Review: ‘Endurance’ by Scott Kelly

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of DiscoveryEndurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always wanted to go into space, and I know I never will.

I know I never will because I’m 52 years old, and the world of “2001: A Space Odyssey” I wanted to be a part of – a world of Pan Am shuttles and space station Hiltons and, obviously, regular use of both by mere Earthlings – is decades away, if it ever happens at all. I will either be too old or too dead to try them, and thus will be spending the remainder of my life gravitationally attached to this oblate spheroid.

Fortunately, if space must remain the domain of well-trained astronauts, we have people like Scott Kelly to tell us what it’s like.

Kelly freely admits he was a ne’er-do-well student probably ticketed for a middling life until he stumbled on Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” early in college. (“The Right Stuff” is probably my favorite Wolfe book, too, and considering that I love most of what Wolfe has written, that’s saying something.) Suddenly he had a purpose. He wanted to be an astronaut. However, that meant mastering math, physics and engineering, excelling in the military, becoming an accomplished jet pilot and being selected by NASA.

As he writes, often humbly, in his memoir “Endurance,” he pulled it off.

“Endurance” alternates between chapters describing Kelly’s “Year in Space” – 2015-16, when he set the record for consecutive days by an American on board the space station – and his push to get there. He seldom spares himself, writing matter-of-factly about his initial lack of discipline, his occasional foolishness as a Navy pilot (in one incident, he went overboard after drinking too much and could easily have died) and the divorce from his first wife, who – at least as of the book’s writing – barely speaks to him.

However, what makes his memoir so gripping, and what raises it above the level of the overcoming-adversity book it could have been, is his sense of wonder. Inside Kelly is still that college kid reading “The Right Stuff” and pondering the heavens. It’s when he’s describing those moments – staring at the Earth from the cupola (the space station’s viewing room) or, during spacewalks, noting the fragility of the tether connecting him to the station – that the book almost brought me to tears. You can feel Kelly’s awe. How I’ve stared at the night sky and felt that feeling myself, wishing to see it from the other side.

Which is not to say astronaut life is all zero-G dances to the “Blue Danube.”

There’s the impact of zero-G, for one. What seems so natural in “2001” (or “Star Wars,” or any movie set in space) is actually quite unnatural for human beings. Kelly gets headaches as his brain tries to figure out which end is up. A crewmate spends several days throwing up. Their bodies start wasting away, since there’s less need for the muscle and bone that keeps us upright and ambulatory. Makes you wonder how easy it would be for Dr. Heywood Broun, or his Pan Am flight attendants.

Then there’s the space station itself: a remarkable creation, but one that seems put together with chewing gum and baling wire. The station struggles to keep up with its resident humans’ oxygen needs – carbon dioxide builds up all too easily – and the toilet craps out (sorry) a couple times, which means that it has to be fixed … while its parts threaten to float away. Frankly, it’s amazing the space station has held up as well as it has, given the lack of passion and funding for space exploration among national governments.

Finally, Kelly acknowledges how difficult it is to be hundreds of miles away from home – not just in another part of the world, but literally above it. He can’t step outside for a breather; he can’t go shopping or drinking or simply grab a change of scene. In a moving section near the end of “Endurance,” he talks about what he’s missed:

I miss cooking. I miss chopping fresh food, the smell vegetables give up when you first slice into them. … I miss grocery stores, the shelves of bright colors and the glossy tile floors and the strangers walking the aisles. … I miss rooms. I miss doors and door frames and the creak of wood floorboards when people walk around in old buildings. … I miss the feeling of resting after opposing gravity all day. … I miss showers. I miss running water in all its forms: washing my face, washing my hands.

Amazing what you take for granted, simply existing on this planet.

“Endurance” isn’t perfect. The writing (with Margaret Lazarus Dean) can be workmanlike – not dull, but not at the level of its most heartfelt sections. I would have liked more information on Kelly’s crewmates, particularly the Russians — though, to his credit, he offers up the occasional tart comparison. (If NASA is by-the-book to the point of absurdity, the Russians are sometimes casual to the point of imprudence.)

I’m glad Kelly was blunt about the stresses of space, though. The training alone would eliminate me, all that drownproofing and roughing it in the Russian woods. And having nearly passed out after trying an “anti-gravity workout,” in which you do pushups and situps while hanging from the ceiling, I can’t imagine how I’d survive life in the space station … never mind the trip to and from the place. (Kelly describes the ride back in a Soyuz capsule as “going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, while on fire.” And he loves it.)

So I’d never make it in space unless Pan Am, or whoever, made it reasonably comfortable. But Kelly has made it in space, and has done so with an open-mindedness that makes “Endeavor” a welcome, and surprisingly deep, addition to space-oriented literature – including “The Right Stuff.”

In a classy move, Kelly called Tom Wolfe from space late in his journey to thank him for the inspiration. In turn, I’d like to thank Kelly for taking me along on his trip. Godspeed.

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Review: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, #1)A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why “A Wrinkle in Time” is beloved.

The hero of Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning novel is a girl on the edge of adulthood, still unusual in fantasy and science fiction and particularly unlikely back in 1962, when the book was published. The book is imaginative, whether using tesseracts as a means of transport or through the invention of three ancients of the universe, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. And its invocation of love as the cosmos’ essential ingredient remains resonant.

I didn’t much like it.

I admired it, certainly, for all the reasons I listed. But as a story I found it a slog. In short, Meg Murry’s father, a scientist, has disappeared. Her brother, Charles Wallace, seems to be in tune with the universe and suspects he’s vanished to another point in space-time. A boy from school, Calvin, joins their group, and thanks to the three ancients, they’re off to find Prof. Murry. They learn that there’s a dark IT (I found it hard to read that without thinking of Stephen King’s clown) that clouds certain planets, and also that Prof. Murry is being held captive on a planet of order-following, brain-dampening creatures.

Sounds fascinating, right? But the characters, particularly Meg and her boyfriend-to-be, Calvin, are two-dimensional (perhaps appropriate given their dimension-hopping), with Meg pouty and Calvin Boy Scout-polite. (He addresses Meg’s father as “sir,” not even “Professor Murry.”) The book travels from point to point without much point, besides offering tidbits of L’Engle’s wonderful imagination. The end comes so abruptly I wondered if L’Engle had to rush “Wrinkle” to her publisher.

And the dialogue. Ugh.

I winced every time the story returned to Meg, Calvin and Meg’s brother Charles Wallace – which was pretty much every page. While the Mrses were grandly entertaining – I particularly enjoyed Mrs Who’s endless quotations — the children spoke like they’d just emerged from a Dick and Jane book or a bad movie script. I don’t think children talked like this in 1912, never mind 1962 (perhaps I should get my copy of “Penrod” off the shelf to see), and their words called attention to their flat characterizations.

Some random examples:

“Sure, we all know that. And he’s supposed to have left your mother and gone off with some dame,” Calvin says early on. “Some dame”? Had Calvin been spending time with James Cagney?

“No!” Meg shouts later in the novel. “I know our world isn’t perfect, Charles, but it’s better than this. This isn’t the only alternative! It can’t be!” Exclamation point!

Meg seldom “says,” too. She shouts. She cries. She objects. I can hear Elmore Leonard – he of the terse “he said, she said” dialogue – turning in his grave.

OK, that’s not fair. “A Wrinkle in Time” was written for children. But I couldn’t help but think it.

Having not read the book when I was a child, I thought I’d be treated to one of those timeless classics that still read well when you’re all grown up. (Roald Dahl succeeded with his works, but maybe it’s because he has a mean streak the gentle Ms. L’Engle lacks.) Sometimes L’Engle manages to strike the tone of Carrollian whimsy she’s pursuing, and yeah, I assume if you’re a young girl (or young boy, perhaps slightly older than Meg’s brother Charles Wallace), it’s probably remarkable.

But in general, now that I’ve read it, I wonder what all the fuss is about. I can’t say “A Wrinkle in Time” isn’t worth reading, but if I could tesser, I would travel back a few days and devote my attention to something else.

Or maybe find a child and read it, aloud, to them. They wouldn’t even have to call me “sir.”

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Review: ‘Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine’ by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone MagazineSticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a friend who isn’t interested in reading “Sticky Fingers,” the new biography of Rolling Stone co-founder and media mogul Jann Wenner. He explained that after reading too many rock ‘n’ roll biographies that are essentially litanies of sex, drugs, bad behavior, sex, drugs, and sex and drugs, he’s not interested in another one.

I can’t really blame him, but with a caveat: “Sticky Fingers” (an oddly appropriate title for the digit-in-every-pie Wenner) isn’t really about sex and drugs. It’s about money and power.

Wenner was born to money – new money, but money nonetheless. His father, Edward (whose last name was originally Weiner), founded a San Francisco-based company selling baby formula. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and business thrived.

His mother, known as Sim, was an unhappy housewife – a lesbian who thought she wanted a standard family life, but quickly realized it was a gilded cage. She and Wenner’s father divorced when he was a teenager.

Wenner – born “Jan,” a spelling he changed during his college years at Berkeley – was a precocious child who, like his mother, grappled with his sexuality. Unlike her, however, he didn’t come to terms with it until well into adulthood. It’s a plotline that comes to the fore throughout “Sticky Fingers,” often presented in gossipy ways. I’m not sure Hagan could have been higher-minded in discussing it, but after awhile the list of Wenner’s affairs, with men and women, becomes boring despite its alleged salaciousness.

The blunter throughline, however, is money. Wenner is presented as always on the make, a Sammy Glick for the Age of Aquarius.

Rolling Stone, which he co-founded with San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason, does have its ideals, but Wenner never fools himself – as its staffers sometimes do – that he’s in it for justice. He sees his generation the way Madison Avenue did: as a bunch of free-spending consumers, whether buying LPs, cigarette papers and stereos or – later – cars, computers, diapers and liquor. That 1980s “Perception/Reality” ad campaign reflected Wenner’s true values.

And he wasn’t wrong: Apparently a lot of Rolling Stone readers DID vote for Ronald Reagan, despite the stories in William Greider’s politics column. (Of course, as one staffer notes, Greider’s work was always some of the least-read in the ‘80s version of the magazine.)

Which is not to say that the self-styled “Citizen Wenner,” who loved the movie “Citizen Kane,” didn’t also pride himself on creating a bold, muckraking magazine. One turning point was running the lengthy 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, which smashed some of the Beatles’ myths and, not coincidentally, boosted circulation at a time when the magazine was running aground financially. Another was hiring Hunter S. Thompson, who gave its political journalism a distinctive voice – also expressed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Joe Klein.

In typical Wenner fashion, however, he managed to alienate John Lennon by pursuing more money out of the interview – publishing a book under RS’ aegis, one that Lennon explicitly told him not to do. It was not unusual behavior; over the years, Wenner would make enemies of friends, often shrugging it off as the price of business. (Even Gleason, whom Wenner idolized, fell away.)

But hey, business was very good. As RS’ chief stockholder, Wenner started living a life that was unavailable to many run-of-the-mill magazine editors. First he hung around with rock stars and record men, befitting their chief courtier. Then it became producers (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels) and the Aspen/Sun Valley elite. The residences got more ostentatious; so did the overall lifestyle. I gasped when Wenner got a $300 million loan to buy back some stock and “would pay back nary a dime … funneling all the profits directly into his lifestyle.” This was in 2006; you know how the story ends.

I also gasped – or grimaced – upon reading how Wenner protected friends at the expense of journalism. It’s long been known that he’s played favorites on the review pages, making sure his pals in the Rolling Stones get glowing reviews for their crummy post-“Tattoo You” albums. (Of course, this may be payback for the crummy reviews folks like Lenny Kaye gave now-classic Stones albums like “Exile on Main Street.”) But I was surprised to read that he also gave interviews and cover stories to their subjects for vetting.

Bad form, Jann.

But, after awhile, the gasping and grimacing gave way to simply going along. Though the book makes a nice corrective to Alex Gibney’s too-glowing documentary on RS (which was produced in cooperation with the magazine), it’s missing the depth of Gibney’s interviews, which provided some nice context for the magazine’s evolution from music rag to respected periodical. It’s as if Hagan took one person’s jibe at Jann – that he simply rode a good idea for all it was worth – and overplayed it. Every so often Wenner the editor-in-chief comes into view, a man who is pretty good at his job, but then goes away in a cloud of money.

Sex and drugs, too.

As noted, there is plenty of sex and drugs. It was the ‘60s, after all; the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. LSD and pot give way to heroin and cocaine; free love gives way to slick sex and safe sex. Wenner and friends partake of it all. He manages to stay (reasonably) clear-headed while many around him fall apart.

Not the least of them is Wenner’s long-suffering wife, Jane, who was instrumental in molding the early Rolling Stone and smoothing Jann’s rough edges. Often ignored by her husband – who was busy either with the magazine or his famous friends – she plowed much of her energy into decorating, sex and drugs. The last wasn’t as easy for her to shake off as it was for her husband: at one point she’s described as so strung out that she won’t get out of bed for several days.

And that’s not counting the stories of other RS notables, especially famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose relationships with her subjects went well beyond taking pictures. At times chronicling these escapades is revealing. Leibovitz, for one, was discouraged from joining the Rolling Stones on a tour for fear that she’d barely emerge from the other end. She did the tour and, indeed, began a downward spiral that wasn’t turned around for a decade.

But more often it’s simply wearying. It’s a shame because Hagan also writes well when he has rich material, such as Wenner’s relationship with record labels and their moguls (such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun) and his willingness to go out on journalistic limbs when necessary (it was Rolling Stone that broke the full story on the Patricia Hearst kidnapping).

Hagan has some stylistic tics. He occasionally recapitulates some events as if you hadn’t just read them a chapter or two before. He also narrates too much, instead of letting some observers, such as Cameron Crowe, do the talking. (In Hagan’s defense, in some cases the observer didn’t give him an interview.)

He also gets some easy things wrong. “Saturday Night Live” comes live from Studio 8H, not 3H, and Dave Marsh – though he edited the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – sure as hell didn’t write every entry.

But, for the most part, Hagan appears to have gotten it right. I do wish his portrait of Wenner were more well-rounded, but that probably says more about Wenner than it does about Hagan. As it is, “Sticky Fingers” says a lot about how money can’t buy ultimate happiness, but it sure as hell can buy so many other things.

Sex and drugs included.

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Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads log, I started the 1,157 paperback-bound pages of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” on July 14. Last night, on November 27, I finally finished it.

In the four months, 13 days, 2 hours and 31 minutes it took me to read the book, a solar eclipse worked its way across the United States; Glen Campbell died; hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States and Caribbean; Hugh Hefner died; 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas; Fats Domino died; 26 people were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Prince Harry got engaged. Donald Trump was in his 27th year as president.

Also, I read a handful of other books, including Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” Andy Weir’s “Artemis” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It was Murakami who inspired me (and my book club) to pick up Orwell again. It was a nice respite while it lasted.

Well, a lot happens when you’re trudging through nonsense.

I will say, unlike so many other events of the past few months, “1Q84” didn’t leave death and destruction in its wake. However, it did keep me from reading at least four other books and a stack of New Yorkers.

The story does start out with a bang. In the year 1984, Aomame is a pretty young fitness instructor on the cusp of 30 who has a job to do: kill a man. On her way to her assignation, she gets out of a cab and, upon descending a freeway staircase, she enters another world – one almost exactly like this one except it has two moons.

(Oh, and the parallel Earth is apparently controlled by the Little People. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The other main character is a math teacher on the cusp of 30 named Tengo. He teaches to make ends meet; his real focus is writing. His publisher puts him together with a teenager named Fuka-Eri, who has written a raw manuscript called “Air Chrysalis.” Tengo’s job is to polish the book. He, too, crosses over into the world that Aomame calls “1Q84” (the Q is a pun in Japanese) and gets entangled with the cult that Fuka-Eri escaped. (“Air Chrysalis” also contains references to the Little People. This is significant.)

There’s an eerie connection between Aomame and Tengo. When the two were 10 years old, they were two lonely children at the same elementary school, and — for a brief moment — held hands. This is an experience neither has ever forgotten, and both are convinced that the other is The One. For the next 1,000 pages, they will attempt to reconnect, and then the world will end in an orgasm of explosive passion.

Well, no. You’re not really sure what’s going to happen when they meet, or if they’ll meet, or what their meeting will mean. But essentially, the attempt to reconnect is the plot driver. And as a driver, it’s the equivalent of an Uber guy taking you all over town before getting to your destination, which he finally approaches doing 10 miles per hour.

Fortunately, as you’d expect with Murakami, there are also lots of other plots, some unusual – a ghostly NHK fee collector who harasses people, a creepy private detective on the trail of Aomame and Tengo – and some straight out of a thriller.

Perhaps the best involves the cult, Sakigake, that Fuka-Eri has escaped and Aomame used to belong to. A sequence in which Aomame is tasked with killing the Sakigake leader becomes both a master class in suspense and a philosophical argument about responsibility. Another section, in which Tengo goes to a small city to care for his distant, dying father, is a moving meditation on regret.

And then there’s the private detective, Ushikawa. He’s a former lawyer with a misshapen head and an outwardly odious appearance, and early on, he’s no more than a Peter Lorre character, offering Tengo hush money and quietly threatening him. But in the last third of the novel (which was published as three books in Japan) he comes into his own, rationalizing his work as he comes closer to unraveling the Aomame-Tengo mystery. He’s fascinating, repulsive, and worthy of his own book.

But that’s the thing about “1Q84” – there are LOTS of books within its pages. I wish Murakami would have chosen one and streamlined the rest, or somehow made the whole thing more picaresque. Instead, it’s every bit as baggy as its 1,100-plus pages would have you fear. There are musings on food, blind alleys on the characters’ backgrounds (what DID happen to Tengo’s mother? Your guess is as good as mine), lots of lush copy on breasts (“Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever”), and virtually no explanation of the Little People.

The Little People can apparently get bigger once they crawl out of people’s mouths. And they say “ho-ho” a lot, like Disney’s Dwarves. They also build air chrysalises. I don’t know their thoughts on breasts.

There were many times during my months of reading I put on my old English major hat in attempts to figure out “1Q84’s” depths. Is Murakami making comparisons to Orwell’s “1984”? If so, it’s only in the sketchiest ways. What is the symbolism of the two moons? Seemingly nothing more than a way to separate Earth 1 from Earth 2. Why is Ushikawa’s tongue a mossy green, like the second moon? Maybe he didn’t brush his teeth enough. That’s my theory, anyway.

I had high hopes for “1Q84.” I loved “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which packed powerful tales of the 1930s Manchurian war into its broader plot. And there’s no question Murakami is a talented writer, capable of turning a phrase or sustaining the thrills of his off-kilter worlds. But the jumbled “1Q84” really could have used an editor.

It’s ironic. “1Q84” wants to be, among other things, a book about the power of storytelling, about losing yourself in another world. And, certainly, there are some books in which you reach the final page and then exhale, as if you’ve just come up for air. But upon finishing “1Q84,” I knew two things: Donald Trump was still in his 27th year as president, and I’d rather visit Orwell’s Room 101 than slog through “1Q84” again.

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Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

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Review: ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been trying to figure out how to review “The Sellout.” I wanted more and I don’t think the book gave it to me. But is that the book? Or me?

There’s no doubt Paul Beatty is a brilliant writer: nimble, knowledgeable, quick-witted. I read the first dozen pages and was overwhelmed, almost gleeful. Could he keep up such an amazing burst of imagination for an entire novel?

Well, yes. And no.

Because satire – and “The Sellout” is, if nothing else, a satire – is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can mercilessly (and often angrily) mock conventional wisdom and powerful, if wrongheaded, ideas. Beatty does this often and well. Everything in his path gets skewered: Los Angeles and its many neighborhoods and suburbs (this book may have the best feel for L.A. as a full, unkempt city of any book I’ve ever read) “Little Rascals” shorts (and, by extension, the movies, their stereotypes and their portrayals of children); gangstas; black neighborhood gathering places; well-meaning liberals; black intellectuals; sister cities; and pretty much the whole idea of a post-racial America.

The upshot is that race – and all that comes with it – is always present in these fractured United States, no matter how much we all try to ignore it (or, well, not).

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In memory of Bharati Mukherjee

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Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. Image from Getty via the San Francisco Chronicle.

My memories of Bharati Mukherjee are misty and faint, mixed with the everyday trappings of a creative writing class. A classroom at Emory, perhaps in the Humanities Building, the fall of 1983. The ditto paper on which we typed our short stories and the smell of ink from the mimeograph machine on which we copied them for the rest of the class. A semicircle of students offering criticisms. Sunlight through the windows. Private jokes.

And this beautiful, sometimes imperious, woman who spoke in elegant, sonorous sentences, making suggestions, soliciting critiques, and always reminding us to make sure we made copies of our stories for everybody. There was a box on the floor outside her office where we’d leave them.

Professor Mukherjee — Bharati — died Saturday. The news started making the rounds yesterday, and I saw some of the obituaries today.

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The witty, wise Carrie Fisher

54th New York Film Festival Screening of HBO's Documentary 'Bright Lights', USA - 10 Oct 2016
Image from TVLine.

(Update, 2:13 p.m.: Good for you, Brian Lowry.)

Carrie Fisher has died. She passed away today after reportedly suffering a massive heart attack Friday. She was 60.

The obituaries will focus on her portrayal of Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films. That’s as it should be: the movie series reshaped ideas of box office success and even spawned a religion. In an interview with WebMD, Fisher herself acknowledged the inability to get out from Leia’s shadow:

Have I gotten past it? I wasn’t aware that I had! I am Princess Leia, no matter what. If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn’t say I wrote Postcards [From the Edge, her best-selling first novel]. Or, if I’m trying to get someone to take my check and I don’t have ID, I wouldn’t say: “Have you seen Harry Met Sally?” Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.

But I hope the appreciations don’t skimp on Carrie Fisher, writer and wit. Not only was she a highly thought-of script doctor, said to have punched up “Sister Act” and “The Wedding Singer,” she was incredibly quick with a line. Even when it came to talking about script doctoring: because studios could steal her ideas before hiring her, she thought of the trade as “life-wasting events.”

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