Tuesday, September 17, 2019

My Reading Life: with Michael Sokolove

What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Oh my goodness, just five?? Ok, off the top of my head: The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald); American Pastoral (Roth); The Power Broker (Caro);  Manchild in the Promised Land (Claude Brown) and the most recent book I've loved, The Incendiaries (R. O. Kwon)  

The Great Gatsby, which was introduced to me in 11th grade by my treasured English teacher, Lou Volpe, was the first book that truly showed me how beautiful language can be. The sentences and the words and the perfectly constructed narrative put the reader in something like a dream state.  The Power Broker sets the standard for nonfiction; it shows what the highest possible ambition is. You can never match it but it's nice to know what the bar is.   

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

I have never successfully read Faulkner. It's a character flaw on my part. 

What is a funny/interesting/unique anecdote about you as a reader?

I have lots of books beside my side of the bed but I rarely can read long before falling asleep. I'm a sit-in-a-chair reader and I can never understand people who read for an hour or whatever in bed. 

How did you first fall in love with books?

Hard to say. I feel like as soon as I could read I fell in love with it. I was a shy kid and a little bit of a loner -- I learned early on that a book was really great company.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney; The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. 

What book do you always recommend?

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. It is an incredible mix of memoir and history -- Ball's ancestors were slave owners in the South and he writes the history of not just their lives but also of the slaves who worked on their plantations. He goes out into present-day America and comes to grips with slavery, as best one can, by searching out the family members -- grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren -- of the slaves who worked the Balls' property. An incredible book and not quite as recognized as it should be.  

Also: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, a memoir of her childhood as the daughter of white settler/farmers in Africa. In some ways, not dissimilar to Edward Ball's book -- a story of horrible racial oppression told, in part, from the perspective of a child of the oppressors. The language in this book, the pure beauty of the writing, just blows me away, which is why I recommend it. 

And lately: A Tale of Love and Darkness by the late Israeli author Amos Oz. Also a memoir -- so I guess I must be on a memoir kick. 

What book/books changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

Two books I read in my early teens: Manchild in the Promised Land and Ball Four (Jim Bouton). They may seem to have very little in common. The first is a sort of memoir/fiction mix of a young man's coming of age in Harlem, long before Harlem was gentrified -- and it is a mix of aspiration, danger, drug addition, hope and resilience. I was a kid growing up in what seemed to me boring-ass suburbia -- Levittown, Pa., blocks and blocks of mass-produced housing -- and Manchild was probably the first book that showed me how reading can take you to a completely different place. I was curious about other worlds and Harlem was distinctly not Levittown. 

Ball Four -- the iconic baseball confessional by Jim Bouton -- served, in its own way, the same purpose. I was sports-crazed. Ball Four showed me the real lives of my "heroes." What the baseball world was really like. It didn't make me like the players any less; I liked them more because Bouton showed them in all their crude, hilarious, human dimensions.

What was your favorite childhood book?

I don't remember reading much children's literature. Unfortunately I don't think I was probably exposed to much good stuff. My early schooling was all about learning to read -- phonics and so forth -- rather than the joy of reading. I think the first chapter book I read -- I can still recall picking it off the shelf of an elementary school classroom -- was Born to Play Ball by Arnold Hano. It was a biography of Willie Mays for young readers. I was probably in about third grade. 

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

I read the New York Times Book Review to know what's out there; I should probably look at more journals than I do. My family is bookish so I can count on my wife and my three adult children to also recommend books, which is a great resource and a great joy.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

I'm reading The Friend right now, by Sigrid Nunez. It is nonlinear, essentially plotless, which I don't normally like but it's so wise and funny that I'm enjoying it. This book is also, in large part, about a dog -- and even though I have a dog and love dogs I don't usually want to read about them -- but I'm really liking it nonetheless. So there you go. What you think you like or don't like can change, depending on how good something is. 

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. It's about a 60s-era fugitive radical -- I love books about people on the run and this one is really good.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into? 

Philip Roth. I needed to be of a certain age to really understand him. 

What book have you read that has most influenced your life?

Probably Manchild in the Promised Land - and by the way, I don't think it is, by literary standards, a great book -- but it was so eye-opening.

Who are your favorite writers?

Philip Roth, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Caro . . . . I dunno . . . way too many to mention,. 

What do you read on holiday?

Fiction. I want to be transported.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

Me. Ok, that's a joke. I really don't know. 

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Also me. 

What is your favorite book published in the past twelve months?

Cheating a little here because it's been a little more than a year, but The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Each sentence is like carved out of a gemstone. You want to read them twice because they're so beautiful. And the novel is about something deep -- the allure of a religious cult, the sense of belonging and love they can bring, the insanity of them, and the feeling of loss a person can feel after separating from one even after coming to an understanding how perverse the values were.  

Did your parents read to you when you were young? 

They must have but I don't remember it. I have a much keener memory of reading to my children and now grandchildren -- books by William Steig, Maurice Sendak and others. Here I'll mention another under-appreciated book that I always recommend and that we buy for new parents: The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle by Carl Sandberg. All about a wedding attended by the Spoon Bangers, the Musical Soup Eaters and so on.  It is beyond wonderful.

Which book have you given most frequently as a gift to others?

See above. Sandberg's masterpiece. No use giving, say, Goodnight Moon because new parents will get multiple copies of that as gifts. Also, as a wedding gift we often give a  comprehensive, expensive world atlas. That's a go-to.

Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

Nick Carraway. What's he really think of all those insane people in the Great Gatsby. I'd like to use my reportorial wiles to open him up just a bit more. 

Where do you buy your books?

Politics and Prose in D.C., where I live, which is one of the great independent bookstores in America, despite its sort of clunky name. Like any great indie bookstore, it is a cathedral of books. I have had the honor of reading there several times and it feels like a spiritual moment each time. 

What impact can a book have on the reader? 

Everything. I can't imagine not reading and not having a book-filled home.

End of Interview

Michael Sokolove is the author of five books, including Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town and the Magic of Theater, which was the inspiration for the NBC prime-time series “Rise.”
Since 2001, Sokolove has been a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, where he has written about the science, culture and sociology of sports, as well as politics and a broad range of other topics.
His stories have included profiles of athletes Darryl Strawberry, Oscar Pistorius and Allonzo Trier; football coach Pete Carroll and politician Rick Santorum; an examination of how elite athletes age; an exploration of how the nation’s largest casino, Foxwoods in Connecticut, reached the brink of bankruptcy; and a story on the prevalence of Saudi money in U.S. higher education.
His work has been included in the Best American Sportswriting and Best American Medical Writing anthologies.
Before joining the New York Times Magazine, Sokolove worked as a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Ann Gerhart, an editor at the Washington Post, live in Bethesda, Maryland and have three children.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nineteen Eighty-Four was George Orwell’s last book, written as he was dying of tuberculosis, at age 47. Down and Out in Paris and London was his first book, published when he was just 29, in January of 1933. It is a memoir made up of two parts focusing on the theme of abjection within the two cities. “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum. The slum, with its dirt and its queer lives, was first an object-lesson in poverty…” Irish writer Dervla Murphy noted that the book still has “pungent immediacy” because, unlike other middle-class writers who have gone to live among the poor, Orwell “was not ‘playing a game.’ ”
The first part is an account of living in near-destitution in Paris and the experience of casual labour in restaurant kitchens. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from the tramp's perspective, with descriptions of the types of hostel accommodations available and some of the characters to be found living on the margins.
Orwell’s main argument is that both rich and poor are essentially the same, separated only by income. Underneath they are just humans, striving for a happier life. It's the system that has created the means by which the rich can control the poor and keep them in their place.
He has a plain yet profound way of putting down his thoughts about the poor, and how they are perceived by those who are rich and educated. For example, in chapter twenty-two he writes. “..the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?” He’s absolutely right.
Poverty changes a person. You learn to fear the phone, the knock on the door, the colored envelopes in the mailbox or the tiniest indication that something might be wrong with your car. You wake up in the middle of the night feeling like your heart is attempting to escape the life it’s been forced to live by beating its way out of your chest.
However, poverty, in effect, is a legal status. Poverty is not having nothing. Poverty is being legally excluded from having sufficient access to the resources needed to exist. We locked up access to natural resources and let the owner class hold all the keys and exchange them for our labor. We claim to be a nation that values freedom. But freedom is currently the preserve of the rich.
I know a lot of folks like to think that poor people are lazy and incompetent. They like to think they get fired from jobs because they don’t know how to behave, or they’re always late, or they just don’t care. But what people, the rich especially, don’t seem to realize is how unbelievably easy it is to get fired. And a lot of times what gets you fired is that you’re working more than one job.
I recently had a conversation with someone where I explained that some people are so poor, they can't even afford to work. They laughed of course. But I wasn't kidding.
Gas money, child care expenses, and lack of clothing to meet dress code requirements are often barriers to employment for low income individuals. The costs of working are something that go entirely undiscussed. Not recognizing them is like telling someone with bare feet that if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, which is already physically impossible, they can go get a job so they can buy some boots.
This might just be the most contentious proposition, I’ll make here, but it’s also I believe the most true, that it is more demoralizing to work and be poor than to be unemployed and be poor. I have never minded going without when I wasn’t working. It sucks not to be able to find a job, but you expect to be tired and pissed off and to never be able to leave your house when you’re out of work. But working your balls off, begging for more hours, hustling for every penny you can get, and still not being able to cover your electric bill with any regularity, that’s soul-destroying.
You could perhaps make the case that the reason I, and so many others, have brushed up against poverty so many times in our lives, is because we make a lot of poor financial decisions. It would be a weak case, however. Because none of them matter, not in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay something this week or only half of something the next? It’s not like any sacrifices on my part will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It is just not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. I don’t plan long term because if I do I’ll just get my heart broken. You just take what you can get as it comes. It’s the only rational thing to do, really, try to enjoy yourself as much as you can.
But poverty can also teach us lessons about compassion, empathy, wisdom and generosity. The people who’ve experienced it have important things to say. And I’m going to make a big leap here, one that I am very comfortable with: Poor people are, as a rule, a bit more generous. We understand what it might be like to have to beg even if we have never done it ourselves. Which makes poor people by far the most egalitarian. If I ever need help, I’ll ask a poor person long before I would ever condescend to ask a wealthier one, who would in fact, instead of helping, simply preach to me about the virtues of not buying soda or that I should get a second or even a third job. As if having an extra fifty cents or another job is what’s really going to set me free.
Yet, despite all of my frustrations, I am not particularly opposed to capitalism. Most people aren’t, poor ones included. We like the idea that anyone can succeed. What I am opposed to is the sort of capitalism that sucks the life out of a whole bunch of the citizenry and then demands that they do better with whatever they have left.
Who makes it, who gets to be reasonably well off: it seems it's always, in all places, the same people. Or to put it somewhat differently. The people who make it, will make it in all societies, from Pinochet's Chile to Red China to the ancient GDR, right up to our own times. But, honestly, who really cares one bit about a janitor in any place or any time we've seen?
I have read several heartwarming stories recently, written by actual CEOs describing how much they respect their janitors and how their firms’ success is linked to their open-mindedness. These coincidentally published essays seem to have been met by almost universal acclaim by their intended audiences: other CEOs and those aspiring to become CEOs. They have not, however, been acclaimed by actual janitors. Which is partly because janitors don’t usually read management magazines. It’s also because the stories are what gamblers call a “tell.” The articles unwittingly reveal why the self-congratulating authors and their middle-management admirers can’t keep good employees. It’s absolutely true that recognition of employees, at least to the point of knowing who they are, is important to any commercial endeavor. But none of the stories included a sentence like this one: “I made sure his working conditions were appropriate, and that he was earning a living wage.”
The missing sentence is immediately apparent to the janitors of the world, and it’s not just because they think it would be nice to be paid fairly. The truth is that not being paid enough changes everything for the person cashing that check.
I used to be a janitor. I made typical non-union janitor pay, and much of my time, at home and work, was taken up with worrying over covering the rent, and which bill to pay first. Sometimes, I’d come home to our little apartment, and the lights would be shut off due to our inability to pay the bill on time. At one point in our poverty cycle, I even had to borrow money just to buy groceries. Which is embarrassing to admit, that I had to go into debt just to avoid starvation, but there’s just nowhere in this country where $8.00 an hour allows you to have a life.
But this is a manufactured sort of desperation. People are not naturally in a struggle to “find work” to ensure they have food, shelter, and clothing. They are artificially put in this situation by a stratified property rights system that's both unnecessary and contemptible.
Until the late 18th century, poverty in the West was actually considered not only durable but desirable for economic growth. Mercantilism, the dominant economic theory of the early modern period, held that hunger incentivized work and kept wages low. Wards of public charity were jailed and required to work to eat. In the current era, politicians and their publics have continued to demand toil and sweat from the poor. In the 1980s, conservatives wanted to attach work requirements to food stamps. In the 1990s, they wanted to impose work requirements on subsidized-housing programs. Both proposals failed, but the impulse has endured.
Although, Down and Out, doesn’t completely hold together as an exhaustive narrative, it lacks a single guiding storyline, every page does have a tremendous vitality and serves as a vivid record of life at society’s lower depths. It’s a book that shows no fear in telling you what you’re supposed to think.
And yet, fundamentally, it is a book that is almost entirely about money. Or rather the lack of it. And about how, when you never have enough money, it ceases to have any real meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing. And while I try my damndest to try and hold onto hope while still being a realist, hope, just doesn’t come easily anymore, even in a nation of dreamers and strivers and idealists. What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch to some. But for the rest of us, it is far more likely to be our very lives.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Book Review: My Summer Friend

My Summer Friend by Ophelia Rue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Holden Caulfield said that “people are always ruining things for you,” it wasn’t just the rant of some disaffected youth. It was an accurate assessment of certain parts of our world. Too often characterized as a tale of immaturity, immorality, or even juvenile angst, The Catcher in the Rye is really a portrait of a young man who struggles to make sense of his life and understand the role of compassion and human agency in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare.
But, not everyone outgrows Holden’s attitude, and they shouldn’t, because it’s a fairly useful attitude to have. Many of society’s goals and values are phony. Instead of providing us with great insights and revelations, our early years simply leave many of us uninspired and empty.
We learn that we can never connect with someone without there being some sort of pretense. If our lives were lived unmediated, we would kill ourselves almost immediately. Life, being so god-fucking awful that we must distract ourselves continuously from its horrors. And My Summer Friend, is as close to a contemporary retelling of Salinger’s book that I’ve come across in sometime.
The book follows Edward Grey, who’s life was a revolving door of one night stands until he inherited his childhood home shortly after his grandparent's death. As summer arrives, he moves in, reliving his past as a quiet, shy, loner by day and obsessively watching for his childhood crush Elise, by night. The fragile shell of his identity begins to crack however, after Elise doesn't recognize him during a chance encounter and she ends up falling in love with the caricature he has invented for himself. As he becomes entangled in his own complex web of lies, a small metal box abandoned in his grandparents garage long ago, waits to be discovered. But the secret it contains will change everything.
However, the format of this book is a bit strange, if not altogether irritating. The pictures appear to be not only randomly placed but, random altogether. Couple this with it’s innumerable grammatical errors and I almost didn’t even bother to finish it. But in the end I’m glad I did. Because whenever a book is well-written, fun, and seeks to engage with human emotion and longing, looking past clich├ęs and grammatical oversights becomes much easier. Not only that but this is clearly the work of a writer with enormous potential. And if the authors skills can be further developed, the world can not help but take notice.
And I must say, that after reading this book and feeling that morphine drip of nostalgia that accompanies points of departure in youth, I decided to read Catcher again in search of my old friend Holden. But by now, Holden’s appeal has worn off. It was like bumping into an old crush and realizing that everything you ever liked about them was a projection. After I turned the last page I thought, “What did I ever see in this guy?” But as with most things in life, reading Catcher is all about timing.
Which is why I wouldn’t really recommend My Summer Friend, to anyone under the age of eighteen. Not out of some misplaced Victorian idealism, but because I believe you need to experience life first to even properly understand it. You have to let the world wash over you, then read it. Then you might see Grey, and Holden, for who they really are. Not as stand-ins for every asshole that ever walked the Earth, but as two lonely individuals who find the injustices of the world intolerable.