Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Long Way Down

The book gods owed me one. The last two books I’ve read, as I documented here, sucked some pretty serious ass. So, I came to this latest book feeling like I was owed something. It delivered.

I just finished reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby and was impressed from start to finish. It’s a lovely story of four people who decide to kill themselves. You probably don’t think that’s a very uplifting idea for a book, but you’d be wrong. In the very capable hands of Nick Hornby, who also wrote the novels for a few movies you might have heard of, About a Boy and High Fidelity, this book is actually, without being trite or saccharine, able to convey a message that is life affirming.

It’s about four people who all have the same idea on New Years Eve, to jump off a building and end it all. They each make their way, from drastically different lives and backgrounds, to Toppers House, a bit of a famous jumping off point for those who want to throw in the towel. They happen upon one and other and what results, is described on the book jacket, and accurately so, as a newer, fresher version of The Breakfast Club.

The book is written in first person from the four different voices of the main characters. Hornby is brilliant in the contrasts he draws between and around them by using their own various points of view. Each character is writing to an audience and if you pay attention, what you’re actually reading is pointed out to you at one point, although the character who tells you pretends to be oblivious.

You wouldn’t think a book about suicide could be humorous and lighthearted, but that’s the catch here. It only pretends to be a book about death. It’s actually a book about life and living and the humorous parts are both poignant and relevant.

In the end, I came away with the feeling that suicide isn’t so much an act of desperation or of giving up as much as it is an exertion of control over one’s life, even if that bit of control has the price tag of life itself. These four people, some of them who seem to have good reasons for not wanting to live, and others who don’t, are all alike in that their lives have gotten away from them and that their perspective is so dour and so skewed, that the only way they believe they can feel like they are in charge is by killing themselves.

I won’t ruin the ending, or tell you if they all wind up living or dying, but I will say that this book’s ending is exactly the one the book deserved. It isn’t about happily ever after as much as it is about the power of perspective and of change. You’ll invariable come away with a notion of what it’s like to want to die, and to want to live. You’ll understand the fine line that can, at times, separate those two opposites and hopefully remind you that people aren’t always who they seem, and sometimes, even when they are, it’s not because they aren’t trying.

I honestly don’t know what made me pick this book up. The title isn’t especially captivating and once read, with the accompanying picture of four feet on a ledge it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what it might be about, but I did pick it up. And I’ll admit, the reference to the Breakfast Club was probably a major reason I actually bought it. As much as I hate the absurdity of marketing one thing by comparing it to another, I suppose no child of the 80’s could resist that one. This is no retread though. The comparison stops with a group of people, coming together from very different backgrounds to help get each other through the trap that is each of their lives.

It’s original and at times funny, heartrending and always profound. The characters are drawn with vividness and their insights into themselves and their companions are brilliant. Sinners and saints, has beens and never weres, they tell a story well worth reading, learning and remembering. When it’s over, Judd Nelson won’t walk off into the sunset pumping his fist, but you just might.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

It occurs to me that as I get older, I care, less and less about my appearance; at least in terms of the way I dress to combat the cold. The scary part is that I’m pretty sure it’s only going to get worse.

This isn’t to say that I don’t properly groom myself and employ basic hygiene practices, which, of course, I do. This is about big fluffy parkas, gloves so thick that individual finger use seems like a monkey myth, hoods and hats, boots and heavy wool socks. This is about staying warm with absolutely no regard to how it looks.

As is often the case, I hadn’t even noticed about myself that I had changed in this respect until I was brought into contrast a few days ago by a kid (and perhaps I should have guessed some change was occurring in me when I started calling people 5 years my junior, “kids”) who reached the door at Dunkin Donuts, where I’d stopped for my morning coffee, at the same time I did.

He gave me the old head to toe. I must have looked a little something like Randy, the younger brother from the movie A Christmas Story in all of my foul weather prepared glory---a tick, about to burst. It was -25 degrees with the wind chill, I had only driven a few blocks and the heat hadn’t really kicked in yet and I was c-o-l-d, cold.

By contrast, this kid was gloveless, hatless, hoodless, wearing dress shoes and a simple fleece zip up as his only defense against the elements. Granted, Chicagoans are a tough breed when it comes to winter weather—I, myself have been known to traipse out to the garage is nothing but a tee shirt, boxers and flip flops in the dead of winter to retrieve something from my car and bring it back into the warmth. We’re not talking about a 30 second dash here though. This is the trip to work, with a pause for coffee and it’s negative 25 degrees out!

That’s when it hit me. I used to be that kid. Refusing to wear a winter hat because I was more concerned with the way my hair looked all day long; not wearing full winter combat gear so that the other young twenty somethings stopping for coffee could see me. That was this kid now. He didn’t care as much about being cold as he did being seen---the off chance that some homecoming queen of a girl next door would walk through the doors for her morning coffee too.

I simply didn’t care.

In the days since this little encounter, I’ve paid quite a bit of attention to the way people dress for cold weather. I’m pretty sure it’s an evolution that will see me wearing a Siberian fur helmet-hat, with matching ear flaps before another decade passes. I’d rather be warm than look good. When the temperature dips below a certain point, my desire to impress anyone other than my cold fingers, toes and nose dies faster than the career of a boy band after their second CD is released.

The kid looked me up and down and dismissed me as an old, over reacting fool. I dismissed him as a naïve, foolish young kid. It was immaterial that only a few years earlier, I had been he. We ordered our coffees, paid the clerks and went our separate ways. One of us looking good, cold as ice; the other toasty warm and content as not aesthetically impressive.

They say that youth is wasted on the young, and it’s true, but at least, if nothing else, as we get older, we finally get to bundle up and stay warm.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Book Report: Naked & Wicked

It’s time for a book report. Two reports, to be more accurate and sadly, neither of them will be all that glowing. The two books I’ve recently read and will be reviewing are Naked, by David Sedaris and Wicked, by Gregory Maguire and both can be summed up as full of potential, but sadly, pulling short of it’s promise.


Naked, by David Sedaris is a collection of stories from the life and times of its author, who came very highly recommended for his prose and wit. Each of these is in evidence, but in too short an abundance. If I had to sum it up quickly, I’d say this is a book about a gay hitchhiker and the countless times he is almost raped. Of course, he managed to pick some apples and care for a paraplegic girl too though.

There were times, when I admittedly laughed out loud and it’s hard to argue that the author’s prose at times isn’t amazing and colorful but each story from his life concludes without making a point. Time and again Sedaris builds a colorful story from his life, only to leave it to begin another, never learning what he took from that chapter, never finding out why these stories needed to be shared.

After the first couple stories end without any type of summation of lessons learned, I found myself believing that Sedaris was simply building up to the final chapter, which bore the same title as the book, in which I suspected he’d knot it all together in a way consistent with some of the brilliance in his writing.

I was wrong. There wasn’t a point to any of it at all. It was storytelling for the sake of storytelling. The final page flipped with a mocking tone that seemed to say, “Ha! Ha! All of this for nothing!”

Maybe if I’d had an old Greek grandmother, spent time at a nudist camp or had to sneak out of a double-wide trailer filled to the brim with dildos, it would have resonated more, or for that matter, at all. As it was, he told the stories of his life with no intent or purpose. It was writing for the sake of writing. That it could have been brilliant only served to make it a bitterer pill to swallow.


Wicked, by Gregory Maguire is well summed up by it’s title, but only if you take the word at it’s meaning. It’s not wicked awesome or wicked in the way bad can sometimes mean good. It’s just wicked.

Again, in this book, there is a world of potential, but in the end seems a narcissistic, self indulgent dissertation on good and evil, that somewhere along the way, sacrifices the story for the sake of it sermon.

As far as half way through this book, I was enjoying it thoroughly, despite Maguire’s seeming need to impress with his extensive vocabulary at the expense of the pace and flow of the story. It’s an interesting concept for certain, the infamous Wicked Witch of the West’s side of the story from the Wizard of Oz! The very idea reminded me of a favorite line spoke by Sir Alec Guinness in Return of the Jedi. “You’ll find a great many of the truths we cling to, depend greatly on our own point of view.”

This story, gives us the life and times of Elphaba, the girl born green, thought of by her own parents as both penance and punishment. The idea and its setup are brilliant, but again, sadly, they fail to deliver in the end. After a promising beginning, the book meanders and indulges it’s self rather than the story and its reader.

It’s well over 100 pages too long. It’s editor should be fired post haste. And sadly, the promise of the story and the early seeds of ingenuity spoil in a hasty finish that doesn’t even bother to mirror the ending in the original story, bending those scenes instead and explaining it away as different people remembering the story in different ways.

Maguire wants to teach us about good and evil and uses a classic storyline as his vehicle, but doesn’t do the original justice. Gone, after the opening, is the whimsical fantasy and sense of wonder that surely should have been a part of this book. Gone are any restrictions the original story should have applied, explained away hastily and unsatisfactorily. Maguire sacrifices the story for the sake of his point, and in doing so, loses on both counts.

I closed this book with a groan over wasted potential, wishing that someone like Terry Brooks could have written it instead. The reviews I’ve heard of the play based on this book make me think that the appropriate editing was done, the self indulgence was omitted and the sense of fantasy restored before the curtains went up. Bravo, if that’s the case. I only wish someone had the sense to do the same to this book.


After two bad ones in a row, I can only hope the next book doesn’t disappoint as these two have. And if it isn’t, I pray it reveals itself as such early on, so I won’t have to suffer through it’s entirety before realizing my immense disappointment. The literary gods owe me that much.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The General

To many, today will be a day of good riddance. It will be a day which will be followed by a better tomorrow. You can almost hear a chorus of “Ding, Dong, the General’s Dead,” ringing out from his legions of detractors. Sadly, they are a people who do not appreciate the many contributions, the style, the approach and the love of Coach Robert Montgomery Knight, but that does not lessen those things to those who know better.

Today, Bob Knight, winner of 902 college basketball games, retired as head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. A world of basketball fans will be divided on whether or not it is a good day, or a sad farewell to one of the greatest to ever walk the sideline. The only thing, of which we can be reasonably certain, is that we will not see his likes again.

Coach Knight is famous. He is famous for winning. He is famous for tantrums. He is famous for leadership and for lapses in judgment. He is famous for innovation and for refusing to evolve. A seeming paradox, perhaps, to the untrained eye, but perhaps, that’s just exactly what he wanted us to think.

I’m not a Knight apologist by any means. I don’t pretend to agree with everything the man has ever done between the lines, or in the pressroom, but I do believe that in his own way, he was always trying to do what he felt was right, what he felt was best, for his team and for the players on that team.

There are books devoted his treachery. He is a tyrant, and the accounts of the things he has done in the name of winning are infamous. To outsiders, his antics and psychological tactics are cruel and even inhuman. However, for all the years he coached, for all the teams he guided, so few have ever come forward to disagree with his results, not just in the win column, but in the building of men.

It’s not that he’s an ogre or some kind of monster roaming the sidelines. It’s that the world around him changed, and not for the better. He refused to do things in a way that was more palatable to a more politically correct society. Lombardi, Halas, Auerbach, McGraw, there are a number of fiery, ill tempered coaches who we look upon as heroes of their sports today. We name trophies and awards in their honor and celebrate their legend. I can only hope that time will remember Coach Knight in that way as well.

His career began in a time when coaches were coaches and men were men. He and his style fit in seamlessly. As his career wore on though, the world around him got soft. His tragic flaw is that he chose not to soften with it. I would submit that while many of the ideas of modern society are for the better, many are also self-indulgent and superfluous.

Many choose to mollycoddle instead of discipline—it’s become almost a standard way to treat our youth. Coach Knight simply chose not do so. He stuck to the ideas of hard work, discipline, respect, loyalty and tough love that were proven successful to him, and for that he was labeled antiquated and a bully.

Anyone who’s ever coached the game knows that he is one of the greatest strategists of all time. His theories are on display nightly on every basketball court in the country. He is a brilliant tactician and his contributions to the innovation of the sport are perhaps unparalleled. He is an amazing teacher; his players have continually been some of the most intelligent players in the game. There are many attributes for which his detractors have no answer, but for Coach Knight, it will always come back to his disdain for the press, his volatile style and refusal to ever admit any wrong on his part.

There are still some of us though, who still remember with fondness a coach or teacher who was so good, who had such an amazing impact on our lives because they were so hard on us. When people argue that the way he treated his players was cruel, I think back to those who were hardest on me and how they too, could be misunderstood in this day and time. Then I think about what I’d be, or perhaps more accurately, what I wouldn’t be if not for those people and I choose to believe that Coach Knight did all that he did, in, what he believed, was in the best interests of those in his charge.

He wasn’t always right. He wasn’t always wrong. His indiscretions always seemed to be louder than his charity though. I think he’d be lying if he said that didn’t bother him, but I think if you really give him a fair chance, you can’t deny his loyalty, his passion, his love and that through it all, like Sinatra, he did it his way.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Instant Idiots

People are instant idiots, just add water. Freeze that water and drop it from the sky, to pile up on the roadways, and a very special kind of hell takes place. It never ceases to amaze me how something as simple as frozen water crystals can make an already dumb population, exponentially dumber.

From the guy in the Monte Carlo SS, with rear wheel drive who thought that by pressing hard and harder on the gas, he’d somehow gain control over his fishtailing car, to the little old bitty who decided it was in her right to drive down the very center of a two lane street, refusing to allow anyone to pass, at a steady and ridiculous 15 miles per hour, they were out in all shapes and sizes this morning.

Of course, after having been a driver in the Chicagoland area for 17 years now, this behavior really shouldn’t shock, surprise or mystify me, and I suppose it doesn’t, but it sure does have a way of aggravating me.

You’ll have your drivers of 4x4’s who decide that the they shall not be deterred by inclement weather and wish to plow on at speeds that should be reserved for fairer weather. You can see them behind the wheel’s of their trucks, SUV’s and Jeeps, smug and inconvenienced by those mere mortals who dare drive the roads while getting power to only two wheels! They tend to be reckless and dangerous as they weave in and out of traffic, oblivious to the fact that increased traction does not equate to invulnerability. They pass, sneering, offended that Mother Nature and drivers of lesser vehicles have conspired against them to add precious minutes to their commute.

And of course, you’ll also have those drivers who fail to understand that over cautiousness is as reckless and dangerous as not being cautious enough. These people make two lane traffic into one lane traffic, they drive at speeds that infuriate the people behind them, refusing to yield or allow passage. They sanctimoniously drive, white knuckled and cursing at everyone else, because these people alone respect life enough to drive safely. Everyone else on the road is a fool.

The true fun, if you find comedy in tragedy, is when these people are introduced to one another on a snowy day when the roads are in bad shape. Like racers at the Indy 500, the over cautious hold their precarious leads from the hard coming challenge of those behind them. They expertly fend off parry after parry from their challengers, not allowing themselves to be passed to the chorus of horns and a barrage of middle fingers, poking out windows and waving in unison, like lighters during a power ballad.

Very few are they who reduce their speed to an appropriate pace, who temper their caution with a realization that they are not alone on the roads. Those who find the proper balance and drive in a manner that both respects the elements and those around them. In fact, sadly, I am the only one. Although, the guy who honked at me and flicked me off this morning may disagree, but then again, he was an instant idiot.