Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Bookshelf Project

I bring home books like a cat lady brings home strays. Most, I read. Some, I give up on after a chapter or two. (I used to suffer through books I hated, but the great Nick Hornby wrote an essay convincing me that life's too short to read stuff you don't enjoy).

Then there's the third category -- books I really want to read but haven't gotten around to yet.

So I cleared off one of the shelves in the bookcase in our living room. Then I went around the house collecting the books at the top of my to-read list.

I ended up with 25 on the shelf. That's roughly one every two weeks for the year. I'm already behind -- I have to read a lot for work, I love newspapers and magazines, and there's always some shiny bauble on the Internet. But I'm going to try not to bring home any new books until I get all these read.*

*Yeah, that's not going to happen.

As I finish each one, I'll post a review here. In general, I'll talk a lot more about the books I like than the ones I don't. If you never see a review of one of these, you can assume I put it down quietly and we won't speak of it again.

Here's what landed on the shelf (all links are to Amazon):

"Pulphead," by John Jeremiah Sullivan -- Collection of journalism by a Wilmington writer I just discovered. I have no idea how I missed out on this guy. "Upon This Rock," his piece (included in the book) on a Christian-rock festival for GQ, went in about nine different directions, none of which I expected.

"The Postmortal," by Drew Magary -- You might know Magary as the fearless and pottymouthed (OFTEN IN ALL CAPS) writer for Deadspin. But this novel is something different -- a sci-fi story about what would happen if people discovered a way to stop the aging process. (Never grow older! Sounds great. It's not.)

I just finished this one and I'll have the review up shortly.

"Long, Last, Happy" by Barry Hannah -- I have two huge holes in my swing when it comes to Southern literature. Barry Hannah is one -- I know him as the wild and brilliant Mississippi crazyman who died two years ago, but I've only read dribs and drabs of his stuff. This story collection will help me get caught up.

"Norwood" by Charles Portis -- Here's the other hole -- I've never read anything by Portis, who's most famous for writing "True Grit" (although I've seen both movie versions). "Norwood," Portis' first novel, was a recent gift from a friend. The jacket promises a story involving the second-shortest midget in show business, and a chicken with a college education. I can't wait.

"Rin Tin Tin" by Susan Orlean -- The latest book by one of the starters on my journalistic All-Star team.

"Best American Sports Writing 2011" and "Best American Essays 2011" -- Part of my annual EnvyFest, where I look at all the great journalism of the past year written by someone other than me. (Yeah, probably shouldn't have said that out loud.)

"Out of Orbit" by Chris Jones -- We've become buddies over the last year, so take this plug for what it's worth: Chris' is the current heavyweight champion of the world in magazine writing. (For proof, check out this piece on the Zanesville, Ohio, exotic-animal massacre.) "Out of Orbit" centers on the three astronauts (one Russian, two American) who were stranded at the international space station when the space shuttle Columbia blew up in 2003. This book is about how they got home.

"Lowboy" by John Wray -- I picked this up at an Observer book sale a year or two ago. To be honest, I don't know much about it except that it's supposed to be well-written and disturbing. If you've read it, don't spoil it for me. I'm rolling the dice here.

"The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman -- A novel about the tangled private lives of a group of newspaper reporters and editors. In other words, right in my wheelhouse.

"The Unnamed" by Joshua Ferris -- A novel about a man who can't stop walking. Not in my wheelhouse. But I'm intrigued.

"Ten Letters" by Eli Saslow -- This gets the Forehead-Slap Award for the great idea I can't believe no one thought of before now. Saslow looks at letters that ordinary Americans write to the president, then finds the stories behind those letters.

"The Big Short" and "Boomerang" by Michael Lewis -- The guy who wrote "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side" started out in finance. These two books bracket the current financial crisis, first here, then abroad.

"Stiff" by Mary Roach -- Subtitled "The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." That's all I needed to know.

"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson -- One slice of black life in America: an epic telling of the black Southerners who migrated North over the course of decades, looking for better lives.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot -- Another slice of black life in America: A black woman's cells are taken without her knowledge for medical experiments -- and they become some of the most important cells in scientific history.

"Complications" by Atul Gawande -- This Boston doctor is smart and perceptive as a writer exploring medical issues.

"The Ledge" by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan -- Kevin is Buddy #2 on this list. This story about Davidson's ordeal after a cave-in on Mount Rainier gave me chills just reading the dust jacket.

"House of Stone" by Anthony Shadid -- The brilliant Middle East correspondent writes about that region through the lens of his life and his family's history. I got an advance copy, but it's not due out until March 27, so I'll wait until then to write a review.

"South of Broad" by Pat Conroy -- I have a love-hate thing with the Carolinas' most famous writer. Love his nonfiction, love his storytelling... but I've had a hard time getting past his dialog. No one in real life talks the way they do in Pat Conroy novels. But this book has been lying around the house awhile -- my wife read it for her book club -- so I'm going to give him another shot.

"Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder -- Another starter on the journalistic All-Star team. This book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, who has spent his life trying to cure infectious diseases around the world.

"Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson -- A friend who knows these things says this book has sold more than 2 million copies in hardcover, not counting e-books and Kindle copies and that sort of thing. That's a blockbuster, y'all.

"Hard Work" by Roy Williams with Tim Crothers -- I bought this a couple years ago when I was working on a story about Dean Smith, and wanted to see what Roy wrote about him. What I read was good, so I figured I'd go ahead and finish it off. (If there's a good Coach K book out there, let me know.)

"The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin -- The author spends a year trying out old-fashioned and modern ideas of what makes people happy.

Which is sort of what I'm doing here, trying to read all these books I've been wanting to read.

"Postmortal" review coming soon. Others throughout the year. Keep reading, y'all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Valentine's line of love

It's 3 p.m. on Valentine's Day. There are 17 of us in line at the flower stand at Third and Tryon. The wind is freezing. But we are men. Romantic men. We are willing to suffer for love.

Yes, women walk by and snicker. Yes, some dude jogs by and yells out: "Waited a little late, didn't you, boys?" We hate that dude. But the hate subsides. Love endures.

Love, and pain.

"It's painful out here," one man says. "But if you come home empty-handed..."

He does not finish the sentence. He does not need to.

The man at the front of the line takes his bouquet and gets into a cab that has been waiting for him. How long did the meter run? How much did the ride cost? These things do not matter on Valentine's Day. The bouquets cost $20. They could cost $200 and we would pay. It is a testament to the fullness of our love.

The men in line do not want to give their names. It is understandable. Love does not boast. It is not proud.

But we are men of all kinds, young and old, in three-piece suits and washed-out jeans, and we will wait here forever for love, except for the two men who leave and decide to come back at 4.

The line is shorter. This is good.

A man gets to the front of the line and orders four bouquets. This is bad.

Love does not boast, it is not proud, but sometimes, at the back of the line, it grumbles. The man smiles. "We'll make a trade," he says. "You deal with my wife and daughters, and I'll deal with yours."

We meditate on this. Then we leave him to his four bouquets.

It takes about half an hour to get to the front of the line. The flowers are beautiful. There are roses, and daisies, and some smaller yellow flowers, and, you know, some lavender things.

The flower sellers have free Life Savers on the table. Other people might point out that the flowers are the real life savers. But they are not men, romantic men, suffering for love.

My bouquet is wrapped, my $20 gladly paid. There are 14 men behind me in line at 3:30 p.m. on Valentine's Day.

The flowers are almost gone.

Tonight, some men will truly suffer.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Whitney, joy, death, and pleasure

New Orleans, 1987. A buddy had lucked into tickets to the Final Four and we spent a long boozy weekend on Bourbon Street. Late one night I went for a walk and came up on a sax player who had drawn a good-sized crowd. He was taking requests. Somebody hollered out, not a song, but a name: Whitney Houston.

The sax man started to play, and we locked arms and swayed, and at 4 in the morning we made the most beautiful alcohol choir, Syracuse basketball fans and Japanese tourists and maybe a hooker or two, singing one of those great pop songs that there's no point in resisting and why would you want to:

But each time I try, I just break down and cry
Cause I'd rather be home feeling blue
So I'm saving all my love for you...

Up until last weekend that was a memory of pleasure. Now I wonder who in that crowd was drunk for the eighth night in a row, who in the crowd had a worried spouse and a crying baby at home, who in the crowd was just starting to feel the addiction lock in like a grappling hook.

Whitney might be the last singer we could all agree on. When her first record came out in 1985, I was mostly listening to rap and indie rock -- I remember a summer of Run-D.M.C. and the Smithereens -- but I had the Whitney cassette, too, because no amount of street cred could deny that voice. It melted you.

For the next few years you could count on a good-to-great Whitney single every few months, "How Will I Know" to "So Emotional" to "All the Man That I Need." (Really, check out that last clip. It's from a concert she did in 1991 for troops coming home from the Gulf War. My favorite shot is at 3:23, where a group of guys in the front row stare up at her in unvarnished awe. As in, yeah, THIS is what we were fighting for.)

"I Will Always Love You" was the biggest hit of all, part of the "Bodyguard" movie with Kevin Costner, and right around here was where I jumped off the bandwagon. Part of it was that the song was everywhere, and even the best ice cream starts to lose something after 27 helpings. But also the song felt like a technical exercise, more a gymnastics routine set to soul than soul itself. It spent 14 weeks at Number One.

She had more hits after that, made a couple of movies, made a ton of money... but by my account we got eight years of great music from Whitney. That's a lot more than most singers give us. But that voice was built for more. That voice was made for comeback hits and sold-out tours and a jazz record in her 60s.

That voice made a hit record out of the national anthem. Twice. Look at her as she belts that last verse -- that power, that control, that confidence. She raises her arms at the end. Champion of the world.

Drugs suck. They suck for every too-young addict who ends up in the obits, everyone shivering in rehab or sitting on another folding chair in another meeting, fingernails dug in, trying to hold on. But imagine having more money than you could ever spend and unlimited free time. It's a junkie's dream.

We don't know yet, of course, if drugs killed Whitney Houston. But there's no doubt that drugs ruined her. The last 15 years added up to ashes: canceled concerts, odd interviews, disheveled tabloid photos, and that heartbreaking show with Bobby Brown where, apparently, they sat around and talked about poop. That's what I heard, anyway. I could never bring myself to watch it.

She fell so far that it soured me on the music. It was hard to listen to the songs I loved; all I could see was her coming out of some club dead-eyed and cackling. But now her death has cleansed her life, and you can choose to remember the parts you want to remember. She can't ruin herself any more.

It's a comforting thought, for about two seconds, until you remember that she died at 48.

You can reduce everything we do as human beings into two or three deep desires -- the need to chase pleasure, the longing to create, the search for something bigger than ourselves. Not many people in this world provided more pleasure than Whitney Houston. She built towers with her voice. That voice, in a lot of ways, was bigger than she was. Now I wonder if that was too hard for her to take.

It's cruel, isn't it, how so many things bring us joy right up to the point where they start killing us.