, tornadoes rampage throughout the Midwest, taxes must be paid and we mourn the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, who both purportedly died April 23, 1616.

People in those days had such interesting lives and yet they were not tempted to write memoirs. I had no idea that when he wasn’t writing “Don Quixote,” Cervantes was collecting taxes, provisioning the ill-fated Armada, languishing in jail for “financial discrepancies” occasioned by the previous occupations, being sold into five years of slavery in Algeria and losing an arm fighting in the battle of Lepanto. All that, some poetry and plays and inventing the modern novel besides, made him a very busy man.

And Shakespeare, if he really was Shakespeare and not some earl or other, will always be with us. I’ve never liked the earl theories. They all seem to be based on some deep snobbery that says a mere glover’s son, a provincial, an actor for heaven’s sake, could not possibly have been able to write so well. One recent film, “Anonymous,” champions the notion that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Another, “Coriolanus,” takes a story from the first century, written as a play in the 17th century, and turns it into a blistering 20th-century political spectacle. Hollywood and the rest of us are not done with Shakespeare yet.

April is full of bookish events: Poetry Month, Library Week, Pulitzer Prizes. Partly because of Cervantes and Shakespeare, we are celebrating the first U.S. World Book Night on April 23.  World Book Night is an annual celebration designed to spread a love of reading and books. Following its warm reception in England and Ireland last year, tens of thousands of people will go out into their communities to spread the joy and love of reading by giving out free World Book Night paperbacks. Two of those people will be Floyd Memorial Library director Lisa Richland, who will be giving out copies of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids,’ and me, who will be giving out Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried.’

It is a little like our day jobs, giving books to people, but it will be interesting to go out into the community instead of waiting for people to come to us. It will be different to give people books for them to keep forever instead of expecting them to be returned.

“The Things They Carried” is about soldiers during the Vietnam War and might be particularly meaningful to veterans of that or any other war, or to young people who may be contemplating military life. Actually, it is so well written and so important that I can’t imagine anybody, young or old, male or female, of whatever political persuasion, not being moved and uplifted by the sheer beauty and artistry of it. They say no one finishes a book the same person as when she started. Giving people books is a powerful responsibility and some serious fun.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what is up with those Pulitzer Prize people? For the first time since 1977, they declined to pick a winner in the fiction category. Finalists included ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace, both quite worthy works of fiction. What does not giving a prize mean, except some sort of dysfunction of the committee? Is it because it’s in New York? New York City has the dubious distinction of not having a one city/one book program like most other civilized places, even Long Island. Apparently the various committees could never agree on which book to choose so the city ends up with nada, zilch, bupkus while Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, etc., enjoy a month during which everyone is encouraged to read the same book and talk about it.

On Long Island, from Garden City to Greenport, from Massapequa to Montauk, many of us have been reading ‘The Lost Wife’ by Alyson Richman. Ms. Richman has been speaking at various Long Island libraries and there’s talk that the Nassau Library System is trying to organize a trip to Prague this fall to see some of the places described in the novel. One of which would be Terezin, the Nazi ghetto and way station to Auschwitz. The novel is cleverly constructed in the way the story moves backward and forward in time.

It is an amazing book and it makes me wish that Long Island had more mass transit and more cafés and park benches — those great places where if you see a perfect stranger reading the same book you are, or have just read, you can accost them and have an impromptu book discussion. Hmmm, there is a place near here that has mass transit, cafés and park benches, but you’re unlikely to find people reading the same book. Oh well, their loss; we provincials will have survived cruel April with our various bookish diversions, our Poetry Month, Library Week, Long Island Reads and World Book Night.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

01/21/12 12:22pm

January is the month for resolutions, for fresh starts, for trying to get things right. Mostly we focus on our bodies, trying to lose weight, get fitter, stronger and healthier. Sometimes we focus on getting better organized or being kinder. There is a list from an article in American Songwriter magazine that has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages of 33 resolutions that Woody Guthrie wrote down in his own handwriting in 1942, full of very sensible advice to self, the 13th being “read lots good books.”

Just this week, author Walter Dean Myers was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, a sort of poet laureate of the children’s book world who tours the country for two years, speaking at schools and libraries about reading and literacy. He will be urging people to read good books, including, no doubt, some of his own dark and realistic titles, “Autobiography of My Dead Brother,” “Monster,” “Bad Boy.” His is an urban, African-American voice writing gritty fiction that is far away from the wizards, dragons, English boarding schools and other recent staples of young people’s literature. But his own story, about how reading and then writing books rescued him from the violence and chaos of his environment, will surely resonate with many young people.

So the advice is to read good books, but the question is which ones are good for you? Someone asked Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson which books should be read by every intelligent person on the planet and he responded with a list of seven books, all available as free e-book downloads and all (except maybe the Bible) written by men:

The Bible, “The System of the World” by Isaac Newton, “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith, “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli.

Tyson is an astrophysicist and a very smart person, certainly entitled to his opinion — “If you read all of the works above, you will have profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world” — and it’s sort of cool that all those titles are available free for digital downloading, but it’s just one person’s list. And personally, I have gotten to the point where any list that excludes the half of the human race that I belong to is a list that I feel free to ignore.

One thing to consider about resolving to read more good books is that, like resolving to exercise more, eat healthier, be kinder, etc., one’s success will depend on some mental or spiritual ability, some kind of willpower or energy. When I am feeling energetic and strong, then I enjoy reading challenging books that force me to think in new ways. When I am feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I read easier titles. Resolutions might be a good way of reminding oneself of one’s aspirations. Is this the year I will start rereading “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust — in French this time? Probably not. Nor will I run a marathon or lose 20 pounds. But perhaps there are some realistic aspirations I can articulate and accomplish.

1. Read more poetry.
2. Read more short stories.
3. Use my online Goodreads account to keep track of and share my reading.
4. Explore new magazines and newspapers instead of depending on familiar ones.
5. Read books aimed at different age groups and demographics.
6. Read aloud to children when given the opportunity.
7. Try to read some French and Spanish beyond menus.
8. Every once in a while, read at least one book I wouldn’t think I’d like.

That last piece of advice is the one that motivated me to pick up “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I am usually interested in the Man Booker winners but, for some reason, I’ve been avoiding Julian Barnes. Too English, too middle-aged, too refined, repressed — I don’t know, just not my type. But this novel, or novella at a scant 163 pages, was a revelation.

I must be careful not to give too much away, because it turns out to be a cleverly plotted page-turner masquerading as an elegiac memoir. More than one reviewer remarks that its short length is deceptive, because when you finish it, you will want to immediately reread it in its entirety. It is about aging, time, remorse, memory and history, about some of the very terrible things we can do to each other in our youth, about how we forget or make up stories so we can survive our middle age and how we can be derailed in old age by confronting what may be the truth. The whole book is unreliably narrated by a bald old man who is not especially sympathetic, but the elegant unfolding of the tale is mesmerizing, and it is a really good book. Exactly the sort of thing you should read if you are resolved to read some good books this year.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

12/17/11 3:34pm

I don’t know why people always say “I hate to say I told you so” when it’s perfectly clear that “I told you so” are some of the sweetest words in the language and people love to say them. What I am loving right now is that I told you so, dear readers, months and months ago, that all the gloom and doom about bookstores closing, books not being bought or read and the written word just lining up with the rest of the world to go to hell in a handbasket is at least a slight exaggeration, if not a downright alarmist fabrication.

Apparently, the first few weeks of the Christmas shopping season have been terrific for the booksellers this year, according to an article by Julie Bosman in the Dec. 13 New York Times titled “E-Books,Shmee-books: Readers Return to the Stores.”

Customers are attracted to this year’s vibrant selection and are not deterred by the higher prices of some titles. Books that might not have been expected to flourish in a time of economic gloom are flying off the shelves. Both ‘Harry Potter Page to Screen’ and ‘The Louvre: All the Paintings’ cost $75, ‘Mountain: Portraits of High Places’ weighs in at $85, while ‘The Art Museum’ published by Phaidon retails for $200.

Besides the coffee table books, regular nonfiction seems to be especially popular this year. ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson, ‘Catherine the Great’ by historian Robert K. Massie and the memoir ‘Then Again’ by actress Diane Keaton are doing well in the biography section, and a book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is a popular holiday gift, as are new fiction titles by bestselling authors like Janet Evanovich, Stephen King and Michael Connelly. Other big successes are ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, ‘IQ84’ by Haruki Murakami, ‘The Dovekeepers’ by Alice Hoffman and ‘The Angel Esmeralda,’ a short story collection by Don DeLillo.

So perhaps the end of the world as we know it is on its way, but not here just yet. There is fear among the bookish that these e-book shmee-book reader things and tablets of various sorts will be given as presents this December and that subsequently all of civilization will crumble in January. It may happen. But meanwhile, it is more than interesting to me that the American Booksellers Association saw a 16 percent jump in the week including Thanksgiving, compared to the same period a year ago. Apparently people like going to bookstores and buying actual books to give as holiday presents to their friends and relatives during the great, dark gift-giving season and I, for one, think that’s terrific.

A terrific book that many younger readers will be given this year is ‘The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.’ Here’s the story behind “Chronicles”: In 1984, Chris Van Allsburg put out a book called “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” that had beautiful, mystifying, full-page drawings, each with a caption and the title of a story that the drawing was supposed to illustrate. The construct was that a person named Harris Burdick had brought just the drawings to a children’s book publisher on spec, the publisher loved them and wanted to see the complete stories, Burdick promised to bring them the next day, then disappeared and was never heard from again.

Since the book was published, it has been used as a springboard by teachers and librarians to inspire creative writing. Countless young people have chosen their favorite from the 14 drawings and let their imaginations create completed stories.

“The Chronicles of Harris Burdick” includes the original drawings with their titles and captions, but it has 14 different well-known authors each tackling one of them and writing it their way. Some of them are quite marvelous. Like its predecessor, the book is a great publishing idea and this one may help to introduce readers to some interesting writers, but I hope the original book will still be used as a springboard for other stories. This must not be the end of the mysteries of Harris Burdick, just an example of some ways of looking and thinking about them.

Also for younger readers: ‘Wonderstruck’ by Brian Selznick, the author/illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’ which was the first time the Caldecott had been won by a novel. The Caldecott was designed to be awarded to a picture book, but “Hugo” is both a novel and a picture book and so is “Wonderstruck.” Both of them are very indebted to yet another format, that of film. Martin Scorsese just released the film version of “Hugo,” which features a most amazing opening shot that zooms down into and through Paris until you are inside the walls of a train station, where you meet the eponymous orphan whose adventures will immerse you in the earliest days of film itself, with Ben Kingsley as magician, impresario and film director George Melies. “Wonderstruck” may prove equally photogenic in a few years, but in the meantime, there is the book: hardcover, large, expensive and irresistible, apparently, to the holiday-minded, book-buying public.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

11/19/11 4:00am

One of the best things about going to the New York Library Association conference in Saratoga Springs a few weeks ago was the chance to listen to the writers R. David Lankes, Lewis Lapham and Chris Bohjalian.

R. David Lankes is a professor at the Syracuse library school and his books and talks are mainly of interest to the profession, so his talk, “Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by our Stacks,” was riveting. He posits a future in which libraries are places to learn, create and collaborate, not consume and check out.
He said, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities,” which may sound radical, but reminded me of when I was researching the origins of our library in Greenport. Back in the 1800s, there were various “improvement societies,” often run by a clergyman, whose members met monthly to share something of their experiences or talents. There were dramatic readings, poetry recitations, musical entertainments, travel talks and skits with costumes. A shared collection of books was an outgrowth of that community impulse that still informs much of what we do at libraries, but, according to Mr. Lankes, the sheer volume of books, shelves and stacks we have accumulated limit the time and space we can give over to community collaboration and knowledge creation. Something to think about and one reason that for some of us, the advent of e-readers is not completely terrible news.

Then I got to listen to Lewis Lapham, author of numerous books, most recently ‘Pretensions to Empire,’ who was for many years the editor of Harper’s Magazine and now edits Lapham’s Quarterly, A Magazine of History and Ideas. He is an aristocratic septuagenarian whose talk was not projected as a PowerPoint. He actually had the screen turned off, then sat and read his talk, written in his own hand, from a yellow pad, A bit of a self-described Luddite when it comes to technology, and the kind of thinker with a grasp of history that inevitably seems mostly bleak, he proved most genial and animated in the Q&A session after the talk.

I was predisposed to like Chris Bohjalian because I liked his first book, ‘Midwives.’ He talked about his new book, ‘The Night Strangers,’ which is doing pretty well despite the fact that it features ghosts instead of vampires (the ones getting all the attention these days). He talked about the two things that sparked the genesis of the novel. One was a nailed-shut door in the cellar of a house in rural Vermont that he and his wife had bought; the other was the news account of the successful emergency landing of a commercial plane in the Hudson River by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

In “The Night Strangers,” Mr. Bohjalian imagines the life of a pilot who attempts a similar emergency landing on Lake Champlain, but through no fault of his own fails in the attempt, and some of the passengers on his plane die. Bohjalian felt that in order to write the story as well as he could, he needed to experience a crash landing into water. He convinced the people who train National Guard pilots in Connecticut to let him do a training with them that, in a recreation of an airline cabin, involved being dunked into a huge tank, upside-down, restrained by a five-point harness with 38 seconds to unharness himself and swim toward a door. I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if I think the effort was worth it and how all that leads to ghosts and a mysterious cellar door.

One doesn’t have to travel as far as Saratoga Springs to hear writers talk about their work. Local libraries, including my own, make an effort to connect authors with readers on a regular basis. This fall, Floyd Memorial had a double reading featuring local authors Jackson Taylor and Terese Svoboda. I have already written in this column about Taylor’s debut novel, ‘The Blue Orchard,’ a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s life in Harrisburg, Pa., where she was the trusted white assistant to a powerful and politically connected black physician who performed abortions when it was illegal to do so. It’s a terrific book and Mr. Taylor did a lot of strenuous research of his own. Over 10 years, he talked to family members and spent time in Harrisburg libraries and courthouses, all while holding down a full-time job.

Terese Svoboda was recently featured on the NPR show “All Things Considered” talking about ‘Bohemian Girl,’ her fourth published novel, which is being widely hailed as a true American picaresque, part Huck Finn, part “True Grit” and a wholly original answer to Willa Cather’s iconic “My Antonia.” Listening to her read a bit from the beginning, where young Harriet has been sold as a slave by her father to settle his gambling debt with an eccentric Pawnee Indian who has an obsession with building mounds, you hear how Ms. Svoboda’s ability to manipulate language and characters propels you into a dark and strange side of the Western frontier.

Most recently, we hosted Tom Clavin, a journalist and nonfiction writer from Sag Harbor. He talked about his 2007 book, ‘Dark Noon: The Final voyage of the Fishing Boat Pelican,’ which recounts the tragedy that took place in 1951, when an overfull party fishing boat out of Montauk capsized and lost two-thirds of its passengers.

He also talked about his most recent book, ‘Last Men Out,’ co-authored with Bob Drury. You may remember a photograph of a helicopter on top of a building with a long line of people on ladders climbing up toward it. The erroneously captioned photo was widely believed for 36 years to be the last helicopter out of Saigon atop the roof of the U.S. Embassy. In fact, it was a photo of a CIA chopper on a nearby building the day before the final evacuation. When the “last” helicopter left Saigon, there were 11 Marines left on the roof of the embassy. Mr. Clavin masterfully told us the story up to a cliff-hanging moment of suspense, so that the whole audience was on tenterhooks, wanting to know what would happen next.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

10/27/11 2:00am

There is a wonderful new website called OccupyWriters.com that has an ever-lengthening alphabetical list of writers who are in support of Occupy Wall Street and a few meditations on the protest by several of them. On the list, each person is identified as the writer or editor of just one work, which is leveling, democratic and much easier to digest than complete bibliographies.

Of the meditations, I very much liked the first of “Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance”: “If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.”

Lemony Snicket, also known as Daniel Handler, is the author of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a marvelous group of 13 dyspeptic books for literate children and their adults.

Other offerings include those by poet Anne Waldman, who writes most copiously; the novelist Francine Prose, who writes most movingly; and another writer (one who would be down there in Zucotti Park himself if he were still alive), who provides the best quote. In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman says: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
That’s how you feel when you are there in the park: large and Whitmanesque with a poetic view of the huge diversity of humanity. It could make you cry, like Francine Prose, or dance to the beat of the drum circle, or go visit the library that is set up in one corner of the park. When I was there for the second time, all seven lined-up folding chairs were occupied by people reading donated paperbacks and the name-tagged librarians were busy sorting books into different categories, just like in a brick-and-mortar library. A library is not a building, it is a state of mind, a place where librarians do their work, a place where books and ideas are shared.

The number 13 reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. It seems new and shiny as a penny every time I read it, despite that it was first published in 1917. My mother recently rediscovered some favorite poetry books and spent several days reading and enjoying poems she hadn’t read in decades. People often think they don’t like to read poetry, even when they are avid readers of other forms. Poetry seems “hard,” which is odd since it’s really a way of playing with words.

A poet was the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s short poem “Slow Music” contains a stanza that made me think of our Long Island Sound beaches, like 67 Steps in Greenport:
I come too seldom down to the sea. But now I have come among good-sized stones with peaceful backs. The stones have been gradually walking backwards out of the sea.

“Preludes,” another of his poems, says: “Two truths draw nearer each other. One moves from inside, one moves from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to see ourselves.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature is not a popularity contest. Many Americans, including myself, had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer before he won the prize. Most of the Swedish writers we know are the writers of dark mysteries, nordic noir, like Stieg Larsson and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series or Henning Mankell with his Inspector Kurt Wallander. But the Nobel Prize will mean that some people will search out and read some of Tranströmer’s poetry and perhaps discover that reading poetry is not so “hard” and maybe they will find something there to play with.

One American writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1954 was Ernest Hemingway. He turns up as a character in a terrific new book by William Kennedy called ‘Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.’ William Kennedy is best known for his Albany cycle of novels, which includes “Legs,” “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” and “Ironweed.”
Much of this new novel also takes place in Albany, on the day in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. But we get to know our hero, Quinn, when he is a young journalist in Cuba in 1957, having encounters and interviews with Hemingway and Fidel Castro among real historical characters, and beautiful women and jazz pianists among the fictional characters. It is a splendid novel, a novel with a great jazz soundtrack underneath the sprawl of characters and ideas. Kennedy is such a pro (so far he’s won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur) that he is like a seasoned performer up on stage. He makes you, the audience, the reader, feel relaxed and able to listen, because you know you are in the hands of an expert and he will not let the balls drop or embarrass himself — or embarrass you.

Far, far from the prizewinners and the pros of prose are the sign-makers of Zucotti Park. Who knows what jobs, if any, they have in “real” life or whether or not they’ve won any prizes ever. It doesn’t matter. They find some cardboard, some markers or paints, and they choose some words, their own or someone else’s. Maybe they find the words they want at the makeshift library, which is collecting an archive of used signs for posterity. Maybe they find them in a book. Some are funny, some profane, some simple, some full of numbers, some poetic and some truly tragic. They are large. They contain multitudes. Walt Whitman would be proud.

Long live the people’s poetry!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

10/06/11 2:24pm

If numbers and statistics could be made to sing alleluias, then perhaps we could hear the good news trilling out of two new books by distinguished academics, Joshua S. Goldstein’s ‘Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide’ and Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.’

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever. Apparently just the opposite is true: Violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in the existence of our species. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, assassinations, pogroms, child abuse, gruesome punishments, deadly feuds and genocide were ordinary features of life. Not to mention popular amusements like gladiatorial contests, bear-baiting, cat-burning, witch-drowning and lynching.

Now, of course, we can see coverage of the violence that still exists, in full color, with sound. Television, the Internet, radio and print media tell us all the time about the horrors of war, and they should. It may be that our greater knowledge, plus our widening circle of empathy for the victims of violence, is part of what is making it decrease. But the media stories rarely highlight the numerical disparity between, say, the 300,000 American soldiers killed during World War II, the 50,000 during Vietnam and the approximately 6,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Professor Goldstein notes that in 2010 more Americans died by falling out of bed than were killed in armed conflict — some 600 American soldiers.

There is often a tendency among the chattering classes to agree with the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that probably everything is going to go straight to hell in a hand basket. But what if it isn’t? What if things — and people — are actually getting better?

Professor Pinker cites some interesting statistics that question our romantic notions about the peaceful lives of our prehistoric tribal forebears. Studies documenting present-day hunter-gatherer tribes suggest that the chance of a prehistoric man’s being killed violently by another man ranged from 15 percent to 60 percent, whereas now in several Western countries the chance of being killed is between zero and one percent.

It is hard to believe good news when we are so programmed for pessimism, but the information is out there, to be read, digested, considered, discussed. If you have no time to read either book, you could go to YouTube and search for Goldstein, Peace is Increasing (youtube.com/watch?v=NipRlQ7uuJw) and watch a very short piece or watch a longer TED talk by Steven Pinker on the myth of violence (ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html). Both these men are looking at the big picture with all the tools that academia can muster: brains, rationality, numbers, eloquence and facts, and they share some really good reasons for hope.

Meanwhile, back at the fiction ranch, I have been reading ‘Consequences’ by Penelope Lively. Interestingly enough, the story hinges on the violent death in World War II of a young man, and the consequences of his life and death on subsequent generations. Penelope Lively is an English writer not as well known here as she should be. She is quite a wonderful woman of letters. She has written for children as well as adults, writes reviews and essays as well as memoirs and novels and won the Man Booker Prize in 1987 for ‘Moon Tiger,’ a novel about an old woman dying that weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a riveting story of loss and desire.

In “Consequences” we get to know three generations of women in their contexts — the young war bride in reckless love, her daughter growing up unconventionally and coming of age in ‘60s London and then that daughter’s daughter and her more circumscribed choices. All these women are vibrant and three-dimensional in their thoughts and relationships, and the various milieus so beautifully described come vibrantly to life.

I particularly love the passage where Molly, the ’60s girl, falls into a job at a library: “It sometimes seemed to Molly that the library was a place of silent discord and anarchy, its superficial tranquility concealing a babel of assertion and dispute. Fiction is one strident lie — or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is pushing a product … That is the function of books; they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” She goes on but then manages to get herself fired from the library because she wants it not only to buy “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” but also to arrange a lecture about book censorship.

Poor Molly. She was before her time in terms of librarianship. If she were real, and here now, she could help us in our annual celebration of Banned Books Week, when libraries highlight all the books we have on our shelves despite the continual pressure from various quarters to remove them. Probably the children’s book ‘And Tango Makes Three’ will again top the American Library Association’s list as the most challenged book, as it has every year since its publication in 2006. Even now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been rescinded and same-sex marriage is legal in New York State, there are those who feel this true story of two male chinstrap penguins in Central Park Zoo who successfully form a pair bond, hatch a donated egg and raise the baby is a dangerous story for young minds. But the book was published and has many champions and many readers­ — so the good news continues to ring out from the land of books.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.