Truth, Fiction, and Bigger Truth

A few days ago I received a message from my friend Gerry Bracken who started off with the words “I rarely read fiction, but I picked up a copy…” And he recommended a detective novel based in L.A. to where I was then flying.

Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Yesterday, I was browsing through Maria Popova’s blog, “brain pickings,” and I clicked on her bookshelf. ( Her site routinely discusses books, authors, and readers. And the titles she list are predominantly non-fiction: titles that I jot down and often pick up at the library.

And then last night, I read the ExPlore twitter posting (also managed by Maria Popova). It listed Bill Gates’ reading list for the Summer of 2013. The list is daunting, fascinating and wide-ranging, but except for a single novel, it was all non-fiction. (Click here to see list.)

What is with this reluctance to read fiction? Are we wasting our time? Or more importantly, am I wasting my time.

There once was a time, when the reading of fiction–particular of novels–was considered by many as a harmless past-time for idle girls and not the pursuit of serious, intelligent people. But that was 200 years ago. In the interim, fiction has taken on a bit more gravitas, a bit more legitimacy.

At times, however, I feel haunted by that ancient attitude. And at other times, I feel deliciously guilty for sinking into a novel. Shouldn’t I be learning something? Shouldn’t I be boning up on something? Refining what I know? Discovering new ideas?

Well, I don’t know.

A while back, I ghostwrote a book on the history of Ireland. I researched assiduously, read primary and secondary sources, talked and listened to people and their stories, pored over all the news reports, particularly those on the current events that were unfolding before my eyes.


Colum McCann’s true fiction TransAtlantic

But I know I never got near the truth that I got in reading Colum MCCann’s novel Trans Atlantic. The section(s) on George Mitchell and the Irish peace negotiations, for instance, was better history than I could have ever gleaned in a biography or history book. There was life in those pages, in the account of Mitchell’s days in Belfast, on his dealings with the myriad politicians and organizations, in his observations of the ordinary people and the details around him. Did everything happen the way McCann described it? Probably not. Was it true? I believe very much so. A bigger truth than the historians can share.

I have learned much from fiction–I have learned about people: people in drastic circumstances, in simple ordinariness, in great passion, and in wrenching heartbreak. I have learned about pride and hubris, of great loyalty and great betrayal, of sacrifice and of love. I have met more people in the pages that I have read than I ever could have in the life that I led.

And, in a way, after all, that is what we’re here for–to learn about the wide variety of fellow human beings who share our moment in time and space.

I need to turn my back on this guilt about reading fiction.

Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann–the world continues spinning.

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

Around this time last year, a friend of mine lent me a paperback copy of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was nothing short of masterful, an eloquent novel filled with beauty, wit, humor, and wisdom–and a helluva story as well. A variety of personal histories are threaded around the dazzling 1974 tight-rope walk of Philippe Petite between the World Trade Towers and set against the more resonant chapter in the Towers’ history, with the tragedy of 9/11 looming in the background. The writing was dizzily beautiful, every page an extraordinary read.let the great world spin

When I returned to work at the beginning of the school year, I learned that many of my colleagues were also reading McCann’s novel. And each of them held the same high opinion.
Now, this summer I was excited for the release of McCann’s latest novel, Trans Atlantic. And my anticipation was well worth it.
Like the previous work, McCann’ new novel is steeped in history, although this work stretches from 1847 to 1998 and concerns three separate stories of historic figures who have traveled across the Atlantic.
The novel begins in 1919 with two pilots, Alcock and Brown, both veteran RAF flyers, about to embark on the first transatlantic flight. The two leave from Newfoundland for Ireland, with a thermos of tea, a few wax-papered sandwiches, a load of mail, and a lot of gumption. At one point, close to their end point then get caught in an enormous cloud. They lose their perspective, not knowing what’s up or down, what’s left or right, The only way to survive is to go into a spin–a dangerous thing in itself. But the ultimate fly out and land in a bog field in Galway. The soft earth swallows the nose of their plane.
In fact, “spinning” is a theme that plays greatly in this book–seemingly carrying on a theme outlined in the last novel.
The second story comes seventy years earlier, and Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, has traveled to Ireland to promote his book. (Although he had tried to book first class passage, he had been threatened and made to sleep in steerage.) In Ireland, however, he is feted and adored by the Anglo-Irish; he gives speeches to large audiences, garners great donations to send home to the abolitionist movement and his book sells well. But he too feels he is spinning. At one point, he even refers to himself as a tightrope walker (he says “funambulist”–I had to look it up.) Again we are echoing the tropes of the last novel.
Douglas is “spinning” because while he is being celebrated for his passion for equality and the end of slavery in America, he witnesses the utter horror of the starving Irish, starving while rivers of food, livestock and goods are exported to the rest of the British Empire. (Ireland led the British Empire in beef exports during the years of the potato famine!) It is the beginning of the potato blight, and Douglas is greatly affected by what he sees–the men whose faces are brown from eating bark, the woman whose arms are like ropes asking them to take care of her dead infant–affected by the disparity between the Anglo overlords and the downtrodden Irish.
On stage, he meets and joins the great liberator, Daniel O’Connell, but when he later expounds O’Connell’s beliefs at table, his host pulls him aside and tells him not to “bite the hand that feeds him.” Douglas’ tightrope-walk is to embrace justice and freedom for his people, while keeping silent about the horrors of Ireland in the 1840s. The one will bring funds and awareness to the abolitionist movement back home; the other would dry those funds up. It is a dizzying conundrum.
The third story takes place in 1998 and follows George Mitchell as he jets back and forth across the Atlantic negotiating what would become the Good Friday Peace Accord. Mitchell has been picked by President Clinton to lead this historic conference, and, aside from the constant jetting back and forth, he feels his head spinning from the various participants in the process: the separate governments, the various paramilitary organizations, the political parties, the loyalists, the nationalists, the Gaels, the Unionists, etc.
Here is the world that Mitchell is trying to straighten out, trying to stop from spinning further out of control:
The Battle of the Boyne. Eniskillen. Bloody Sunday. There was a clue in every detail. Gary was a Prod. Seamus was a Taig. Liz lived on the Shankill Road. Bobby on the Falls. Sean went to St. Columba’s. Jeremy to Campbell. Bushmill’s was a Protestant whiskey. Jamesons for Catholics. Nobody drove a green car. Your tie was never orange. You went for holidays in Bundoran or you went to Portrush. Fly you flag. Pick your poison. Choose your hangman.
Added to this, the ex-senator, is an old father. At sixty-four, his son is only five months old. Talk about your head spinning. In the five months of his son’s life, Mitchell has been home less than twenty days–his transatlantic treks becoming more and more urgent. (Mitchell did this for two years and received zero salary, just expenses.)
All three stories–like the stories in Let the Great World Spin–are threaded together in a marvelous tapestry of history and generation, of perspective and connection. Four generations of women–from the scullery maid who met Douglass in 1846 and emigrated on a coffin ship to America to her great, granddaughter shaken but unbowed by the Troubles that George Mitchell is striving to repair–weave their story through the historic narrative.
And the language is exquisite. The streets of New York, the light on the town of Cove, the sky above the Atlantic, the horrors of a Civil War field hospital, the ice fields of Minnesota, all are described with details that are both lyrical and true. The inner and outer lives of both the historic personages and the fictional characters are drawn with verisimilitude and generosity. And the story itself is affirmative and moving, profoundly moving.
In an NPR interview after Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award, McCann implied that he now thinks of himself as a New York writer. That may be so. But the transatlantic tug is a strong one, and his Irish way with words is very much still serving him well.
Find the book and read it. It is that good.

Yes, Yes, Yes: Affirmation ala Molly Bloom

yes I said yes I will Yes.

Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.

The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.

And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Text of Ulysses on yellow rubber gloves.

Jessica Deane Rosner's Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project suspended from ceiling of Rosenbach Gallery

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …

I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.

It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!

And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”

illustration 2012 jpbohannon

illustration © 2012 jpbohannon

I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.

He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!

So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.

Central Park in Spring…Poetry in April

Went up to NYC for two days. The weather was glorious. Bright sunny skies and comfortable 70-degree weather. Central Park was bustling–workers extending their lunches, children climbing rocks, skateboarders, bikers, and roller-bladers whizzing around. There were even some early sun-bathers stripped down to the bare essentials. Good energy all around–New York at its finest.

The reason I went up to New York was to attend the 10th annual “Poetry and Creative Mind” gala held at the Alice Tulley Hall at Lincoln Center on Thursday night.  Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the gala celebrates National Poetry month by presenting various writers, directors, and personalities to read two or three poems of their choosing.  Simply, the night was fun. The presenters were relaxed and entertaining, and the audience was appreciative and receptive.

The readers were Meryl Streep, Brook Shields, Diana Reeves, Colum McCann, Chip Kidd, Bill Keller, Terrence Howard, John Wesley Harding, Claire Danes and Tom Brokow.

Chip Kidd (Master of Ceremonies) dressed in an extraordinary red-and-white striped suit jacket, Kidd was humorous and quick. He handled a small mishap very well when he introduced out-going Academy president Tree Svenson who reached the podium and had to leave stage to retrieve the speech she had forgotten.  He also performed a skit based on his assertion that all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of the “Yellow Road of Texas,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and the 1970 theme song for Pepsi.

Colum McCann. McCann’s National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin was a dramatic, emotional,  exciting portrait of New York City in 1974.  (see and hear McCann talk about the novel here:

McCann recited “The Road Not Taken.” He said that instead of gifts for Christmas, he asks his children to memorize a poem and gave us one that he had asked them to memorize. It was “A Meeting” by Wendell Berry and dedicated to Frank McCourt. His poems all tended to celebrate “the road not taken.” They included Rukeyser’s “Then I saw What the Calling Was” and Amy Clampitt’s “Blueberrying in August.” He ended with the very powerful poem by Nikky Finney called “I Have Been Somewhere.”

Claire Danes, the actress, recited e.e. cummings’ “if up’s the word.”  The poem had been read at her wedding.  She then read  Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with you.”  It was new to me–although I inherited O’Hara’s completed poems from my uncle–and it was such a wonderful love poem. Here it is:

“Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

Having a Coke with you
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it.

John Wesley Harding –John Wesley Harding is the stage, folk-singing name of the writer, Wesley Stace. As Wesley Stace he read Thomas Wyatt’s  “They Flee from Me”  which he calls the greatest poem ever written. (I’m not sure I agree). For his second poem, he brought out his guitar and sang the poem, “The Examiners”–which is on his latest album.   He had seen it in a contest in the Times Literary Supplement and was immediately struck by it.  As he noted, the poem may have come in 3rd in the contest, but “numbers 1 and 2 weren’t being played on the stage at Lincoln Center.” Here he is singing “The Examiners”:

Terence Howard, the stage and screen actor, seemed the less comfortable of them all. He haltingly read Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers,”  but then hit his mark with Rod McKuen’s “Gifts from the Sea.”  It was moving and lovely.  And to me a surprise.

Brooke Shields gave perhaps the best performance of all.  She first read “The Spoilsport”  by Robert Graves, then the very funny “Nostalgia” by Billy Collins and then Howard Nemerov’s “To David, About His Education.” Her delivery was relaxed and humorous and each of the poems themselves were both light and thoughtful.

Bill Keller said that the only reason he had been invited to read was that he had written a NYTimes article in which he said that Congress would be a much better governing organization if they read more poetry. (He said that maybe that would be better than the “Congressional prayer breakfasts” that so many like to boast about.) He cited the late Adrian Rich who once said that “poetry was the perfect antidote to moral certainty” and felt that that was something sorely need in present day Washington. He read three love poems, one each by Brad Leithauser, Kay Ryan, and Frederick Seidel. He ended with Stephen Dunn’s “Our Parents.”

Dianne Reeves. The great jazz singer showed that she can also sing the blues. In the middle of  the Gwendolyn Brooks “Queen of the Blues,” she sang the middle verses in  throaty, bluesy voice that wound back into the poem gently into the poem. It was the high point of the evening. She also read a humorous one about a woman’s hips and another about language and grammar by Kenneth Koch in which the elements of a sentence vowed their love ”until the destruction of language”

Tom Brokaw. Affable and charming, surprisingly his remarks fell flat and his poetry selections were not that memorable. He joked about having been placed between Reeves and Streep. Affable enough, but not that great a performance.

Meryl Streep is always regal, even when she is casual and comfortable. She read W.H. Auden “As I walked out one evening” and then Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses”–she flubbed her lines at the end, but the performance was still spell-bounding.  To atone for her slip-up, she then recited a Chinese poem, first in English and then in Chinese.  It seems that she can do anything.

There was a large reception at the end–one could see in through the glass walls and it looked fine and sumptuous–but it was for the performers and the higher-priced ticket holders only.  Instead I walked across the street and had a whisky and replayed the night in my head.