The Line Between Funny and Sad

Sam Lipsyte is a successful American writer, a novelist and teacher of fiction at Columbia University. He knows his way around a plot and is very adept at the witty observation, the sarcastic aside and the comedic rant. Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, is one of his most popular works. Recommended to me as a funny book about higher education, I decided to give it a try.

The Ask could be read as funny. I write that, though, with a particular understanding of “funny” – meaning the dark sort of humor that feeds on things turning out poorly. Classic Russian short stories can do that sort of disaster as humor well. This novel is set in academia, an advancement office in a New York City university, but higher education doesn’t really drive the story. It has more than a few ridiculous situations and is chock full of sharp barbs and witty asides. The situations are often over the top. All that said, I did find it to be a terribly funny book. The Ask, at least to my thinking, is profoundly sad. It is insightful and somewhat damning, especially when it comes to thinking more deeply about what it might mean to be a man, a good father, a competent worker or professional. Reading it made me wonder about how personal a sense of humor might be to each of us. Is it unique? Or is something different at play?

The novel is written in the first person. It’s an account from the perspective of an anti-hero or hero, depending upon your viewpoint, a witty loser whose life is unraveling. A failed artist who is fired from his development position at the start of the book, Milo is rehired thanks to the machinations of a wealthy college friend. That’s one strand of plot for the hapless Milo. Accompanying it is the dissolution of Milo’s marriage and his awkward attempts to be a good father. Amid his self-destructive activities, he genuinely wants to be a positive influence in his son’s life. Flitting in and out are idiosyncratic eccentrics, all well drawn and crafted.

The novel does not offer much by way of revelations. The book is more about realizations, commentary as things unravel. Characters are more often than not ridiculous. Through it all, Milo’s sarcasm, wise cracks and impetuousness carry us along, as do the wild actions and awkward situations.

My difficulty with the novel as humor, I believe, came from taking Milo’s character as the moral anchor of the book. He is ill-considered, impetuous, lacking in judgment, unlucky, and doomed. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the ending would not be happy. Yet through the setbacks and humiliations, Milo wants to do well and be good, especially as a father and husband. It is quite sad, almost tragic. If one doesn’t care about Milo or take him seriously, the humorous bits might carry the reader along. But if you allow him, or the other characters, to be fully realized, the taste of the humor may sour. And once one thinks of Milo and the other key characters as fully realized, adults who find it impossible to be a grown up, the humor disappears like mist in the sun.

At least it did for me. This is a modern day tragedy, lacking catharsis yet strong in critiques. For many others, The Ask is something different – a humorous take on a loser’s misadventures.

David Potash

Squadron Airborne – WWII Classic

There’s something humbling, fascinating and exciting about discovering a successful author and one of their books. “Why didn’t I know this?” is a common first response, and if the book is really good, then it’s “No wonder it was so successful!” That is often followed by a “Others should read this, too. This book should not be forgotten.” Soon after is “I wonder what other works by this author I should read?” I cycled through all of these while devouring Squadron Airborne by Elleston Trevor, an extremely gifted and prolific novelist. Published in 1955, it is a very good WWII novel. In fact, it is a good novel regardless of the setting. It’s a riveting read that need not be categorized as wartime fiction.

The book tells the story of the pilots and support team and neighbors at a fictional Spitfire fighter base in England in 1940. Taking place over a week, it is rich with authentic detail, memorable characters, tons of action and well-crafted interplay driving the plot. This was during the “Battle of Britain,” the early stages of the war when England’s very survival was at question. The novel is heroic, thrilling, scary, and has more than thread of romance. Above all, Squadron Airborne is very much a book about how a team works together. It is a novel grounded in high-stakes labor, and it is that sense of shared purpose and threat that holds it together. It all makes for a very engaging, very interesting read.

Elleston Trevor was a pseudonym but the eventual legal name of Squadron Airborne’s author. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith in 1920 in England, Trevor had a knock-about life before World War II, where he served with the RAF. Research indicates that some of Trevor’s military service was as an aircraft mechanic. Regardless of responsibilities through the war and beyond, he wrote and wrote, eventually penning more than a hundred works under several different pen names. He moved to the USA where he enjoyed commercial and critical successes. His best-known novel, Flight of the Phoenix, was made into two movies. Trevor also found many fans and readers in the Quiller spy novels, several of which were done for television and cinema. The man knew how to pace a story, how to say a lot with few words, and to engage readers. He died in 1995.

A very big thanks to London’s Imperial War Museum for re-issuing Squadron Airborne and other wartime classics. Looks like I have a lot more Trevor to read.

David Potash

Warriors For The Working Day – Classic WWII

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, King Henry tells a Frenchman before the Battle of Agincourt that “we are but warriors for the working day; our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d with rainy marching in the painful field.” Not a boast, it is a statement of fact regarding the commitment and sand of the English soldier. “But, by the mass, our hearts are in the trim” the soliloquy ends. Powerful and moving.

Peter Elstob lifted the quote for the title of his outstanding WWII novel about tank warfare. It’s an apt choice. Warriors for the Working Day is a superb book about the day-to-day of fighting in World War II from the solder’s perspective. It is beautifully written and extremely compelling, pulling the reader into the grit and internal stresses of the war. Most importantly, it is lightly fictionalized. Elstob knew the subject, personally and intimately, and that knowledge informs the entire endeavor. Published in the 1950s, it has resonance and impact today.

Gripping and engaging, the book is sprinkled with literary allusions and devices. The novel is structured into two parts. Book One, “First Light” is based on when it’s possible to distinguish between black and white. Book Two, “Last Light” is when it’s no longer possible to distinguish. The structure is literal and metaphorical, capturing the kinds of battles the soldiers’ face and the arc of the war through a soldier’s eyes. There is action, drama, and quite a bit of thoughtful reflection. Elstob’s skill allows one to enjoy the book’s prose, too. His writing is that good.

One character, Brooks, functions as the key thread throughout the novel, anchoring the action and the plot. However, the novel explores more than Brooks and his growth as a tank commander. We meet the senior officers and soldiers who school him, his colleagues, the men he commands, and a wide range of people he encounters in England and Europe. The book opens with training before D-Day and ends as the tank command is in Germany, heading toward the war’s conclusion. Characters come, go, live, die, and through it all, the soldiers must fight. They also have to fight in order to fight. The stresses, the demons, the pressures are constant and debilitating.

Warriors for the Working Day stands as a powerful corrective to narrative war history, the kinds of books that explain battles with maps, arrows and charts. With outcomes known, they give sense to what is inherently impossible to comprehend. Those kinds of history books are necessary but far removed from the actions of the poor folks who have to drive the tanks, shoot the weapons and hope for the best. There’s an immediacy to Elstob’s writing that carries you directly to the battlefield, to the bureaucracy, and the day to day. He is particularly good in his characterization. Everyone seems more than real.

Elstob’s personal war experiences made certain of the reality. He was a Royal Tank Regiment volunteer (his attempts at the RAF were unsuccessful). Elstob saw action in Asia, Africa, England and Europe. He lived through all that is recounted in Warriors for the Working Day. Moreover, he penned several military histories. Elstob truly knows his subject and that shines through his writing.

Massive thanks to the Imperial War Museum for reissuing this classic novel. It was as strong as anything new that I’ve read in years.

David Potash

For One, Please

Eat alone? Travel alone? Be alone? Solitude can come with unwelcome baggage: questioning looks, lingering distrust and occasionally approbation, as if solitude equates to selfishness. Even medical science informs us that we are social creatures. So we are. But without time to reflect, think and consider, we may be far from fully realized.

Stephanie Rosenbloom, a travel writer and journalist, makes an outstanding case for the value of traveling solo in Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude. It’s a gem of a short book, an easy read rich with moments. The concept is clever. Rosenbloom travels alone, walks, dines, chats and thinks in Paris, Istanbul, Florence and her home, New York City. She meets people, she asks questions – though the book is not really an exercise in deep, investigative journalism. Curious and reflective, above all, she observes. A talented writer with a gift for aligning the small perspective with the larger point, Rosenbloom takes us, the reader, as an unseen companion. She is a very good traveler and a fine confidant.

The section on Paris is the longest, most interesting and best realized. I would wager, too, that Paris is Rosenbloom’s favorite. The chapter on Istanbul felt slightly rushed, as though another few weeks would have provided more material. The tourists and bustle of Florence rubbed our intrepid traveler somewhat the wrong way. While she felt connection with art, I did not get the sense that Florence truly resonated with her. I doubt that she’ll be hurrying back to the Uffizi. On the other hand, being solo in her home city, New York, afforded Rosenbloom observations that felt right. I, too, can feel both at home and a visitor in Gotham. It is one of the joys of the city. The end of the book contains some helpful suggestions for solo travel.

Reading Alone Time was somewhat akin to taking a practice trip, an imaginary journey to four fascinating metropolises. It offered validation in an unexpected way to the desire all of us have, every now and then, to have a coffee or a moment by ourselves, to slow down and just watch and listen. That’s a good thing, a healthy necessity in 21st century life. It is not selfish. Rosenbloom guides us, too, in ways that being alone can enhance our experiences. I found it most intriguing that often the best place to do that kind of “slow thinking” is in places filled with hustle and bustle.

David Potash

Theroux’s Chicago Horror

Paul Theroux is a very good writer, known best for his works on travel and some novels, a few of which has been made into movies. In 1990 he wrote Chicago Loop, a grim work of fiction about a killer’s downward spiral. The primary character is no Raskolnikov; he’s probably more familiar to readers of Brett Easton Ellis. There are no great surprises, no philosophizing in Chicago Loop. Instead, it paints of picture of Windy City anomie through the lies and violence of a “successful” white male predator with a job and a family. Nicknamed the “Wolfman” the murder bites his victims. He drives a BMW and calls it a “beemer.” It’s dark stuff indeed.

The novel, all told, is not successful. A murder, in the middle of the story, serves as a structural pivot point. The first half leans toward the analytic, the critical, with a focus on a psychopath who lies as easily as he breathes. In the second part of the novel, the same lead character is consumed with guilt and images of the murder he committed. The two major sections – character development and exposition – do not hold together neatly. Each on its own, though, has a certain integrity.

Theroux did his Chicago homework assiduously. He’s strong on the city, its neighborhoods, the borders between city and suburb. The faces of the city also ring true. I can imagine Theroux strolling with a notebook and pen, sketching out the setting.

Chicago Loop is a worthy experiment in horror. It also highlights the challenges of the genre: how to maintain reader’s interest in a detestable main character, what does and does not hold attention, how to build and release tension, and the importance of big picture narrative structure. Most of the needed literary components are present. It’s a testament to Theroux’s skill, as is the well-written prose down to the punch of individual sentences.

Theroux, though, does not seem to enjoy the journey as fully as one might expect. He is in the story and out of the story. I felt his dislike of his protagonist. It’s understandable; the man is scum. There is no joy, though, in the protagonist’s comeuppance and little perverse thrill in being along for the ride. I cannot picture Theroux as a fan of horror movies. He is interested in internal dialogues, in values, in rendering some form of explication. That makes him a more thoughtful writer, a more caring writer. Ironically, though, those admirable traits don’t necessarily lead to goosebumps.

David Potash

Telling One’s Extraordinary Story

Have you read James McBride’s The Color of Water? Written in the 1990s, it’s been a best seller ever since. McBride followed it up with other successful books. A talented musician and composer, a professor at New York University, a collaborator with Spike Lee in films, McBride is an award-winner in multiple fields, a supremely talented and prolific artist. Today he is a leading voice in American arts and letters. The Color of Water is powerful and moving. It has stayed relevant, too, especially because of how it addresses issues of race, racism and identity.

McBride’s memoir is about his family, his childhood, and above all, his mother, Ruth. She was the child of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. They emigrated from Poland in the 1920s and had difficulty adjusting to life in the United States. Her father eventually settled in the south, running a small store. A horrible person, he abused his family and exploited his African-American customers and community. Ruth escaped a terrible childhood, moving north and marrying a loving African-American man. They formed a tight bond in New York City and started a family. Sadly, he died young. Ruth struggled, kept the family together, and eventually married again. Her second husband, also African-American, was caring and supportive. The family grew larger. After a few years of happiness , Ruth was widowed yet again. This loss hit her exceptionally hard. Poverty, which was always at the door, became an even greater problem. Consider the difficulties she and her family faced, a single white women with a large African-American family, in post World War II America. Nonetheless, Ruth pulled herself – and her family together.

It was into this large family, with eleven brothers and sisters, that James McBride grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He and the family faced racism, poverty, and all manner of difficulties. They also were bound together by their mother and her faith in God and education. The family, in many ways, flourished. The pride that McBride has in his family – he lists their accomplishments at the end of the book – is palpable. It’s an extraordinary story.

The book’s title comes from one of Ruth’s observations. A woman of great faith who abandoned Judaism for Christianity, she told once James that God “is the color of water.” It was her unshakeable beliefs that drove Ruth McBride and gave the family direction. The courage of Ruth and her love of her family is off the charts. She was also very reluctant to share her history with her children.

One of the book’s great strengths – and it has many – is the interchanging focus, moving between Ruth’s story and McBride’s. It highlights the interaction of choice, family and community in the development of one’s own self. McBride’s writing is accessible and thoughtfully crafted. Ruth’s determination, her ability to find a way to direct her life, is inspirational. She faced tremendous hardships and still raised a loving and successful family. The children all found ways to grow and find a path, each in their own way. McBride’s insights, his observations and deeply felt appreciation through multiple perspectives, point to better lives and better ways to live.

More than memoir, The Color of Water is a provocative personal history that explores the complexity of identity. The book underscores the ways the society, family and personal choice can direct – or redirect – a life. It challenges expectations and assumptions. Above all, it’s a beautifully written tribute to amazing woman.

David Potash

Changing One’s Spots

Eric Weiner, an inquisitive grump, is a reporter who successfully made the transition from journalism to best-selling book author. His first book-length effort, The Geography of Bliss, is brilliantly conceived travel book brimming with philosophy and wry observation. Funny and profound, the work spans the globe while asking an important question: if happiness is around the corner, where is that corner?

Weiner’s quest takes him to the Netherlands, Iceland, Switzerland, Thailand, Qatar, Moldova (one of the least happy places on earth), India, and the good old United States, his home. Along the way he talks with experts, officials, writers, and everyday people. He eats local foods, questions folks about what makes them happy – or unhappy – and tells us stories. Woven in the narrative are scientific studies, scholarly references, and data. Weiner’s idiosyncrasies – he is obsessed with bags – and predilections give the journey extra flavor. It’s first-person writing with an eye on the local and big-picture questions.

Happy places, it turns out, are slippery. They work for some people and not for others. They depend greatly upon expectations. Weiner learns that most happy places do have something in common: they refresh the soul and they connect us with something larger. Makes me wonder if my happy places – Coney Island, anyone – fits the bill. Weiner also realizes that he can learn more from the unhappy spots.

This is a book with some important insights nestled among jokes and asides. Weiner is smart enough to have made it a more thoughtful book. Hints of that are everywhere. However, that was not his aim. Clearly, too, he was plenty smart in finding the right tone. It’s a perennial best seller and he’s replicated the formula.

I thought of the Wizard of Oz when reading The Geography of Bliss. Home is where the heart is, though it often takes us a lot of time and travel to come to that realization.

David Potash

Positive Brilliance

Eric Idle, a founding member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, is a special sort of genius – the kind that would run from the label while working hard to live up to its expectations. Immensely talented, Idle has made millions laugh, sing and smile over the years. I cannot think of anyone who has written and recorded a song with the impact of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” while also doing so much comedy. Idle recounts his life’s journey from orphanage to Hollywood in a “sortabiography” called Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. It’s his personal philosophy, how he has led his life, and not coincidentally, the title of his most epic musical creation.

The book appeals immediately to anyone who is a Python fan. Known for the sketch comedy, members of Monty Python have made multiple movies – collaboratively, in various configurations, and also as solo artists. They’re on stage, in books, and in our collective cultural consciousness. Idle’s book, though, is not a history of the troupe. It is a joke-filled reflection of an extremely grateful man, one who is both proud of his work and ever so surprised that it’s all turned out so well.

My first experience with Python was in a small movie theater in New Jersey, seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my father. We started laughing during the opening credits and the fake Swedish subtitles. Tears were running down our faces before the very first coconut. I was a middle school student and the movie opened up a world of silly and smart humor to me. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Idle’s father, who served in the RAF during WWII, made it through the conflict only to be killed in road accident shortly after. Idle’s mother had great difficulty with the loss. His grandmother raised him until he was shipped off to a British boarding school for orphaned boys. The childhood had a Dickensian horror to it, replete with beatings, bullying and deprivation. Idle’s response: humor, girls, getting into trouble, and, when needed, focusing his extraordinary talents. Supposedly an indifferent student, he nevertheless decided to pay attention (“out of boredom?!?”) and earned a scholarship to Cambridge University. At University Idle found his metier with other actors, writers and budding comedians. By his early 20s, Idle was regularly writing, acting and performing on television, in the theater, and at comedy clubs.

Idle’s “sortofbiography” gives us these very important early days in the book’s first thirty-pages. The formation of Monty Python follows – the members had no idea that they would become all that popular – follows. We read about this movie, that project, this friendships and that opportunity. Success begets success as Idle is anything but passive. He has been working constantly, writing and performing. His work ethic, in fact, would rival that of any Victorian polymath.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life unironically reflects Idle’s inherently positive temperament. Much of the book, accordingly, is about Idle’s successes and his friendships – with other members of Python, with virtually every creative celebrity that you can imagine, and his very close friends like George Harrison. It’s easy to see why you would want Idle as a friend. He’s generous, hysterically funny, and a deeply nice person. When Idle has screwed up, as he did with his first wife, he’s honest about his failings. You simply have to like the man and feel good about all the wonderful things in his life. And as the book has more than a few pages, the good feelings roll up – even with a loss or heartbreak here or there. Nonetheless, Idle’s positive nature carries us, cheerfully, along.

It’s a great message for terrible times. Let’s all take it to heart.

David Potash

Dreaming of Inns

A musician, poet, writer, collaborator and influencer before there was social media to render the term relevant, Patti Smith is a genius, a unique voice in American culture. She is a creative force and an artist who has collaborated with many other artists across many fields. Just before the pandemic in 2019 she wrote Year of the Monkey. It is a memoir, but not her first. The book is a creative journey into her 70th year. Filled with travel, discovery, loss and reflection. Year of the Monkey is a mature book, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. She writes, draws, takes photos and thinks about her life, her colleagues and her friends.

First are the words and phrases. Smith’s talent is on display throughout. She writes beautifully, turning description and observation into lyrics and word poems. You could read much of the book aloud. I did. You will also want to jot down the phrase here, the clause there. She mixes the general with the particular. The year and the book are both tethered to the specific and comfortable with the abstract, or at least that is how Smith frames it. The language is wonderful.

That given, the story is not for everyone.

Reading Year of the Monkey brought to mind Rembrandt’s many self-portraits. He painted himself differently, yet with integrity, many times over his lifetime. It is his latter works that make sense here, the paintings that contain the lines and consequences of age, the power and weakness of wisdom and experience, and force the viewer to confront more of the complications of Rembrandt’s humanity. It is not necessarily attractive; nor is it meant to be. Rembrandt is not following a particular convention. Nor is trying to appeal to the viewer. It is personal and creative. His portraits sit, accessible and not. There’s an inscrutable quality to them.

Smith’s book functions in a similar manner. She flits, engages, disengages and blurs dream and not dream. Age and the death of friends haunt her. Smith has been famously collaborative throughout her life and the importance of partnerships really hits home in Year of the Monkey. Her long-time collaborator, Sam Shepard, is dying of ALS. She writes of his “affliction” but it’s clear that there is more going on. Smith’s long-term collaborator and producer, Sandy Perlman, dies early in the year. More than events to be recorded and noted, the losses Smith endures are weighty. There’s no escape. The Dream Inn figures prominently as anchor, place and place of mind.

Despite the trauma and loss, Smith, is not sorry for herself. There’s sadness, but it is far from unmitigated. She is far too curious, far too restless, to sink into senescence. This book remains about hope, about creation, and about the future. That is how we think of Smith, an artist who takes her sorrow and keeps working. That tension and her tremendous talent make for a very good read.

David Potash

Beautifully Rendered Trauma and Memory in Idaho

Well-crafted literature builds a world of words that feels real, that rings true, that we can picture in our minds and yet we know is fiction. When done well, it asks not for the reader to suspend belief so much as to bypass the very concern. It drives us to consider different perspectives, opening our minds. It stretches our empathy and understanding, and sometimes even our humanity. Idaho, Emily Ruskovich‘s first novel, does this well. It is creative writing grounded in deep respect for its characters and the world that they inhabit. It is about forgiveness, memory, sin and friendship.

The book opens with a mystery: a wife, sitting in the family’s old and rarely-used pickup truck, is struggling to make sense of the life and trauma of her husband’s first family. Something awful happened and he is suffering from early-onset dementia. The first wife is in prison. Children are gone. There seems to be little but clues, fragmented memories and imagined images. We can picture the truck, the farm, the people as figures within a vast and indifferent landscape. The book’s themes of trauma and memory are introduced early and woven throughout, yet they do not seemed forced or artificial. As the chapters increase, we meet the first wife, learn about courtship and family, close and extended, friends and foes, and the expanse of rural Idaho.

A mother’s violence toward her children – an unexplainable and horrific act – functions as the keystone of the plot. However, Ruskovich is not writing a mystery and the aim is not explication. Rather, as chapters jump back and forth in time and are told from different character’s perspectives, we see the power of kindness emerge as a force for understanding and for making meaning. Characters wrestle with loss – of people, or place, of agency and of memories.

Ruskovich does not hurry us along. She writes beautifully and gives each character their due. Every voice contributes. Reading the novel requires attention. Details – imagined or “real” – are sprinkled throughout. These particularities function on two levels, as touchstones for the characters and as markers for readers. Idaho is mapped. She is particularly strong when it comes to silences. It is often the things not said, the language between the words, that reveals. Ruskovich writes about these meaningful gaps with care and precision.

Idaho, ultimately, is a book about what it means to care about others. While Ruskovich does not withhold judgment, her prose emphasizes the humanity of the characters – regardless of their actions. The book’s goodness works against the inexplicable act of violence at its core. Accordingly, reading the novel leaves us in an interesting place. We are not omniscient so much as gifted with radical empathy. It is not understanding so much as awareness. It is a feeling that will stay with you. It will be how I remember this impressive book.

David Potash