Beach Weekend

This weekend, I went to Virginia Beach with a big group of friends. What was billed as a long weekend wound up feeling more like a legitimate vacation. We left Thursday evening on a bus to Richmond. After spending Friday at my friend’s parents’ house there, we drove to Virginia Beach for the rest of the weekend.

Even after only two and a half days there, it almost felt routine. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, head for the beach. Spend all day reading, soaking up good music, deepening old friendships, creating new friendships…and working on covering up awkward tan lines from an old bathing suit.

It was a break from my New York routine that I needed more than I realized. And it was a chance to spend a whole weekend appreciating an amazing community of friends.

A few random tidbits, because I’m still on a vacation high and if I don’t write them down now, I’ll forget them:

Richmond, VA is a really cool city, especially if you’re into Civil War history. Friday evening, we drove around the city checking out notable spots. Driving down Monument Avenue, you pass incredible statues of Confederate notables like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. My personal favorite destination was the state Capitol building and this statue of George Washington, which sits outside it. So elaborate, with so many connections to various figures in early America (hey, Meriwether Lewis).

This song made it onto someone’s beach playlist and now I’m addicted to it.

On our flight back this evening (yep, we took the bus down and flew back to maximize beach time), I flipped through the Sept. 1 issue of the New Yorker and laughed so hard at this week’s fiction: “The Referees,” by Joseph O’Neill. A quick, funny read if you need one. “What does this e-mail even mean? She wants to recuse herself? Who is she, Sonia Sotomayor?”

So now I’m back in the city, unpacking and watching Silver Linings Playbook (It’s become my unofficial summer movie. I play it all the time. Just so dang good.) and thinking about how I don’t just feel refreshed after this vacation. I feel completely reset. Tomorrow morning and the week ahead will bring what it may, but I feel new. And it’ll already be Tuesday.

Cranston for President

As soon as I heard Bryan Cranston say “It’s not personal, it’s just politics” in a TV commercial for “All the Way,” I knew I had to see the show.

I mean, come on.

Like good little nerds, my sister and I, with our friend Kate in tow, went to the show on Friday night and all gave it rave reviews.

Cranston plays LBJ in the first year of his presidency – the play opens with him on Air Force One, having just been sworn in following JFK’s assassination – as he works to pass the Civil Rights Act and run for election in 1964.

In my unprofessional opinion, this play was tremendous. It wasn’t necessarily the story itself that I loved, but the way the story was told. It followed different groups of people seeking different endgames through the same situations: LBJ trying to procure votes for the Civil Rights Act; Martin Luther King, Jr. working with fellow activists on a plan to ensure the Act included provisions they wanted; and long-tenured politicians fighting against its passage.

The play told the story of three disparate desires, but connected them in clear, logical ways. Sometimes, multiple stories shared the stage. It was often set up like a split-screen. You’d see MLK on one side, LBJ on the other. Each would have his moment to act out the scene, and then the next actor would begin telling his side of the story. It wasn’t rapid-fire or back-and-forth, but it helped me understand how the stories were intertwined. As the action shifted from one setting to another, often from a room in the White House to a hotel room MLK and his team were staying in, it sometimes seemed as though they shared a passing glance, as if to toss to the next guy and the next scene. They were acting separately, but aware of each other’s every move.

And then there was Bryan Cranston. I think he’s one of those actors you just know will be amazing, no matter the role. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, which is what I think most people love him for. But whether he’s the CIA director in Argo or Ted Mosby’s boss in How I Met Your Mother, I think you can sense there’s something great about him.

He certainly was great in this. I don’t know exactly what LBJ was like, and maybe Cranston played a bit more of a caricature than he did real person, but he clearly wanted to represent the man himself onstage, with all his political genius and all his personal insecurities. The NYT did an interesting story on Cranston’s preparation for the role, which included a video of his trip to the Times‘ archives in search of information on the president. I also love the story’s pictures of Cranston and the cast in rehearsal. I never think about the stripped-down rehearsals a Broadway cast had to go through in order to get to the elaborate final production.

I also loved discovering that one of my obscure little obsessions had a connection to this play. John McMartin, who I later found out is a veteran stage actor with multiple Tony nominations, played a senator set on blocking passage of the Civil Rights Act. Before “All the Way,” I knew him as the editor of the foreign section in my beloved All the President’s Men. He delivers one of my favorite lines in the movie while expressing his skepticism over the paper’s aggressive Watergate coverage: “Where did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?” (A clip of this scene is nowhere to be found on the internet because I’m the only person who’d watch it. Just trust me. He delivers the line perfectly.)  I love that McMartin is still going strong, and it was cool to see him on the stage.

I don’t think “All the Way” will be on Broadway much longer, though I’m sure it will run past the upcoming Tony awards. If you love Bryan Cranston, great acting, or American history, it will enthrall you.

Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

A Weekend in DC

Despite living in New York City, a lot of my obsessions – namely the West Wing and the Watergate scandal – are Washington, DC-based. Before this weekend, I hadn’t seriously been to DC in five years, but I’d been mentally planning a trip ever since I finished the West Wing pilot. Kind of on a whim, my friend Brooke and I decided to go on Friday, and the trip was so fun. One of my favorite things about New York is how quickly you can get away from it to spend the weekend in other amazing cities.

I watched All the President’s Men on the bus ride down, partly because it’s the perfect preparation for a DC trip, but mostly because I never remember to update the media on my iPad and the movie has been sitting there for years. I hadn’t watched it all the way through in awhile and had forgotten that it’s perfect. What I had really forgotten is how fabulous Hal Holbrook is as Deep Throat. He is perfection in this scene.

Speaking of Watergate, I got to see the actual Watergate complex this weekend, which was cool but a little anticlimactic. Besides a “National Register of Historic Places” plaque, there is nothing commemorating that building’s place in American history. I know only a small moment of the scandal that took its name happened at the actual Watergate, but there could at least be a little sign honoring it as the birthplace of the suffix we now use for naming scandals in this country.

I promise this trip wasn’t a weird Watergate pilgrimage for me, but I did find one other fascinating item related to it in the American Presidents wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The hall is filled with portraits of all the presidents, but the most intriguing was this Norman Rockwell painting of Richard Nixon. Norman Rockwell! The man whose paintings generally depicted jolly, happy scenes of innocent American life painted the president who would seem to least embody that innocence.

bignixon

The painting was done in 1968, before Nixon’s presidency, but even then, Rockwell had to “intentionally flatter” his appearance because regular Nixon wouldn’t look so good in a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell did other paintings of Nixon during his political career, but I was fascinated to see one included among majestic paintings of American heroes. I’m fascinated that these paintings even exist, because with the benefit of hindsight I can’t imagine a starker contrast between the way the public perceives an artist and the way it perceives his subject. 

Watergate obsession aside, the Portrait Gallery was amazing. I loved examining all the presidential portraits, but those of FDR and Bill Clinton were my favorite. I could easily go back and spend an entire day looking at other wings of the gallery and exploring other Smithsonian museums. I’ll just have to make another trip – I could stand to watch All the President’s Men again, anyway.

Recently Read: “Team of Rivals” and “The Art of Fielding”

In college, I did a really terrible job of reading for pleasure. After poring over tons of books and articles for class, reading more books didn’t seem like an appetizing way to spend my free time. I read plenty of magazine and news articles, but read very little in the way of actual, honest-to-God books. I did alright during summers, but after graduation, I decided it was time to step up my game, book-wise.

Now, books are an escape, not a chore. While I’m trying to make up for lost time and read as many as I can, I don’t want everything to go in one ear (eye?) and out the other, so I’m writing little “debriefs” for everything I read this year.

I’ve finished two books so far in 2013 (though the vast majority of the first was read in 2012), and here’s what they taught me.

Book One: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I blogged a little about this book as I was reading it, and now that I’m through, I wish I was taking some class that required me to write a whole research paper on it. As terrible of a student as this will make me sound, I took more notes on this book than I did on a lot of books I read in college. Reading it without an assignment hanging over me, I was able to take it at my own pace and soak it in as a whole, rather than thinking about bits and pieces that might somehow fit into a paper.

It is a tremendous work: 754 dense pages about Abraham Lincoln, his four primary rivals in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, his cabinet once he did become president, and how he worked with and maneuvered around all those people to lead the United States through the Civil War.

Throughout the book, I found three elements of Lincoln’s personality and character most fascinating: Lincoln as storyteller, Lincoln as a PR man and people manager, and Lincoln as a man obsessed with the way in which he was perceived. (I suppose those are the main points of that book report I’m not required to write.)

First, Lincoln as storyteller: I wrote about this a couple months ago, when I had just started the book, but if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, whose screenplay is based on Team of Rivals, you probably laughed out loud at the story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen seeing a portrait of George Washington hung in an outhouse. I know that story doesn’t make sense out of context for people who have not seen the film or read the book, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ timing and delivery of the story provided me with one of my favorite moments in any movie. Team of Rivals is full of references to Lincoln’s gift for storytelling, molded when he was a boy as he listened to his father tell stories to travelers and pioneers who spent the night in their Kentucky home.

Then, Lincoln as a PR master. Honestly, the man was a public relations genius, especially when it came to the internal PR he had to conduct in order to keep all his cabinet members, friends, constituents and military leaders happy.

In my eyes, though, his greatest PR gift was his ability gauge public sentiment, and wait until it was on his side before making proclamations or taking certain actions.

“Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion,” Goodwin wrote. She then shared what might be my favorite Lincoln quote from the entire book: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions (p. 206).” (The bold and Italic emphasis is mine. That quote completely blows my mind because it holds true in every era, and so perfectly embodies Lincoln’s strategy for waiting until the public was willing to accept something before he acted on it.)

This sensitivity to public sentiment was never clearer than when Lincoln was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He waited until the North was ready to fight for the abolishment of slavery – not just for the preservation of the Union (p. 502). The same went for his proposition to let blacks enlist; he waited until public opinion was strong enough on his side, and likened the situation to a man waiting for pears to ripen. “A man watches his pear-tree, day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap (p. 502)!” He would act when the public was ready to willingly support his decisions, and not a moment sooner, avoiding personal embarrassment, and, worse, the failure of key measures like the Emancipation Proclamation that helped facilitate the war’s end.

Finally, Lincoln and perception. As a young man, Lincoln took very little comfort in the idea of heaven or an afterlife as something to live for; in his eyes, this life was all he had, and he was obsessed with doing something great that would cause him to be remembered and celebrated in future generations. “Like the ancient Greeks,” Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln seemed to believe that ‘ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him'” (p. 100 of Team of Rivals, quoting William G. Thalmann’s The Odyssey: An Epic of Return).

After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he recalled suffering depression two decades earlier, and remembered thinking at the time that the only thing keeping him from wanting to die was knowing he had done nothing “to make any human being remember that he had lived (p. 501).” With the passage of the Proclamation, he believed his “fondest hopes [eternal remembrance in history] will be realized (p. 501).”

I have dozens of other Post-it Notes and highlighted paragraphs littering my copy of Team of Rivals, but those were the three elements of the book and Lincoln’s life that stuck to me. If you have any interest in American history, or just want to read a thoughtful, well-researched book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Two: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

It seems like this book was on everyone’s “Best of 2011” list, so I’m behind the curve, but I did read most of this during Christmas break of 2011 before abandoning it once classes picked up again. I must have read more than I remember, because I was probably three-quarters of the way through before I started hitting material I hadn’t already seen.

I don’t think I liked it as much as I thought I would (or should) – I started out loving it, hated it (or at least found it a little tiresome) in the late-middle, but felt satisfied with the ending. Maybe that makes no sense, but hey, I’m not a professional book reviewer.

Even if I didn’t like what some of the characters did at times (a large chunk of it just wore me out, because all five main characters more or less hit rock bottom at the same time; turn the page, another character makes a bad decision and starts some long journey back to reality), I loved the way they were developed. Each main character had a rich backstory that was described upfront and used as the foundation for his or her actions throughout the book.

There were a lot of moving parts that all came together in the end, which was what I loved most about this book. My copy included a “Reading Group Guide” in the back, which featured a Q&A with the author. He likened weaving five stories together and leading them to a satisfying conclusion to completing “a humongous math problem.” Borrowing that analogy, finishing The Art of Fielding was like solving a complicated algebra problem, then checking your answer in the back of the book to find you actually did it right.

On top of it all, Chad Harbach is a gifted writer. The book is smooth. His characters talk and think like normal people talk and think, and he describes their actions in a way that allows you to picture how they are moving. If I ever write a debut novel someday, I’d hope it’s as well-written as Chad Harbach’s.

Book Three

Book Three of 2013 is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman. Most of what I know about Ben Bradlee is shaped by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, but I’m about a third of the way through this book, and already my perspective has shifted dramatically. Bradlee seems to be the personality of all personalities, and it’s a pleasure getting to know him. More to come.

My Feelings Exactly

To the Strand Bookstore employee who wrote this recommendation for Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

photo (8)

Those are my feelings exactly.

I am well over 100 pages into the book (701, to be exact), but that’s still how I feel. It may have taken me a few months to get there (I’m a slow reader already, and 750 dense pages don’t help speed things up), but I’m almost finished, and while I want the satisfaction of saying I read the whole thing, I really don’t want it to end. Like the Strand employee, I still want to spend all of my free time reading it. I still want my arms to hurt from holding it on the subway (slow reader, out of shape…the fun never stops here).

I know finishing a 750-page book is no accomplishment in the grand scheme of reading, but even more than being able to check this work off my list (by the end of this week, I hope), I feel as though I’ve come to know Lincoln, and some of the “rivals,” like William Henry Seward and Edwin Stanton, very closely. I’ve come to understand a time period in a much deeper and more complete way than I ever would have through a high school or college textbook.

Fifty pages from now, the book will be over and Lincoln, who seems to be in his prime right now as he starts his second term, gets the Thirteenth Amendment passed and starts working on a plan to negotiate peace with the Confederacy, will be gone. I only wish I was that Strand staffer who is just starting out.

P.S. – If you’re in New York, the Strand has several sparkling new copies of Team of Rivals just begging you to buy and read them. Do it!