Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Smattering of Book Reviews

I work for a writing firm called Libretto. On our website, we have a section called "Nightstand," in which each of us crafts a brief review of what we've been reading lately. Here are some that I've posted there.

The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora
By Michael Nesmith

Much as I like this book, it’s difficult to avoid – or resist – damning it with faint praise. So here goes: The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora is the best book written by an ex-Monkee (but not the only one: both Mickey and Davy wrote memoirs designed to make a fast buck, while this is a work of fiction guaranteed to make a few really slow ones). At first glance, the line between fiction and non appears thin: the hero is a musician named Nez (as the author is known to his fans, of whom this reviewer is one). However, the object of his quest, the elusive and enigmatic Neftoon Zamora, is various described as either male or female, actual or mythical, and, as early as page 2, “part Zuni, part Martian, and part Delta blues player [who] had come from the Great Spirit, Mars, or some place in Mississippi, thousands of years ago.” Nez learns of NZ from a friend who has a tape of him/her/it performing blues songs. Nesmith describes this sufficiently well to make me wish for a soundtrack. (In fact, Nesmith’s 1974 album The Prison is actually described as “a book with a soundtrack.” The idea is to read the story and listen to the album concurrently; when one becomes accustomed to paying attention to both sources at the same time, one hopes to experience a certain synergy. I can vouch that with the right attitude, the effort is not fruitless.) Anyway, back to this book. During his journey, Nez comes upon a woman named Neffie, who has long sandy hair. Is this Neftoon Zamora? We aren’t sure, and Neffie joins the quest. The story takes place in New Mexico, first in a canyon village, then at a desert enclave. Along the way, we meet colorful characters, go to a swinging dance, and get pulled deeper into the mystery. Unfortunately, three-quarters into the book, Nesmith takes us away from these organic and exciting environs and plunks us into the mechanized compound of a crazed billionaire. In a Monkees episode, this is when the zany montage would come on over the song. Unfortunately, as I’ve said, there is no soundtrack. And so the book, which begins with much promise, ends with little clarity or satisfaction. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile read – but then, I’m a Believer!

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories
By Raymond Carver

For my birthday this past year, a certain someone who signs my paychecks gave me this book. Obviously, then, I had to read it. But I didn’t have to choose it to review on the Libretto website. I did so because I was so enthralled by the style and perspective of this late master of the short story genre. This collection, published just three months before his death from cancer at age 50 in 1988, brings together 30 works from previous books, as well as seven previously unpublished stories. Perhaps what is most striking in such a retrospective is Carver’s ability to maintain his unique lens while keeping his tales compelling, empathic, and surprising. He is able to write convincingly from both male and female perspectives, and his stories can plumb the depths of hopelessness and the heights of redemption. Like any short story writer, Carver presents a snapshot of people’s lives. In another writer’s hands, these snapshots would be moments of highest drama, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Carver, however, makes us aware that there are other stories, even bigger stories, going on in the blurred periphery of his viewfinder. Stories are introduced at some point beyond the start of a situation. At the end, we know that there are events and consequences that await the characters in scenes that will be played out beyond our view. The person who gave me this book (you know, the kind and generous one who signs my paychecks) particularly recommended "The Cathedral," in which a person who spends an evening with a blind man against his will begins to see many things more clearly, but the story immediately after that one burned most deeply in my mind. In "A Small, Good Thing," a rewrite of an earlier story, two parents must face their worst fear while dealing with a doctor’s vague assurances and a prank phone-caller. While a theme of the first two-thirds of the story is the impact of lack of knowledge, communication, and understanding, the final third is a dramatic stripping away of everything the characters had been keeping from each other. The title of the story is a good description of the book.

The Tin Drum
By Günter Grass

Stones From the River
By Ursula Hegi

I decided to combine two books in one review because they have so much in common. For one, they are both spectacularly well-written stories, rich in creative imagery and historical detail – both the characters’ histories and that of the actual period in which they take place. That, in fact, is another similarity: they both are set in Germany and span a multi-generation epoch that precedes and succeeds World War II. Yet perhaps the most striking similarity is that the heroes of both novels are short. Oskar Matzerath, in The Tin Drum, willed himself to stop growing at age three; while Trudi Montag, in Stones From the River, is a zwerg – a dwarf. Further, each has a similarly sized mentor who is a circus or carnival performer (Bebra for Oskar/Pia for Trudi). Through their eyes and experiences as outsiders, we see the struggles of post-World War I Germany, the encroaching tyranny of the Nazi regime, and the shame and uncertainty following defeat in World War II. If Oskar is somewhat less sympathetic than Trudi (and much less trustworthy as a narrator than the omniscient voice of Stones), he is the more powerful, confident, and entertaining hero. However, I have to say that I prefer Trudi, maintaining her decency and dignity against all odds, as a symbol of a lone light in the darkness.

House of Sand and Fog
By Andre Dubus III
House of Sand and Fog centers around the rapidly rising and falling circumstances of three people: Amir Behrani, a one-time colonel in the Iranian Air Force who, until purchasing a repossessed house at an auction, had been making a living in the US picking up trash along the highways near Berkeley; Kathy Nicolo, a one-time alcoholic whose husband has left her with little more than the house she inherited from her father – that house she has just lost for failure to pay taxes; and Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself in the middle of their dispute, yet soon falls in love with the desperate woman. There is, of course, a fourth character as well: the titular house itself, which stands mute yet somehow menacing in the background, the shared desire that ultimately, along with the mistrust and myopic fear the two parties in dispute have for each other, leads to everybody’s downfall. Along the way, we learn a good deal about Persian language, food, and customs; we see how systems so easily fail those who rely on them; and we watch helplessly as three characters who are neither heroes nor villains, yet possibly both, chase their selfish desires into a descending spiral of pain and despair.

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison
Motivated by a recent PBS documentary on the writer and the only novel he ever completed – which made the Top 20 of The Modern Library’s 1998 list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century – I decided to dust off the paperback I originally read in college and see if it was still as powerful. Indeed it is. Ellison’s use of language is scintillating and each chapter has enough dramatic arc and emotional depth to stand as an independent work. The opening paragraph of Chapter 5, in particular, is as rich and lyrical a descriptive passage as I’ve ever read. Never named, Ellison’s hero is naïve, intelligent, and deeply concerned with playing by the rules, which, to his confusion and chagrin, keep changing depending on the company and part of the country he is in. Ultimately, he (and we) must confront this conundrum: if society wishes him (us) to be invisible, what is his (our) place in that society?

©Copyright 2008 Libretto, Inc.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Safe, Positive, Healthy Facebook Outcome

So I'm on Facebook, which is fun and highly addictive. I think I have twice as many Facebook friends as real-life friends, but it's proven to be an easy and effective way to reconnect with old classmates, colleagues, friends, and relatives.

If you're not Facebook-knowledgeable, all you need to know to get the point of this post is that in addition to people you can befriend, there are groups you can join, causes you can support, and sheep you can throw (the last one is true but irrelevant).

So if you've read my blog before, you'll know that my mother died of a neurological disorder called Lewy Body Dementia or Lewy Body Disease (conveniently LBD either way). One day, my younger sister, who also is on Facebook, came upon an LBD cause page, joined it, and alerted me to it. I also joined, and I posted my Dove Nested Towers blog post to the LBD cause page's "wall" (a posting forum).

Some time later, I received the following message in my Facebook inbox:

Dear Mr. Rubin,

Pardon this message from a complete stranger, but I was reviewing the Lewy Body causes page and read your incredibly powerful and beautiful passage about your mom. So much of your entry was applicable to our situation. And your writing is beautiful. My mother died of LBD three days before my wedding (2006). And we as a family also had to make the same sad sad choice you did guiding her toward the end of her journey with LBD. We found a wonderful hospice home in Philadelphia for those last grueling 8 days.

Anyway, thank you for your words, and I just had to tell you how much they touched me. I'm so sorry for your loss as well.

Kindest regards,
Ilana Davidson

I replied with humble gratitude and then invited her to be my Facebook friend. In so doing, I was able to access her page and I learned that she is a professional opera singer, a soprano. On her website, I further learned that she will be appearing in Boston (where I live) in March, performing Mahler's Symphony No. 2. This prompted a note from me to her:

Seeing your page now, I realize you're a professional opera singer. I come from a family of opera buffs, from my grandfather who performed in local operas, was a freelance bass-baritone in temple choirs throughout Boston, and had his own radio show at one point. Googling your website, I see you're performing here in Boston in March, doing Mahler. My mother's maiden name was Mahler, and her family came from Austria. She always thought she was related to Gustav, though she had no genealogical proof. And my singing grandfather was paternal, so no musical talent was apparent on my mother's side. Still, we like to carry on the idea that there may be a familial connection, so it's a nice coincidence that you connect with my mother on this other level, as well. I will keep an eye out for the performance; it would be fun to hear you in it.


A further coincidence is that the conductor for the March concert will be Benjamin Zander. I once interviewed him for a freelance article I wrote that was also printed in the CD booklet for a recording made of his New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra's tour of Chile and Buenos Aires in 1995. You can see it here.

Thus, a nice correspondence was begun with this woman, who is based in New York. She offered to try to get me tickets to the performance and we did a little Jewish Geography to see if we know any of the same people. In the meantime, I searched Facebook for any Lewy Body hits and found that the UK-based Lewy Body Society had a page. I joined it, and again posted my blog piece about my mother.

Now Ilana, being my Facebook friend, can see any update I make to my Facebook account, including any new groups or pages I join. So she saw that I joined the Lewy Body Society page and she did likewise. Some time later, I got the following message from her:

Hello Jason,

So the Lewy Body Society (the one we joined here on facebook) and I have been in touch. We are working on the possibility of me doing a benefit recital / concert for LBD. We are trying to consider venue or country (!) as they are based in the UK.

In just my preliminary thinking: All is need is a pianist of my choice and to pick a beautiful program ... But we will need to think about other details (location, as I said is one of them)

Might you be willing to be my sounding board ? Or feel like getting involved to work with me on this possibility?

I replied enthusiastically thusly:

I'm honored to be asked and would be thrilled to help out in any way. I don't know if you sussed it out from my info, but I'm a marketing copywriter, so in terms of strategy, theme, proposals, copy, etc., that's all up my alley. As far as pure event/program brainstorming, absolutely, count me in.

BTW, I know you're in NYC somewhere; we'll be visiting with my brother in law and his family in Chelsea from 12/26-30. Maybe we could discuss this over bagels?

Thanks again for offering me a seat at the table.

To which she replied:

Great news.

I actually just kind of presumed that it might be up your alley. And had a gut feeling too - and hoped even more that you might be up for helping.

And as it happens I'm very comfortable on the musical end of things and the other stuff kind of paralyzes me in event-programming-strategy-proposal fear... Perhaps it's all fate somehow. I'm really excited about this now.

I definitely should be here in NY when you guys come this way! When it suits the family schedule, I would be so happy to come down.

This concert (s) is so important for me. I want so much to contribute to their memories and to LBD. I couldn't do this alone ~ so glad you're at the table.

And so, in a few days, if all goes well, I will get to meet this soprano in person and hopefully create an event - and cement a friendship - that will have lasting impact. Certainly, there are weird things you hear about when people take social network relationships and take them offline, but this is something very positive and worthwhile...not least because it's gotten me to play more Mahler!

Mom would be thrilled.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's in the Middle?

My professional name is Jason M. Rubin. Whenever possible, I insist that my middle initial be used. It's not that I love my middle name (Mark) so much, but without the initial, my name is too sing-songy. Jason and Rubin rhyme a little and are so metrical and symmetrical that they need the M. to serve as a kind of fulcrum.

This gets me to thinking why we even have middle names. Most people don't use them, and I've noticed that a lot of women who take their husband's surnames, tend to use their maiden name as a middle name. For Jews, naming is very important; we give first and middle names that reference and honor deceased relatives. For my oldest daughter, for example, her first name, Hannah (a Hebrew name meaning grace), was named for my grandfather Harry. Her middle name, Dovit (a Hebrew name meaning little bear), was named for my sister, Donna. If she were to get married, take her husband's name, and lose Dovit, it would sadden me. Even though I know she's not thrilled with an unusual name like Dovit, it's important to me because it's a way for me to keep my sister's memory alive.

I seem to remember some comedian years ago noting that assassins are almost always known by all three names. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Mark David Chapman come immediately to mind. It seems that failed assassins don't get the same honor: Arthur Bremer (George Wallace), Squeaky Fromme (Gerald Ford), and John Hinckley (Ronald Reagan), for example. I always liked the fact that if you count the letters in Ronald Wilson Reagan, you get 6-6-6 (666).

Of course, a middle name or initial is also a literary convention. After all, who would read anything by e. cummings or Edgar Poe? Or Jason Rubin, for that matter? Ray Davies of the Kinks is known as such on album covers, except on his composing credits, when he is known by his full name, Raymond Douglas Davies.

I've also always been intrigued by people who use their middle name as their first name, or initialize their first name, as in T. Boone Pickens and R. Buckminster Fuller. I went to college with a couple of guys who did that; of course, one's given first name was Winslow, so it's understandable that he wanted to be known as Peter, his middle name. J. Mark Rubin doesn't do it for me.

Folk legend Odetta died the other day. Years before Madonna and Prince (though a long time after Moses; and BTW, "H" was not actually Jesus' middle initial), she successfully went by a single name, her first.

Harry Truman's middle initial, S, doesn't stand for anything, and is sometimes written without a period. According to Wikipedia, "[Truman's] parents chose "S" as his middle name, in [an] attempt to please both of Harry's grandfathers, Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young; the initial did not actually stand for anything, as was a common practice among Scots-Irish."

Of course, this post doesn't really stand for anything, either. I was just bored and looking to keep the blog fresh. But thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Current Projects VII: A Cultural Exchange

As a writer, making money is clearly a major priority. At the same time, however, it's enriching for the soul and for the greater good to provide my services pro bono to worthy non-profits. I sort of adopted one such organization a dozen or more years ago, and it's one that remains close to my heart.

The organization is called A Cultural Exchange and it's located in Cleveland, Ohio. Though I live in Boston, my in-laws are from that area so I've gone there at least once or twice every year since my wife and I were dating (and we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this past October).

So one day I was looking for something to do and my mother-in-law told me about a street/shopping district called Larchmere. The principal attraction was a used book store where I indeed had found a few treasures over the years before they closed some years ago. Walking down the street, however, I was struck by a window display that featured a number of children's books with multicultural themes and characters. Now, I can't remember if my 12-year-old was born yet or not, but I've always been interested in children's books so it's just as conceivable that I went in before I became a parent as it would be if I had Hannah in a stroller. Either way, I went in.

The store was A Cultural Exchange, and after browsing for a while, I struck up a conversation with the proprietress, Deborah McHamm. I soon learned that the store was actually a storefront, and ACE was in fact a non-profit organization devoted to increasing literacy and love for books among urban children in the Cleveland area. At the time, I was working at Boston public broadcaster WGBH, writing development materials. Once she learned I was involved in fundraising, she took an even keener interest in me. We talked further and I gave her my contact information, saying I'd be happy to write anything she need free of charge.

Over the years, I have done a number of projects for her, usually on an emergency basis. One time, she left such an urgent message on my home phone while we were in Disney World that I was compelled to call her right away, even though I was standing in the middle of Epcot. Her requests are rarely mundane. Once, she said to me, "I need you to get me in front of Oprah." I do my best for her but I'm realistic about what I can accomplish, especially from Boston.

Best of all, after all these years, we are now friends. Though I only get to see her on an annual basis, I think she knows I'm always there for her. She has watched my children grow and taken real joy and interest in our lives.

This link describes Deborah's background, the history of the organization, and the wonderful programs ACE undertakes, including the Read Baby Read book clubs. The most current program is called the Busy Bookmobile, which drives subsidized books costing a dollar or less into neighborhoods and schools where kids and families don't have much money for books - or for books with characters that look like them. In fact, the tagline on the bus below (Helping children find themselves in books) is one I developed for Deborah, the idea being that children will become excited by reading if they can have access to books with stories and characters that reflect their lives. They get lost in books and find themselves at the same time.

My latest project is to help raise money for the Bookmobile, and also to raise money to launch a pilot Read Baby Read book club in Boston. I greatly admire and respect Deborah and am honored to help A Cultural Exchange in any way I can.