Title:The Fiddler in the Subway (Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2010) Author: Gene Weingarten is a nationally syndicated humor columnist and writer for The Washington Post. He is the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. With his son, Dan Weingarten, and cartoonist David Clark, he is the author of Barney & Clyde, a daily newspaper comic strip launched in June 2010. He lives in Washington, D.C.
What happens when you pick up the last book you will ever read? When the writing is so good that it will ruin everything else for you? Gene Weingarten’s writing did that for me. This book — The Fiddler in the Subway — is a collection of feature writing he has done at The Washington Post. Two of the pieces won Pulitzer Prizes.
Only three stories in — The Great Zucchini, The First Father and The Ghost of the Hardy Boys — and I thought, “If you want to write, read this book. If you want to teach others to write, use this book. When I write, I want to write like this.” It is beautiful, masterful stuff.
Reading further, I thought, “I can’t recommend this book. I just can’t. It will ruin every other writer for you until the end of time. I don’t know if I can read anything else after this book.”
Then I mustered my best Jimmy Dugan voice and yelled, “There’s no crying in journalism! Why is he making me cry?”
I read “Pardon My French” on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. It’s the one that made me laugh out loud. Then giggle at how delicious it was that he found just the right way to get the most honest responses from French folks. He calls it the Machine. I call it hilarious.
Every paragraph in “Fatal Distraction” is a punch to the gut. I almost couldn’t bear to read it. But I let Weingarten take me by the hand and gently lead me through the horrific experiences of the people in this piece.
Weingarten quotes Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” This is the heart of everything he writes. This is what breathes life into every word.
Is this the last book I’ll ever read? Well, no. I could no more stop reading than I could stop breathing. I will, however, measure everything else I read against Weingarten’s writing.
Thanks to Jeff Sharlet, who suggests so much good writing. He led me to Weingarten. “Thanks” is not enough, but it will have to do.
Title:Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005) Author:Cindy La Ferle‘s essays and columns have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Reader’s Digest, Country Gardens, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, Writer’s Digest, The Oakland Press, The Royal Oak Daily Tribune and many other publications. She lives with her family in Royal Oak, Michigan.
What a wonderful collection of essays! Cindy La Ferle is a great observer of human nature, and she is a brilliant writer with a calm and assuring voice. Many of her essays brought me to tears, especially the ones she wrote about her son. My children are in between the stages of childhood and teenage-hood. I look into their faces that keep changing yet staying true to who they are — and I try to savor every moment with them. Her words remind me that this motherhood ride is an exciting one with the milestones speeding by in the blink of an eye.
“The sacred is in the ordinary. It is found in one’s daily life — in friends, family, and neighbors; in one’s own backyard.” Thanks, Cindy, for reminding me.
I just finished reading A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi. I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin.
When I first got this book, I thought, oh great. Another book about a bunch of dead guys. And it was, indeed, a book about men. It was about some of the most noted leaders in history — Lincoln, Sherman, Churchill, Gandhi, FDR, JFK, MLK and Ted Turner — and how mental illness either hurt or helped them as leaders. And it’s not what you might think.
He argues that a leader who suffers from, say, depression is the best leader during a time of crisis. With such a mental illness, he says, a leader is more likely to have the qualities of realism, empathy, resilience and creativity — all of which are needed to lead others through a crisis.
He also argues that leaders who are mentally healthy — Bush, Blair, Nixon — do more harm than good during crises.
I was skeptical at first. I figured this might be someone with a singular focus into which he wanted to fit this idea. It actually turned out, though, to be the opposite. He had a much more varied background — a degree in history, another in philosophy and another in public health — which helped him see patterns that others would not. A historian, for example, might fail to see the dimensions of mental illness in a subject’s life. Ghaemi, however, was able to draw from all of these aspects of his background to see a subject more clearly and completely.
He asked an important question after discussing Hitler (whose manic-depression was made worse by how and with what he was medicated), “Why not just exclude the mentally ill from positions of power?”
Because, he answered, “… such a stance would have deprived humanity of Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. But there’s an even more fundamental reason not to restrict leadership roles to the mentally healthy: they make bad leaders in times of crisis — just when we need good leadership most.”
I expected his writing to be dry or somewhat academic, but it wasn’t. He’s engaging and compelling, and the book is a great read. I highly recommend it.
I finished reading States of Mind: A Search for Faith, Hope, Inspiration, Harmony, Unity, Friendship, Love, Pride, Wisdom, Honor, Comfort, Joy, Bliss, Freedom, Justice, Glory, Triumph, and Truth or Consequences in America by Brad Herzog when I was on vacation in Missouri.
While I felt on the same page with him in Turn Left at the Trojan Horse, States of Mind — oddly enough — took me even further into my own “state of mind.”
It made me look at my own life and wonder what I’ve done, where I’ve been and where I’m going. It made me think of regrets, and it brought out a little envy.
I mean, the man wrote this book in his 20s. Did I do that? No. (I started research for one in my early 30s, but I obviously didn’t write that book.) He seemed to have such a clear path for his life. Did I? Never. He admitted that he suffered angst from basically a perfect life. Have I? Oh, I wish.
Think about death much? (It probably doesn’t help that I’m reading Sing them Home and Tinkers, both of which have death as a central issue.) No, actually, I’m thinking about life. My life.
Coincidence abounds again with States of Mind. And not just within the book.
I’d just started the book as I sat alone in a Mexican restaurant, sipping a margarita. I got there before the lunch rush, and the place was empty. Then the host brought in a couple and seated them right beside me. I looked up and smiled, then turned back to my book. The woman wondered aloud what she should order. She looked over at me, asked if the margarita was good and should she order one? She went on to say they were celebrating their anniversary.
“Oh, which one?” I asked.
“Our 54th.” They were in town from Clarion to get her eyes checked. She’d recently had surgery on them and was happy to be able to read again, she said, pointing at my book.
We had a nice chat.
I remembered that chat when I got to page 104 and learned that Chicken Owen of Pride, Alabama, had been married for 54 years. Not 52. Not 58. Fifty-four.
One of the topics in his chapter on Hope, Mississippi, was desegregation. That’s what I was researching in my 30s when I decided to find the children my father taught in the first desegregated fifth-grade class in Thomasville, Georgia. I might have even been talking to them when Herzog was interviewing Jerome and Ollie May. We learned something similar.
“We often think of desegregation as an end to a moral struggle, when it was, to many closest to it, the beginning of a practical one. Jerome at the Hope Country Store told me he had quit school for a while when the races were mixed, not out of moral indignation but because of the volatile atmosphere it created. … From an entirely different station in life, Ollie May had developed much the same perspective. ‘I remember that this mother let her daughter to go school, and she got beat up and stuff. That’s when they was tryin’ to mix ’em together then,’ she explained. ‘I said if I ever have any kids, if my kids had trouble, I would just take ’em out. I wouldn’t let them go through that, ’cause I didn’t have to.'” (p. 140)
In the chapter on Friendship, Maine, he wrote this.
“It was then that I realized what I admired so much about Bill and Caroline Zuber. They were in control of their lives. They had taken it upon themselves to define the moment. It was a concept that became the credo of our cross-country tour and, indeed, a blueprint for our future, so much so that Amy and I turned the journey into a search for a home, setting lofty criteria for the life we wanted to live and looking for an environment that would meet them. … Too many people I know — and these are young people, people with options — seem to settle for entrenched mediocrity, merely tolerating their day-to-day existence. A few even seem to revel in their misery, the late hours or cold winters or tyrannical bosses or shunted dreams. They trudge through fifty weeks of tedium to enjoy two weeks of reprieve — maybe three weeks, if they’re lucky enough to get a promotion. The Zubers decided to make life a vacation.” (p. 277)
That right there? That’s when I wished I could have 25 back and create an organized blueprint for the future, which is where I am now. My “future” is full of late hours and cold winters. I want life to be a vacation. How do I get that? Do I still have options?
Well. Let’s ask Hemingway.
“. . . I thought of Hemingway, of a passage in Death in the Afternoon: ‘There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.'” (p. 296)
Or, you know, a woman.
But I don’t know.
Maybe I was meant to struggle to learn the important things in life. Maybe I would have learned nothing if I’d had a perfect, non-chaotic life. I mean, I’ve lived through some difficult times, but I also have some amazing memories. You can see some of them on my post from last January, A decade: Are you reelin’ in the years? I wouldn’t trade the memories behind any one of those pictures for a less chaotic life. Not even for a second.
So, yeah, there’s still the issue of long hours and cold winters. But I’ll figure that out. I always do.
Anyway. This book isn’t about me. But I want authors to know how their words can affect readers. Oh, heck. They probably know that because they’re readers, too. In any case, someone else will read this and come away with a whole different experience.
And y’all should read this book.
I highly recommend reading Brad Herzog. He’s a wonderful listener and a gifted storyteller.
Oh and P.S.: While I was reading States of Mind in Missouri, I passed a building with HERZOG in big letters. I’d never seen it before, even though I’ve been to St. Joseph to visit my aunt and uncle many times over the years. I’d also never heard of the name until I picked up Turn Left at the Trojan Horse. I wondered if maybe there were a whole mess of Herzogs living there. But, nope. Listed in the telephone book was just Herzog Contracting Corp. and a Wm. R.
I went to the Iowa City Book Festival on July 16 and 17. Even though I saw some wonderful authors and visited some great independent bookstores, I barely scratched the surface. There were so many I didn’t get to see. It’s amazing what they’re able to coordinate and provide for FREE. I didn’t have to register or pay a fee. The festival has some generous sponsors.
Mary Helen Stefaniak (who reminds me of my husband’s Aunt Aud Solveig) and Jane Hamilton shared the background of some of their stories and how they put together information for their books. It was fascinating. Hamilton was hilarious when she told us a story of riding a train with a man who downloaded her book and read it right in front of her.
I met David W. Dorris, who said he wrote his books to inspire the kids he worked with over the years as a softball coach. He lives in Davenport, Iowa.
Dori Hillestad Butler and Laurel Snyder read from their books under the children’s tent. They each told how they got started with writing and some of the background to their books. They encouraged a 7-year-old writer (and all young writers) to keep writing. (I missed Tess Weaver, who read under the children’s tent at a different time. But I got her book!)
Sarah Prineas signed The Magic Thief for my children — including code they’ll have to figure out.
She has quite the dragon!
Bonnie Jo Campbell and Heather Gudenkauf both signed books for me. Campbell signed a whole stack of bookmarks for me, too! Keep your eyes peeled. Rumor has it Jane Smiley wrote a review of her book, and it will be published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.
I tracked down Elizabeth Berg as she was getting ready to leave. She graciously signed one of her books for me.
Camille Dungy and Shane McCrae read poems from their books. They chose what to read by listening to each other and finding connections in their work.
Kevin Luthardt showed children (and their parents) the step-by-step process of creating picture books. He also handed out paper and got the children to draw their own pictures. They were at The Haunted Bookshop.
My husband reminded me recently that, with Nebraska now in the Big Ten conference, I’d better get used to hearing more about UNL and football rivalry here in Iowa.
I put up my talk-to-the-hand hand and said, “I refuse to participate.”
Let me explain.
I don’t care about football. Any football. I have gotten unwillingly sucked in to other people’s football drama over the years, and it makes me uncomfortable.
I’ve been threatened with physical harm by fully grown strangers — men and women — for not wearing what they thought were proper colors on game days.
When ordering the new alligator postage stamps at a Tallahassee post office years ago, the woman behind the counter squinted her eyes, leaned in and asked, “Yer not a Gator fay-an, are ya?” I could swear I heard the click-click of a shotgun cock behind the counter. Or maybe that was the sound of my dry throat as I tried to swallow.
“Oh, no! No, ma’am! Not at all!” I said. (And I certainly didn’t tell her I’m originally from Nebraska.)
I recently had a slip-up where I went out in public in a red UNL sweatshirt. It was covered by my coat until I got warm and unzipped it a bit. That was just enough for someone to see it and give me a hard time. The teasing was all in good fun (I think), and I said something like, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t on the football team. I just graduated from college there.”
Kallos read a passage from her book, Sing Them Home, in which the Nebraska fight song is mentioned. Then she did something I’ve never seen before and don’t expect I’ll ever see again.
She got an auditorium full of Iowans on the University of Iowa campus to sing There is No Place like Nebraska. Not once but twice. Wow, that took some guts. I have to admit, I was a little nervous for her. Folks take their football seriously. But it was all in good fun (I’m pretty sure). Besides, she also asked them to sing the Iowa fight song, too. Whew!
I attended the Iowa City Book Festival this weekend. Even though we were under an excessive heat warning (it felt like a slap in the face to walk into the air-conditioned campus library), it was fabulous. I got to listen to and meet several authors, visit some wonderful independent bookstores and see my friend Maren again!
This is the story of Poppy the pig, who ends up in New Pork (yes, Pork) City, chasing her dreams. BIG dreams.
It’s probably not fair to Kristi Yamaguchi that I just read When I Grow Up by Al Yankovic, whose book was filled with dozens of fun, wacky and silly ideas for jobs. Poppy set her sights on 1) ballerina, 2) singer and 3) supermodel.
OK. It probably doesn’t help that I’m also reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, who does a brilliant job of showing how the “princess culture” limits our children, especially our daughters. Oh well.
Poppy ends up being a great ice skater (of course) and eventually a pilot and a sky diver. Even though Poppy’s dreams seem somewhat limited, ultimately, the book has a positive message, and I can’t fault Yamaguchi for that. She has two daughters of her own.
If you have an 8-year-old like I do, you will understand the wide-open-spaces dreaming of what to be when you grow up. It changes every day, and there’s nothing better than hearing about those gigantic hopes and dreams.
Al Yankovic captures it perfectly with wonderful rhymes and great illustrations by Wes Hargis. (Yes, that Al Yankovic.)
“My walls will be filled with awards that I’ve gotten
For toast-on-a-stick and my Twinkies au gratin.
My kitchen will be the most famous in France,
So make reservations twelve years in advance!
There’s no doubt about it — I’m certain, you see —
A world-renowned chef is what I’m gonna be.”
I’ll bet you anything he grew up reading Dr. Seuss. My kids love this book!
I just finished reading Turn Left at the Trojan Horse: A Would-be Hero’s American Odyssey by Brad Herzog.
I noticed this on the shelf at Bookadee. I picked it up and read the back cover one day while I was straightening shelves. I felt he had a connection to Iowa, though I’m not sure why. He wasn’t on the shelf with Iowa authors. The inside flap said he lived in California. (Ah, but lots of Iowa authors don’t live in Iowa anymore, I thought.) I figured I’d look him up later and maybe I’d read this book someday. My to-read list is about a mile long, so I figured, sure. I’ll get to it in a few years.
Well, I got to it sooner than I thought. I bought it with a few other books from Bookadee. (It’s kind of a joke that I just endorse my paycheck over to the bookstore to feed my habit.) I picked it up a couple of weeks after taking my in-laws on the tour of Winnebago Industries. That’s when I looked him up and found that he writes a travel blog, as well as books.
So I started reading Turn Left. At the very end — almost on the last page, in the acknowledgments — I finally saw his connection to Iowa in black and white. He offered his gratitude to “the fine folks at Winnebago Industries” in Forest City, Iowa.
So, no. He wasn’t born here. He hasn’t lived here. I don’t even know if he’s been to Forest City.*** But there’s the connection. Go figure.
Turn Left is a story of a person in the middle of his life, looking back, looking forward and looking inward — all the while looking outward for connection and meaning. While trying to make sense of it all, he heads out on the open road and crosses the country on the way to his college reunion.
I picked the exact right time to read this book, although I’d trade my mid-life crisis for his any day. Still, I get it. I’m about his age and (I hope) somewhere in the middle of my life.
His theme was Greek mythology, heroes and fate. He went through enough characters and stories that I thought, it’s a good thing he studied so much about this … now I don’t have to. Although I admit I feel a nagging need to read Homer now. I even put The Iliad and The Odyssey on my Goodreads to-read list. Again … I’m sure I’ll get to them in a few years.
Herzog was searching for something heroic in himself, and he found heroes all along his path — a missionary-turned-county commissioner in Athena and an adventurer-turned-one-room-schoolteacher in Troy and everyone in between.
Coincidence (fate?) abounds. (My favorite is when he met in Siren, Wisconsin, a bartender named Dawn, who’d just finished reading The Iliad.) Enough to raise my skeptic’s hackles. But he says at the end of the book, “This isn’t a work of fiction. Every single event, every quotation, every location is real and true to life.”
So I’m taking his word for it. Because I want to believe. In fact, one of the strongest beliefs I have is in the power of words and books.
This book is a great one. He tells the stories of dozens of people he met on his journey and also those from his life. I loved learning about his grandparents. He describes people and places with a sharp eye, and he weaves his current stories with history.
Herzog had me laughing out loud in places, getting chills in others and reaching for a tissue in others. I’m not sure what most people think about at a tractor pull, but Herzog might be the only one to turn philosophical, thinking of ancient Greek gods and the meaning of life.
The photographs in the book are black-and-white. I found this video after reading the book, and it brings people and places to even more life with brilliant color.
***So, if he hasn’t been to Forest City yet, I hope he finds us on his trusty atlas. I see he will be in Minnesota this week. (He will be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55408, on Tuesday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m.)
And we’re just two hours directly south of Minneapolis. There’s Winnebago, of course, and the 2011 WIT Grand National Rally starts Monday. And, hey, Bookadee is right in the heart of downtown Forest City on Clark Street.