This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More, For Young and Old Alike (Picador, 2013 reprint, $15) has minor flaws to irritate every reader. For me, the title on the dust-jacket of the original hardback was almost impossible to read, and certain sections of this “self-help” book — the chapter “How To Let A Child Die” was arrogant, sentimental, and condescending — were as annoying as a stink bug circling a light bulb.
Let’s begin by noting the continuing biographical interest in writers and drinking. In my own collection are Tom Dardis’s The Thirsty Muse; Kelly Boler’s A Drinking Companion: Alcohol & The Lives of Writers; physician Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Told Me; Donald Newlove’s Those Drinking Days and Kingsley Amis’s Everyday Drinking, with its introduction by another renowned boozer, Christopher Hitchens. I also own various biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wolfe, Millay and others, all devotees of the cult of Bacchus.
Back in the day when the “culture wars” focused more on literature, music and movies — Tipper Gore, for example, then the wife of Al Gore, in 1985 led a crusade advocating age-appropriate labels on popular music — Christians often criticized the arts for their neglect of faith and their secular morality. Many churchgoers rejected mainstream culture altogether, turning instead to “Christian” books, films, and songs, nearly all of which were second-rate, didactic works lacking in real artistry.
In our tell-all age of talk shows and reality television, of Facebook and Twitter, the idea that restraint and repression might contain some worth seems as antiquated a concept as arranged marriages. We revel in revelation: our bookstores are jammed with accounts by the famous and the not-so-famous regarding their sexual histories, their conquests and their defeats. Talk shows have for so long featured the weird and the bizarre that producers these days seem hard-pressed to fill airtime.
Recently I returned from a trip to the library with a bagful of books. When handling these books in the library, flipping through the pages and reading the blurbs, I experienced a familiar excitement, that thrill felt by all booklovers when they find a book promising enjoyment and worth.
Later that evening, however, as I unpacked the bag along with some groceries, my earlier enthusiasm gave way to puzzlement. As I looked over the books this time, I wondered why I had selected them. What was I thinking?
May is fast approaching, and with May comes the season of graduations.
Daughters and sons, nephews and nieces, young people we’ve cherished for one reason or another: they’re about to embark on the next journey in their life, and we want to speed them along their way with a meaningful gift. Cash is always handy, of course, to the young — and I might add, to some of us who are old — but cash is a cold gift, the sort of boon and gratuity given by most of us out of desperation, ignorant of what those just graduating from high school or college might need or want.
In the first half of the fifteenth century, decades before Columbus set sail, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded a fleet that seven times sailed across the Indian Ocean and reached the shores of East Africa. This talented admiral returned from each voyage — (some historians believe he died on the last one) — with rare goods and exotic animals. In spite of this impressive feat of navigation, after Zhen He’s death the Chinese emperor decreed an end to the construction of oceangoing vessels. He then had Zehng He’s fleet dragged ashore and left to rot, and even ordered the surviving animals in the imperial zoo killed.
“Chick-lit” is, of course, the slang expression for those books appealing especially to women. Though not politically correct, most men and women use this moniker when thinking of romance novels, most Christian fiction, books that address feelings (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), many self-improvement books and even diet books. The all-time classic chick-lit novel is undoubtedly Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a book that many women treasure and which wise men wishing to better understand women read.
Some books — novels, certain histories and biographies — deserve full immersion. We dive into them, plummet into their depths, swim through them from first page to last, and return to shore refreshed and satisfied by our explorations.
A word with a lovely sound, but with bleak connotations.