In an episode of “The West Wing,” one of the president’s men is having a drink at a bar in the Midwest. He strikes up a conversation with a man on the next stool. The man talks of an increasing unfairness: “Getting ahead is hard. It should be hard. But not this hard.”
I think of that scene all the time, and as Father’s Day approaches, I see that man everywhere. He’s still getting it done, but the margins are so thin now. And if he falls...
You can’t “give” anyone hope. You can give beauty. Inspiration. Fun. And here you can give it at modest cost.
Ben Rifkin is killed on his way to school. It’s a high-profile case, so Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney, keeps it for himself. He does this because he’s the highest-ranking ADA, not because his son Jacob was in Ben’s class and might, for all he knows, be a suspect. But Jacob does become a suspect. Andy is taken off the case. And then, when Jacob is arrested for the murder, Andy’s placed on leave. Soon enough, Andy’s working for Jacob’s son’s defense lawyer, desperate to prove his son’s innocence --- just what any father who’s a lawyer would do.
J.R. Moehringer's father, a noted disc jockey, was out of his mother's life before J.R. was old enough to remember that he was ever around. ("My father was a man of many talents, but his one true genius was disappearing.") His mother, suddenly poor, moves into her family's house in Manhasset, Long Island.
In that house: J.R.'s mother, grandmother, aunt and five female cousins. Also in that house: Uncle Charlie, a bartender at Dickens, a Manhasset establishment beloved by locals who appreciate liquor in quantity--- "every third drink free" --- and strong opinions, served with a twist. A boy needs a father. If he doesn't have one, he needs some kind of man in his life. Or men, because it can indeed take a village…
In Johnny Unitas, we are talking about a genuine hero --- and not just because he is regarded, almost universally, as the greatest football player of the first half of the twentieth century. Unitas is thrilling to read about, and to think about, because his struggle took place in the open, in real time, with the outcome uncertain and physical pain guaranteed. Unitas never complained. He never made apologies. He had a job to do, and it was his responsibility to get it done.
A team of warriors who are better trained than any soldiers on the planet. Coordination so slick they seem to be reading each other’s minds. Brutal efficiency with every kind of weapon. And when the killing’s done? Poof. They vanish. No medals. Not even any identifying marks on their uniform. To buy it, click here.
Vivaldo only had female voices to work with, and he showed them off. Bass parts were taken up an octave; sopranos were pitched to the heavens. Excess is stripped away. Vivaldi takes traditional themes --- he'd been trained as a priest --- and weaves them into beauty.
Dad is never in home videos because he’s the one behind the camera. So maybe he should get better at it? What Roger Sherman has done here is conduct a kindergarten class. (Don’t feel patronized --- remember: everything you need to know, you learn in kindergarten.) And these basics read as much like guides to life as to video.
Istanbul, circa late 1945 The war was over, the big league spies had departed, and the only sustained action was the effort to smuggle European Jews into Palestine. A visitor could almost buy the fantasy: “In Istanbul’s dream of itself it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caiques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold at all.” Met Leon Bauer, an American vaguely involved in the tobacco trade but also an occasional tool of the American consulate’s less diplomatic activities…..
“It is a clear and dazzling summer’s day in Vienna.” That’s how it starts. August, 1913, and Lysander Rief, a 28-year-old English actor, has come to Vienna for --- what else --- treatment from one of those newfangled creatures, a psychoanalyst. His problem? He’s interested in sex, but can’t have an orgasm. In the waiting room, he meets the military attaché at the British consulate. And, more to the point, he meets Hettie Bull, a free-spirited sculptor who will quickly solve his problem.
Alan Bennett studied history at Oxford, was one of the founders of Beyond the Fringe and is much honored for such plays (and, later, movies) as “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys” --- so you don’t have to feel you’re slumming with a pornographer.
Marcus Ripps lives in Van Nuys. He's had a dull managerial job at a novelty toy factory for fifteen years. His wife owns Ripcord, a moribund boutique. Their son's on scholarship at an exclusive private school where “a sixth-grader was selling his Ritalin to a high school sophomore.” They're being crushed by an $80,000 home equity loan. They haven't had sex for a month, and when Marcus, in frustration, tries to part Jan's thighs, it's “like trying to crack a safe that had no combination.” And then….
Jaimal Yogis dives into Buddhism. The reading. Sitting. The monastery life, at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat in France, in India, in California. He lives simply; drugs and alcohol fall away. He gains some wisdom. He becomes artful as a surfer. The joy of his book is its lightness. There are great surfer stories and great Buddhism stories. There are false starts and unexpected breakthroughs. There is charm and wit to spare. And when it comes to wisdom, Yogis heads right for the big stuff --- and nails it.
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) is nobody’s ideal of a public intellectual. He had no real schooling. He spent most of his working life as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks. Almost every day, he took a three-mile walk. Along the way, thoughts formed. Later they became sentences, then books. Over the years, he wrote ten. “The True Believer” is his masterpiece.
This short book is not about not Churchill the God, but Churchill the extremely interesting man. Johnson piles on the detail. Yes, Churchill drank whiskey or brandy all day --- “heavily diluted with water or soda.” Yes, he stayed in bed as much as possible, for as he told Paul Johnson (who interviewed him at the tender age of 17), the secret of life is “conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down."
Buck Brannaman specializes in the improbable. Got a skittish, poorly trained horse? A bucking bronco? A steed who seems not to care about anything? Bring that uncooperative beast to one of Buck’s clinics. Very quickly --- often in a matter of minutes --- he gets your horse ready to ride. No whips are involved, no threats are made. Buck’s methods call for a little stroking with a flag, a steady gaze, a gentle tone. Small point” This is NOT a movie and a book about horses.
Dad’s got an iPod or iPhone, and it’s fantastic --- what’s wrong with the earphones Apple gives you? Nothing, if he doesn’t mind the treble sharpened to laser precision and the bass deepened to make him think he’s getting the real thing. Nothing, that is, if he doesn’t mind putting crappy sound into his head. But with Shure earphones, the world vanishes and he’s alone in the world of music with his favorite musicians. Is this heaven? Well, it’s close, it’s a glimpse --- at $79.99.
Levels of the Game
Many believe that John McPhee’s account of a single match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills is the best book ever written about tennis. It certainly has drama. Ashe was not just the Jackie Robinson of tennis; when he emerged in the 1960s, he was the only African-American player of note in America. Graebner was a dentist's son and a ringer for Clark Kent. In 146 pages, you’re inside the game and inside the player’s heads at the same time as you get a revelatory portrait of a sport --- and a nation --- in transition. How great is that?
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) studied at the feet of Epictetus (55-135 AD). One man was an emperor, the other a former slave who lived simply and wrote not a word. The value of Epictetus is that he is, literally, a practical philosopher --- his concerns are the here and now: reality, life, death. In this short, compelling little book, he has a blunt message that, at its essence, needs just two words: Man up.
We Were Soldiers Once…and Young
The best book I’ve ever read about great leadership and effective management is by Colonel Harold Moore, who led the 7th Cavalry in Ia Drang, site of the first battle between U.S. troops and the Vietcong. In four days of fighting --- with the enemy sometimes as close as 75 feet to the American line --- 234 Americans died. When it was over and it was time for Moore to turn over command, he requested a full battalion formation. One soldier recalls, "We stood in formation, with some units hardly having enough men to form up. Colonel Moore spoke to us and he cried. At that moment, he could have led us back into the Ia Drang."
J.J. Cale was pleased by Clapton's recording of “After Midnight.” His pal, producer Audie Ashworth, phoned Cale and said, 'It might be time for you to make your move. Do an album. So get your songs together.' He said, 'I'll do a single.' I said, 'It's an album market.' He said, 'I don't have that many songs,' so I said, 'Write some.' Three or four months later he called me. He said, 'I got the songs.' He drove in. He was driving a Volkswagen this time. He came in with his dog. He played me all those songs." And every one is funky but laid-back Oklahoma magic.
This CD is just plain lewd. It's got a boogie beat, atmosphere goopier than Louisiana fog, production that emphasizes the beat, molasses-thick lyrics that don't aspire to profundity --- it's the good times music you've been looking for. Late-night transport to a sexy mystery. A worthy successor to Dr. John and John Fogerty.