Book Joy

A dream of mine has finally been realized:  Barnes and Noble is coming to the Hamptons.  Seems the new owner, an English bookstore entrepreneur, is building out some 35 new stores throughout the U.S. and one is scheduled to open this year in Bridgehampton, New York.  There are small, independent bookstores in Sag Harbor and East Hampton, but the scope and ambiance of Barnes and Noble will motivate me this summer to drive the backroads through Wainscott to the Kimco shopping center at Bridgehampton Commons. As you may know from my previous columns, I regularly roam bookstores in whichever city or town I may be in, such as Shakespeare & Co. on 68th and Lex in New York City and Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach. But Barnes and Noble is like a combination library-bookstore experience that reminds me of my early days when I first fell under the spell of books.

                So many of my Saturday afternoons in Rochester were spent curled up in the aisles at Scranton’s Books on Main Street, which was adjacent to Louis’s Parking–my dad’s lot.  I would pull down books at random and attempt to understand them despite my then undiagnosed dyslexia.  In college, I spent endless hours at the Rutgers library not just studying but stretched out on the floor between the stacks just reading for enjoyment. 

These days, in Palm Beach, I steal an hour between exercise and lunch to hide out on the second floor of the Four Arts Library with one of the several books that I am reading.  I always have more than one book going at a time, all of them stored for convenience on the back seat of my car.  I believe the book hoarding and reading multiple books simultaneously is a habit that I picked up from my brother Marty when we were growing up–this in spite of the fact that I never saw either of my parents pick up a book, nor did they encourage us to. My father only read the weekly Yiddish newspaper which was sold at a few of the kosher stores on Joseph Avenue and which, as a special delivery from New York City, was always a week out of date.  My mother read the local Times Union and when I was very young, I would try to read with her, by her side.  My brother’s visits home during his college years at Syracuse University were memorable for our outings together to Scranton’s, where he would fill up a shopping bag with books.  I recall in later years, when I saw him in Connecticut and at his New York apartment, he was always surrounded by books, including a vast collection of art books.  Yes, the younger generation of Ackermans would always have libraries in their homes–rooms dedicated to the pleasure of reading. 

I am now building another library for myself, this one at camp in Maine, in my new office cabin.  I shipped up at least a thousand books from my collection in East Hampton and shelving is being constructed now to house them.  I decided on the Maine library so the books would be more accessible to me, as I spend most of the summer at camp.  Also, the accumulation had grown beyond capacity in East Hampton.  With the books up north, I can look forward to the rainy, non-fishing days, when I will settle in my office cabin in front of the electric faux fireplace to reread some of my old favorites, the warmth in the room almost matching what I feel inside when I open up one of those old volumes, cherished as they are like old friends.

What Would Mark Twain Say?

For the past several months I have been intrigued by author Mark Twain’s time out west.  I came upon a book entitled Mark Twain in California by Nigey Lennon, which gave me insight into Twain’s early journalistic years on the Nevada-California border, and then in San Francisco where he wrote for the Morning Call.  Prior to starting my research, I only knew Twain as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

His career as a frontier journalist began following a stint as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  Samuel Clemens was his name by birth, but it was on the water that he gained his pen name, from the shouts in riverboat jargon for two fathoms –“mark twain!”– i.e. the safe water depth for steamboats.   He headed west after the start of the Civil War and, failing at mining the Comstock Lode, took up writing for the local papers.  This part of his life was of special interest to me because rumors have been circulating for years that Twain wrote for “The Mountain Messenger”– an assertion long disputed by Twain biographers and scholars, who allege that what appeared in the Messenger at that time under a pen name was only the reprint of an “unremarkable” piece he wrote for a San Francisco newspaper while “hungover.”   Journalism at the time barely resembled the rigorous, present-day “All the News That’s Fit to Print” style of The New York Times.  In fact, Twain wrote under multiple pseudonyms, including “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” and simply “Josh,” among others, and his journalistic focus tended to be on barroom “squabbles the night before…usually between Irish and Irish or Chinese and Chinese, with now and then a squabble between the two races for a change.”

 Notwithstanding the historical facts -or fiction-I thought it would be interesting to imagine, based on Twain’s own words, his view of current events if he were writing for the Messenger today.  So, what would be Josh’s take on the current political climate? Today everyone is squabbling, especially between political parties as well as politicians of the same stripe fighting amongst themselves.  Twain’s quip, “I breakfasted every morning with the governor, dined with the principal clergymen and slept in the station house,” might apply to Trump’s rapid decline in popularity among his own supporters after hosting controversial dinner guests at Mar-a-Lago.  On other issues, Twain’s habit of speculation with mining stocks led to an observation which might apply to the crypto-fraud debacle of today: “The wreck was complete.  The bubble scarcely left a microscopic moisture behind it.  I was an early beggar, and a thorough one.”  

 Twain was a frontier humorist who dealt on corrupt politicians.  He finished his California journalistic career in San Francisco writing humor, philosophizing and moralizing.  Twain would have found plenty to write about in the past year in America.  We could use a bit more of his ethics – and humor– these days.

“Keep the Thorn to Keep the Rose”

My smart watch showed “snow showers in Danforth.”  It is the time of year when Greg and Katie scramble to open the storage garage and sort out where all the “stuff” accumulated over the summer and summers before will be stacked away for the next year’s adventures.  This year not only do we need a bed for the canoe and my old power boat, but I recently shipped up to camp my complete library of books accumulated since the mid-1970s. Greg is to build, over the winter, a new set of shelves to house my beloved, mostly-read books in my man cave-office-studio.  I always feel comforted surrounded by books, as I am by the small fireplace in the studio.  Next spring, I will organize the books, and figure out where my fly-tying apparatus goes, as well as my painting easel and other assorted tchotchkes. But now things are winding down.  The closing up of camp in the fall coincides with my birthday in October and is always a time of reflection for me.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Fall Can Be a Season for Building Resilience” by Erick Vance, describes the melancholy one feels at the loss of sunlight and greenery at the end of summer.  Yet those who “lean in” to the discomfort can gain from it, as it enables them to build up a tolerance to other fears and uncertainties in life. “Mindfulness” is another way to simply observe and accept life as it is rather than thinking about change as a source of distress.  Useful advice, as this autumn is a bit scarier than most given what is happening in the world:  important mid-term elections at a time when our democratic system is at risk, an escalating war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear confrontation, plus the economic turmoil of inflation—and we cannot forget about the damage caused by Hurricane Ian on the west coast of Florida.  It is getting harder for me to read and accept the front-page news.  I know I must keep abreast of what is happening in the world, but it is becoming burdensome.  I find the obituaries and wedding announcements more enjoyable than the current events being reported.  Personally, I am fortunate to be healthy, to have a life filled with adventure, love and career success.  Yet there is an unsettling feeling of uncontrollable events on the horizon.  My form of mindfulness is to delve into a good book to take me to another place. Mysteries, biography, classics, as well as a new project—research on a historical novel I plan to write about my father’s escape from Ukraine during the First World War in 1918, and his journey across Europe to Argentina and eventually to upstate New York. Now there was someone with resilience. 

Vance also talks about autumn as a time of year for “harvesting” memories, looking back and collecting the moments, good and bad, without judgment: “Keep the thorn to keep the rose.”  At my age, I have plenty of thorns, but even more roses, for which I am grateful.  The months ahead will be filled with various adventures and other ways to cope with the blues the changing seasons can bring, and of course my professional work is always a constant source of fresh challenges and excitement.  And camp opening in May is only eight months away. In the meantime, stay warm, Katie and Greg.

Last Sunday in New York

I was up late this last Sunday of September on the eve of Rosh Hashana. New York is quiet during the Jewish holidays. The walk west along 68th street to the newsstand on the corner of Lexington Ave was not the usual upstream push against the crowd of hospital workers on their way from the exit of the subway to New York Hospital on First Avenue. The stands that line 68th street were robust with days-old fruit and vegetables, the salespeople on their cell phones speaking in Middle East languages. The stack of New York Times Sunday papers was unusually high as was the New York Post. New Yorkers were not in town that was obvious. I decided to take my morning coffee at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the corner of 68th and Lexington-my usual haunt whenever I am in the city. A stack of books awaiting author signature were at the cash register-Ian McEwan’s “Lessons.” I was quick to buy a copy. The young woman behind the counter was pleasant. We were alone in the store. I felt like I had just dropped into a sacred land of books, virtually alone with all these authors in the early morning when I could touch any book and feel inspired. There is something special to me about bookstores. My early years upstate at Scranton’s on Main Street, I would walk the aisles unable to buy anything for lack of spendable money. More importantly I didn’t have the knowledge I have today of authors and topics of interest. It took three years of reading American literature and history at Rutgers to finally accept that I could read and more importantly grasp what was written notwithstanding my dyslexia.  Here I was in this sacred place able to buy any book and able to be selective. With coffee in hand I sat down in a corner of the book store and delved into the Times only to see on the front page an article on a newly discovered trove of Hemingway stories, documents, unpublished works and photos on display at Penn State University. I was immediately taken by the article and read it through in the quiet room. I walked over to the shelves with Hemingway and scanned his many works. It was personal like I was able to talk to the author. I was transfixed. Some say bookstores like local newspapers are of the past. Carl and I talked last night after watching the film about a day in the life of The Mountain Messenger.  I felt relieved that I am alive in a time when both bookstores and newspapers are still in existence despite the preponderance of technology. It was great to be in New York this Sunday before I travel south for the winter. All is good with me.

July 4th, 2022

This year I decided, in anticipation of the July 4th holiday, and with the conflict in Ukraine on my mind, to do some reading about wartime heroism and bravery. I had read through some of Stephen Crane’s works over the winter, including his biography, so decided to tackle his classic novel, “The Red Badge of Courage”, as my war fiction read and, for a more current, nonfiction military account, “Against All Odds: A True Story of Ultimate Courage and Survival in World War II” by Alex Kershaw. I started with Crane and finished on July 4th with Kershaw.  Crane was a bit difficult and without the footnotes in the Oxford World Classics edition, I would have had difficulty with some of the references taken from contemporary Civil War sources. Crane penned this incredible book of man’s destiny in war in 1895.

            Four American heroes of WW II are the subjects of Kershaw’s book.  This book was faster reading, with vivid, detailed accounts of the heroic actions of the soldiers highlighted in the book – Audie Murphy, Keith Ware, Maurice Britt and Michael Daly – set against the backdrop of Hitler’s relentless, destructive efforts to thwart the U.S. invasion Europe. Each of these soldiers earned multiple medals for bravery. Each earned their their own “red badge of courage” i.e. wound from battle.  Their stories of heroism leave an indelible impression. 

            I ask myself why I am drawn to read certain books and authors. In Crane’s case, my interest was aroused by a review in one of the many book-related publications to which I subscribe, of a recent Crane biography by Linda Davis.  After that I was inspired to read his work, and started with his short stories.  When I picked up “The Red Badge of Courage,” I quickly realized I had read it once before, in college as part of my American Studies program. I recalled very little of it, remembering more of the scenes from a movie version which we also watched in the class. It was like reading it anew.  Crane was an exceptional writer who had only one trick pony so to speak.  Red Badge was it, and Crane was recognized after publishing it, but he died young without another full-length book to his credit. Many of his short stories are book beginnings. Crane was a war correspondent and bravely covered various wars and skirmishes for several newspapers and magazines. The Civil War was the great conflict of the time, but Crane, a generation removed from the action, was late to the rodeo. Instead, he wrote The Red Badge of Courage about the war hero he wished to be.  Kershaw focuses on the heroic acts that pushedHitler’s armies back to Germany, as well as the lives lost and the souls beyond repair after the war ended.

            My interest in both these books and particularly the significance of reading them during the July 4th holiday was to give context to the bravery and heroism we see today. We might consider brave soldiers those public figures, activists and people who do battle to heal the divisions in our society and—most importantly to me—those who fight to preserve our democracy as did the heroes of WWIl.  I read daily reports from the war in Ukraine, the stories of selflessness and dedication to the cause. These men and woman are fighting for Ukraine’s independent democracy.  Here in the U.S., we battle to preserve the freedom to make our own decisions as to whom we elect to higher office, for the freedom to make our own decisions as to whom we marry and the freedom to control our own bodies.  The heroes in our country today are those brave souls who fight for the rights of everyone to be their own person and true to their own values.

The Riverman

Lenny Ackerman

The Riverman

While on a recent fishing trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains, I finished reading “Riverman” by Ben McGrath.  On the surface it is a biography, but it is also a mystery, and at the heart of it, the author’s own story within the story.  McGrath, a young man from the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York and a writer for the New Yorker, describes meeting Dick Conant, a Hudson River canoeist traveling south, and how shortly afterward, he learns of Conant’s untimely and mysterious death.  What started as a casual meet up for the author turns into an obsessive search for information, to understand the canoeist’s eccentric, solitary, wildly adventurous life.   McGrath finds a trove of Conant’s writings, photographs and diary entries detailing a lifetime of river travel in a storage locker in Bozeman, Montana.  These documents create a trail for the author to follow as he sets out to find the truth behind them and about Conant himself.  In doing so the story becomes one as much about the author as the adventurer, as McGrath travels the country, seeking the people and places touched by Conant in his travels and studying the impressions left behind.  He learns that Conant was an elusive, larger than life character who measured his days by distances traveled on the water, and who was completely disconnected from the modern, digital world.  The truth of Conant’s adventures varied from stopover to stopover and McGrath concludes there may have been a great deal of fiction in the storage locker writings.  Conant’s mysterious and unsolved death is the ultimate unanswered question in the book since no body was ever found, only his canoe, with some scraps of paper, including one with the author’s name and phone number.   In truth, Dick Conant was many people – he had a vivid, imaginary love life, but many real friends that he made along the way –many of them like him, loners and forgotten by family. 

I began reading “Riverman” on my trip from New York to the High Sierras in California.  Little did I know when I started the book that I was traveling to a place very much like those the author found in his quest to unravel the mystery of Conant’s life and death.  Downieville, the County Center of the Sierras, is remote and in many ways like a step back in time.  I envisioned running the rapids, like Conant, in a pontoon boat down the Yuba or Big Truckee River, with stops in small towns of bygone days, meeting people along the way.  “Riverman” leaves the reader moved, and longing for a wilderness adventure.