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No one checks, so go ahead and lie: “What Books Are On Your Nightstand?”

22 Mar

Bookshelf

A person I worked with years ago has since become a famous writer. He has a new book out and was interviewed recently by the New York Times. He did well, especially with the question, “What books are on your nightstand?”

Famous writers who are interviewed know this question is coming. From some of the interviews I’ve read, I’m inclined to think the interviewer should actually go out and check the nightstand.

As I read my former colleague’s interview, I thought about me, not him. He played it relatively straight, with just a touch of levity, and came off looking like the serious writer he is. Should I ever become famous and be the subject of an interview, I’m certain I would blow it with failed humor, misunderstood sarcasm and an attempt to show that seriousness is way overrated.

The worst of it would come with the “book on the nightstand” question.

Have you noticed they don’t ask the more precise, “What books are you reading?” In effect, the interviewer gives the serious writer a polite “out.” The books only have to be on the nightstand, not read.

I can hear myself taking advantage of this loophole and saying:

Mario-Vargas-Llosa“You know, prior to the interview I went to a consignment shop and bought this monstrous piece of furniture. I put it next to my bed and filled it with the great literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries –all the books Joyce Carol Oates has read. OK, now ask me that question again”

Even if I forced myself to answer the question properly, I’m sure I would ruin it by injecting too much honesty.

I’d probably say:

“Look, I get up early and really need eight hours sleep. When I go to bed, I’m tried. I pick up a book and in less than 10 minutes I’m out. Homer’s “Odyssey” is on the nightstand now. I plan to finish it by 2088.”

For me, the other troublesome questions are: “Who is your favorite author?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Most people can answer these questions. I cannot.

I don’t have a favorite color, favorite food or favorite movie, and I certainly don’t have a favorite author or book. The world contains so many varieties of great consumables that I just keep consuming and move on.

Memory also is a problem. I can’t remember which book I liked best. And even if I could, I can’t remember enough about a book to fully understand why I liked it.

I read Moby Dick in college and liked it very much – or so I recall. Yes, I can relate the general story, but I cannot recount specific structure or passages or style or the little stories that fell in between the big one.

When I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World,” I was convinced these monumental works could not have been written without the help of God or muse. Today, it would be impossible for me to go into detail.

Tolstoy_normalMy old colleague mentioned Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as one of his favorite novels. I think I first heard about this book in a joke by Woody Allen, who said:

“I took one of those speed reading courses and read ‘War and Peace’ in one night. It was about Russia.”

After the joke, I decided to read the book – in considerably more time than one night. My recollection today is that I liked the war parts much better than the peace parts. But overall, for my taste, the book read too much like a soap opera (although I’m sure it was much better in Russian)

One doubts oneself when an opinion goes against the consensus of experts, and they consider “War and Peace” supreme. So I was relieved to learn Tolstoy didn’t think much of it.

This was documented in a journal kept by the founder of the college where I work. This founder, a humanist and early advocate of reformed Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Russian to meet Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. At the time, Tolstoy was a messianic, cult figure trying to establish a new world order. He resided with his followers and acolytes on something resembling a hippie commune.

Tolstoy received the Jewish intellectual and asked if he had read his work. Of course, said the visitor, who mentioned “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

“No,” said Tolstoy. “Not that crap. I mean my serious work.”

The final difficult question in the standard interview with serious writers is:

“What books are you embarrassed NOT to have read?”

The serious writers save face and stay humble by mentioning one or two or sometimes a single author. I fear I would go on forever.

This is why I prefer the interviewer come to my home. When he asks that final question, I would just point to my monstrous nightstand and we’d be done with it.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Something I recently learned

3 Mar

Chinese-students

The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.

 

My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Greek gods knew our shortcomings, especially how greed numbs the brain

25 Jan

zeus-greek-mythology

A new piece of furniture was coming in, so an old piece had to go out. It was a beat up bookshelf filled with dusty volumes. As I removed them, I noticed Homer’s “Odyssey,” which I had not read.

So I cracked it open, not knowing that a passage would foreshadow a later incident.

The early pages had much to offer, and I made these three observations:

  • It’s nice to live in a world where gods favor noble pursuits, but since even heroes can lose the favor of gods, Greek mythology really is no different from real life.
  • Odysseus had a son, whose teacher and counselor is named Mentor. Now I know where that word came from.
  • In one scene, the gods sit around complaining about humans. Zeus says, “Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man.”

Two days after reading this, I saw both ignoble qualities on vivid display.

They appeared in a news item about a woman whose acquaintance I had made and whose mansion I had visited. The article said she and her family had been arrested and charged with $20 million in insurance fraud.

According to the grand jury, their home had been set ablaze not once but three times. After the fires, and after four burglaries, the woman would claim loses of millions in jewels and other valuables.

That’s enough to draw suspicion. Nevertheless, 25 days before the last fire, the coverage on jewels in the home was increased to $11 million.

The news report said investigators seized six Ferraris, two Rolls Royces and millions in other assets. They also found jewels on which claims had been paid.

Now that’s folly.

Among those arrested were the woman’s daughter, who was a former district attorney, and her second husband, a former deputy sheriff. The first husband was a foreman of some sort. She apparently worked as a clerk in her daughter’s law office.

The lot of them must have given Zeus a headache.

I first met the matron at a charity event held at her house. It wasn’t one of those grand old houses. It was one of those incredibly large new houses. Snobs and old money, of course, cast aspersions at such dwellings, but it nevertheless was amazing to look at. The owner, not being the Katharine Hepburn-Philadelphia Story type, fit in with the place. She was a rough and tumble political type with a voice like Marge Simpson and hair so big it needed its own room.

I attended the event with a portrait artist. Our hostess took an interest in the artist and asked about commissioning a painting. It was explained that the portrait might cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The homeowner never followed up with this particular artist, but later hired someone to paint a ceiling mural that had family members looking down from a heavenly perch. I’m not sure what she paid for the mural, which burned, but insurance records show she sought to collect $950,000 on it.

I try to think the best of people but couldn’t resist speculating that when this woman talked about the portrait with the first artist, she had something in mind beside art. It could be that a portrait didn’t quite fill the unstated need. Indeed, upon reading the full story behind the arrests, one might conjecture that insurance fraud was at the root of everything this women did, that it was a firm mindset and an inescapable preoccupation.

As she found success in this preoccupation, did her inner levels of greed and folly increase?

Seems like they did. I might add that after each blaze, investigators found cans of flammable hairspray near the fire’s point of origin, and a security system showed the owner left the house shortly after each fire started.

Does greed also dull the imagination?

The artist and I actually saw this woman again shortly after one of the house fires. We felt so bad for her. We commiserated and consoled her. How unfortunate, we said.

Zeus must have been laughing, as well as planning the coming denouement to yet another sorry episode in humanhood.

Let’s end with Homer.

“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

4 Jan

Rockefeller-finger

Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a presidential candidate and the grandson of one of the most successful capitalists in history, once commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a Marxist, to paint a fresco in the lobby of the RCA building in Manhattan. In that fresco Diego included a portrait of Lenin.

Rockefeller’s father, thoroughly embarrassed, had the artwork removed. With the money left over from the commission, Diego moved to other locations and painted the fresco over and over until his money ran out.

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

This incident is documented in a book by Richard Norton Smith called, “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.” It also is shown in the 2002 Selma Hayek movie, “Frida.”

For younger readers who may not remember Rockefeller, he was the first divorcee to seek high office. He may or may not have been the first nationally known politician to die (at age 71) while in bed with a woman who was not his wife.

A Republican, Nelson was a big government spender and probably would not be accepted by his party today. He possessed enough courage and arrogance to flip the bird to a news photographer, as shown in the photo above.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

Fran Lebowitz – a true New Yorker talking through the cheers and boos

31 Aug

Lebowitz portrait

Fran Lebowitz is a comic writer who has a difficult time writing. So instead, she speaks.

 

She’s the quintessential New Yorker. She loves her town. She celebrates it and it celebrates her. Real New Yorker’s like people with opinions – brash, bold ones – and brash, bold opinions are Lebowitz’ chief currency.

 

Her Grade A conversation makes her popular and in demand. She’s simply fun to be around.

 

waverly signI never met her, but her charismatic magnetism is on display in a documentary entitled, “Public Speaking.” The film is directed by her friend, Martin Scorsese. Much of the footage is of Scorsese and Lebowitz sitting and talking in her hangout restaurant, The Waverly Inn in the West Village.

 

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/uLceaQuFyQE” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

 

In the film, Lebowitz complains that New York has gotten boring. The grit and nastiness she liked disappeared when the city cleaned up to attract tourists. Especially sanitized was Times Square, an area Lebowitz says no self-respecting New Yorker ever visits.

 

A second trauma that damaged New York, she says, was the AIDS epidemic. The city’s great culture, especially the performing arts, existed in such a high state only because of the demanding and enthusiastic audiences, mostly gay. In her view, the audience is just as important, if not more important, than the performers. The old New York audiences knew every nuance of ballet, opera, all of it. They wouldn’t tolerate a single flaw, and the performers were aware of this. But the caliber of the audiences fell as thousands of gay New Yorkers died of AIDS. This, she said, devastating New York culture and all of the performing arts.

FranLebowitz-quote

Lebowitz has an interesting take on the gay rights movement. She said the best thing about being gay was you could avoid marriage and the military. Now, those benefits have been undone by foggy-headed reformers who were trying to do good.

 

The author of several books who has made countless public appearances, Lebowitz tells Scorsese of her most horrible experience on a stage. She was booed by over a quarter million people.

 

The setting was a massive rally of activists trying to convince leaders of the old Soviet Union to allow Jews (Lebowitz is one) to emigrate. Lebowitz was among the speakers who was asked to read a letter of appeal from one of thousands of oppressed Jews. But she also was asked to say a little something first.

 

Referring to a petition with thousands of signatures, she said something like:

 

“I expect the leaders of Russia to respond positively to these demands. I know I wouldn’t want this many Jewish women mad at me.”

 

And the boos rained down on her.

 

So be it. Nobody can take a joke anymore.

The theme of this blog at NotebookM is, “Speaking, because it is allowed.” What I love about Fran Lebowitz is she speaks. God bless her for that. And God bless Martin Scorsese for bringing us this film about her.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Lebowitz Quotes

 

“Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.”

 

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

 

“Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.”

 

“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

 

Big war, small peace – did Stephen Hawking really know the truth?

29 Aug

Cambridge3

I was waiting, so I picked up a book. Inside, just a few pages in, was a simple sentence with the power to uplift, encourage, and promote optimism.

 

It seemed to confirm the idea that there was light amid the dark; that somewhere below the horrid nature of mankind there was good trying to surface.

Sadly, that sentence – written as a statement of fact – is probably wrong. Oddly, its author is one of the world’s most intelligent men.

 

Hawking book jacket-bioThe book was “My Brief History,” the 2013 autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, the man in the wheelchair with the synthetic voice whose life is now a major motion picture called, “The Theory of Everything.”

 

The movie is more a love story than a science story. Still, its title comes from Hawking’s pursuit of a unified way of explaining all forces in the universe.

In the book, Hawking talks about his birth in Cambridge, England, home of one of the world’s greatest universities. His reason for being born in Cambridge is what uplifted me. His casual little sentence was a gentle piece of history I had never heard of; one of those marvelous pieces of information that suggests we maintain a small degree of civility even as we try to utterly destroy each other. It was like reading for the first time about the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides climbed out of the trenches, sang songs together, exchanged presents and even played soccer.

 

In Hawking’s case, the scene is World War II. The scientist said his family moved to Cambridge because the English and the Germans had agreed it was not to be bombed. Also under protection was Oxford, and in Germany the universities at Heidelberg and Goettingen.

 

I had never heard anything of the sort, but recognized that such an agreement could easily have been buried in the rubble of all the other destruction. Visualizing the leaders of these two warring countries shaking hands on this was heart-warming. I actually pictured them doing it.

 

But I guess even Hawking can get things wrong.

 

The fact-checking site Snopes.com said the agreement mentioned by Hawking had been an Internet myth. It’s likely to spread further now with Hawking’s book. Additional searches could not confirm the agreement.

 

Of course, Cambridge was without strategic value and bombs were precious, so it was much safer to be in Cambridge than in London. Hawking’s father probably moved the family there just to lessen the odds of being killed.

 

With many others doing the same, the myth of protection probably evolved and spread. I’m sure it made living in Cambridge a lot more comfortable.

 

Cambridge bombedMyth or not, in 2010 a BBC website ran a story on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge. It has a woman named Barbara Wright remembering the incident. She was six. There’s a photo.

 

“Suddenly there was a huge noise,” she said. “The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us.”

 

The story said nine people were killed in the attack, and that they were the first British civilian casualties of the war.

 

The fact that the myth exists even when there is proof that Cambridge was bombed shows the power of myth and the need to believe in good things.

 

If anyone can shed additional light on the myth, the truth, or Stephen Hawking, please comment. Perhaps the full story still remains to be told. Please don’t, however, write if you have info that the Christmas truce was a myth. Let’s at least leave that one in place. After all, they made a movie out of it.

 

The trailer is below, along with that for the new Hawking movie.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

           

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embed trailer

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