Thanks, mom!

The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber. Harper & Brothers, 1945.

Gene: Oh, I think I know about this book! When was this one published?
S: This one is from the forties so it was printed on this very soft, fuzzy paper. “This book is complete and unabridged in contents and is manufactured in strict conformity with government regulations for saving paper.”
G: (flipping through it) It doesn’t have as many illustrations as I thought.
S: My family are big readers, but we’re not big book-owners or book buyers. There were not many books that we owned, but there were always a ton of books around from the library. This is one of the few books my mom owned. At some point in my late elementary years, maybe junior high-ish, I picked it up.
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Life and Death in America

Killings by Calvin Trillin. Random House, 2017. 9780399591402.

In the introduction to this expanded reprint of essays originally written for The New Yorker, Trillin writes about how he could cover stories of murder in a very different way than a newspaper could. His column inches weren’t dictated by how important the editor decided the victim was. He wasn’t writing for the paper of record, so he wasn’t required to cover every significant news item. He could write about people who were ordinary without having to justify the reader’s interest with “what reporters call a “nut graf” (“The Iowa murder is a part of a growing national trend toward vaguely disreputable people in small towns killing each other”).” Writing essays on death allowed him to capture moments in time and see the details of lives and communities that would ordinarily be hidden.

Unlike his more famous essays about his family or food, Trillin keeps himself out of these. He sets the scene, delves into the people involved, then tells the story of a death and its aftermath in a way that is never sensationalized. His writing is expert but never feels artful. There are occasional moments lightened by Trillin’s dry wit, but his precise style and elegant reconstruction of events gives each lost life the requisite gravity and respect.

Jive Claims

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook by Clive James. Yale University Press, 2016.
9780300218091.

playallClive James is a seasoned writer (television, cultural criticism, and poetry) and certified cultured smart guy. After he was diagnosed with cancer, he turned to reading and wrote Latest Readings. But he also spent a lot of time watching TV with his grown daughters. They worked their way through a whole lot of wonderful box sets and he thoroughly enjoyed viewing four or five episodes at a time and discussing them. He got more time than he thought, thanks to new therapies, and this book is the result. James is certainly far smarter than I am, and he must have had a more gentle chemotherapy regime than I did because the shows he discusses would have been too complex and deep for me to follow while ill — my focus was so poor that I was limited to Mythbusters.

James is a maestro of critical writing, throwing in classical and pop-culture allusions with the utmost grace, forcing me laugh out loud and read passages to whoever was seated near me. If I put all of these perfect turns of phrase into my review, I would end up typing out the whole book, so I’ll include just a sample of what he wrote about The Wire (with spoilers for season 1) below.

My only warning to people picking up the book is to be ready to take notes on television series you will want to watch. There isn’t an index, and his discussion is wide-ranging enough that it’s hard to remember where you saw him mention a show that you haven’t seen yet or that want to re-watch. (Here’s what I’m looking forward to now: NYPD Blue, The Wire, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Good Wife.) As he says in introducing the title of the book, “There was a time when that instruction didn’t even exist. But now it’s in our lives, and especially it’s in the lives of those of us who have run so short of time that time no longer matters, and who are thus able to choose exactly what we want to see next.”

Whether or not your time is short, promise me you’ll watch a bunch of smart television with your family.

— Warning: spoilers for The Wire in the quote from the book below —
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