04/20/14 6:30am
04/20/2014 6:30 AM


It was a dark and stormy night. I dragged myself home from an endless stakeout, popped a Dos Equis and sprawled on the couch. Watched a documentary on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” two historic bank robbers who didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They were hunted down by Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, whose motto was “We Never Sleep” and whose posters contained a simple drawing of a staring human eye. The film’s narrator said, “This is where the term ‘private eye’ came from.”  (more…)

08/10/12 11:00pm
08/10/2012 11:00 PM

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.

06/08/12 2:41pm
06/08/2012 2:41 PM

Remember learning the vowels, A, E, I, O and U, with the teacher inevitably adding “ … and sometimes Y and W”? Well, I’ve come up with 16 impressive and useful words that use a Y as the vowel but none, zero, that use a W. As a matter of fact, there are a dozen other insignificant three-letter words that use the Y — fly, dry, gym, gyp, etc. — but they’re too ordinary, not nearly as impressive as, say, lynx, cyst and myrrh. I tried for a sentence using them all, and got as far as “The rhythms of the pygmy’s hymns floated into the crypt as the gypsy slyly …” and got no further. Maybe a decent start for some spooky vampire thriller, but I stalled out at “slyly,” leaving nymph and tryst and stymie waiting in the wyngs. A word that uses W as its vowel still eludes me. If anyone knows one, would you shyly email it? I will wryly acknowledge you.

English has long been acknowledged as a strange language, with rough, bough, dough and cough usually used as examples. (Why do they never mention hiccough?) What catches my eye, though, are words that change to an opposite meaning when one letter is added. Like laughter. During a slaughter there’s never much laughter. Or when will it stop raining and start draining? And why is there such futility with our utility? A simple letter switch describes my wife and me moving from united to untied when discussing candied broccoli.

Yogi Berra is renowned for contradictory sentences like “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more” and, regarding Yankee Stadium’s left field sun problems, “It gets late early out there.” But our everyday language needs no help from Yogi. The omnipresent “Watch Your Head” demands an improbable feat of agility, as does the dark and frightening “Louise suddenly found herself lost.” Good trick. And picture this: “We soon realized the professor was speaking tongue in cheek when he said he was trying to keep a stiff upper lip. He was actually beside himself with excitement.”

I wonder why anyone would consider taking a nonstop flight (to the Twilight Zone?) or why something that falls between the cracks doesn’t land smack on the board. Or, just curious, who is it that’s standing in a one-night stand?

Are we having fun yet? What’s the longest word that contains only one vowel? Strengths. What word uses every vowel once and in order? Facetious. (We really should add facetiously, but not facetiouslw). And eleven plus two and twelve plus one not only both equal 13, but use the exact same letters to say so. Also, isn’t this the worst spell of wheather you’ve ever seen? And here’s an every-letter sentence that’s better than the famous “quick brown fox”: Pack my gift box with five dozen liquor jars.

A few oxymorons: old news, pretty ugly, same difference, loose tights, student teacher, mandatory option. Then a couple of familiar acronyms from forgotten sources: self contained underwater breathing apparatus, zone improvement plan codes and DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia (not really), and I’m through. Thru. Throu. Done.

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

05/06/12 9:00pm
05/06/2012 9:00 PM

We have an old copy of ‘Petersen’s Field Guide to the Birds.’ We’ve spotted most of the usual suspects, and also have seen some unusual ones. An American kestrel surprised us on Main Bayview in Southold one day — high up in the wires scanning the fields for lunch. An indigo bunting landed on our deck, a kingfisher perched on a dock pole and a snow goose and its two Canada sidekicks worked our lawn, the three waddling around looking like escapees from “The Biggest Loser.” The best sighting, though, came on a bright, bitter-cold morning: a full-blown male pheasant scrounging birdseed beneath our feeder, standing atop three feet of snow that had fallen that night. Birds are splendid affairs, sort of God’s tree ornaments, a quick burst of eye-catching nature.

There are many fine books about nature: ‘Walden Pond,’ Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac,’ Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us,’ to name a vintage few. Such writers not only give us glimpses of nature’s wonders but do so in language so vivid that we practically see what they’re looking at. A new such author has attracted attention, Carl Safina. ‘The View from Lazy Point’ is written beautifully, but the neat thing is that he’s writing about a neighbor, Lazy Point being a small stub of land on the west shore of Napeague Harbor, facing either the bay or the ocean, depending on your viewpoint.

Safina explores the woods and the ponds, hikes the beaches, sees, remembers and reports. He has strong opinions on what’s happening to our world. Here he is on chickadees in late January: “Their roaming flocks, formed for winter safety, will disband as the birds reassert property claims in the pines. They feel the world changing, and they change their tune. Can we do less? ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world,’ ” said Marcel Proust.” Like the writers before him, Safina sees the sad lack of concern the world clings to as innovation, progress and money remain the goals. Mother Nature? Well, she’s nice, too.

There’s a famous book that tells of a time when nature betrayed us. In the 1930s the rain quit the Midwest and the wind and dust took over. Steinbeck told the story: The people had to leave, their livelihoods blown away, their homes worthless, their future hopeless. They went West and in doing so changed the face of the country. The West Coast, with its rich soil, bountiful ocean and huge forests, absorbed them, revised itself and flourished with them. The Midwest, of course, recovered. Nature hadn’t betrayed us; it shoved us into the future, and seems to be shoving again. I’m a positive guy, but what’s with all the tornados? What happened to the icebergs? Where did all the codfish go? Why are the bees and the bats dying? Seventy degrees in March?

If nature is speaking, we need to listen, put personal NIMBYs and attitudes aside and — dare I say it? — change. Let’s separate our trash, take back our empties and conserve our fuels, for openers. Let’s support new ideas and find other ways to respond to the wake-up call.

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

02/04/12 12:00pm
02/04/2012 12:00 PM

And so it is in human life the goal
To seek, forever seek, the kindred soul
Jose Marti

St. Valentine’s Day is next week — the day that urges us to search for love, to find love, to celebrate it and work hard to maintain it. Songs, yet another form of short story, work as well as any medium in exploring these stages. They have the added benefit of forever rattling around in our heads as reminders.

“Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in too many faces, searching around, looking for traces …” A catchy song, but the urgency to find someone is palpable. Didn’t we all date some handsome young boys and some smart young girls but the BINGO never happened and the search continued. From Barbara Cook in “The Music Man,” waiting, wondering, singing to the stars, “Goodnight, my someone, goodnight, my love” to the rather desperate “if that isn’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along,” the longing continues, the quest goes on.

Then “Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day,” and Irving Berlin remembered, “For the longest while, I’d forget to smile, then I met you.” Rodgers and Hart rejoiced, “I took one look at you, that’s all I had to do, and then my heart stood still”; the Beatles are whooping, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”; and even Tony Bennett, who had previously left his heart in San Francisco, sings out, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart.” The shadows are gone, the smile is back, hearts stand still and sing. Yeah! Yeah!

And then — dark clouds. Streisand and Diamond hissing and moaning, “You don’t bring me flowers any more” and Willie Nelson explaining that yes, this and that happened “but you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.” Nice try, Willie. And Billie Holiday warning, “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on — just when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.” And St. Valentine is frowning.

Then, sometimes, it is gone. And all the clever phrases — “a total eclipse of the heart,” “every heart for itself,” “in the wee small hours of the morning” — are exactly that: clever phrases, mere words trying to ease the pain. Fantine, in “Les Misérables,” knows the bleakness: “He spent a summer by my side, he filled my dreams with endless longing. He took my childhood in his stride, but he was gone when autumn came.” Gone. Finished. Emptiness. And St. Valentine is weeping.

We all need not let it get that far. We need to swallow our pride, suck it up, check our baggage, get real, talk it through, apologize, lose an attitude, get over it, forgive and generally bust our butts doing the things that love needs in order to flourish and survive.

“You may not be an angel, for angels are so few, but until the day that one comes along, I’ll string along with you.” Still expecting an angel? Be serious.

And hey, you: “You’re all I ever needed, baby, you’re the one.”

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

01/21/12 12:22pm
01/21/2012 12:22 PM

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.