David Sedaris and the ‘Theft by Finding’ diaries

To keep things fresh in the world of reading, my experience dictates that you cannot read the same kinds of things all the time. It’s well to read a book like TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou,  or even Dennis Lehane‘s World Gone By. All bring different experiences, narrative styles, and points about life and family to their individual work. It is precisely because they have different things to say that I found myself interested and reading them.

Theft By Finding 2 - David Sedaris(David Sedaris)

I leave it to you to determine if David Sedaris belongs listed with the likes of McCann, Angelou, or Lehane, or if any of these four belong together in a comparison. In the book Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, you as the reader are introduced to a diary of personal observation, obscure and shocking tidbits of appalling human interactions of a cruel and unfeeling nature, gossip, an overwhelming desire to eat at International House of Pancakes, troubles with lasting employment, and ultimately the glue of his relationships with both his mother and father.

Theft By Finding 4 - David Sedaris(David Sedaris wrote Theft By Finding)

Much of the sharing within this book, ultimately a collection of his own diary tied together and told chronologically, gives you a sense for Sedaris‘ humor. The observations are quirky and revealing about the author and the world he inhabits. The cultural exchanges he has with a particular teacher of the French language to non-native speakers strike me as a particularly inviting example of humor that is well executed. If you tend towards an open mind on the world with a comfort for exploring experiences away from home, then you will do well in reading Theft By Finding.

Theft By Finding 3 - David Sedaris(David Sedaris)

The book Theft By Finding is bill as the first of two books of the collected diaries of David Sedaris. My rating for Theft By Finding is 4-stars out-of 5. This ranks relatively high for the books I have read so far in 2018.

Matt – Sunday, July 15, 2018


Completing Dennis Lehane’s loose trilogy of novels in ‘World Gone By’

The three books of Dennis Lehane‘s Coughlin trilogy follow an unexpected path in telling three distinct stories that are only loosely connected by a cast of common characters over many years. While ostensibly about one family, the narrative arc of the three books rather connects two brothers (a cop and a gangster) first through their father in The Given Day and then Live By Night. The larger story then pivots to the story of a gangster aiming to get out of the business while losing every semblance of family in Live By Night and World Gone By.

World Gone By 2 - Dennis Lehane(Dennis Lehane)

Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of Boston Police Department captain Thomas Coughlin, is the unmitigated star of the books Live By Night and World Gone By. Climbing the corporate ladder of  the Italian mob takes Joe from his Irish family in Boston, Massachusetts to Ybor City, Florida near Tampa to Havana, Cuba. The era of Prohibition and illegal booze are the racket. Joe is highly competent, highly profitable, and highly troubled as far as his love interests, loyalty to the family he cultivates in the mob, and functioning a mob syndicate amongst the intrigue of those gunning for him, regardless of his conscience.

World Gone By 3(World Gone By)

World Gone By is a clear sequel to Live By Night in tone, style, and subject matter. That The Given Day even existed adds nothing to this tale, as the story looks to tie up loose ends from the story of Live By Night. Joe works as the consigliere to the crime family headed by his former partner Dion Bartolo. Bartolo is the family Joe has, in addition to his son. Joe’s wife, Graciela, was killed at the end of Live By Night. To me, World Gone By is a book length examination of regret, recrimination, and the workings of an author (Lehane) and a mobster (Joe Coughlin) who wanted better for themselves but had to suffer through more story than they could execute. It is an irony that Joe loses his son in the way Thomas Coughlin emotionally loses both of his sons through the trilogy. Joe lost his son by killing Dion. Thomas lost Joe and his other son through different degrees of alienation in the three book trilogy.

World Gone By 4(The Given Day, Live By Night, and World Gone By)

Thomas Coughlin appears in Live By Night and the opening book of the series, The Given Day. The Given Day is a historical novel that looks into the stories of two main characters, namely Aiden “Danny” Coughlin of Boston and Luther Laurence, a talented black amateur baseball player from Columbus, Ohio. Their stories intersect in bringing out compelling narrative pitted against the 1919 Boston Police Strike for Danny, the  Tulsa Race Riot against Black Wall Street for Luther, the shame that former Red Sox and Yankee baseball player Babe Ruth about the prohibition against blacks in baseball and baseball’s unfair financial structure, and a few other story lines.

In getting into subjects of class tension, racial tension, poverty, economic instability, political corruption, and so much more, The Given Day was an outstanding book of its own accord. That the book incorporates historical events and people so well made for high expectation for the series for me. Live By Night and World Gone By, while not bad and decent reflections of tensions with the story of an upswing of 20th century mob activity in America and Cuba, quite simply places a blemish upon The Given Day by bringing in characters that only tangentially relate to what may be the best accomplishment of Lehane’s writing career. In comparison, these two suffer by bringing less history into their telling. These are statements more for the first book than against the second and third books.

World Gone By 5(Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in the movie Live By Night (2016))

Ben Affleck played Joe Coughlin in the 2016 movie adaptation of the book Live By Night, which of course introduced us to the central question of family and whether a gangster can remain moral. The clear answer is no, though the notion of ethics is strong in the second and third books. World Gone By continued with the fallout of family and the ethical lifestyle, and to a certain respect feels to me like The Godfather: Part III (1990) feels for many who like the Godfather movie franchise…that the first two movies are clearly better. My feel is that I am not clear what fans of Dennis Lehane‘s work received in the third installment of this trilogy of books. More clearly, Live By Night as a standalone book with no relation between Joe, Danny, and Thomas Coughlin would have been best. Having Live By Night exist without World Gone By also would have been good for the Joe Coughlin and Dion Bartolo story.

My personal rating of the book World Gone By is 3.25-stars out of five (5).

Matt – Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The memory of a life scholastic – Jean Marzollo

The writer of more than 150 books for children has died. Jean Marzollo wrote books for the Scholastic Publishing brand of education and media that has thrived through my childhood and for a long run before and after. Marzollo’s life is captured in this New York Times article from April 13, 2018.

Marzollo 2(Jean Marzollo)

Ms. Marzollo passed at age 75 in New York state after a fulfilling career writing books for children. Her I SPY series of books were written in rhythm and rhyme. The notion of this trait was to “lure and excite the ear,” as Marzollo said in the biography on her website. “Children love rhythm and rhyme, and so do I.”

Marzollo 3(A book in the I SPY series)

While many of the books by Marzollo were accompanied by images or illustrations with collaborators such as Walter Wick, the I SPY series that began in the early 1990s also led to other works.

Marzollo 5(My First Book of Biographies)

Per the piece in The New York Times, Marzollo became editor of Let’s Find Out magazine in 1972. The monthly magazine for kindergartners led to Marzollo’s first book in 1978, Close Your Eyes (illustrated by Susan Jeffers). The book was about a boy having trouble falling asleep. Other I SPY books really cemented Marzollo‘s reputation.

Marzollo 4(A book in the I SPY series)

The book In 1492 is a biographical book for kids that describes the first voyage of Christopher Columbus into the new world. The point here is to show that Marzollo‘s literary themes for kids ranged from the fanciful to factual, words used in The New York Times article.

Marzollo 6(The book In 1492 by Jean Marzollo)

Jean Marzollo lived a life that aimed to educate children. Her recent passing at 75 years of age, while sad, reminds us that she left us with much of a fanciful yet factual world that educated children and adults alike in the concept of raising the literacy of children. There is much to respect and remember in this life’s aim to inspire a love for reading and literacy.

Matt – Friday, April 20, 2018

Maya Angelou knew why the caged bird sang, and it was good

Ninety years and eight days ago, Maya Angelou was born to parents that would divorce three years later. Forty-one years later, the autobiographical fiction book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969. It is on the occasion of Angelou‘s birth that I choose to review my experience of having read the book.

Caged Bird 2(Maya Angelou)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings gets into Angelou’s the harsh reality of growing up to the age of 17 as a black female in the racist America of the 1930s and 1940s. The book gets into difficult assaults on the main characters of Maya and her brother Bailey as they are shuttled between households across the country, suffering brutal attacks on personal dignity, racial and gender identity, ownership of innocence and the right to say yes or no AS CHILDREN in matters of intimate physical contact, and much more.

Caged Bird 3(Angelou‘s poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)

The emotional and visceral feelings of consternation raised by the cruel and severe treatment of Maya and Bailey as children are unmistakable, autobiographical, and in raising commentary about the injustice and then later ramifications are unmistakable. In underscoring these indignities as well as the importance of family, fair racial treatment, and the longing for a less-trying background, the narrative structure not only exemplifies the reality yet drives home a notion that the human spirit still can flourish in the presence of events that would embitter people of lesser quality.

Caged Bird 4(A Kathy Coleman Jones poem inspired by Maya Angelou)

In the novel, the character Maya learns in her teenage years while living in San Francisco that consolation for grief from the past can be overcome. The transformation of Maya is the maturity and insight gained by self-love and the insight of friends that the character Maya finds within the pages of books. Maya professes a love for literature in general and classic writers and William Shakspeare specifically. Over the course of the work, the beauty that shows itself is the overcoming of the cages of racism, rape, an inconsistent family life, and other challenges in coming to the realization of choosing love, expression, deeper feelings. Maya the character frees her feelings to sing of the beauty she sees for herself and in others to move from the shackles of a cruel upbringing to the joyful singing of beauty, love, and depth.

Caged Bird 5(Maya Angelou)

In the reading of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I felt the sting of suffering with the characters of Maya and Bailey. I felt the confusion of adolescence with these two, as well as the longing for stability of consistent family, place, and justice. The humanity growth of Maya’s choosing love, literature, and the higher callings of our human family were redeemed, for a book from 1969, worked for me. It is for these reasons that the book rates 4.0-starts-out-of-five.

Matt – Thursday, April 12, 2018

Randy Pausch’s ‘The Last Lecture’ offers touching inspiration

Do you find that folks in a computer science profession aloof? Are folks in the Information Technology department at your workplace a touch odd, shy, and lacking in the panache of personality that you crave? With the life lessons and experiences shared by Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University in his 2008 book The Last Lecture, the Pittsburgh-based computer science professor gave the presentation on life that forms the basis of the book The Last Lecture a mere ten months before his death in July 2008.

Last Lecture 2(Randy Pausch)

Prior to giving this lecture offered in the book, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and less than 12-months to live. Pausch set about offering the life-affirming story of pursuing your childhood dreams in a fashion that belied both the preconception of people working in computer science as well as that of a talk about a man talking about death. The story was one of inspiration, life lessons that Pausch wished to leave for his wife and young kids, and paying forward the lessons that he, Pausch, had taken from those who influenced him.

Last Lecture 3(Randy Pausch delivering his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh)

Much of the stories within the lecture can be considered mini-essays about life. Pausch talks of the love he has for his wife, Jai. Pausch distills life lessons that he would like to leave for his three children, so that they had a first hand sense for the man that would be much more possible with this record than simply with the stories from his wife. The sense of humor, intelligence, and panache of his tales were engaging.

Last Lecture 4(Randy Pausch, left, and Jai Pausch (Glasgow))

Hearkening back to his larger audience at Carnegie Mellon University, where Pausch gave his last lecture, I like that he focused a chapter on sharing cliche. He focused on the general truths captured in them, and that students at a university (or younger) can benefit from the wisdom. Why? The benefit comes from their truth and that students by and large lack the life experience to know about them. Another favorite subject was the section / chapter on team dynamics. The key thing here is that many people are so self-focused that they do not really learn how to function with others or for others. This, in reality, forces computer science students, college students, and even his kids to hear a lesson that Pausch found telling and important.

Last Lecture 5(Randy Pausch with his three kids)

There is so much more to the lessons about life and self that Pausch shared in The Last Lecture that this offering does not do justice to the subject. The ending to the lecture punctuates the larger point that these life lessons all get back to the larger, more important point of leaving memories of yourself for those that you love most. These loves notes for Pausch were for his wife, Jai, and their three kids. The lecture involved a couple notions of the subject of head fakes, which get back to how lessons are taught using the cliche of lessons from a football coach that Pausch admired.

The engaging, touching quality of the message of the book stands tall for me. My rating for the book is 4.5-stars out of 5-stars. This book, though covering ostensibly sad material, is worth the read for me.

Matt – Saturday, March 31, 2018

Time and Place Transcend in the 2013 book TransAtlantic

Colum McCann weaves a transcendental mediation in the book TransAtlantic. This experiment in time, historical figures, and the stories of a maternal line of one family spans the years 1844 to 2012 in a non-linear way, leaping from era to era in North America (Canada and the United States) and the western Europe (Ireland and England).

The reader is immersed in historical fiction with an insight into two British airmen, Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown, making the first non-stop aerial crossing of the Atlantic after the first world war in 1919, Frederick Douglass speaking in Ireland with bewilderment at being treated with human dignity while observing the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, and finally former Maine Senator George Mitchell helping negotiate the Northern Ireland peace accord between 1995 and 1998. The first movement of TransAtlantic is a meditation on history and identity with two regions connected in spirit and identity.

TransAtlantic 2(Colum McCann)

These disparate events are brought closer together and made more intimate not by any logical connection but by looking around and seeing a single family of ladies on the periphery of Douglass, Alcock, Brown, and Mitchell taking on a larger role in making the world smaller. The second major movement of the book opens with this quote from Wendell Berry‘s poem The Rising:

“But this is not the story of life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.”

The historical figures connect to The Rising by being the interconnection of the three threads made by the historical figures. There is Lily Duggan, mother to Emily Ehrlich. Emily Ehrlich is the mother to Lottie and grandmother to Hannah. It is Lily that is moved by Douglass’ words about possibility and freedom that prompts her to head to America with a child who dies in the Civil War. Emily is born of Lily’s marriage to John Erlich.

Emily learns to read and write, and writes a letter of thanks to Isabel Jennings, who had hosted Frederick Douglass in Ireland all those years ago. Emily had asked Jack Alcock to deliver it with his transcontinental flight. Alcock failed in this deliver, and returned the unopened letter from 1919 to Emily ten years later when Lottie with her mother Emily were writing an anniversary story.

Lottie meets a man that she later marries while conducting the Alcock anniversary interview and photo shoot with her mother. The family fortune for Lottie and her daughter Hannah is comparatively small when measured against the wealth enjoyed by Emily. This partly happened because Lottie’s husband was less well-to-do. Hannah’s son Thomas is killed setting decoys for a hunting event at the cottage where she and Thomas lived. As Thomas theoretically died at the hands of soldiers that would swear by the peace negotiated with George Mitchell, Hannah finds some measure of peace after the loss.

Finances grow devastatingly worse for Hannah. Hannah wants to sell the letter written by Emily since it might reveal something that would damage the reputation of Frederick Douglass. The sealed letter was forthcoming with only the mysterious answer of a slight thank you for services offered while visiting the Jennings household. Hannah’s stay at the cottage was further coming to an end, and she waxes reminiscent of the lives of her lady ancestors who came before her:

“The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again. We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

TransAtlantic becomes a contemplation of the endeavors, struggles, and sad tragedies of life. The narrative style of the book will challenge many readers with an intellectualism that almost defies the transcendentalism that it feels like the author, Colum McCann, was pursuing. It feels like this book will mostly be appreciated by bookish, professorial types of readers. As a result, my rating is 3.5-stars out of a potential 5.0-stars.

Matt – Wednesday, January 24, 2018.


Vladimir Nabokov’s joke in 1955’s ‘Lolita’

It might sound funny to learn that the first thing that prompted me to read the book Lolita by Russian Vladimir Nabokov was a song by the British pop rock band The Police. The shoddy technique used to rhyme cough with Nabokov starting at the 2:13 mark in Don’t Stand So Close to Me prompted me to go to a 63-year-old book 38-years after the release of the lyric that sparked the interest.

Lolita 2(British pop rock band The Police)

The foreword to the book Lolita by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. makes it clear that you are about to get into morally objectionable, taboo subject matter of sexual relations between 37 year old Humbert Humbert and 12 year old Dolores “Lolita” Haze. In admiring the execution that Nabokov had in developing something he deems commendably executed, Ray excoriated Humbert Humbert, or H.H.

“No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. Hr is ponderously capricious…A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman.”

While obscene terms are not used in this book, the story tells of criminality and obscene thinking and behavior. The fact that this is so clearly the language and thinking underpinning the moral depravity of the subject matter is clearly deliberate from the authorial perspective. As pointed out by reviewer Ian “Marvin” Graye on Goodreads, emphasizing the initials of Humbert Humbert (H.H.) in German initiates the concept that we as readers are the subjects of a joke.

“To this day, I cannot look at Humbert’s initials “H.H.” without pronouncing them in German, “Ha Ha”, and wondering whether the joke is on us.”

The framing of the narrative of Lolita has it that Humbert Humbert was due to stand trial so had the luxury of time to prepare a defense with his lawyer. The detailing of the death of Dolores “Lolita” Haze’s narcissistic mother Charlotte, the ongoing sexual contact between a predatory H.H. and a wayward Dolores across state lines, and H.H.’s murder of Clare Quilty for subsequent sex with Dolores are all tales of confession that we as readers are ostensibly cast as jurors, thus allowing us the “joke” of dignity for working through the moral objections of reading difficult subject matter.

I came to the book Lolita because of a remembered lyric from a song by The Police. The investment in the song was one of less than four-minutes in the random times it would come to the radio. The book prompted an emotional and intellectual investment of a measured duration closer to 12-hours worth of reading. While ostensibly both deal with inappropriate relations, the book feels like it has taken a fuller measure of hurt for prolonging the investment.

Lolita 3(Humbert Humbert words to Dolores “Lolita” Haze)

If the investment truly was one of a joke on the reader, than I feel poorly played as a receiver of the joke. In execution, I must indicate a well-played articulation of language, structure, and the aims of executing sympathy for a character I fully want to consider unsympathetically. That H.H. dies in prison as a part of the novel feels almost satisfying.

I give the book a rating of 3.25-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Tuesday, January 9, 2018