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Books are dead, long live books: My journey into March Madness

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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.)

fever pitchMarch 1
Fever Pitch
by Nick Hornby
3 stars

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.

time machineMarch 2
The Time Machine
by H. G. Wells
3 stars

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.”

on the sideMarch 3
A Bit on the Side 
by William Trevor 
4 stars

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.

evenMarch 4
Getting Even 
by Woody Allen 
2 stars

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.

ravineMarch 5
In the Ravine and Other Short Stories 
by Anton Chekhov, Kenneth Branagh (Reader) 
4 stars

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.”

bartelbyMarch 6
Bartleby, the Scrivener 
by Herman Melville 
4.5 stars

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.

lehaneMarch 7
World Gone By 
by Dennis Lehane
4 stars

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.

hoffmanMarch 8
Blackbird House 
by Alice Hoffman 
3 stars

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.

steinbeckMarch 9
Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
4 stars

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.

roomMarch 10
The Room 
by Jonas Karlsson 
2 stars

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.

mccarthyMarch 11
The Sunset Limited
by Cormac McCarthy
4.5 stars

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.

pigMarch 12
Dead Pig Collector
by Warren Ellis
3 stars

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.

blueMarch 13
The Bluest Eye
by Toni Morrison
4 stars

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.

handwritingMarch 14
by Michael Ondaatje
4 stars

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.”

kidsMarch 15
Just Kids 
by Patti Smith 
3 stars

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. 

I love the anecdotes when available, particularly the one about Ginsberg buying Smith a sandwich at a diner only to be disappointed when he realized she wasn’t a boy. I know Smith had more stories like that; I only wished she’s shared them with us.

fromeMarch 16
Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton
3 stars

Ethan Frome’s dreams are dashed with his father’s death. A promising education is halted so Ethan can run the family farm. It’s not until his invalid wife’s cousin appears that a spark is reignited within him. 

Wharton does a terrific job in capturing this sense of lost hope and the story is only slightly marred by a trick/gimmicky ending.

denisMarch 17
The Laughing Monsters
by Denis Johnson
3.5 stars

Denis Johnson has written some towering books — Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke — that stand tall in the American literary canon. His latest novel, a tale of spies and counter spies in Africa, does not hit the peaks of Johnson’s best work, but fans of his nihilistic writing, can find so much to savor in this slim book and its homage to the works of Conrad and Graham Greene. 

At one point, as the spooks are talking in a cafe, a conversation unfolds that encapsulates the novel’s dark themes: 

“And once upon a time before this, I spent years on a study of the Atlantic slave trade. Angola. Now it’s an analysis of the practices of torture under Idi Amin. Slavery. Torture. Don’t call me morbid. Is it morbid to study a disease? That’s how we find the cure for it. What is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph — before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn’t take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil…”

Nasty stuff, indeed, and a hypnotic tour into a modern heart of darkness. 

eveningsMarch 18
Evenings at Five
by Gail Godwin
3 stars

How do we go on living when our significant other is no longer with us?

That is the central theme in Godwin’s meditative novella — life without that one you’d planned to grow old with. 

There’s a beautiful moment, where the narrator reflects on her husband and advice he’d given her as he was dying: “No, it’s not easy, my love, when you’ve outgrown or outlived all your authority figures. But you’re strong. I remember the time I picked up your hand at Saratoga Springs… ‘Your hand is astonishingly soft’ I told you, ‘but your grip is like steel’. You’ll work it out, if I know you. You’ll make your own rules.”

frankMarch 19
Let Me Be Frank With You (Frank Bascombe #4)
by Richard Ford
4 stars

Let me be frank: I’d grown weary of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe character. All the naval gazing and “woe is me” stuff had grown stale, and, frankly, boring. Just when I was ready to toss Ford and Bascombe into the dustbin of history, this fourth installment, a collection of novellas, came out and it absolutely pierced my heart.

The narration of Bascombe is increasingly cranky as he talks about a death that looms just out of reach. But as death stares him and his loved ones in the face, Frank stares right back with a crusty sense of humor that won me back.

giantMarch 20
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
3 stars

Dragons. Knights. Quests. Gawain. Ishiguro? One of these things is not like the other.  

Ishiguro is a fine novelist who hadn’t written a novel in a decade. So he returns with this? Strange. 

With that said, I wanted to enjoy the book more than I did. Even though the story Ishiguro chose to tell seemed like an odd choice for him, I wanted to hop on that trail with him and enjoy the ride. 

But it was mostly dull. And really added nothing to the Gawain mythology. For a modern take of an ancient classic done right, try John Gardner’s, Grendel, a hilarious and tragic retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s POV.

mguaneMarch 21
Driving on the Rim
by Thomas McGuane
3 stars

There’s a wonderful moment in McGuane’s novel where the narrator, a still lustful, aging doctor, describes his evolution in literature and life. 

“I read a comic book version of Don Quixote when I was a boy and then an abridged one as a young man, and finally I read it entirely in later years, and more than once. It was now part of my general memory, and some of its ideas emerged unexpectedly, especially when I was oppressed by the feeling that I was living my life under an evil star and that everything in life was circular… Except human life, which hastened in a straight line to the end without hope of renewal.”

I couldn’t help thinking of McGuane in those sentences. His early novels (The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano) were wild excursions into ribald machoism; then, there was the dark, stripped-down middle era of Panama; and, finally, this late period of Driving the Rim, where Mcguane expands his ideas and themes in his most voluminous novel to date. 

The characters are still looking for love in all the wrong places, but their looming mortality gives them pause to reflect on their legacy. It’s good to have both McGuane’s back — the serious and the funny.

martinMarch 22
by Steve Martin
2 stars

In this novella, Steve Martin writes not about a wild and crazy guy, but about a sad and lonely girl.  

The story follows the plight of Maribelle, a depressed counter clerk, who wants someone to love but can’t find a man who can fully love her back. 

Remarkably the book plays it straight. Real straight. Too straight. Martin’s a funny guy, but it seemed like he went out of his way to avoid the easy yucks so he’d be taken seriously as a “writer”. 

My biggest complaint, besides the lack of comedy, was Martin’s prose. Instead of describing what’s going on, he explains everything. (Show, don’t tell, Steve.)

I haven’t read his other works of fiction but I’m hoping that he plays to his strengths by being funny and just lets it rip with his prose. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I want to bring back the wild and crazy guy.

stegnerMarch 23
Remembering Laughter 
by Wallace Stegner
4.5 stars

Too many books get lost in the weeds of too many words, too many characters and too many subplots. This early work from Wallace Stegner is streamlined perfection. There are no tricks. Just a shimmery, little story about repressed love, the stranglehold of cultural mores, and familial bonds shredded to a single thread. Brilliant.

shermanMarch 24
War Dances
by Sherman Alexie
4 stars

In this book of stories, poems, sketches and lists, Alexie’s characters love words, women, music, and mix tapes. They love life even when they don’t love themselves. They love life even when life doesn’t love them back. 

The pieces step away from the familiar settings of Alexie’s earlier works. Gone are the dusty plains of reservation life. Gone, too, are the unemployed, alcoholic poets. In their place are successful businessmen poets and the pieces are filled with the melodic passion that embodies all of Alexie’s writing and characters. 

At first the book jarred me because many of the stories, taken alone, left me wanting more (though, “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless”, is a classic) but taken as a whole, the passion begins to work its magic, a sweeping melody, an authorial view where the chorus of narrators hope to solve the world’s ills, or at the least cure the singular, broken heart, through music and wordplay.

rageMarch 25
A Rage in Harlem
by Chester Himes
4 stars

Fool’s gold. What a novel concept for a crime novel — a crime and subsequent murders, predicated on fool’s gold.  

But that’s the point, right? Who reads Chester Himes for plot? You shouldn’t. You can’t. Not if you want to feel the rhythms of his mean streets of Harlem. 

Published in 1957 and no less immediate or prescient today, A Rage in Harlem paved the way for all the verbose crime stories that would follow, from Elmore Leonard to Walter Mosely to Quentin Tarantino. 

The version I read, or listened to, was “performed” by Samuel L. Jackson and I can’t think of a better choice to rip into Himes’ particular street patois, which is equal parts tent preacher and drug dealer, than Jackson, who brought cool crime stories into the mainstream with his loquacious hit man, Jules, in Pulp Fiction.

trainMarch 26
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
3 stars

Think Gone Girl on a train. The characters are more sympathetic here, much more so, but the multiple (unreliable) narrators and multiple “gotcha” plot twists invariably link the two books.  

The Girl on the Train is a smarter, more subtle read than Gone Girl, but it lacks the sizzle of that book’s TMZ-style narration. Where both books ultimately fail to rise above the merely good is in their conclusions. After so much build up conjured by authorial sleight of hand, when the curtain is finally peeled back, I’m left thinking, “That’s it? Really? Well, alrighty, then.” 

sportMarch 27
A Sport and a Pastime
by James Salter
4 stars

The narrator of this book is merely an observer, and, much like Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, he tells of the exploits of the main character and romanticizes those exploits even when they put a love interest in peril.  

There’s a good storyline, an obviously tragic one to follow, but the best thing in James Salter’s works is the poetic language. You see, words matter to Salter. They really matter. That might sound like stating the obvious when talking about a writer, but pick up just about any book at random in a bookstore, read a page, and witness how much lazy writing gets published. Sloppy syntax. Purple prose. Words that are almost perfect but not quite.  

After that exercise, pick up one of Salter’s books and immediately get sucked into the crystalline prose where every adjective (and he’s spare with them) has a purpose. Where everything extraneous has been removed, leaving only what is necessary to best tell the story.

cementMarch 28
The Cement Garden
by Ian McEwan
3 stars

Early McEwan in full on creepy mode, and, make no mistake, The Cement Garden is a horror story, albeit one without a zombie, a ghost or even a murder.  

I read his more recent book, Saturday, a few months ago and it’s fascinating to compare the narrators of the two books. The neurosurgeon of Saturday analyzes everything, providing point and counterpoint to every event and endeavor he encounters. Even a racquetball game takes on a much grander meaning as if it were the warring parties from The Iliad, destroying each other on the battlefield. 

In The Cement Garden, events merely happen for the 15-year-old narrator and he describes them all without adornment or attachment. “Father died.” That’s it. That’s all he says before moving on to his next observation.

At the book’s conclusion, Jack, the narrator, has indulged in deviant behavior but has not yet committed acts of violence and I couldn’t help wondering if McEwan had followed him into adulthood, would he have grown up to become Norman Bates? 

kingMarch 29
by Stephen King
1 star

An old buddy of mine had a consistent response when I would ask him about a book he hadn’t enjoyed.  

“It’s a steaming pile of feces. I flung it across the room.”

Since I read this book on my phone, I’m going to refrain from throwing it across the room, but rest assured, it’s a steaming pile of feces. 

I’ve grown to overlook King’s corny prose, but it’s growing more difficult by the book. What I can’t overlook is a story that can’t stand on its own two legs. 

I’ve read King from time to time because I want a story that clutches me around the throat and won’t let go, one that’s relentless in its terror or tension. 

By contrast Revival, about a barroom musician and a “healer” is as limp as day old lettuce that’s been left to lounge in a pile of steaming feces (yes, I used that awful simile on purpose as an homage to King’s many awful descriptions in this awful book).

Stay far, far away from this clunker unless you enjoy flinging books against the wall.

cellistMarch 30
The Cellist of Sarajevo 
by Steven Galloway 
3 stars

A powerful story based on tragic events. It’s an interesting fictional take from novelist Steven Galloway about the bombings of Sarajevo in the 90s, but I kept wondering what a nonfiction book from someone like, say, Sebastian Junger, would have been like?

runningMarch 31
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running 
by Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel (Translator) 
3 stars

The only time I run is if I’m being chased, so I might not be an obvious market for a book about running. 

I read it, anyway, for a couple of reasons.  

First, I love Raymond Carver, and I had to check out a book that played off of the title of one of Carver’s masterpieces, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Second, I wanted to give Murakami another chance. His reputation as a Man Of Letters precedes him. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to finish one of his books without a feeling of disappointment and wasted time. 

At times, in his fiction, Murakami goes for plot twists or style shifts that are akin to a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. I find it lazy or at least disarming, pulling me out of the dream of the story. 

Thankfully, that never happens in this book. The author plays it straight, describing how his love for writing and running share the same traits if you want success: keep putting one foot or one word in front of the other and you’ll put yourself in position to eventually hit your goals.

See also:

5 business books to inspire you

25 best business books: 1-5

Bill Gates’ 5 best books of 2014