My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #23,
January 9, 2000


One of the nicest things about being self-employed is: not only read can I read in the middle of the day, I don't even have to feel guilty about it -- hey, I'm not being a bum, I'm doing RESEARCH. After all, if I'm going to churn out two columns a week AND publish a weekly e-zine, what goes out has to go in first, right?

Because my Fox column is about the oddities of American life, I read lots of Americana. Among my favorites is Alastair Cooke's Talk About America, a collection of short pieces he wrote back in the sixties. It's kind of odd to read them now, because though much of what he has to say remains true, a great deal has changed; one of his essays, obviously written before cats became the dominant American pet, comments on how our fondness for dogs reveals us as a gregarious lot. There's a nice essay about attending an honest to God town meeting, where the town's budget was debated, line by line, another about the end of the era of the iceman, and one about European misconceptions of America.

Probably my very favorite book this year was Lawrence Wechsler's A Wanderer in the Perfect City, pieces about people with a special talent for living fully, pursuing private passions with striking enthusiasm -- a man from India who, having discovered a great unknown artist, won't rest until he's forced the art world to notice him; a rocket scientist turned Wall Street analyst turned circus clown; a Danish cheesemaker who creates a museum of modern art for Denmark; Nicholas Slominsky, musician, writer, and character extraordinaire.

Despite my stay-put tendencies, a surprising number of my important books this year were travellers' tales. In Storyville, USA, Dale Peterson tells about his trip across America with his teenage daughter and his 10 year old son, exploring small towns with weird names. Bug Scuffle, Bird-in-Hand, Monkey's Eyebrow, Cut and Shoot, Hallelujah Junction, and all the others, have stories to tell (though it's astonishing how many current residents have never thought to inquire why their towns are named so oddly), and the story is as much as anything about finding and chatting up the old folks who would know.

David Lamb, too, is a wanderer, and a collector of Americans' stories. In Stolen Season he spent a year visiting America's minor league ballparks, talking to the players and fans. In A Sense of Place, he's on the road again, listening to stories about Greyhound buses and the emptiness of North Dakota, about the real old west and the dying trade of the hobo, about Route 66 and forgotten Aleuts and the last of the Nez Perce.

Terry Pindell did his explorations by rail, setting out to travel every single mile of Amtrak, chatting with fellow passengers en route, which he tells about in Making Tracks: an American Rail Odyssey. There's a little of everything here -- railroad history, legends, real life adventures, and an extraordinary sense of the breadth and beauty -- and, even now, dangers -- of the land.

In Driving to Detroit, Lesley Hazleton, the British woman who is the car columnist for a Seattle newspaper, sets out for the Detroit auto show in an SUV, traveling by way of important automobile icon sites: the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Craig Breedlove is working on breaking the sound barrier by car, Pebble beach for an antique car rally, the spot where James Dean's car crashed, the Saturn plant at Spring Hills, TN, the ultimate automobile graveyard, an outfit in Cincinnati that armor plates automobiles. Given our love affair with cars, the book offers extraordinary insights into our pleasures and values.

I was fascinated by Andrew Ross's book, The Celebration Chronicles, about a year he spent in this Florida town specifically designed by Disney to re-create a town with 20th century amenities and a 19th century sense of community. The concept is fine, but the execution is deeply flawed, because homes were priced too high and built too poorly, and because families lured by the promise of world-class education couldn't agree on what it would consist of. This was a fascinating view of what happens in utopia when it doesn't live up to the hopes of its founders and followers. Many just pack up and leave. What is more interesting is the people who stay and try to make it work.

Some of the books I read this year were by people who feel like dear friends to me. This was the year I discovered my favorite columnist, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, who is thoughtful, funny, compassionate, and always interesting. I say this in spite of my jealousy that he A) writes better than I do (though not by a REAL long shot), B) is able to turn out a competent column five(!) days a week, and C) independently comes up with some of the same ideas I thought were my invention, like moving the capitol every five years or so to places like Boise, so as to discourage long-term pols and lobbyists. Not only does the Chronicle do us the kindness of archiving his columns back to 1995; there is also a collection of his earlier columns called Near Life Exeriences, one of the best books I read this year.

I will buy anything by Bill Bryson, hardbound, without benefit of review, without even knowing what it's about. It doesn't matter. I know it will be funny. I'm a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of columns he wrote for a British newspaper when he returned to America. He comments on such oddities as our round-the-clock 1-800 numbers (what dental floss emergencies might we have at 3 a.m., he wonders?), our overabundance of choices (just try to get a plain cup of coffee at Starbuck's when you're in a hurry to catch a plane ), our apparent ability to injure ourselves with our bedclothes (400,000 injuries a year, according to Statistical Abstract), and our unwillingness to walk anyplace. This is too good to read all by yourself; I had to read it again, outloud, to share it with my son.

There are hardly any poets I adore who don't write rock music, but I discovered one this year named Billy Collins. I like the freshness of his take on staid experience, his gift for metaphor, his way of telling you what you would have thought yourself if it had remotely occurred to you to think it. In The Apple That Astonished Paris, there's "Another Reason I Don't Keep a Gun in the House," in which an incessantly barking dog becomes just another instrument scored by Beethoven, and "Insomnia," where "After counting all the sheep in the world I enumerate the wildebeests, snails, camels, skylarks, etc." Not to mention "Books," in which he pictures "the library humming in the night, a choir of authors murmuring inside their books along the unlit alphabetical shelves," and "Schoolsville," a town in which "The population ages but never graduates..." and "The Vanishing Point," in which he stands inside the painting, at the point where all the lines of the painting converge "looking back at everything as it zooms toward me." This is amazing stuff, spoken in the colloquial voice of ordinary folks with extraordinary minds.

Of all my favorite writers, the one I feel most akin to is Barbara Holland -- if you like my writing, you will love hers. In Bingo Night at the Firehall, she talks about being an outlander in the Virginia mountains, 80 miles and a lifestyle away from Washington metro area, slowing her life to the pace of a world where "competition leaked out of our gene pool a hundred years ago." She reflects sadly on the encroachment of suburbanites who move in, outvote the locals, and destroy the old-fashioned country culture they were so charmed by. In Endangered Pleasures she writes wonderful brief essays about things like naps and martinis that we're too Puritan to fully enjoy.

Oh, yes, I did read just plain novels too, some good, some profound, some splendidly trashy (you can't think deep thoughts all the time, for heaven's sake). The ones I enjoyed the most were Dorothy Gilman's new non-Mrs. Pollifax treasure, Thale's Folly, about magical people who save the world from heartless, bloodless moneygrubbing; Joanne Dobson's The Northbury Papers, a wonderfully satirical novel about academe centering on sexism and the papers of a 19th century woman novelist. Gloria Nagy's A House in the Hamptons had special meaning to me because of my sister's death. It's a loving portrayal of long-time marriages and friendships broken up when one of them suddenly dies. The scene that remains in my mind -- the scene I told my grieving brother-in-law about -- is the celebration of his life in a local bar. When the best friend raises his glass and says "Fuck death!" soon everybody is raising their own glasses and chanting it with him, over and over.

I nominate Rick Reilly's Slo Mo! funniest sports novel of the year, the story of an incredibly naive 17 year old boy plucked out of high school to play for the NBA because he's 7'8" and has an unfailing 3-point shot. It's a wonderful satire on the NBA. The funniest political novel unquestionably was Christopher Buckley's Little Green Men, a perfect act of revenge on pompous pundits, in which a John McLaughlin look-alike falls victim to a staged alien abduction and goes from skeptic to true-believer, with unfortunate results for his credibility.

Marian Babson's The Company of Cats was the most amusing murder mystery, a splendid farce in which a cat named Sally is found to be the heir of a rich man with a loathesome family, which means Sally's days are obviously numbered. The heroine rescues her, but when the family keeps coming up with substitute cats to pass off as Sally and kill off, she is forced to keep right on rescuing.

The funniest romance/mystery novel was Donna Andrews' Murder with Peacocks, centering around a much put upon and highly competent heroine, who as maid of honor for THREE weddings in a row is doing an extraordinary amount of the work, and would no doubt do more if she didn't keep finding bodies. She's funny, her family is a mite crazed, and a most unlikely suitor is charmed, amused, and unable to get her alone long enough between disasters to tell her so.

All in all, it was a lovely year for new books from old friends, and for discovering new friends. Because that's what authors are: friends. You may not have met them, but that's a technicality; you know them well by their words. I'm glad to have more time to spend with them.

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