Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

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2016 Unfinished Business – The Best of What I Read

It’s January 22, 2017, but I have some unfinished business from 2016 and I’m taking care of it right here.

I can only remember one resolution I made going into 2016: Keep track of all the media I consumed – movies, articles, books, music, television – that caught my eye. Looking back, I can actually say I did a good job. Not a perfect job, but a job good enough that I’m willing to elaborate on the process.

What I’m sharing here are the online articles I read, though some of them lived in print, too. Some are podcasts. To save everything, I emailed a link to myself and saved it in a designated Gmail folder (I used the Notes app on my phone to save lists of movies, books, and TV). As often as possible, I included some context in my email, as well – mentioning how I found the story, where I was when I read it, particular phrases or paragraphs that stood out, or people with whom I discussed the content.

In the beginning, I felt the weight of every article I added. Was this article “worthy”? Was I setting the right criteria? As time wore on, I realized that was the beauty of the project. There were no hard-and-fast criteria. I could make it my own. Anything interesting, thought-provoking, funny…I could add it all.

At the end of the year, there were 138 items in the folder. I recently went back through all of them, and decided these ones stood out – most of them purely for their overall content, but others because of a specific turn of phrase, or because they came to my attention in an interesting way.

There are a few more thoughts after the linkage, elaborating on the broader themes I noticed and my plans to do things a little differently in 2017, but without further adieu, here are some good reads from the past year, with assorted commentary, great phrasing, etc., included. I know it’s too long, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Enjoy.

(The dates listed here are generally the dates I consumed said story. Sometimes they match with the publication date, sometimes not.)

January 11 – The New York Times’ David Bowie obituary 

  • I love the description of Bowie as “infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking”

January 18 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 671: Charlie Kaufman

  • Kaufman on deciding to write Adaptation – “so I thought, what I if I write about me being stuck?”

February 8 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 678: Cindy Crawford

  • I love reading or listening to something that completely opens me up to a new person. Of course I knew who Cindy Crawford was, but did I know anything about her? Her interview with Maron was fascinating, because she basically broke down every preconception I had about her, and told really interesting stories about her early days in modeling, her work with artists like Richard Avedon and Mike Nichols, and her marriages.

February 8 – Colm Toibin on Saoirse Ronan’s New York (Spring Fashion cover story for New York magazine)

  • At the time, this was the best story I read all year. It’s still very high up there, I would say. I even wrote a lot about it on this very blog. Better than anything I’ve ever read, maybe, it perfectly captures what it’s like to move away from home and attempt to embody both the new place you live and the old place you live. “Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank, like our neighbor’s sister, ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.”
  • My favorite sentence from the story, describing Saoirse Ronan and her own embodiment of both Ireland and New York: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

February 19 – Jesse David Fox in Vulture, on Steve Martin opening for Seinfeld at a Beacon Theater show

  • I actually laughed out loud as I re-read the article a few days ago. There were such specific observations about Martin’s jokes, noting where he got the biggest laughs. The author clearly took so much joy from his experience watching Martin do a quick bit, and the joy passes easily to the reader of this piece.

February 19 – David Edelstein’s review of “Hail Caesar” on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

  • My favorite part of this review has nothing to do with “Hail Ceasar!” itself. It comes when Edelstein compares it to “The Big Lebowski,” and calls the latter film a “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge,” which is probably the most perfect turn of phrase I heard this year. Have four words ever been so perfectly selected, assembled, and used to convey meaning? I now find it unnecessary to use any other words to describe that film.

February 26 – Richard Brody’s Oscar picks in The New Yorker

  • If “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge” is my favorite turn of phrase for the year purely from a word economy standpoint, then Richard Brody’s explanation for why “The Revenant” was not Leonardo DiCaprio’s most Oscar-worthy performance wins for the phrase that most succinctly gets to a point: “Anyone can eat the liver.” Brody’s point is that Leo is a fine actor, who could have won the Oscar for parts in which he displayed skills few others have. But “The Revenant” was not such a display. “Anyone can eat the liver.” I actually think about that phrase all the time, and I think it applies to more in life than just the Oscars.

March 2 – New York Times story about Sarah Paulson playing Marcia Clark

  • I caught major “People vs. OJ” fever last year; Sarah Paulson’s performance was probably the best I saw in anything all year. I loved this story about her by Michael Schulman in the Times, which was published at the height of the show’s popularity. In particular, I loved his phrasing as he described how Paulson’s performance redeemed Marcia Clark: “As played by Ms. Paulson, she is recast as a chain-smoking feminist underdog.”

March 8 – Nora Ephron in The New Yorker: “My Life as an Heiress”

  • This story was written in 2010, but for some reason The New Yorker posted this on Facebook in March, 2016. I remember wondering why they’d chosen it; maybe it was just randomly selected from the archives for special attention that day. Of course I read it, because it’s Nora Ephron, and I found it to be a delightful piece of easy reading. You hardly even remember you’re reading when you’re reading something of hers – it just is, it is how people talk, it is a depiction of real life you feel instantly familiar with. She recounts drama ensuing from an inheritance she and her sisters were supposed to receive, and the story ties back to When Harry Met Sally…, the work that first made me an Ephron apologist.

March 24 – “How Tracy Morgan’s Accident Made Him Funnier” 

  • Here’s what I wrote when I first read this article: “I always knew I really liked him but there is something about this that I just love. That makes me love him. I think it runs so deeply with my love for 30 Rock that it is like, he’s my uncle or something. Like I’m so glad we have him. I’m so glad he has sharks.” I loved this story. Tracy Morgan is fascinating, and this story was worthy of him. His best line in it: “Gotta keep my octopus alive. Gotta keep my sharks alive. Those are God’s creatures! I’m needed!”

April 5 – Lin-Manuel Miranda featured in the New York Times’ “By the Book”

  • Having just seen Hamilton a few weeks prior to this story, I was in a full-on fever for the show; in some ways the timing of my personal obsession mirrored that of the national obsession. I read countless Ham-related articles that I could share here, but I’m highlighting this one because 1) I love knowing that Lin-Manuel and I share an affection for Doris Kearns Goodwin, and 2) neither of us could make it through Infinite Jest.

April 6 – Matt Zoller Seitz’s “People vs. OJ” post-mortem

  • Here we are with OJ again. I just re-read my notes about this and, man, this is a perfect assessment of the show. Every word of it has you nodding your head, shouting “yes” in agreement and realizing it gives voice to so many of the thoughts you had but couldn’t fully express. Like this about Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Christopher Darden: “Sterling K. Brown’s Darden has a woodwind voice that makes it sound as if he’s inhaling his own frustration…”

April 29 – Rob Reiner on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This was 90 minutes of showbiz story time. He talks about his projects, growing up in the business and in Los Angeles, the people he’s closely connected to. He talks about his father’s friendship with Mel Brooks and his own friendship with Albert Brooks (and about how “all of the Reiners were Reiners, but none of the Brookses were Brookses”).

May 31 – Joe Posnanski on taking his daughter to see Hamilton

  • Joe Posnanski turns the ordinary into the eloquent and sees the beauty in the everyday. That’s why I loved his Hamilton story so much. Hamilton itself is not “everyday,” but he tells us what going to Hamilton is like and helps us understand why such an experience is so special. This is the best piece I’ve read about the actual, magical experience of being in the theater, but it’s more than that – a story about fathers and daughters, the misery of being a teenage, the natural tendency to throw yourself into an obsession because it’s more fun than real life.

July 24 – James L. Brooks on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This didn’t get to the emotional place that a lot of Maron interviews do (Brooks was never exactly baring his soul), but like the Rob Reiner episode, it was story time. Just the kind of thing TV/movie obsessives like myself can’t get enough of. Brooks also had really nice words for Maron about his work on the podcast, and I love that he called out Maron’s interview with Terry Gross from 2015 as a particular favorite, because that’s the episode that really made me a fan of the show.

September 11 – “The Real Heroes are Dead” 

  • The New Yorker posted this 2002 story to Facebook on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I remember laying in bed that night, clicking on it mindlessly, then finding I’d read the whole piece. It’s a love story (as its subtitle says)about a couple who found each other later in life; he worked in security for Morgan Stanley, worked in the World Trade Center, and died on September 11, 2001. My perspective on 9/11 – the day itself, not any attendant politics – has changed so much since moving to New York. Of course, as a kid in Oregon, we all knew what was happening and mourned. But New Yorkers – their husbands died. Dust and debris fell in their backyards. I’ve seen firsthand how deeply that day cut for people, and Susan Rescorla, the widow in this New Yorker story, is one such person.

September 13 – Billy Crystal on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • Am I overdoing it with the Maron episodes here? I don’t care if I am! His show is great, and not that being on my list of must-consume media is some great prize, but I think it’s a testament to the quality of his interviewing skills and his ability to get to the heart of a person. People tell Maron stories they don’t tell anyone else. But anyway, this Billy Crystal interview. I realized how distinctive his voice is – like his actual speaking voice. Maybe I only realized it here because I have never otherwise heard him talk for such an extended period of time. His wit is effortless and unique, his one-liners perfection. And the story he told about watching the televised Vietnam draft (his birthday was never selected) will stay with me.

October 7 – Vulture on the joke density of 30 Rock 

  • This story was published in April, 2016, and I know I read it then, but I apparently didn’t add it to the folder until October. I think about this every time I watch 30 Rock now – how so many of the jokes are there just to be jokes, not to develop character or advance story. The whole point of this story was to compare season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to 30 Rock in that way, but it ended up changing a lot of my perspective on this show I love.

November 13 – Van Jones on race, post-election

  • Whatever your thoughts on the election and its outcome, I think you’ll find something in this article, especially in this from Jones:

I see the rebels on the rise and I see the Establishment on the ropes and I have some sympathy for all the rebels. Whether it’s the Sanders voters and Black Lives Matter or whether it’s the tea party and the Trump voters. I agree that there’s an elite in the country that’s let a whole bunch of us down. What I am desperately trying to do is, if I can, help the rebels understand each other better. We’re not going to agree on much, but the way forward here is for liberals to really do what we accuse the Trump voters of not doing. In other words, to empathize with the pain of their fellow human beings. This idea that Trump voters are all bad and Hillary voters are all good or Hillary voters are all bad, Trump voters are all good — that’s what’s getting us into trouble. On all sides, I see hypocrisy and blind spots and pain.

November 30 – “While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks” 

  • Snapchat became part of my regular social network routine in spring/summer 2015, and I’ve become a bigger and bigger fan of it as time has gone on. This column by Farhad Manjoo solidified my understanding of its larger importance. And I loved how it highlighted Snapchat’s human quality: “And perhaps most important, its model for entertainment and journalism values human editing and curation over stories selected by personalization algorithms — and thus represents a departure from the filtered, viral feeds that dominate much of the rest of the online news environment.”

Nothing from December needed to be urgently added here, so I’m leaving it at that.

A few others I want to highlight but ran out of steam to dissect fully:

As I reflect on the whole experience, I’ve decided the biggest tweak I want to make in 2017 is to diversify – both in sources and in topics. So many of the articles I highlighted here are from New York Magazine, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. Those are all publications I love, and I’ll continue to read and save their stories. And while my overall list (beyond what I highlighted above) included many other sources, like GQ, The Washington Post, other podcasts, The A.V. Club, IndieWire, Vanity Fair, and more, I want to make an active effort to read stories I might not naturally be drawn to, from outlets whose purview is unique from that of what I already read.

I loved creating something piece-by-piece, day-by-day, not really thinking as the time went on about how I was actually compiling a time capsule of my year. Looking through everything I saved was a reminder of what I read, what held my interest, what made me sad, and what I learned. I’ll report back in 12 months with the next set of findings.

Christmas Break Catch-All: Movies, Books, 2015.

Time acts in strange ways. Certain days can last forever, certain weekends are gone with the blink of an eye, certain months can feel like they never even happened. What always seems strangest is when time makes you feel as if you’ve lived whole lives between a point A and a point B, when in reality, that span of time only lasted two weeks.

That’s how I feel about this holiday break. I am lucky to have a job where things slow down around Christmas and the New Year, so I spent a week at home in Oregon and then spent a few days hanging out back in the city.

Before I forget them (though I’m kicking myself for not doing this even sooner because now the Oregon portion of my break seems like a long time ago), here are a few highlights from the holiday…aka a rundown of the books and movies and moments I most want to remember.

1. Me Before You

In my parents’ neighborhood, there’s a house with its own little library out front, where people can take and leave books as they please. I passed it while on a walk with my mom and sister, and I took Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a book I’d pondered buying before but held off because I was in the middle of something else. I was pages away from finishing Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this was early in my trip, so I figured I could polish off Moyes’ book in time to return it before going back to New York.

Maybe it sounds dumb, but this book became like a friend to me. I just wanted to spend time with it. Before this book, I’d read the first two Hunger Games books (sounds easy, I know, but fantasy/dystopian books are just not my cup of tea) and A People’s History of the United States, so in hindsight I realize I was probably just overjoyed to have a book I could breeze through. But it was more than just an easy read. It was a delight. Just about every night I was home, I’d stay up late and read it in the light of the Christmas tree.

I’ve had a serious crush on England for the last year and a half, so I loved opening it to find the prologue set in London and the rest in an English country town. All its characters were distinct and developed, and the central romance was sweet – obvious the whole time, but built to in a much more satisfying way than I could have anticipated. Even cynics like myself need a good love story every now and then.

2) New Movies

Since I had some time on my hands the last few days, I wanted to get a jump-start on watching some great new movies in 2015. Instead, I mostly ended up re-watching old favorites (more on that below), but I did watch two movies for the first time and quite enjoyed both: Pulp Fiction and Thank You for Smoking.

Sometimes I view movies as opportunities to understand more cultural references. It seems like I hear about Pulp Fiction a lot, so I thought I’d watch it to expand my pop-culture horizons. I think I need to watch it again and again to pick up on everything, but I love movies where you just get swept into it, where you’re not realizing it but an hour has gone by and you’ve just been enjoying the story. That’s kind of how I felt about Fargo, too. You’re not expecting it, but you’re sucked in.

And Thank You For Smoking. Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air are two of my favorite movies, but this was the first time I’d watched his debut feature. I don’t know if it’ll become one of my favorites like those other films, but I still thought it was great. Dripping with cynicism, urging its viewers to question everything, filled with the same quick, intelligent dialogue that made me love the other Reitman films.

And since awards season is right around the corner, I saw a few movies in theaters over the break, too: The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, and Whiplash (which was by far my favorite of the three).

3) Old Movies

I’ve taken the last couple days to catch up on random stuff in my life – unpacking, cleaning the kitchen, organizing storage drawers, etc. – and it’s hard to watch new movies while doing those tasks because I can’t devote my full attention to the film. So I re-watched some old favorites, most notably Good Night and Good Luck, LA Confidential (clearly there’s a David Strathairn thing going on) and Manhattan.

The first time I watched LA Confidential was on a bus back to NYC after visiting Boston for a weekend. And I liked it even then. But this time, I appreciated so much more. Like Kevin Spacey. How did I not recognize its true greatness in my first viewing? Spacey’s is my favorite in a movie filled with incredible performances.

Before I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I turned on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it almost two years ago but since then I think I have developed a better appreciation for films and a better understanding of what it is to live in New York. The beauty and intelligence of the opening sequence was apparently lost on me the first time, because I hardly remembered it. Now, I just want to sit and watch it on loop. It’s breathtaking.

Other lines I loved: Tracy joking about not knowing who Rita Hayworth was, then Isaac reprimanding her. “Of course I’m joking!” She says. “You think I’m unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.”

And Isaac describing Mary as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.”

4) 2015

It is now 2015, and I can’t say anything feels much different. Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe the years where it doesn’t feel like much will change or improve are the years when big things happen. Or maybe by saying it out loud, I’ve ruined any chance of that. There are 361 more days to find out.

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.

Missed My Stop

Tonight, I had dinner with friends after work in Manhattan, then hopped on the 7 train back into Queens. My apartment is half a block from a local 7 stop (the 7 runs some express trains from Manhattan to Queens during evening rush hours). Maybe this train switched from local to express in the middle of the ride without my knowledge. Maybe it did make the local stops and I just didn’t notice. But when I looked up, we were well past the one I needed.

All because of a chapter in my current book, “As Time Goes By” by Derek Taylor, who served two stints as press officer for the Beatles. (Yes, I’m back on a Beatles kick after the Beatles class I took last spring term. Well, actually, I was never really off the Beatles kick. Now it’s just spread to books.) A couple months ago, I landed on Derek Taylor’s Wikipedia page, which said he wrote an informal memoir in 1973. It was an Amazon impulse buy. I wasn’t really sure what to read after “Yours In Truth,” and this seemed like something easy to pick up off the shelf.

If I try too hard to summarize the chapter that kept me on the train, I’ll talk it to death and ruin the story. But it was beautiful. At least if you love the Beatles.

Each chapter relays a short, specific anecdote from Taylor’s wild career in the 60s, working as a publicist for bands like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys, and for individuals like Mae West. (The subtitle of the book, if it gives you any idea what a crazy decade Derek Taylor had: “Living in the Sixties with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, Allen Klein, Mae West, Brian Wilson, The Byrds, Danny Kaye, The Beach Boys, one wife and six children in London, Los Angeles, New York City and On the Road.”)

This particular chapter was titled, “England, 1968.”

In England, 1968, Derek and Paul McCartney go up to a town in the northern part of the country so Paul can work on arranging some pieces with a brass band. I think a few other people are there to make up some kind of entourage, but Paul is the only Beatle.

Derek decides (albeit while under the influence of what he calls the “dreaded heaven-and-hell drug”) that on their way back to London, they should detour to some small town called Harrold, just for kicks.

He proceeds to describe their night in Harrold. They check in to an inn. They gamble and drink at the bar. News spreads that Paul McCartney is in town. They meet the town dentist, who invites them to eat at his home. “Welcome to Harrold, Paul,” he says. “I can hardly believe it, in fact I think I’m dreaming.”

The dentist’s wife prepares a meal for them with food that had been reserved for an upcoming special occasion. The dentist’s daughter hands Paul a guitar (it’s right-handed but he plays it anyway) and he plays “the song he had written that week and which he said went ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better.'”

It comes time to go back to the inn, which has closed, “but a winged messenger came to say that as this was the night of nights, never to return, the inn was to be reopened. ‘In your honor, Paul.'”

Paul played piano at the local pub until three o’clock in the morning. “The pub was absolutely full. The whole village was here . . . and then I went and sat in the little garden and cried for joy that we had come to Harrold,” Derek recalls.

Isn’t that delightful? A dash of cynicism mixed in with a retelling of a magical evening. Harrold was supposed to be a detour into untouched obscurity, but even there, they knew the Beatles. Paul McCartney, one night only, and you didn’t even know he was going to be there. And then I realized I missed my stop.

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!