I Don’t Want to be The Prisoner

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

In a recent post, I mentioned my lifelong, never-given-enough-attention reading project. Luckily, I usually have more than one project in progress (compensation, I suppose, for never finishing anything) and so it’s time to return to the series that launched a movie franchise and got an entire generation reading: the Harry Potter saga.

Here at the Stone Cottage, I started reading the books aloud to the AHC kiddos about a year ago and it’s become a sort of bedtime ritual. We have our issues (the girl, being older, has read ahead, at a blistering, Evelyn-Wood-like, detail-missing pace, and likes to play the spoiler), but mostly we have fun. And I get both to indulge my streak of ham and the opportunity to prattle on about whatever language or writing delight catches my eye.

Azkaban is the third volume in this series and in many ways, it’s a pivot point. Each novel, you’ll recall, covers one whole school year at Hogwarts, the boarding school for England‘s wizards and witches. Now we’re in Year 3 and the frame is firmly set: the castle-like building set in the Lake District, or maybe Scotland, the faculty–good (McGonagall) and bad (Snape)–the all-wise, omniscient headmaster (Dumbledore), even a bumbling, gentle-hearted giant with a penchant for odd pets (Hagrid). And, of course, the three amigos.

Harry, our hero, is an orphan and the nemesis of the evil wizard who would unleash the Dark Arts to establish dominion over all the world (or at least the wizarding world; I’ve always been a bit vague on Voldemort‘s ambitions). His BFFs are Ron Weasley–the youngest son in a ‘just folks’ wizarding family–and Hermione Granger, daughter of non-magical parents (her dad, I believe, is a dentist). The three of them are so tight there’s no room for daylight between them except for those times when someone isn’t talking to someone. Those occur about once a volume.

Was Alcatraz the real-world model for Azkaban?
The rock in 2018.
Photo by AK-Bino, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What’s been missing up until now is context. We’ve learned a lot over the past two years. We now know something about wizarding, and its history, and this sort of civil war raging between the good guys and Voldemort’s crew. We might even be tempted to believe that school-day grudges lie at the heart of it all, given everyone attends the same high school and as  Snape’s incessant complaints about Harry’s parents, his dad in particular, demonstrate.

This time, the school year begins amid a state of crisis. Sirius Black, a mass murderer, has escaped from Azkaban prison. Azkaban, which we caught a glimpse of in the second volume, is Alcatraz for wizards–an island fortress from which escape is nigh on impossible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both island jails start with the same letter, share the same number of syllables and even have a similar sonority. Say them both aloud, you’ll see.

Now, indulge me in an example of the sidetracks these tales allow me to wander off on. If you have never before heard of Sirius, except as a satellite radio company, you should. It’s the brightest star in the nighttime sky, located in the constellation called Canis Major. For non-Latin speakers, that’s Big Dog (canis is the Latin root of our word, canine) and Sirius is known colloquially as the Dog Star. Lest you think my meandering is self-indulgent, I’d ask you to remember this tidbit.

Canis Majoris in the night sky. The bright star at the base of the neck is Sirius.

So, Black has escaped and the powers that be–the Ministry of Magic especially–are worried that he aims to kill again. More importantly, many fear his primary target is Harry. No one is saying why, but the reaction of officialdom to this possibility speaks for itself. In a school year during which third-year students, with appropriate permissions, can leave school grounds on the weekend, Harry is locked down like a coastal state in a pandemic.

But with a little help from Ron’s twin older brothers and his invisibility cloak, Harry gets out and learns two facts that infuriate him: Black was his parents’ close friend and he is Harry’s Godfather. What’s a young wizard to do but vow destruction of his enemy.

That, of course, requires the magical Judas to show up and the authorities have taken steps to make sure that doesn’t happen. Hogwarts–starting with the train ride–is now protected by Dementors. These creatures, employed primarily as guards at Azkaban prison, literally suck the joy out of people. Harry is especially sensitive to their presence and a new faculty member, Professor Remus Lupin, also a classmate of Harry’s folks, helps him learn how to ward them off. (Pay attention to that name, btw.)

I can’t ignore the religious overtones in the Potter saga. Betrayal plays a significant role in both.

This being a Potter tale, there are a couple of sub-plots involving pets and magical creatures that tie into the climactic events. It’s involved and I hate to spoil the fun, but basically the entire backstory of Harry’s immediate family emerges. In fact, except for a surrogate, Voldemort is almost entirely missing from this book.

That’s why I say it’s pivotal. From this point forward, the books lengthen considerably and grind inexorably toward a Manichean confrontation. Here we’re learning the balance of the foundational material we’ll need to follow the intricacies of the magical War of the Roses that follows. Except for the last 80 or so action-filled pages, this could be the quietest of the novels.

I’m not being a know-it-all. It is an English story after all.

I don’t want to give away any important details, but I do want to circle back to language. Harry’s dad was part of a crew with Lupin, Black and another wizard named Peter Pettigrew. Lupin has a secret displayed right there in his surname. Add a not-so-silent silent ‘e’ and look it up. Just in case the point is missed, Lupin’s given name, Remus, makes him the twin brother of Romulus, the legenday founder of Rome. The twins were raised by a non-human surrogate mom.

Lupin’s friends have taught themselves a form of advanced magic to help him. They are, in a delighful portmanteau, animaguses. Look closely and you’ll see the last part is magus, the singular of magi, a word Christians should know from the Christmas story. The magic they’ve learned allows them to change into an animal at will.

If you’re putting the pieces together, I bet you can guess Mr. Black’s  animal form.

 

 

 

Who’s Your Daddy?

The President’s Daughter
Jack Higgins

As a kid, when this reading Jones first kicked in,  I tore through everything I could get my hands on. Fiction. Non-fiction. Novels. Biographies. Myths and legends. Even an encyclopedia or two. And so, like many another lad, I read my fair share of Hardy Boys books.

At this remove, I wonder if those assembly line books exist Continue reading

We Live in a Political World

Twitter, Impeachment. and Primaries 

When I went missing, I didn’t exactly go dormant. Instead, I found myself in that most time-consuming sector of the “internets, Twitter.

I’m fascinated by Twitter. The ‘culture’ of the Internet continues to strike me as a hotbed of Golden State-utopianism. There’s a reason one of the web’s earliest and most consistent proponents also appears at the Continue reading

Just Like Starting Over

The  Return of the Prodigal

In the New Testament parable, the prodigal son wanders off and squanders the inheritance his father has given him. When his ruin is unmistakable, even to him, he returns home and is welcomed joyously.

I’ll settle for just being welcomed back after a sabbatical I hadn’t earned and which really didn’t Continue reading

Wrap it Up

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

And so we come to the end of another year (and for some, who may struggle with counting, a decade). For me, this was a year in which stark terror–and near paralysis–gave way to blessed relief.

We all need things to keep us going when times get hard. For me, those things have always been books and music, my first friends. My actual living, breathing friends are even more precious and they, and my Continue reading

We Let in Light and We Banish Shade

Hanukkah and the Verge of Christmas 2019

It’s that time of year again and I’ve little to give but much to be thankful for.

Gratitude, though, like a holly bush or berry, is really just an expression. And what I think it expresses, in its limited but necessary way, is love.

I heard a reflection last week and one thought stood out that I share with you in the spirit of the season:

Without love, you may be living, but you’re not alive.

E. Szendry, M.M.

Peace.

Love Stinks

The Hunchback of Notre Dane
Victor Hugo

There are, a thousand bromides tell me, good reasons to struggle. The reward will be worth it. Today, at the end of a nearly year-long struggle with the 19th century, I’m not so sure about that.

I’m honestly not surprised;, that’s been my experience almost from the start. I can vividly remember eighth grade Continue reading

Back With the Same Old Style

The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
Washington Irving
(History, Tales, and Sketches–A LIbrary of America Volume)

In the last century, when my love of reading was born, I early on discovered the tales of Washington Irving. Here was a guy I could really sink my teeth into, and a local to boot.

Though I spent my formative years on Long Island, the Hudson River valley is as important to me as the beach. And, as a kid, the discovery that stories are about places Continue reading

If I Had a Pony

The Long Valley
John Steinbeck
(The Grapes of Wrath & Other Writings, 1936-1941, a Library of America Volume)

Prompted by an errant remark, I returned after a long hiatus to the work of a writer who once totally captured my imagination. I’m happy to report that John Steinbeck still has the same effect on me he did long ago.

If you’ve been dropping by here for a while, you might find yourself wondering just how long long is. After all, there Continue reading

Wandering Early and Late

Here we go, again

No, that’s not me pictured at right, but it pretty much sums up my recent state of being.  A path beckoning. Family close at hand. The year withering.

I actually take great solace at this time of year. Despite the sinking temperatures and paucity of daylight, there’s something Continue reading

I’m Younger Than That Now

Back When We Were Grownups
Anne Tyler

Allow me to hazard a guess: novels centered on middle-aged females don’t typically set one to thinking about John Lennon and the Human Beat Box.

The latter is, perhaps, more understandable since Master AHC has spent the past few weeks referring to our author as “Ann E. Tyler.”  That silent ‘e’ thing doesn’t come easy and matters are not helped by my mom’s Continue reading

Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples at NJPAC, Newark, NJ, November 10, 2019

A genuine 80s houserockin’ party was thrown in Newark last night and the guests of honor did all the work.

Appearing at the outset of the TD Bank James Moody Jazz Festival, Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy sang and played gospel and the blues, demonstrating the power this music still holds. Remarkably, both headliners (Mavis opened the show, but that’s a technicality–these two are co-equals) are now in their 80s. If you want to make a Continue reading

Secret Words in a Secret Room

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling

It seems like I’ve been on a sabbatical, though it’s really been a turn of good fortune. In what qualifies as a first-class set of first-world problems, I am trying to reconfigure my days and weeks to reflect a new commute. It’s been, literally, decades Continue reading

Big Time Operator

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator
Edwin LeFêvre

Eventually, I get around to everything, although I’m pretty certain I won’t be able to do that forever.

I first heard of this book nearly thirty years ago, when I was working on marketing programs for the institutional side of a major investment bank. Floor traders, fund managers, senior executives, they all told Continue reading

If I Only Had a Brain

The Great Brain
John D. Fitzgerald

By the time I was thirty, I was certain I’d never raise children. By the time I finally started, my high school classmates were busy prepping their oldest kids for SATs and campus visits. Now, they’re retiring and I’ll be looking at tuition payments well into my eighth decade.

All of which helps color my perspective. That’s most apparent when I draw on memories of my own childhood. I’m well past the age where, finding myself reprising my Continue reading

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature

The Best American Science Writing 2005
Alan Lightman, Guest Editor, Jesse Cohen, Series Editor

Over lunch earlier this month I floated a trial balloon past an old friend. What I’m most interested in, I asserted, is different ways of thinking. The details are a little less important, because a lot of those tend to stick and, in any case, I can always dive back in. It’s my current best explanation for the haphazard range of my reading life.

Hence the present volume,  which serves the useful purpose of bringing me back to my roots while updating Continue reading

In God’s Country

Potshot
Robert B. Parker

Often I find myself wondering about the economics of publishing. I’ve had book clubs and book retailers as clients, so I know something about the retail end of the business. What I haven’t a clue about is the author end.

How is it, for example, that a veteran journalist can pen a bestseller and suddenly find themself a millionaire, asked to Continue reading

Autumn’s Coming in the Air

Labor Day 2019

I first conceived this post on what was meant to be the first of my summer-end outdoor swims.  But the temperature at swim time was 58 degrees (F)  and there are limits to my fortitude.

That bracing change put me in mind of the approaching season, even if the weather, in Continue reading

Blasphemous Rumours

The Feast of Fools
Harvey Cox

Recently,  conservative talk-show host Erick Erickson offered a startling observation during what seems to be an ongoing attack against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg: “But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”

I’m neither a regular reader nor listener of Erickson’s, though I’ve seen him quoted. He strikes me as not so Continue reading

Standing on the Front Line

A Son at the Front
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of America Volume)
Edith Wharton

One could argue that World War I was the first modern war. There’s a case to be made for the wars of the mid-19th century, but their horrors seem more of scale. For something never seen before, it’s hard to beat “the war to end all wars.”

Edith Wharton was living in Paris when the war broke out in August 1914. She’d taken up ex-pat status a few years earlier when her marriage deteriorated. Now, she was on Continue reading

Treat Yourself to Some Meat

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
Janet Evanovich

My local library has its own way of celebrating summer: they put out a table of pulpier titles that have been donated and invite patrons to take home a fresh read or two.

Unspoken is a request to just not bring them back. We’ve a small library and, evidently, a big book-buying Continue reading

Parodies and Prophecies

Midsummer 2019

There are any number of things we’re taught as children that we are later asked to revisit, diminish or dismiss. I’d suggest that among these is parody, a genre too easily cast aside.

There’s no good reason why. The word itself has been in the language half a millenium and Shakespeare, just before its first Continue reading

Orange Amber in the Sun

Oranges
John McPhee

My memory, I fear, is failing.

There was a moment, standing in the book store, the nearby volume clutched in my hand, when I wavered. Hadn’t I read this before? I paged through it once again, nothing seemed familiar. Graphically, it matched the rest Continue reading

Goin’ Down to the Swamp

Tropical Heat
John Lutz

The idea that any man-made object, let alone one made of paper and grease,  could survive the semi-tropical humidity of the Sunshine State for more than three decades seems far-fetched. Luckily, all I asked it to do was endure seven moves within a 50-mile radius.

Why that should be will have to remain a mystery. All I know is that even during the years when the only fiction I Continue reading

I Roam Around, Around, Around

wandering (noun): a going about from place to place

By now I should have this (mis)timing thing licked.  But I don’t, so I am allowing myself the quarterly luxury of sharing some longer pieces found on the web that have captured my attention.

Should any of you care to share your ideas on how to break my logjam, by all means, please post in the comments section. All I ask is that you stay away from programmatic Continue reading

Where is it taking us, what does it mean?

The Meaning of Trump
Brian Francis Culkin

For a wannabe social scientist like me, the Trump years offer seemingly boundless riches. From the President’s personal psychology to political theory and mercantile economics, if he’s tweeting, there’s probably a new avenue to explore.

I try to avoid the more commonly visited precincts. Bob Woodward‘s fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t add much when Continue reading

Schizophrenic Egocentric Paranoiac Primadonna

A Beautiful Mind
Sylvia Nasar

Math can be maddening.

That’s one lesson you might draw from this biography of noted mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. It might even seem of a piece, if you’ve read the biographies of any other major math figure, for instance, Georg Cantor, who has quite a story of his own.

I wonder, though, how many people really read such Continue reading

A Standout, a Whirlwind Wizard

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J. K. Rowling

Among Harry Potter‘s many acts of wizardry, the most important was that his creator, in setting him loose in the world, ended the fiction drought, at least for me.

That would be the couple of decades or so where I don’t think I read any fiction but mysteries. In the repurposed and reordered words of a literature professor friend (albeit on a separate subject), it was too hard and wasn’t fun anymore.

Then along came Harry, although I was unaware at first. Truth is, I can be pretty oblivious about popular culture and, as a childless 30-something at the time the first novel was published in the US, I was paying even less attention. I probably clued into conversations between parents two or three years later.

That coincided with a lot of life changes including the decision by the then-not-yet-Mrs. AHC to become an elementary schoolteacher. Suddenly, Potter was in the house and I picked up the book in the same cursory way I pick up so many others.

J.K. Rowling Creator of Harry Potter before the image makeover that accompanied her financial success.

I got hooked.

Now that I’m through reminiscing,  we can get to the book, which I just spent reading aloud with my 8-year old son. His sister, approaching age 11, eschews fantasy, yet many nights found her listening in.  I’ll have to accept some blame for her viewpoint; I’m on record as not being favorably inclined toward the genre myself. What’s so different about Harry?

 

When I first read through the series, our kids had yet to be born. Yet I developed this idea that the series presented a great way to teach lessons about reading and language. I can turn anything into hard work if I try, but maybe I’m looking to justify just how much fun these books are. But when young D expressed an interest, I leapt at the opportunity to see if I was right.

Harry Potter Movie poster

Not just a best-selling book, but also a blockbuster movie.

I should say I’m not obsessive enough to have ascertained certain things. Such as whether Rowling had the arc of the series figured out from the beginning. That’s a recurring rumor among the Star Wars crowd, and it would be normal to wonder the same about Potter. I do know that this volume introduces a majority of the characters that will populate the rest of the novels.

At our first encounter with Harry, we already know more about him than he does of himself. That’s because we’ve been treated to a prologue that establishes the frame within which his wizardly life will uncoil. By comparison, all the 11-year old Harry knows is his Diceknsian existence.  An unwanted orphan living with uncaring relatives, Harry’s sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, dressed in hand-me-downs and final sale remnants.  He functions as a sort of scullery maid/short-order cook. It’s equal parts Cinderella and Oliver Twist.

Then his past intervenes, in the form of a letter, and his world changes. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Dursleys (that’s the family name his mother’s sister, Petunia, took when she married Vernon; they have a son Dudley) at first try to ignore the mail, then run from it. But even a near-Hebridean hideaway can’t ward off the power of the magical world and Harry gets his Get out of Jail Free card in the form of acceptance at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, a sort of enchanted Eton.

Nicolas Flamel, c. 1340–1418
Even real people show up in Potterland.

That’s the good. The bad and the ugly are the same thing, a demonic wizard so terrible none dare utter his name. Except Harry, who, not having been raised among magical types (we’uns, being non-magical, are known as muggles), didn’t get the memo on proper behavior. And no one will question his naming the demon because Voldemort is responsible both for Harry being an orphan and the scar he bears on his forehead from their near-deadly encounter. Harry’s bravery starts with not agreeing to not name his nemesis.

This is a good point to stop for one of those lessons I mentioned. Harry’s story not only fits the good Proppian model, it has all these English overtones. The hero emerging from second class status is right out of the Arthurian legend. There’s that working for Fagin childhood. Hogwarts is itself, a perfectly recognizable British public school.  And then there’s the bad guy’s name. I’m always happy to point out that English is a mash-up of German and French, so how delicious to have a bad guy whose name literally means Flying Death.

Plus, there’s the sorcerer’s stone itself. In this telling, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is the co-creator of the stone along with Nicolas Flamel. Click on that last link and you’ll quickly find out that a) Flamel really existed and b) is the legendary creator of the philosopher’s stone. As I said, the book is just chock full of things that can help you teach children how to read more actively. (In case you’re wondering, Albus means white and Dumbledore is a bumblee in some English dialect, so there’s your old humming guy, too.)

Even the search for a sorcerer’s stone is rooted in reality. The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

The tale itself is rollicking and sets a pattern that will prevail through the series. The action takes place over the course of a school year, mostly in and around Hogwarts. There is always a new and problematic faculty member. Harry has friends and enemies among both the students and faculty.

I don’t want to give away too much in this plot-driven story, but I will say the climax involves a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort (and that is always going to be the crux of the matter).

There are six more books in the series, though, so I’m not really giving anything away if I say Harry survives the encounter. But it’s an action-packed battle and my son didn’t see the secondary (and necessary) bad guy coming. I’m betting Rowling would be delighted by D’s gasp at the revealed identity.

Details in a book or movie should matter, though I often wonder if they enter conciously. As this book ends, Harry awakens in the infirmary, three days after his battle with pure evil.

With a little prodding I eked out one last lesson: my kids quickly identified the other well-known figure who rose on the third day.

A Substitute for Another Guy

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids
Nicholson Baker

“In fact, for me, the whole school year was over.”

That final sentence refers to June 11, 2014, five years ago this coming Tuesday. It’s a bit short of the  actual end of the school year both here and in Maine, where the events recounted take place.

Our raconteur is the novelist, Nicholson Baker. I’ve read Baker before, and enjoy his writing style, deeply detailed as it is. I’ve even enjoyed his obsessions when they are directed at non-fictional subjects.

This time, though, my eternal problem with endings was reinforced by the subject matter. This book didn’t just end. Organized by date, its end coincided with the end of the school year, always a bittersweet event for me. Despite being mostly self-directed in my learning, I need some structure to react to, so July and August always presented a challenge, at least until I discovered taking summer school classes.

Just why a noted, successful writer (whom no one recognizes) felt compelled to undertake a stint of substitute teaching is unclear to me. Early on, he says he “wanted to find out what life in classrooms was really like.” I’m not sure the participant-observer approach is the best way to scratch that itch because, let’s face it, subs don’t do much.

A high school in Maine. I imagine Baker subbed in buildings like this one.

Even Baker admits his activity was mostly limited to maintaining order and handing out worksheets. Both my children attend elementary school and worksheets are the bane of my existence. I understand the intent is to reinforce skills. I even grant you the notion is not new. I just don’t think they work.

A half century ago we ‘did dittoes‘ which were simply worksheets run off on a duplicating machine with a big A.B. Dick logo on the side. Some teachers called them stencils and, since similar machines were still in use when I entered the workforce, office workers tended to call them mimeos. Picking up dittoes from the office amused the hell out of us Catholic school boys once we had started to build our schoolyard vocabularies. As to the content, beats me and I can remember events from those years in vivid detail.

What’s stuck in my mind about dittoes is that there was so much alcohol in the duplicating fluid you could get drunk off the fumes. A test or worksheet fresh from the office invariably resulted in dozens of youngsters pulling rectangular sheets across their faces and inhaling deeply, as though following a 19th-century deep-breathing regimen. All because a Xerox machine cost so much that no school, and many businesses, couldn’t afford one. (The last workplace I can remember using mimeos was a division of Westinghouse, then a Fortune 500 corporation.)

The technology of my elementary school years: the ditto machine.

You may wonder what dittoes and tipsy students have to do with a serious, 719-page book. Actually, quite a bit because the book amounts to pages of student observations much like my stencil tale, all updated for the 21st century. Depsite all the technology–laptops, iPads, smart boards–kids are still kids and school is still something they have to get through.

Again, that’s something Baker says and, like me, he does it a bit ruefully. That might be the most interesting thing I learned. Baker and I are close in age but our own educations couldn’t be more different. He seems to have taken part in almost every educational experiment being run in the public schools of Monroe County, New York during the 1960s and 70s. I sat in one of 30 or more desks arranged in rows following an approach still used in many parochial schools and found similar rows when I moved along to the local public high school.

And yet he and I both wound up , in his words, “in college where I learned how to write and work hard.” Yet I’m haunted by how much more I could have gotten out of school if I’d been alternately pushed and given freedom instead of being controlled. Perhaps I am an unregimentable personality, but maybe–here’s an idea– teachers can learn from their students. I do, every semester I teach.

There’s a lot more tech in today’s classroom although it seems to be used for entertainment as much as learning.

Baker, the miniaturist, conveys his frustrations, which I’d describe as parallel to mine, rather than similar or the same, through his chosen approach: detailed description. Actually, detailed description might be a misstatement. Detailed transcription might be more accurate because, although the names have been changed, the things the kids say are reported more or less verbatim.

I actually have no basis for making that last claim. The kids voices sound authentic, at least to me. But I’ve spoken before of Baker’s style and how like Shaker furniture it requires stripping all ornamentation to reveal beauty. These kids are maybe a bit too verbally perfect, but I am comfortable with novelistic touches in reportage and non-fiction.

I could demonstrate but, even cleansed of all its “uhms,” “ahs” and “you knows,” kid language isn’t terribly interesting to read. At least not page after page of it and at least not to me. If I were peer-reviewing this as a social science manuscript  I’d suggest paring back and classifying the quotes so the reader can follow the author’s point.

Education really ought to be about the kids. Baker & I agree on that.

Baker, no doubt, would disagree and perhaps he’s right. His method certainly does manage to convey the repetitive and mundane nature of school days including the administrative intrusions and mandates that make a challenging situation farcical at times.

There’s a reason schools are the way they are and I’d send you all off with a reading list that begins with Randall Collins if you’re really interested. Or you can spend, as I did, a semester with Baker and his kids. I’m not sure you’ll come away understanding ‘why’ schools are the way they are. You may, as I did, come away with so many questions about classroom practice that a working teacher flees at the sight of you.  (Whenever I’d start a question, my in-house educator, Mrs. AHC, would utter a prayer aloud that I finish reading the book already.)

Maybe, though, you’ll come away as Baker (I think) and I did,  marveling at the curiosity and inventiveness of children. And loving them for it even as we shuddered at the institutional nuisances thrown at them.

 

 

 

 

 

I Can’t Stand Losing You

The Closers
Michael Connelly

Sometimes, I think I’ve forgotten how to read. In reality, though, what I’ve forgotten is how to finish reading.

Especially these days,  when it seems that starting a book is easier than finishing one. A well-informed friend says the inability to focus–always a struggle around here–is Continue reading

Libraries Gave Us Power

Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper
Dan Cohen at The Atlantic

When you’re a kid everything  you encounter already exists. So, in a weird permutation of object permanence,  it must always have. Looked at like that, even the quite new can seem very old.

My childhood spanned a time when the closer-in suburbs of New York were still growing and things were relatively new.   As Continue reading

Rise Up Singing: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2019

Living in a consumer society, I think, is such an immersive experience that it’s easy to forget holidays have meaning. I enjoy kicking off summer as much as anyone, but I try to remember Memorial Day is really about fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen.

So I will, on Monday morning,  view the big parade here in town, and do so Continue reading

Blues for Dixie

South to a Very Old Place
Albert Murray

The first time I encountered the idea that prose could mimic music was during my Jack Kerouac obsession. Time and again I’d come across the assertion that his goal was to capture on the page the rhythms, textures and fluidity of a Bop solo.

I didn’t, couldn’t really see it. The jazz I knew was the music of the Swing era, and its purpose was dancing. If I held any opinion about the jazz of the 1950s it was second-hand, acquired from Chuck Berry.

My ignorance and obsession have long since passed. Some days, though, Chuck still seems wise and I have a hard time finding music on the page. When I do, it’s usually in a poem. Prose is not without rhythm and melody, it’s just harder to find, though I count myself a part-time searcher.

If that describes you, and you’d care to take a break from looking, this book offers a perfect example of what the fruits of your search should resemble.

Albert Murray is the real deal. Around here that phrase always means the same thing: a writer of immense talent who has invested time in honing their craft and whose erudition is apparent. That last bit is important because, for me, erudition goes beyond an ability to quote Classics or 19th Century German philosophers at will.

Robert Penn Warren
1905-1989

While either of those examples might impress me, I take an expansive view of knowledge. A student of the streets is no less knowledgeable than a PhD and often in a better position to attest to truth. Nor does a writer need to be deeply immersed in one subject. Synthesis is what really bowls me over again and again.

Allow me to sketch a quick biography of the present author. Born in Mobile County, Alabama, in 1916, Murray was of the same generation as Rosa Parks, born into a segregated society soon after the birth of the NAACP and the death of Booker T. Washington. Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1939, where he became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison.

Murray joined the Army Air Force and served during World War II and remained in the reserves after the war ended. Though he tried to earn his living teaching he returned to active duty in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major before retiring, about the time I was born. He then moved to New York, completed his education with an MA from NYU and took up writing.

Always a music lover, his beat included writing about jazz and he moved in an orbit that included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose biography he would later write. The present book emerged from an assignment he accepted from Willie Morris, the legendary editor of Harpers in the 1960s. Morris, a man who brought Mississippi with him when he moved north and who later returned home, had a simple request: Go home to the post-Civil Rights Act South and see what’s really going on.

William ‘Count’ Basie
1904-1984

You and I, faced with such a task, would probably hop in the car or book a flight to Hartsfield. Murray caught the New Haven Railroad and headed further north. It’s really no small act of genius to begin an inspection of the contemporary South with a visit to the precincts of Yale.

But Robert Penn Warren was there ensconced. And what better place to begin than with an apostate apologist for segregation–a man who not only changed his mind but became an advocate for civil rights? That Warren wrote one of the classic novels set in the South–based loosely on one of the South’s real, larger-than-life characters–was icing on the cake.

The book–I’ve no idea if it was ever published as an article or series of articles–reminds me, structurally, of a jazz number. There is a head (the prologue and New Haven section) that sets the theme, and a coda (the New Orleans, Greenville, Memphis section). In between, it’s all riffing, a term I use in the best sense of the word.  For a jazz player, composing riffs and melodies out of raw material is the name of the game.

Murray hits his stride in those middle choruses named Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee and Mobile. The first two represent different battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement. If Greensboro is famous for the sit-ins, Atlanta, home of Morehouse College and Dr. King‘s family, was famously the self-declared ‘City too Busy to Hate.

The John A. Andrews Memorial Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute

Much of the book is dialog, placed in the mouths of locals, some Murray has known since boyhood. The closer he gets to home, the more the words fly, the rhythms pound and the truth flows. I never find it difficult to identify a writer whose background is lower than middle class. You can’t fake your way into the knowledge and trust of people just like you who stayed at home. That the truths revealed may be uncomfortable to those who would establish the proper narrative is part of the fun.

In an epigram, Murray warns us “Not everything in this book is meant to be taken literally” a point he immediately undercuts by saying he has changed names. The best way to convey the language, and the insider honesty, is with an extended quote sure to piss off almost everyone with an ax to grind on the subject of race relations. The speaker is an unidentified Mobile resident who has known Murray since boyhood:

“I’m talking about the goddamn white folks now. They come up and figure out how they can let a lot of loudmouth hustlers in there that don’t belong in there. Because they know good and well these the ones ain’t going to study. So that’s what we got now. We send them up there to learn what them white boys learning about running the goddam world and they up there out marching and wearing all that old three-ring circus stuff and talking about how they got to study about Africa. Now what I say is if that’s all they want to know they ain’t got no business up there. That’s what I say. Because the white man only too glad if they rather learn about Africa instead of how to run the world. I say them Africans already known about Africa, and what good is it doing them?” (pp. 182-183)

I can’t be certain if a transcript or recording of this, or any of the other reported conversation, exists but I don’t think that’s the point. This is Joseph Mitchell reportage and if the truth on the page is a work of artful construction rooted in fact I can live with that.

That last sentence used the words art and truth and I selected neither lightly. By the time you reach this quote you’ve traveled quite a ways with Murray. Your BS radar would have, should have pinged if you found him less than truthful. Was the above speech excerpt, with its accelerating rhythm and rising frustration, spoken verbatim? I’m not sure it matters because it has the same ring of truth as conversations I hear when I return to the neighborhood of my blue-collar youth.

I can offer no higher accolade than Albert Murray, great American writer.

 

 

 

With a Little Luck

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis

My son, the budding 8-year old literary critic, has built his evaluative armory on a strong foundation: cover illustrations. He subjects these packaging exercises to analysis–cursory or detailed depending on his mood–and generates more questions about the content than Leslie Fiedler could.

He had a lot of questions about the present volume. Continue reading

Life’s Sweet Promise

Easter/Passover 2019

The last week–with seemingly more stresses, distractions and interruptions, not  to mention conflagrations and reports on investigations–has left less time for the work I write about here.

So I turn to an older tradition, one I’ve been reading about, and hopefully will turn to soon: festivity. Celebration is important to everyone’s soul and it’s important to nurture that part of us.

Two great faith traditions use this time of year to mark the promise of rebirth and renewal. In that spirit, I wish you all the bounties and blessings of the season.

Peace.

A Building Which is on Fire

Thoughts the morning after the Notre Dame fire

The great world city I know best after my hometown is Paris.  If New York stands a monument to commerce and the ever-changing, Paris stands the same to the eternal and the beautiful.

Notre Dame sits at the center of that city, Continue reading

A Supersonic Honeymoon

The Glimpses of the Moon
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of  America Volume)
Edith Wharton

Come with me to a favorite locale: Wharton country. There’s no reason you’d know that; supporting evidence isn’t exactly abundant.

I may even be overstating the case. A better, though dated, analogy might be a certain type of uptown resident who Continue reading

The Town that Billy Sunday Couldn’t Shut Down

Never a City so Real: A Walk in Chicago
Alex Kotlowitz

Once, in my business travels, I met a man from Chicago. Over the course of a somewhat lopsided conversation he made his love of his home town apparent, finally asking me where I was from.

New York,” I answered, dreading what was about to come. Continue reading

The Story of Outlaw Country in 33 Songs
Pitchfork.com

You didn’t think I’d go missing that easily, did you? Just don’t think I’ve made much progress on my primary assignment. (I did, however, add another volume to the stack, which may not be the optimal way to reduce the size of the task.)

Luckily, my friends at Pitchfork stood ready to help with this recently posted (October 2018) look at the roots of, well, roots music. The story, such as it is, is really a collection Continue reading

But They Don’t Have Cash

Grazing in the Grass

Not so much reading as grazing

Another week, another goal missed. At some point this backlog thing has to work itself out.

In the meantime, there are more than a few  items, published but lacking harder covers, to call to your attention. Given the number of academic papers I’m reading, that could Continue reading

Ever Since I Been Ridin’

A Subway for New York
David Weitzman

I confess. I cheated.

Making little progress on my stacks of reading material, I started in on the children’s novel I’d assigned Miss AHC, telling myself it was a noble effort to Continue reading

Somebody Done Somebody Wrong

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
John Mortimer

You can always tell when I have too much going on because the only books I  finish are lighter fare. That puts you in an enviable position since, unlike Mrs. AHC, you needn’t deal with the stacks of unfinished tomes Continue reading

Call Mr. Lee

Cricklewood Green
Ten Years After

If you’d wanted to, back in the 1960s and 70s, you could listen to all sorts of rock bands that allegedly based their music on the blues. I’ve pretty much convinced myself, if no one else, that the entire Classic Rock canon rests on a misconception that Continue reading

Not the Man I Used to Be

The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Patricia Highsmith

Among my less pleasant quirks is an inability to get unstuck. Sometimes I seize on something about a book or movie that is inconsequential, yet I can’t get past it. All forward motion ceases and the sane among you, which Continue reading

The Future’s so Bright

The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Paul Collier

Turn with me now to serious things.

For some, the sky is falling, what with talk of 70% marginal tax rates. For others, the glorious socialist future is only a moment away.

Some of us, who can remember when things seemed less anxious, may wonder why there are only two choices. Continue reading

When the Circus Comes to Town

Cheaper by the Dozen
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth

Some folks say making sure your kids grow up with a firm moral center is a parent’s primary job. My mom would’ve said it’s their only job.

Mom ran a tight ship, behaviorally speaking. Popular culture was particularly suspect and, though we did consume our fair share, the endless reruns of older movies on New York‘s three independent TV stations Continue reading

The Foul Evil Deed I Had Done

The Killer Inside Me
(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
Jim Thompson

I know when to say “Uncle.” The Library of America (LOA) has beaten me.

Not in any serious way, mind you. But a bruised ego is still a bruised ego and I don’t acknowledge failure easily. Who’d have thought that the Continue reading

Get Your Motor Runnin’

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
Hunter S. Thompson

Before Johnny Depp, before Bill Murray, before Timothy Crouse and before Fear and Loathing, there was a fearless journalist who was one helluva writer.

Though he’ll be remembered, loved or loathed for the self-invented, arguably semi-moronic,  genre of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson was as singular a Continue reading

She’s Just a Crazy Mixed Up Kid

Top Secret Twenty-One
Janet Evanovich

It strikes me as odd that I’ve not picked up one of these silly New Jersey-based crime stories in more than a decade. Time was, reading a volume in this series served as, for me, the print equivalent of reruns on Channel 11. But the tape doesn’t lie and I must have given up Continue reading

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

spencervilleSpencerville
Nelson DeMille

Let me state the obvious: there is no song lyric about Spencerville, at least that I’m aware of. And so I find myself stretching to make a completely unrelated burg serve as a stand-in so I can maintain a conceit about post titles.

Well, I had to fail sometime. And since none of this has Continue reading