Writerly Sagacity with Wit

Anne Lamott is one very wise, very funny writer. The 25th anniversary edition of her seminal book, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is comedic, philosophical and a very entertaining read. That endorsement holds true for all manner of readers, whether you are a writer or simply someone who writes, a professional or a student or an aspiring author. Or simply someone who caught her TED talk and would like to hear more.

Lamott writes novels and non-fiction. Her voice is unmistakable, clear and carrying an honesty and immediacy that catches you by the lapels. She is in your face and in your head, and she does it without polemics or a loud voice. Instead, Lamott writes with the great strength that comes from awareness and openness with one’s vulnerability. At first blush you might think it self-deprecating, but much more is taking place. Her prose is extraordinarily human in the best sense of the word. She writes to learn, to know herself and others, and to make sense of the human condition.

Bird By Bird captures that well, giving outlines and observations to what can be an overwhelming task: writing. The title comes from a personal anecdote. Lamott’s brother was assigned a school report on birds, a topic he found too complex and confusing to capture on paper. He did not know how to begin. To address the problem he began with small steps, going bird by bird. The same approach works with writing, Lamott counsels. There is no finished book without many shitty first drafts. Her humor, warm and dark, gives the reader and aspiring writer the reassurance that their struggles may be special, but they are far from unique. Lamott teaches writing regularly and it’s apparent to see that she’d be an outstanding a coach and guide. She is one in this book

It’s easy to find a summary of Bird By Bird online. You can download powerpoints, watch youtube videos, and copy the notes. A documentary was made about her and the book. However, watching and shortcuts in so many ways might bypass a very important point. Underlying Lamott’s work is a recognition that writing is hard work. One of the things that makes it so valuable is the difficulty inherent in writing.. It requires engagement, imagination, and all the comes from working through frustration and despair. You just can’t get all that with notes. If you want to learn from Lamott and to become a better writer, invest the time and energy in the process. Give Bird By Bird time and your undivided attention. I’d wager that Anne Lamott is well worth it.

David Potash

The Magic of Wolpertings in Zamonia

Walter Moers’ indescribably epic epic, Rumo, is out of print in English. Hankering for a return to Zamonia and a refresher of Rumo’s miraculous adventures, I tracked down a second-hand copy. The tale was even better the third time through. More than a few things are special about this book. But no new copies? That’s a crime. Rumo is genius, unlike most things that we read. Why aren’t more captivated by this most unusual of books?

That is probably it, the most simple of explanations. Rumo is so unique, so difficult to characterize, that you might never pick it up should you chance across a copy. Without word of mouth, you might not be able to tell if it was for children or belong to science fiction or fantasy sections. It is chock full of unusual ink drawings. Rumo doesn’t fit into any recognizable box, and as such, may not be readily categorized. Nor easily marketed. But what a story! Please let me introduce you to a history that once read, will never leave you.

The book is massive and is actually two books, bound together with a common story and characters. It takes place in the land of Zamonia, a continent with a rich history of many different kinds creatures, drawn from the fervid imagination of Moers, and no humans. Most of the creatures speak, and all who speak have something interesting to say. Moers has set other novels in Zamonia. It’s an exciting place, steeped in danger: the perfect place to visit through a work of fiction, not a place you might want to live. A quiet and peaceful life in Zamonia is rare.

Our eponymous hero, Rumo, is a wolperting, a dog-like creature with horns and outstanding fighting abilities. Rumo, a quiet fellow who is uncomfortable in the limelight, turns out to be exceptionally good at fighting, even compared to other wolpertings. His frailties – and Moers’ characters, imagined beasts though they may be, consistently are complicated and ring, somehow, as true – make him all the more identifiable. You root for Rumo, who displays tremendous sangfroid in the face of extraordinary risks. It’s a violent tale, much as one would find in a Norse epic. Rumo’s adventures call for interaction with all manner of creatures, and as his and other’s stories unfold, we learn much of the history of Zamonia.

And that doesn’t at all capture the excitement on each page, the humor woven throughout, the wit and the drama. Helping us visualize it all, Moers’ drawings illustrate creatures and their traits. Among his many creative abilities, he’s a very successful cartoonist in Germany. Buy into the book, give it time and focus your imagination, and it becomes all the more memorable.

Book for young adults? Book for adults? Book for adults who think like kids? I have no idea. And it does not matter.

Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures brings to me a return to an extraordinary land where I can marvel at Moers’ genius and truly enjoy the ride.

Good luck finding a copy. It’s completely and totally worth it.

David Potash

Warring on the Home Front

At first glance, To All the Living might seem like a strangely situated novel, looking at factory life in WWII England. Give it a read, though, and it opens up into an extremely interesting tale, filled with drama and a profound appreciation for all characters. It’s a fascinating book. And while not the most innovative works of literature, it flashes more than a few moments of true brilliance. Makes sense, too, as its author, Monica Felton, was an extraordinary person. The Imperial War Museum is so right in naming this a classic.

The story centers around the workers at the Blimpton ammunition factory in Dustborough. Naming is humorous and apt. Miss Creed oversees the women who do much of the labor. Public relations for the enterprise is headed by Otway Dolphin. Small details, flourishes and asides are thoughtfully employed throughout. Felton shares a great deal, with skill and sometimes surprisingly few words.

Drama emerges through the complex interplay of workers and the pressures on the factory. It takes place during the early years of WWII, when Britain’s continued existence was at stake. That big-picture dread is on the horizon, while the characters also wrestle with everyday challenges and fears. Much of the actual work is making ammunition for artillery, a toxic and dangerous business. Young women, sold on the idea of making money – remember, options were quite limited – and helping the war effort, are the labor force. Necessarily they are stressed, often unhappy, and trying to figure out their place within a rapidly changing world. Bureaucratic wrangling and structural incompetence adds another layer of complexity. Though set many years ago, the novel will ring true to anyone who has worked in a politically driven multi-tiered organization.

Felton, a committed feminist, gives her female characters authentic voice. Ground-up narration in the third person, building a series of interlocking stories from multiple perspectives, shapes the text. There’s humor, wit, and more than a fair share of criticism, formal and informal. The book also has romance, colorful characters (despite the dreariness of Dustborough), politics at the local and national level, and a very keen ear for the hidden battles that are woven throughout workplaces.

Felton, a PhD from the London School of Economics, was a town planner, elected official, and serious political player. She worked in Britain’s Ministry of Supply during the early years of the war, too, giving her the direct material for much of the book. Felton clearly was an extraordinarily thoughtful woman and it is evident that To All the Living was not written solely for entertainment. She had important ideas that she wanted to convey. That struck me as quite similar to much of George Elliot’s literature. Both women used plot, characters and conflict to bring to life broader issues, especially the opportunities and constraints defining women’s lives.

Really good novel from a brilliant author – I heartily recommend To All the Living. It has relevance today.

David Potash

1920s Crime & Craziness

The Ghosts of Eden Park, Karen Abbott’s 2019 popular history, tells a dramatic true-life story. So much happens – it is so over-the-top – that it is difficult to believe. Nevertheless, it’s all true.

Abbott, who now goes by the name of Abbott Kahler, is a skilled writer who found success with other histories: Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Drawn to tales of crime, betrayal, and the intersection of popular culture and politics, Abbot mixes first-person historical accounts with tabloid-like descriptions and focus. She likes the lurid. Ghosts is a fine example of this sort of work. Abbott’s book is engaging and entertaining.

The story is about a murder trial and the intrigues and stresses that led to it. George Remus and his wife, Imogen, are the primary characters. It takes place in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, a hotbed of crime and Americana. Remus was a pharmacist, lawyer, and wildly ambitious bootlegger who amassed and lost a fortune. Imogen, an equally dynamic character, was his partner and wife. That was, however, until Remus was locked up for some of his crimes. Plotting, criminal activity and all manner of excess take place before the trials. We get a good picture of the investigatory and legal work that led to Remus’s incarceration. Abbott switches her focus very effectively.

In a surprising twist, Imogen takes up with a Department of Justice investigator who was tasked with investigating her wayward husband. Twists and double twists swirl around Remus. He is too dangerous and amoral to serve as a traditional hero. However, as a key character, he is perfect.

Once Imogen’s affair became serious, the investigator resigned from the government. Remus was released and more acrimonious conflict soon followed. There’s lying, crime, violence, more trials, and a surprising interplay with national politics and players. Remus built his business at the start of Prohibition, tangled with other criminals and the politicos, as well as the up and comers in Cincinnati and Chicago. Corruption in the Harding Administration fueled his enterprise.

Snaps to Kahler for putting together a very engaging history, a book that reads like a novel and is grounded in research. There will be a movie, too. The story is that good.

David Potash

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