Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Except during the three winter months when they are closed, I go to the same deli for coffee and a breakfast sandwich every workday. I call it my "Cheers" because everyone there knows my name … or I like to think they do. It's mostly a to-go business; there are just four stools, usually occupied by me, by a plumber named Steve, by a welder named Jamie, and by a seemingly ne'er-do-well but talented jack-of-all-trades named Paul. We have good-natured chats, but only Steve the Plumber seems to have much curiosity about the world beyond the town of Eastham. One morning, after my visit to the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, I raved about how much I'd enjoyed the guided tour of the place. A week or so later Steve walked in and handed me David McCullough's gigantic work, the 700-some densely small-fonted pages of the Pulitzer prize winning John Adams, saying "I bought you a present … it was on sale." Though history is not my reading-bag, I expressed enthusiastic gratitude. And I knew I would read it … I was touched that Steve would bring me a gift; I like him.
I read an average of 65 books each year. In 2014 I read just 36 … and that's counting slim volumes of poetry such as the two by Spencer Reece which will be mentioned further along in this post.

The reason my yearly average of books took such a hit is because it took me what seemed like forever … from Oct. 30th to Nov. 2nd … to get through John Adams; aside from the fact that I rarely read other than when I go to bed (unless I'm traveling, or waiting for a tune-up at the Toyota dealership, etc.), or when I wake at 3AM and 4AM, and so forth. Not that the biography of Adams didn't grip my interest; it is excellent. But geez, all those pages, with their small-fonted density.

It kept nagging at me, too, that if I was going to read any Adams stuff I'd probably be better off reading The Education of Henry Adams - An Autobiography. Both Henry's paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been U.S. Presidents. His autobiography is often cited as one of the greatest books written by an American, and includes a lot about our country's history. Further, a handsome hard-covered early-twentieth-century edition of this book has rested un-read (and pretty much un-dusted) on one or another of my book shelves for twenty-some years. I just never got around to it.

So … here goes: the best of 2014's reads, in the order that I read them.


Graham Swift

 1. Wish You Were Here - Graham Swift. Critics described this novel as "bleak," "unforgettable," and "extraordinary". The Washington Post's Ron Charles, in my opinion (humble, of course), crafted the best description I've come across: "Swift introduces a few characters, a handful of scenes, two or three objects and then ruminates on them for 300 pages, setting aside chronology to cycle through the same events, thoughts and phrases again and again, from this angle and that, building and elaborating toward a crescendo that is absolutely gorgeous." I immensely enjoyed reading toward that crescendo.

Daniel Menaker
2. My Mistake - Daniel Menaker. I wrote about and quoted extensively from this memoir in a post on August 26th.

With John Waters in  Peyton Place  (Gilmanton, NH); July 16, 1994
3. Carsick - John Waters - Disclosure: John Waters has been my friend since 1973. I loved his movie "Pink Flamingos" but, without going into it here, felt bonded to him particularly when I discovered our mutual love for the writings of an obscure French lesbian writer named Violette Leduc; and then further because we found ourselves in San Francisco in 1976 both attending the trial of Patricia Hearst. I love John Waters; he's my favorite movie-maker; he writes the best dialogue; he's an avid reader ("I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who are serious readers," he once told me); and he's one of my favorite truly fun-to-read authors. I love his irreverence, and I think he's an American classic; he should be one of those Kennedy Center honorees.

I'll crib from Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of Carsick, saving me from composing an inferior take: "In this, the seventh of his books, John Waters -- the evil genius of Baltimore, the living, breathing embodiment of camp, the man with the bristling pencil-thin mustache and vocabulary that would make a drill sergeant blush -- betrays his deepest and darkest secret. In these pages the apostle of outrage -- the actor, writer and director whose contributions to cinematic glory include "Pink Flamingos," "Mondo Trasho," and "Hairspray" -- reveals himself to be a … sentimentalist … underlying it all is a highly developed sense of fun, a desire to amuse more than to shock …Waters has made a funny engaging and -- of course -- occasionally outrageous book. All in all a cool trip and a delightful book."  

Karl Ove Knausgaard

4. My Struggle - Karl Ove Knausgaard - It was clever to get a lot of attention by giving his autobiographical "novel" the same title -- at least in the original Norwegian -- as Hitler's Mein Kampf. And to get it reviewed, considerably favorably; and, when it is translated into several languages, have it become a best-seller not just in Norway but in a dozen or more other countries. Further, this book I read was just the first of six volumes of the "novel" … all in all, these six tomes total 3500 pages. I'd read much about Knausgaard, and descriptions and reviews of his work always made it seem that his book was fetching me, but I just wasn't willing to commit the time it would take to finish 3500 pages -- and there may come Volume 7 and Volume 8 (and on and on) before he's finished. If Knausgaard, who is now 46, keeps going I will be long dead before he's finished. 

Still, a friend who's recommended so many great books to me, urged me to give My Struggle a try. I set upon it. I could not quite figure out why I was engrossed from the start; it was just that Knausgaard's good prose pulled me along. It does seem to be a narrative of the life Knausgaard actually lived, and it's interesting and well-written. I finished Volume I and got Volume II from the library and was on page 236 when Steve walked into the deli with the gift of McCullough's biography of John Adams, so I returned Knausgaard to the library, expecting to take him up again at a better time.

(I want to mention that Karl Ove Knausgaard is often likened to Marcel Proust, but, frankly, this should be done only jokingly. Knausgaard is prolific, but he doesn't come close to genius (except, perhaps, as a self-publicist); let alone close to the genius of Proust.) 

Spencer Reece

5. The Clerk's Tale and The Road to Emmaus - Spencer Reece. I think it was in an interview with the Inauguration poet Richard Blanco that I first noticed a mention of Spencer Reece. "The Clerk's Tale" -- the poem, not the same-named collection -- immediately became a favorite of mine. You should Google it and read the poem. There are other excellent poems in Reece's two collections. Further, James Franco made a short arty film of "The Clerk's Tale" and you could probably pull that up on the Internet and watch it for free.

Chloe Griffin, on right, with Nan Golden

6. Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller - Chloe Griffin. On the 8th of March in 2010, I got an email:

Dear George, I am an artist living in Berlin, Germany, and I am currently working on a book about Cookie Mueller. The book consists of interviews, stories, writings, musings and images all paying testimony to the life and work of Cookie. I have been researching over the past three years and have met with over forty of Cookie's friends including people such as John Waters, Amos Poe, Gary Indiana, Mink Stole, just to name a few. I've spent quite a bit of time in Provincetown and remained in close contact with Sharon Niesp [Cookie's best love] and Max Mueller [Cookie's son]. I noticed while looking online that you took a fabulous photograph of Cookie at the premiere of "Female Trouble" and I was curious if you would be interested in contributing any of your work or perhaps your memories of Cookie Mueller. The book I am producing is an homage to Cookie and has an emphasis on visuals as much as text. If you have any questions please feel free to ask. Looking forward to hearing from you. - Chloe.

I replied that of course Chloe could use the picture I'd taken, asking only that I be credited in print. After subsequent emailing I ended up sending Chloe fifteen-or-so pictures that she might want to include. (I think she used twelve or thirteen.)

On August 10, 2014 … over four years later … I got yet another email from Chloe:

Dear George, The book is ready! Where should I post you the book? Can't wait for you to see it! X - Chloe.

The mail carrier brought the book. I was excited. I loved holding it in my hands, seeing my name beneath several pictures, happy to be involved with anything involving Cookie Mueller.

And of course I loved reading the book … over three hundred pages of pictures and stories about Cookie. I zoomed through it so hurriedly, so fascinated, that later I needed, in a less excited state, to read it a second time, paying it slower and closer attention. Thus I, so far as reading goes, loved it twice-over.

Because I knew and loved Cookie -- I imagine that everyone who knew her loved her -- it is really hard for me to imagine how this book would read to someone who didn't know Cookie, or who had no interest in the characters living in Provincetown in the seventies, or in the downtown art scene of the eighties in New York City. I can say that it is a great accomplishment on Chloe's part: she interviewed so many people who knew Cookie, let them tell their stories, kept herself out of it, and edited it with excellence.

My bias is increased because I was invited to various functions in New York City in connection with the launching of the book. City life was great … the Edgewise functions, seeing old friends, eating in great restaurants, seeing the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney Museum, playing Boggle every moment possible with my host/friend Ellen.

So, yes, as an elderly man who sometimes thinks and acts like he's eighteen, and who harbors an unseemly crush on a beautiful and cool and young "artist living in Berlin" I permit myself to say … time and again … what a lucky man I am.

Once I'd written my blog post about the events in New York, I sent Chloe a link to my post; she'd meanwhile returned to Berlin for the launching of the book there.

"I was just speaking about you to Sharon and Max," she emailed on November 5th, "and showed them the beautiful Sylvia Plath card you sent me [I'd sent that card back in August to thank her for the book and to wish her safe travels] … we must be connected! Really! Sharon says a fond hello, she's sorry she didn't have the chance to speak more in NYC but was so happy you came. Max says the same. We were really all just speaking about how wonderful you are! Love - Chloe."

Five days later: "Your blog[post] is one of the sweetest things I've ever read! Thank you for documenting NYC with such soul and heart. Now I have a crush! [I'd said in the blog that I had a crush on her.] Last night was the final book event of the tour. It was held in BBooks, the publisher's bookstore, a modest little shop full of my friends. It was the greatest final reading night of all. We showed a rare recording of Cookie reading a story and then Max read the story of his birth and Sharon told everyone the story of the Octupus (see page 82 in Edgewise). All this on the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling and Cookie's ascendance to the stars. Unbelievably magical."

When I read the words "Now I have a crush!" I swooned. I'm still swooning. I'll be swooning for the rest of my days.

Frank X. Gaspar
7. Leaving Pico - Frank X. Gaspar - This author grew up in Provincetown, the place I called home from October of 1972 until 1985, so I've been hearing of him for a long time; he gets a lot of publicity in his hometown's newspaper. He's had five collections of poems published. I never got around to reading him until this year. Leaving Pico is a great read; it was described excellently by Erik Burns in a New York Times review. "The poet Frank X. Gaspar's simple and satisfying first novel introduces us to Josie Carvalho, a young man who is growing up in a Portuguese community in Provincetown, Mass. With his feisty, unreliable grandfather John Joseph as his guide, Josie spends a troubled summer exploring life's deepest mysteries, from the power of religion to the pain of loss. Through a combination of prayer and more down-to-earth meddling, Josie leads his mother into a romance with a fisherman, but the scheme goes awry when the couple run away. Left on his own with his dotty great-aunt, Josie turns to his grandfather for support. The old man, like a grizzled Scheherazade, comforts the boy with a drawn-out tale of a supposed Portuguese discovery of America that's led by -- in this version anyway -- a Carvalho family ancestor. Gaspar's novel is an expert portrait of the Portuguese immigrant experience, from its resistance to full integration to its more domestic squabbles. The smaller human drama here is set against the backdrop of Portugal's history. The great Portuguese navigators conquered the seas in huge caravels, while Josie and his grandfather ply the waters off Provincetown in a tiny dory -- ironically, and intentionally, named Caravalla.
8. Stealing Fatima - Frank X. Gaspar - This second novel from Gaspar is set in more recent times. I see from their comments that a lot of readers thought it was too slow-going. I loved it. The main character is a priest suffering from much: pill-popping, alcoholism, a crisis of faith, and the sudden appearance of his best friend from childhood, dying from AIDS, and, in connection with trouble with the law, needing to be hidden in the rectory. Not once did my attention lag. I loved the good-sized cast of characters, the story, and Gaspar's prose skills. 

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