04/21/12 9:00am
04/21/2012 9:00 AM

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.

08/26/11 11:48am
08/26/2011 11:48 AM

Men. Women. Power. Money. Sex. Truth. These are the final winding down days of the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the alleged rape of an African hotel maid, and I keep wondering what Stieg Larsson, the journalist, would have had to say. Stieg Larsson was the author of the Millenium Trilogy — “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — published posthumously to huge success after his death at age 50. While he was alive, he wasn’t known as a novelist. He was a crusading left-wing, feminist, anti-racist journalist who published magazine articles and books that put him under death threats from Swedish Neo-Nazi groups. He had spent a year in Africa training female guerrillas how to use rocket launchers. He had strong feelings about sexual violence toward women. He might have had something interesting to say about the Strauss-Kahn story.

Now that he’s dead and can’t say anything at all, there are two new books out about him: “Stieg Larsson, Our Days in Stockholm: A Memoir of a Friendship” by Kurdo Baksi and “ ‘There Are Things I Want You to Know’ About Stieg Larsson and Me” by Eva Gabrielsson, his life companion of 32 years. It is interesting how slippery word portraits are when they try to describe a person. Photographs taken by different people, in different lighting, at different ages, all are somehow believable as describing the same person. Written accounts by best friends, colleagues, girlfriends, seem to be better at describing the writer of the account than the subject.

I feel I know quite a lot about Kurdo Baksi and Eva Gabrielsson, who seem like perfectly decent people, although neither is a particularly gifted writer or original thinker. Neither seems to be writing a book that they are internally compelled to write. They have written books that will sell because the subject is of interest, and they have written books that champion their own sides of the story.

Eva’s is more compelling because she was Stieg’s lover for most of their lives, although you really don’t get much of an understanding of how their domestic and romantic life functioned on a day-to-day basis. He wrote her a love letter when he was 22 and returning from a near-death experience in Africa. She says he usually cooked dinner for her. Kurdo says his friend couldn’t cook at all. Kurdo says Stieg suffered from terrible insomnia and hardly slept. Which would explain how he managed to hold down a full-time job for money, work at least an equivalent of full time doing his own investigative reporting, editing and publishing, while reading voraciously both science fiction and murder mysteries, and last but not least, actually writing three, four, maybe five long novels.

Eva would have us believe that they slept together, although she really doesn’t give us any sense of the physical intimacy between them. She’s Swedish and shy and I’m not asking for prurient details, but I am curious. There is plenty of sex in his novels, of all sorts, described with great accuracy. If he was committed to Eva since they met at 18, were they each other’s only sexual partners? It seems highly unlikely, but there is no conflicting or corroborating information in either of these nonfiction books.

One story that both tell is that Stieg related a terrible event that happened when he was 15 years old. He was close by when three of his friends raped a girl they all knew, and he did nothing to stop it. A few days later he went to the girl and apologized for his inaction, but she would not forgive him and said he was just like the others. It’s a curious story, one that he tells about himself, one that “explains” both his political writing and his fiction. When will some investigative reporter go up to northern Sweden and try to find the people involved, or some other witnesses? Is this a true story or a story that a novelist might tell a few people to illuminate some deep truth about himself but that a journalist who respected truth would never write down or publish? In the book about honor killings that he co-wrote with Cecilia Englund, he says, “The cultural and anthropological models used to explain these tragedies speak to the form of oppression involved but do not explain it. And so in India, women are set on fire: they are murdered in the name of honor in Sicily: they are beaten up on Saturday night in Sweden … Yet culture does not explain why women all over the world are murdered, mutilated, mistreated by men.”

This was a problem he set out to understand and solve in different ways, and the sad thing is that he had only completely finished three of the planned 10 books of the series, whose working title was “The Men Who Hate Women,” when he died. If only he were still around and working, we would have more complicated books, whether mysteries like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” police procedurals like “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” political thrillers like “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” or nonfiction exposés about honor killings or hate crimes. He would be even closer to being the grown-up embodiment of both his childhood literary heroes, Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist, characters invented by Astrid Lindgren and beloved by children all over the world, just as his own characters Lizbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist are admired and beloved by adult readers all over the world for their courage against injustice.

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

07/06/11 10:51am
07/06/2011 10:51 AM

I finally have an acceptable reason to dislike Philip Roth. I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was a kid, because we all did, snickering at the “dirty” parts. There were interesting stories in “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I quickly tired of the later Zuckerman novels, and I don’t think it’s quite sporting for a novelist to engage his ex-wife in a public war of words as he did against the actress Claire Bloom, because the use of words is his profession, while hers is to say the words of others.

But now he has declared, in an interview with The Financial Times of London, “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did. Why? I don’t know. I wised up.”

What does he mean that he wised up? He is now so wise that nobody else’s engagement with the craft that he has been practicing for 50 years is of any interest to him? People are allowed to limit their reading to what truly engages them, but if a man makes his living writing fiction, it seems the height of arrogance to not read it anymore.

England can give him their Man Booker Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature and it won’t change my mind; I don’t like him and I won’t read his fiction.

So what fiction titles are going to be read this summer by interested and interesting people? Ann Patchett has a new novel, “State of Wonder,” that takes place in the Amazon jungle and in the world of pharmaceutical science, both extremely dangerous venues. Jean Auel has finally published “The Land of Painted Caves,” the long-awaited sixth and final book of the series “Earth’s Children” that started with “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” It hasn’t been getting unqualified raves from reviewers, but the faithful readers who slogged through the first five books will want to read this one regardless.

Kate Atkinson has a new novel, “Started Early, Took My Dog,” which continues with the exploits of former detective Jackson Brodie. Her books are genre-bending feats of literature that play with the conventions of murder mysteries or thrillers, neither condescending to them nor wholly being subsumed by them.

A first novel garnering a lot of favorable buzz is “Vaclav & Lena” by Haley Tanner. It takes place in Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community and involves young love and magic.

Then there’s “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain, which seems to be riding the same wave of zeitgeist nostalgia as Woody Allen’s new film, “Midnight in Paris.” “The Paris Wife” is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, and features all those madcap American expatriates we meet in Woody Allen’s movie. Those characters also appear in two big, new nonfiction books that are flying off the shelves: David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey” and “Americans in Paris” by Charles Glass.

I’m not sure I accept the idea of imagining, in a novel, a real person whose children or grandchildren are still around, but authors are definitely doing it. A few years ago there was ‘Loving Frank,’ Nancy Horner’s novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was well written but seemed to me like a violation of some sort. The Woody Allen film is delightful and obviously a fantasy, but these novels tread some boundary between fiction and nonfiction that troubles my librarian soul. However, it seems clear that this summer, when you’re not lolling in the hammock with one of these books, you should be learning to Charleston, having your hair bobbed or drinking absinthe while singing jazz in French. You’ve got to get with the zeitgeist, mon ami, and this season it is Paris in the ’20s.

More summer books for nonfiction lovers might include “Bossypants” by Tina Fey, a really, really funny woman. Sarah Vowell isn’t funny in the same way, but her new book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” is an idiosyncratic take on the history of Hawaii.

Summer vacations used to mean road trips, but now that we can’t afford the gas we could just read “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway” by the aptly named Earl Swift. While we’re thinking about gas and oil, let’s get busy with Carl Safina’s latest book, “A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Blowout.” Mr. Safina is a neighbor, an East Ender whose previous books — “Song for the Blue Ocean,” “Eye of the Albatross,” “Voyage of the Turtle” and “The View from Lazy Point” — have won various honors and gotten him named one of the 100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.

Summer is all about nature, which makes me think of Henry David Thoreau. There are some wonderful programs and exhibits at the North Fork Audubon Society’s Red House Nature Center in Greenport that are based on the writings of that amazing American writer. Thoreau’s cantankerous Yankee spirit was echoing in my head when I started reading “Tinkers” by Paul Harding.

“Tinkers” is a small book, a first novel by a former rock drummer. It hasn’t much of a plot or any suspense. The first sentence reads, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” and then the rest of the book, set in Maine, is his dying and his hallucinating. There are Indians, a nameless pond, a donkey named Prince Edward, a hermit, a tinker, a peripheral connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne and many, many clocks measuring time that is no longer linear for the dying man nor for the reader of this beautiful book. Maybe Americans can be transcendentalists.

Maybe reading fiction is how we can “wise up.”

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

05/23/11 12:45pm
05/23/2011 12:45 PM

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
04/26/2011 7:22 AM

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.

03/14/11 11:15am
03/14/2011 11:15 AM

I am part of “Imaginative Worlds,” a new book group at Floyd Memorial Library that consists of children who are 9 to 11 years old and their grown-ups, usually mothers. We meet every two weeks at the library and have a discussion led by librarian Mira Dougherty-Johnson and scholar Timothy Clayton Wood. This is funded in part by a grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities. Last week was the first session and we started with the picture book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak, which I’ve read before and written about before in this column. One of the marks of a really terrific book is that each time you reread it and each time you really listen to someone else talking about the book, you learn new things.

All of us were a little shy with each other at first, but our fearless leaders thought of two great icebreakers to get us more comfortable. First we were paired up with a new person from the opposite age group and we had to tell that person a true story from our childhood in which we did something naughty and were caught and reprimanded or punished. Then we had to listen very hard to our new partner’s true crime and punishment story. Then we went around the table introducing our new partner and telling their story. We were each in turn introduced to the group by our partner telling our story. It was a great way to get to know people very quickly and it was based on our book’s plot that has the hero, Max, acting like “a wild thing” and sent to his room without any supper.

Next, all the grown-ups went to one side of the room while the children went to the other so each group could prepare to act out the story for the other. The children made a boat out of two folding chairs for Max to sail “off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” The grown-ups were not so foolhardy, inventive or small enough, but both groups managed the playacting very well, especially the wild rumpus.

We will be reading some other classics of imaginative children’s literature: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ by Norton Juster, as well as newer titles, ‘Tuesday’ by David Wiesner and ‘The Magician’s Elephant’ by Kate Di Camillo. I can’t wait to hear what other people think of them and what new things I will learn by rereading, by listening and by using my imagination.

One of the last books I read was ‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss, who is also getting a lot of attention for her most recent book, ‘The Great House.’ She is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, whose book ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ was one of the library’s book discussion choices of a few years back. The two authors are young, attractive, talented and doing very well economically even in these parlous times, even in the book industry whose death the gloom-and-doomers are bewailing. They just bought a bigger brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to house their growing family and they keep writing terrific books that people want to publish, read and lavish critical praise on.

Some readers in our group found the multiple voices and nonlinear flow of “The History of Love” to be confusing, but others were enchanted and moved by its cleverness and humor, the books within the book and the sheer bravado of the beautiful writing. Nicole Krauss, like her husband, is of the generation whose grandparents were affected by the Holocaust and the Second World War. The books that are being written by this grandchildren generation are different from the books written by the children. The history is farther away, but still not forgotten.

Here is a sample of the voice of one of the protagonists, octogenarian locksmith Leopold Gursky, who long ago had written a book called “The History of Love”:

“Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible …  Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question that he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

The other main character is a 12-year-old girl, Alma, so named by her mother “after every girl in a book my father gave her called “The History of Love.” Which is, of course, the book written decades before by Leopold Gursky. The story ends with these two people meeting each other, but in the middle of the story we are transported back and forth in time, between Europe, South America and New York, and transported by a poetic imagination that is luminous and all-encompassing.

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

01/28/11 1:01pm
01/28/2011 1:01 PM

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.