My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 4, #2,
July 13, 1998


It is July in Iowa. Heat radiates from every surface, and humidity hangs heavy in the air, sucking all the energy out of every life form. Those who can rouse themselves from their torpor head for pools and lakes, though many of us will settle for an air-conditioned ice cream shop. Such days are suited for only one thing: lounging around in the shade, drinking tall cold drinks and reading a really good book.

You will need to supply your own hammocks, lemonade, beach umbrellas and sun block, but I will be happy to suggest some summer reading.

First of all, if you like my columns, you either are a fan of Bob Greene as well, or you will be when you get your hands on his newest collection of columns, Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights. Like me, what he focuses on is little oddities of American life, and the ways it has changed over the years--the man is about my age. He shares many of my values; like me, he rages against judges and other adults who fail to protect children; like me, he dislikes the tackiness and anything-goes aspect of our current culture. Sometimes, we even write essentially the same column--compare his column about the bullies nobody bothered to stop, "Why Weren't You His Friends?" with Making Monsters, and his "Adults Only," with Five Letter Word.

But at the same time, nobody beats him at finding wonder in the kindliness and decency of ordinary and extraordinary Americans. Some of my favorite columns in this book are: the one that celebrates Michael Jordan's willingness to risk failure to try out his long-time dream of playing baseball; the one about a town where milkmen still let themselves into people's houses, note what their refrigerators are out of, and replenish the supplies of eggs, milk, cheese, and such; the one about the Iowa State Fair that took place in August of 1993, only a month after our devastating floods began to subside; the one about what it was like to be the daughter "Sergeant Bilko." But there are so many more that simply make you feel good about the world.

I also have to recommend Steve Kluger's new book, Last Days of Summer, which had me nearly falling off the lawn chair in fits of helpless laughter. It's about Joey Margolis, a mouthy, inventive 12 year old Jewish kid in Brooklyn in 1940. His father, the schmuck, has walked out on his family; his mother and aunt have moved to a new neighborhood, where the bullies regularly beat on him and his Japanese friend. He needs somebody to scare away the bad guys, so he chooses himself a hero, Charlie Banks, up and coming 3rd baseman for the Giants, and starts sending him notes. Joey is determined, relentless, and devious, sucking Charlie into a relationship against his better judgment. Before he knows quite how it happened, Charlie, gentile though he is, finds himself playing the father's role at Joey's Bar Mitzvah, and taking the kid along as batboy on a baseball trip. Soon he finds himself helping Joey deal with his first romance, and letting Joey play Cupid for him with his own sweetheart. If Charlie does much to teach the kid some things about grownup life and manners, Joey does just as much to teach him how you go about loving people. The story is told with verve and style, in notes and newspaper stories. Joey and Charlie both have distinctive voice and personality. From the moment they open their mouths, they are not characters in a story, but living, breathing people, and they will remain real and beloved to you long after you finish the book.

When I asked for your contributions for the books people love column, Sarah urged us to read Mary Doria Russell's book The Sparrow. Now that I have just finished it, I say, oh, yes, by all means do. Russell is a cultural anthropologist by training, so her story about the clashing of cultures when humans visit a newly discovered planet rings true. The puzzle this party is sent to solve--the language and culture of totally alien races--is brilliantly explored; it is truly fascinating to watch the hero, a Jesuit linguist, figure out the language and grammar of the gentle race they live among. All the characters are believable and real: the tortured linguist who alone survives; the funny middle-aged female doctor (who I thought of as my alter ego, if I could only be more continuously charming); her engineer husband who adores and teases her; the driven, beautiful, brilliant woman who fiercely resists dependency and love; the aging Father Superior, a funny Texan with a gift for understanding. But even more than I loved the characters, I loved the way they fit together as a family. They understand and respect each other so well, yet there is a lightness of touch in the relationships. Their conversations are bantering, and often hilarious, but they also explore deep questions about human nature and the existence of God. By turns this book is funny and tragic, but it ends in exaltation. You will not soon forget it.

That linguist reminds me to recommend Fractured English, Richard Lederer's newest collection of typographical errors ("Six years ago, Vinny Testaverde played catch with a toe-headed high school kid"), mixed metaphors ("I can barely keep my feet above water"), malapropisms ("I can give you the recipe for my fruit compost"), puzzling signs ("We guarantee fast service, no matter how long it takes") and confusing headlines ("U.S. Ships Head To Somalia"). It's good for any number of giggles.

Bill Bryson is one of those authors I will read on any subject, no matter how little it interests me. His new book, A Walk in the Woods, is about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. As someone regarded by mosquitoes as a 5-star gourmet meal, I have zero interest in the outdoors life, but I immensely enjoyed his recounting of it. Bryson is observant and amusing--having read up on the subject of bear attacks, he notes: "That doesn't happen very often, but--and here is the absolutely salient point--once would be enough." Bryson, who is not terribly fit himself, is accompanied by his fat, chocolate-addicted, ex-alcoholic buddy.

This is not light-hearted fun. They have to carry on their backs everything needed to support life for days at a time, the trail being a long way away from stores and hotels. As they learn the hard way, their packs barely have room for water, and no room at all for the junk food Bryson's companion craves. When it rains for days on end, when they climb a thousand feet and realize there's another 2000 feet to go, they have to force themselves to just keep on slogging, because they don't really have a choice--they're in the middle of nowhere. They can't even take much comfort in the grandeur of the scenery, because the forest is so incredibly dense they can't see anything but trees most of the time. It's hard, dirty, physical labor. But both of them find some kind of exhilaration and pride in the accomplishment. Bryson's sharp observations and wit are always a pleasure to read, but this book is an especially good read for hot lazy summer days--it makes you appreciate even more the hammock, the sun beating down on you, and the nearby well-stocked refrigerator.

Last, I pass on to you Burt Levy's The Last Open Road. What will grab you about this first novel is the voice of its hero, Buddy Palumbo, a working class kid from Passaic who falls in love with cars and the boss's niece (in that order of importance). He is a living, breathing reality from the first paragraph, with a style that is tough, funny, and down to earth. He becomes a sports car mechanic in the early 1950's, when races were run on the open roads through countryside and small towns. The novel lovingly dwells on Jaguars and Ferraris and MGs, and the excitement of the races. Buddy loves it all. He knows he could work the racing circuit forever if he chose, but he also knows that, like the rich Jewish guy who is his patron, he will never really fit in with the rich WASPs the sport belongs to. Structurally, this book is a lot like opera--Buddy's growing up is the recitative between the races that are the impassioned arias. Even people like me, who don't much care about cars or racing, can understand the obsession by the time they've finished reading this. You can practically feel grit blowing in your own face as characters drive fast in their open cars; you can share nostalgia for those warm summer days when everybody in the small towns would stand on the sidewalks, watching the fast cars go by.

Grab a book and enjoy your lemonade, everybody.

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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