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Around Cohoes

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They talked about aluminum siding as a technique for making old houses look new again. From a distance, these sheets, which never needed painting, looked like freshly painted wood . . .

"If you're in aluminum storm windows," the driver said to Trout, "you must be in aluminum siding, too." All over the country, the two businesses went hand-in-hand.

"My company sells it," said Trout, "and I've seen a lot of it. I've never actually worked on an installation."

The driver was thinking seriously of buying aluminum siding for his home in Little Rock, and he begged Trout to give him an honest answer to this question: "From what you've seen and heard -- the people who get aluminum siding, are they happy with what they get?"

"Around Cohoes," said Trout, "I think those were about the only really happy people I ever saw."

     -- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Breakfast of Champions

Ride from Corning Preserve to Cohoes Falls
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Not only New Jersey

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"Parts of New Jersey, as you know, are under water, and other parts are under continual surveillance by the authorities."
 - F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Dice, Brassknuckles & Guitar"

Scott and Zelda

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Zelda Fitzgerald

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Reading Matthew Bruccoli's collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's correspondence, "A Life in Letters", epistles from a time when even telegrams were longer and more well-thought-out than "tweets," long letters had to be finished in haste before the ship sailed with the daily post, and writers like Fitzgerald displayed both their genius and their ruin. I picked it up not expecting much more than complaints about his sales and some bitchiness about other writers, and there's a lot of that, but after the first third it begins to get into the terrible breakdown, perhaps insanity, of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a story that even at a remove of 80 years is just a little heartbreaking. It's a young, talented, beautiful couple who would seem to have everything, and it all goes rotten at the core and comes apart in a most awful way. That "The Beautiful and Damned" (my favorite Fitzgerald book) turned out to be both autobiographical and prophetic didn't escape Scott's notice, and, as ever, knowing it couldn't prevent it. Scott's letters to her doctors (for she spent extensive periods in the leading sanitariums of the day in Switzerland, Baltimore, and even Beacon, NY) are by turns concerned, angry, defensive, and touching. And there are some beautiful and terrible self-realizations that are touching even today, and among them perhaps the saddest and loneliest words I've ever read:

"Do you think the solitude in which I live has a more amusing decor than any other solitude?"
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A farewell to arms

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I had wanted to go to Abruzzi. I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of caf├ęs and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again unknowing and not caring in the night, sure that this was all and all and all and not caring. Suddenly to care very much and to sleep to wake with it sometimes morning and all that had been there gone and everything sharp and hard and clear and sometimes a dispute about the cost. Sometimes still pleasant and fond and warm and breakfast and lunch. Sometimes all niceness gone and glad to get out on the street but always another day starting and then another night. I tried to tell about the night and the difference between the night and the day and how the night was better unless the day was very clean and cold and I could not tell it; as I cannot tell it now. But if you have had it you know.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

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The Dharma Bums

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"I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that's what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead."

Required Reading

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I know that I'm not unique in having hated nearly every work of fiction I was ever required to read in school. It's why I encouraged my daughters to read "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill A Mockingbird," among others, before the act of dissecting every paragraph, seeking out every bit of symbolism, of seeking the archetype of every character wrings the life out of books that really should be read and enjoyed. (A number of other required books, however, are perfectly eligible for wringing, in my opinion, and while I'm as proud as anyone that Herman Melville grew up down the street from our ballet academy, even over-examination cannot wring the pleasure out of books that, to the modern mind, have very little of that quality to begin with.)

For the most part, I've refrained from picking up the deathless/deathly prose that my children are assigned and seeing if it compares favorably to my memory. I got through "Ethan Frome" once, I don't intend to get through it again. That's my narrow worldview, and I'm clinging to it. That being said, there have been exceptions, always books that I remembered fondly, and it's interesting to read them again and see if they really hold up. Does "Fahrenheit 451" still present such an apocalyptic vision as it did in the midst of the Cold War? I'm not sure. "1984" is still bleak with a thin edge of terror and the very ending you're afraid will come. "Brave New World" struck me as a little more antiquated in its vision of the future than either of those others.

There really wasn't such a thing as kidlit or teenlit when I was growing up, nothing remotely like the gazillions of books aimed at the youth market today, but there was S.E. Hinton. Everybody knows "The Outsiders," but for reasons that weren't clear to me even at the time, I was utterly captivated by the world depicted in "That Was Then, This Is Now," about two friends (brothers in all but blood) who drift apart as their young priorities change. There are drugs and violence and girls – all things notably absent from my own adolescence. And yet I was fascinated by the book, and read it over and over. I knew those characters, and certainly believed I was one of them. My younger one read them both this summer, and was still moved by "The Outsiders;" I would have thought both of them seemed a little dated just by the ways they referred to gangs and drugs, but apparently the impact is still there. I never read "Rumblefish," and somehow I had never seen the Coppola movie until this week, when I realized I had missed a very cool piece of cinema all these years.

And it was Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" that prompted me to go back to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," a potboiler written very much in the language of its time and yet still interesting for all that (but then I'm a big Arthur Conan Doyle fan and overwrought dialogue and elaborate description doesn't hurt a story in my mind – until, of course, it reaches Melvillian proportions). It's hard to read it now, though, without remarking on the genius of adapting it to a story about the Vietnamese War and yet keeping so much to both the narrative and mood of the original.

There have been others that I thought were good when I was required to read them that I can't begin to care about now – "The Pigman," for instance, or "Call of the Wild." If you base your life on that book and move to Alaska, you deserve whatever death-by-grizzly-bear awaits you. And of course, there were a number that I hated with a passion then and hate with a passion now (and yes, I'm talking about you, Pearl S. Buck – every moment of reading and discussing "The Good Earth" was like torture to me. I couldn't understand why we had to read it then, I couldn't understand why my daughters have to read it now).

Non-required reading is always the best kind. But even being optional can't save "Moby Dick." Sorry, Herman.

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