I think Duke won March Madness last night. I got a hint this morning when walking past a muted TV and seeing Coach K almost smile.
It was a bittersweet moment for me. Not because I have anything against Duke or Coach K, but because the sport has lost me as a fan.
Basketball was long among my great passions, but I lost interest in the college game years ago when I realized that the AAU system had gained a stranglehold on youth basketball, scouting players as young as ten, before eventually placing them at colleges willing to play their backroom money game.
For years, I’d watched March Madness with one eye, while doing something else, but this year I decided I’d strike out and create my own March Madness.
While armchair athletes, who only had a passing interest in college basketball until the tourney until they had skin in the game through betting on a bracket, suddenly became roundball fanatics, I decided I’d make better use of my time by reading a book a day.
Why books? Why a book a day? These are questions I asked myself many times from March 1st to March 31st, particularly on those lonely nights when I sipped hot tea well past midnight to finish that day’s objective. Sometimes I paced the room to get my heart rate up. Mostly, I cursed myself, wondering why I’d leapt, headlong, into the Mouth of Madness.
A buddy and I often debate the viability of the book industry. He says books are alive and well. I take a more literal approach and say, emphatically, “they are dead.” I have science to back me up, having conducted experiments on many a book and never gotten a pulse or a drop of blood from them. But maybe that’s just semantics. We both love books, but maybe have differing opinions on their cultural impact in 2015 versus, say, 1955.
After completing my 31-day experiment, I conclude that books are very much dead. What I discovered, though, is by reading books, I became very much alive, alive to their rhythms, their stories, their words. On the following pages, I’ve included the books I read on my path to March Madness. And, I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be doing next March. (The books that follow have been rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.)
by Nick Hornby
Life and death. Some say that’s too strong, an unfair attribute, given to sports. I say, the people who say that are too literal, and aren’t sports fans.
As a sports fanatic, I identify with Hornby’s view. Those of us with the affliction, understand his descriptions of nausea, depression, obsession, when watching or worrying over our favorite team.
For Hornby, his first and best love is English football club Arsenal. After his parents divorced, Hornby found a refuge where he and his father could connect — in the stands, cheering on his beloved Arsenal.
But even that connection is fleeting. Hornby has it bad. He connects with the team on a molecular level. He bleeds their colors. His father, however, while a fan, is at the games to drink and socialize as much as he is to watch the match. And that’s something that the younger Hornby can’t abide.
While I don’t consider Fever Pitch the definitive book on sports fanaticism as many do — I’d give that nod to Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” — Hornby’s written a beautiful love note to a team and a touching guide for sports fanatics everywhere.
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells
Think of all the literature and movies and TV shows that sprang from Wells’ tale of time travel.
For that matter, think of the film adaptations, alone, of The Time Machine. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what I did as I read the book and it’s a reason why I try to read the book before seeing the movie.
The adaptations upped the ante for the time traveler. They gave him love interests. They gave him obstacle after obstacle to overcome. They gave him death-defying acts of derring-do to make sure audiences knew: This was our hero.
By comparison, Wells’ original version is sedate. As if discovered in a time capsule, the book has an earnestness about it, a wide-eyed wonder about the idea of time travel, one that stands in awe of “playing God” as opposed to the modern examples, of a Dr. Evil daintily skipping to a giant hypnotist’s symbol and presto-chango — being transported to another time.
Like the early James Bond films, enormous effort and time is given to describing the gadgets and machinery. A wonder at the time, this attention to detail is snooze-inducing to modern audiences who don’t want to know how the sausage is made. As Steve Jobs trained us to believe, when we flip on a gadget, “it just works.”
A Bit on the Side
by William Trevor
The master of the short form delivers another masterpiece. In these stories, death hovers over the characters and enters their lives. Death in all its forms.
The death of the body, the death of the spirit, the death of a marriage, even the death of an affair. Trevor treats death, in all its guises, with the same critical, clinical eye, because death is part of life.
by Woody Allen
This first collection of Woody’s New Yorker pieces, published in book form in 1966, raises a humorous fist at God, existentialism, sandwiches, phobias, and the gumshoe mystery, among others.
As with most of Woody’s writings, the plots are absurd: Dracula stepping out during a total eclipse; a meek shop owner playing gin rummy with Death; an anonymous narrator getting punched in the nose by Hemingway and, later, by Gertrude Stein.
The foundation of what would become vintage Woody is in place, but there’s not enough memorable material or even good chuckles here, as if, writing for the New Yorker, stifled him from going for the big or easy laugh.
If you want to experience Woody Allen on the page, Without Feathers is a far superior collection of his New Yorker writings and worth seeking out.
In the Ravine and Other Short Stories
by Anton Chekhov, Kenneth Branagh (Reader)
Chekhov is at home with high comedy (the stuttering ticket man) or tragedy (take your pick, but the title story fits the bill).
What makes this particular collection a treat is the reading by Kenneth Branagh, who gives every character a unique take, and is brilliantly on display in the story, ”Children.”
Bartleby, the Scrivener
by Herman Melville
Melville frustrates me at times due to his heavy allegorical style; it’s also what I love most about him, this booming voice that’s ripped straight from Yahweh of the Old Testament. But that’s not what frustrates me about Bartleby. What frustrates me is Melville’s seeming access to a time machine to somehow spy on me as I spent nine miserable years clinging to a corporate ladder to nowhere.
But it’s not only my corporate “existence” but the world of Dilbert and “The Office” that Melville captures some 150 years before they transpired.
Much has been made of Bartelby’s staring at “the white wall” in the story, with comparisons made to Ahab staring into the white face of Moby Dick. Academics and lay readers alike have thrown their two cents in the ring to define the meaning of such acts.
Having stared at the wall myself, at times of joy, at times of sadness, at times of lucidity, at times of madness, I can only relay what the wall’s been to me — a reflection of the self, the true self, in all its manifestations.
World Gone By
by Dennis Lehane
The final installment in the Joe Coughlin trilogy never disappoints. As the book starts, a hit has been put out on Coughlin, who has relocated to Tampa and “mostly” stepped away from mob activities. Oh yeah, he’s also carrying on a torrid affair with the mayor’s wife.
After one of their trysts, Coughlin professes his love for the woman and offers to run away with her. Being more levelheaded, or perhaps realizing she has more to lose, the mayor’s wife tells him that this (meeting in hotel rooms) is as far as their relationship will go.
Coughlin’s mob career has hit a similar fate. As Lehane writes, “At 36, Coughlin was too old to be a foot soldier and too Irish to be a boss.”
As the mystery behind the hit unfolds and the story rushes to its inevitable conclusion, (and, knowing this was the final book in the trilogy,) I found myself looking for excuses not to finish it, not ready, yet, to say goodbye.
by Alice Hoffman
In Hoffman’s novel, actually, 14 interrelated short stories, a farm known as the Blackbird House serves as a central character.
The stories, that span 200 years of inhabitants in the Blackbird House, have a haunting, dreamy quality to them.
Whether or not it was Hoffman’s intention, I couldn’t help leaving the book with a feeling of dread, of insignificance, that our time here is fleeting while the land and the sea around us will endure.
Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Steeped in symbolism, Steinbeck’s slim little novel (it clocks in at barely 100 pages) never fails to keep the story moving forward.
Although the looming tragedy is in quotes and fluorescent lights, it doesn’t matter because Steinbeck sweeps us up, he hooks us, with these sad sack characters who just want a place they can call their own.
by Jonas Karlsson
With hints of Kafka, the twilight zone and the techno short stories of George Saunders, The Room depicts a cold world populated by cold people.
No one is more cold, more unemotional, than the narrator, Bjorn, who works at a nondescript office for a nondescript company that strives for organization and efficiency.
There’s one difference with Bjorn. He sees a room at the office that no one else can see. Is he crazy? A sociopath? A more evolved person who can see things others can’t?
The payoff did not adequately answer questions I had about the story or the narrator; it only left me cold.
The Sunset Limited
by Cormac McCarthy
A one-act play. Two men, one room. Their names — white, black. They talk. A lot. About life, death, religion, suicide, existence, purpose, racism, classism, etc. Such material is ripe for didacticism, but Cormac McCarthy takes this confrontational material (all topics covered in some form or another in his earlier books) and condenses it to his own authorial world view albeit streamlined in dramatic form.
And, as with all of his work, it’s startling and disturbing and dark and funny.
It’s a brilliant chess match between two men, one who believes in redemption, believes in belief, believes in the things he cannot see; the other who has, over time, as his life has been chipped away, lost faith in all things, even the things right in front of him.
Who wins? McCarthy’s story is not so pat or conclusive to provide winners or losers; that’s where he inserts a gray area, leaving the mystery to be solved by the beholder.
Dead Pig Collector
by Warren Ellis
Warren Ellis’ Dead Pig Collector introduces us to Mr. Sun, a very tidy, very efficient hit man, who approaches his “contracts” as what they are — business decisions. Mr. Sun sees the world in increments of seconds, an interesting decision by Ellis, which seems to slow down the action. Since Mr. Sun is so detached with his work, think of a butcher separating the pieces of a chicken, Ellis’ exacting details force the reader to cringe and wince while Mr. Sun chops away. So dead to what he is doing, he might as well have been filling out an actuarial table.
The Bluest Eye
by Toni Morrison
Those of us who aren’t black, who aren’t women, who aren’t poor, we don’t know; we really, really, really don’t know what some people, even in America, have to go through just to get through the day. But, over the past 45 years, Toni Morrison has shined a beautiful, poetic light on horrific events that exist, mostly hidden away, in the good ole U S of A. And so many of her readers thank her for telling stories that needed (and still need) to be told.
The Bluest Eye is not Morrison’s best book, so raw and jarring, at times, almost an essay on pain and self-rejection more than it is a novel, but it is a book of great power. Published in 1970, but begun in 1962, the book takes on added heft in today’s world of inherent teenage bullying and should be added to required reading lists in high schools around the country.
The titular character is not bullied. Instead, she wants to be “beautiful” and identifies beauty as having blue eyes, but teens can identify with her rejection of self and readers of any age, gender, color, etc. can hurt for the girl even if we don’t share that exact pain. Bullying, racism, classism, etc. have boiled over in hot spots throughout the U.S. I’m not naive enough to believe our problems can be solved easily, but reading books like The Bluest Eye and at least attempting to understand the pain others are going through could go a long way in pulling us together.
by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje uses the symbolism of burials and of digging up the dead in returning to his native land of Sri Lanka in this fine collection of poems.
Fans of Ondaatje’s novels will be familiar with the themes here — love that’s lost or only a fading memory due to clashes of culture, racism, and classism.
But these poems are strongest when Ondaatje digs up the past to better understand the present. He describes this horrifically in “Buried,” a cycle of poems about genocide in Sri Lanka and how the monks buried statues of the Buddha to preserve their heritage.
“Above ground, massacre and race.
A heart silenced.
The tongue removed.
The human body merged into burning tire.
Mud glaring back
into a stare.”
by Patti Smith
I’d known about Patti Smith for decades, known about her more through myth and reputation than fact.
When I learned she had a long relationship with the avant-garde artist Robert Maplethorpe and that this book was a love note about that relationship, well I knew I had to give it a read to find out what all the buzz was about.
Let me get this out of the way first: Smith’s book is not a journalistic tour through the late 60s and 70s New York art and music scene. She and RM were struggling young artists in NYC at that time and Smith does mention brief encounters with famous people — Warhol, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Ginsburg — but it’s not an exhaustive piece about those transformative cultural times.
Rather, it’s a glimpse inside the hearts and creative minds of two artists whose influence has been much larger than their sales or financial success. But the insight is just that, a glimpse — blink and you’ll miss it.