Madeleine Blais: To the New Owners-A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir

August 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

To the New Owners: A Martha’s Vineyard Memoir – Madeleine Blais – Atlantic Monthly Press – Hardcover – 978-0-8021-2657-3 – $26.00 – 272 pages – July 2017 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

Madeleine Blais is a truly wonderful writer – she began her writing career as a journalist, now teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts, and won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1994 book In These Girls Hope is a Muscle. But I had never really read her work before my friend George Gibson, knowing I had spent time on Martha’s Vineyard, recommended this book to me. Reading this book was a great experience for me, one of those times when I found myself reading sections aloud to my wife, who spent most of her life going to Martha’s Vineyard each summer. This book is full of beautiful passages about place, family, and the magical experiences that summer vacations engender for so many of us.

Back in the 1970s, Madeleine Blais married into the Katzenbach family, and with them, their somewhat rustic vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard. Located on an old one-lane dirt road, the house was more a shack, without electricity or running water. But for spending old fashioned quiet vacations decompressing from daily life, the house was ideal, and very representative of the kinds of places that were then common in traditional east coast vacation spots.

The house was near Tisbury Great Pond, facing the ocean and open to the sky, and over the years, the old shack was rebuilt and modernized, but the more or less rustic lifestyle of the family and their visitors remained a constant. There was no heat, no TV, and no telephone, and typically terrible cell service. But as Blais documents, the days were marked by time spent on the beach and on the Vineyard’s beautiful waters, meals prepared and enjoyed with extended family and their many visiting friends, all logged in a series of notebooks made by the family over the decades – almost half a century of family stories to be preserved and loved.

But life is full of changes and with the passing of the original family owners, in 2014, the house was sold. In To the New Owners, Madeleine Blais tells some of these stories of the house and her family’s life within it, and stories of the Vineyard, including some of its recent history, and some of the people whose visits have now made it so well known.

But this book is really about the places that matter in our lives, the power of place to ground and center our lives and the importance of memory and stories to help us understand who we are.

While this book is a memoir about this one distinctive east coast island, it will resonate for the many of us who have experienced well-loved places that have changed over time. Change is the constant feature of modern life, and family summer places like this one may be disappearing forever. New generations will find their own ways to understand and appreciate the places around which they build their histories. Those of us who have had the pleasure of experiencing Martha’s Vineyard will likely love this book as much as we love the island itself, and remind us of our own stories and the memories that keep us whole.

Madeleine Blais was a reporter for the Miami Herald for years before joining the faculty of the School of Journalism at the University of Massachusetts. She is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, Uphill Walkers, and The Heart Is an Instrument, a collection of her journalism. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Aside from being a fine writer, Madeleine also tells great stories, and gave us a wonderful interview. Special thanks to George Gibson for recommending this excellent book to me.

“For anyone who has ever been curious about life on the Vineyard, or fantasized about settling in, Blais offers a diverting portrait . . . Blais has stitched together [the memoir] from the writings and stories of others, as well as her own wistful, often wry observations . . . Throughout, Blais exhibits a veteran reporter’s instinct for even-handedness.”―Boston Globe

Marc Nieson: Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape

January 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

schoolhouse-storeSchoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape – Marc Nieson – Ice Cube Press – paperback – 9781888160925 – 272 pages – $19.95

Memoirs are most often stories of self discovery. To work for readers, they have to engage us indirectly – we have to buy into the narrator’s central problem the story will show us being solved. Marc Nieson’s memoir is about a period in his life when he was confused about love and self-identity. He left his home and long term lover in New York City to attend the famed Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, and ended up living in a former one room schoolhouse on 500 acres of beautiful Iowa landscape.

Escaping the travails of modern life, and living in the woods, the comparisons to Walden cannot help being made. City-bred Nieson learns how to observe the natural world, and in so doing, learns how to understand himself at the same time. Nieson keeps us involved throughout his narrative, and we come to the end of the story fully engaged in his personal adventure.

The book is structured like a schoolbook, each chapter being named after a school subject (i.e. Geography, History, Social Studies, What I Did On My Summer Vacation), which gives the book a certain charm, and while it’s a conceit, this organization helps keep the narrative moving forward. It’s a fully transformational story, even if you have never experienced the woods or the Iowa landscape.

As Nieson writes: “Here on a quiet Iowa hillside, I was hoping … to both learn and unlearn who I was. To try living not only alone and apart, but a more consciously observed life — both inside and out.” I think he achieved what he was hoping to do in Iowa.

“Those of us who have lived in old one-room schoolhouses understand the solitude, solace, and proximity to nature that they provide. During his year living in Union #9, Marc Nieson embraced these opportunities for inner growth. His new memoir—a must read—traces the story of his journey of discovery along the trail through the woods surrounding his house and along the path of human relationships. Read Schoolhouse, and you will open the door to the mind of an engaging voice, a probing, reflective writer who delights the reader with his lyrical prose on every page.”
—Mary Swander, author, Out of this World: A Woman’s Life Among the Amish

Marc Nieson has degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes children’s theatre, cattle chores, and a season with a one-ring circus. He’s been awarded a Raymond Carver Short Story award and recent fiction appears in Everywherestories: Short Fiction From A Small Planet (Press 53), Museum of Americana, and Tahoma Literary Review. He is also a screenwriter, whose credits include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher, and Bottomland. He teaches at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and is working on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.

In this interview, Marc and I talked in detail about this excellent book and his work as a writer and teacher. Special kudos to Ice Cube Press for publishing this memoir.

Author website here.
Ice Cube Press website here.ows_14788217597922

Tom Shroder: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

January 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

9780399174599The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story of My Family – Tom Shroder – Blue Rider Press – hardcover – 9780399174599 – 416 pages – $28 – published October 4, 2016 (ebook editions available at lower prices)

Tom Shroder is an excellent writer and an experienced editor who has had a long career as a journalist, as well as having also written some really interesting books. As it turns out, he is the grandson of the once-bestselling author, MacKinlay Kantor, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for his sprawling historical novel about the Civil War, Andersonville. I expect that a number of my listeners will have read that book, and many will quite possibly remember MacKinlay Kantor as someone who was an extremely well known and popular author in the fifties and sixties.

Like so many of us, Shroder grew up mostly taking his grandfather for granted, and while he was close with both his grandfather and grandmother, Tom did not really know very much about their actual lives before he was born, when their lives were very different. Their daughter, his mother, was also a writer as Tom was growing up, but he did not want to identify with the literary milieu of his youth. It was only later in his life that he was spurred to learn more about his family history, and to begin to understand himself within any kind of a personal literary context.

This book recounts the thoroughly compelling MacKinlay Kantor’s very colorful and intentional life as a writer, as well as weaving together Shroder’s own story, which is one of becoming a writer without perhaps intending to do so. It works amazingly well, and even if you have never read Andersonville or any of the other many books Kantor wrote during his long and checkered career, this particular book is likely to captivate you. It is full of wonderful stories and empathetic emotional connections.

Shroder’s journey to understanding who his grandfather was turns out to be almost as epic as Kantor’s actual life, full of twists and turns, discoveries and surprises. I read Andersonville long ago, and remember being fully engaged by its epic scope and historical detail. But I had forgotten that Kantor was also the ghost writer for Curtis Lemay later in his life, when things were not going so well for him. His was a complicated and very American 20th century story, story, and Shroder tells it exceptionally well.

Tom Shroder has been an award-winning journalist, writer and editor for nearly 40 years. His books include Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal (2014), a mind-altering account of the resurgent research into the medical use of psychedelic drugs; Fire on the Horizon: the Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster (2011) (co-author); and Old Souls: Compelling Evidence From Children Who Remember Past Lives (1999), a study of the border between science and mysticism.

He was the editor of The Washington Post Magazine between 2001 and 2009, where he oversaw Gene Weingarten’s two Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories, “Fiddler in the Subway” and “Fatal Distraction.”

Shroder’s The Hunt for Bin Laden (2011) was based on 15 years of reporting by The Washington Post. Shroder is also known for co-creating the Tropic Hunt, a mass-participation puzzle which has become The Washington Post Hunt in Washington, D.C.

Shroder was born in New York City in 1954.

You can visit Shroder’s author website here.

“Fascinating…As Shroder vividly tells the story of this larger-than-life writer who was a generous and often doting grandfather, he contemplates the fleeting nature of fame….a biographical gold mine and an object lesson in the ultimate fading away of the best-selling, prize-winning success many writers dream about.”
—Susan Cheever, The Washington Post

This book was a pleasure to read, and the conversation with Tom Shroder was a lot of fun for me as well. He made this interview extremely easy for me to conduct.35-Mack-mid-to-late-50s-Bill-Dog

Tom and Lisa at Monterrey

George Gmelch: Playing With Tigers, A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties

August 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

george-gmelch-playing-wth-tigers9780803276819 – University of Nebraska Press – 288 pages – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at roughly similar prices)

Today, George Gmelch is a successful anthropologist, with a number of books to his credit. But when he was a young man, he was a very good baseball player, with the typical dreams so many shared of becoming a professional baseball player and making it to the Major Leagues. Growing up in an all-white suburb in California in the late fifties and early sixties, George led a fairly sheltered childhood, playing ball and having fun. In 1965 he signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers organization and so began a four year period of coming of age, during which George experienced the challenges of life in baseball’s minor leagues.

While learning to be a professional athlete, he also became aware of the realities of race and class; minor league baseball in the nineteen sixties was often played in small towns in the south where segregation was still in effect, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. And as an adolescent on his own with other boys in the cocoon like world of pro sports, he also had his first experiences of sex and romance, living, traveling and playing ball. Somewhat unlike most of his teammates, George paid attention to the events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the rise of the counter culture, and civil rights protests.

Playing with Tigers is a memoir certainly unlike most others written by baseball players. The sixties was a time of turmoil involving young people of all backgrounds and professional baseball was not immune from its disruption. George was likely more socially aware than most of his compatriots, and his direct experience of racial issues ultimately led to the end of his professional baseball career.

To write this book, George relied on the journals he kept as a player, as well as letters from that time, and in addition he used his skills and experience as an anthropologist to interview thirty former teammates, coaches, club officials – and even some former girlfriends. This is a unique story, documenting a socially disrupted period in American history through the lives of many of the young people who lived through it. We get to experience first hand the naivete, frustrations and joys of a young man trying to find his way in a complex time. And clearly, some of the motivation for writing this book was unfinished business, events, relationships with people, his baseball experience, on which George wanted to gain some closure.

I read alot of baseball books, as many listeners know. Among the many I have read the past couple years, I found Playing With Tigers extremely compelling, and one I had fun reading. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to speak with George Gmelch for the second time – in 2013, George and I talked for Writerscast about another of his baseball books, Inside Pitch. In addition to being an intensely personal memoir, Playing With Tigers opens a door to a period in our history that deserves a lot more exploration than it seems to have been given. George has some great stories and a deep understanding and love for the people and places he’s experienced. This is a fine book and you do not need to know anything about baseball to like it.

George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His books include In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, with J. J. Weiner (Bison Books, 2006), and Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball (Bison Books, 2006). He is the editor of Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Society, and Natural History.baseballtalk_gmelchGmelch

Chris Offutt: My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

June 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

my-father-the-pornographer-9781501112461_lg9781501112461 – Atria Books – 272 pages – Hardcover – $26.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices

Chris Offutt’s father, Andrew Offutt, left behind an unusual legacy – a massive quantity of pornography he wrote over a long swatch of his life. Besides being at one time a respected insurance agent, and subsequently a successful but still minor science fiction writer, Andrew Offutt spent years writing pornography, and made himself the “king of twentieth-century smut.”

During the 1970s, after Grove Press and other publishers had helped break down the barriers to legal publishing of pornographic and erotic literature, the floodgates of erotic writing opened up to meet a formerly unreachable demand. Several specialized, but relatively small commercial publishers created a mini-industry to satisfy an emerging market for written pornography and erotica of all kinds. During the height of the popularity of these books, some writers were able to make reasonable livings by turning out massive quantities of what was essentially pornographic pulp fiction.

Andrew Offutt was one of these writers, but unlike so many other high volume writers,  he was singular in his commitment to good writing and real plot lines, among other features of traditional fiction. As one might imagine, Andrew Offutt was an unusual man, and a strange and awkward parent keeping secrets about his work and the toll it took on his psyche.

Chris Offutt therefore grew up in a highly unusual world. His mother was the typist for all his father’s books. The family lived in the Kentucky hills, where most kids grew up hunting and fishing, and learning the pleasures of traditional country woodcraft.

Andrew Offutt was more than a little eccentric, and was a fiery and unpredictable father. When he closed the door to his home office, he demanded silence and to be left alone to concentrate on his writing, terrifying and controlling his family. And Offutt took the entire family with him when he went off to science fiction conventions, where he was a sought after figure, playing the role of the exotic sci fi novelist. In the seventies, Chris’ parents were evidently active swingers at these conventions.

During this time, Andrew Offutt wrote an incredible number of books – in total, more than four hundred novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn.

In 2013, after his father died, Chris Offutt returned to help his mother move out of his childhood home. In order to make sense of his father and his own childhood, Chris took on the herculean task of reading and organizing his father’s manuscripts and the vast trove of memorabilia, journals, and letters that accompanied them. It was only through the lens of his father’s writing that he was finally able to bring some closure to his understanding of this difficult and sometimes brilliant man. And at the same time he was able to gain a better understanding of himself as a person, father and of course, his own life as a writer.

This book is a remarkable literary and personal effort of psychic and literary exploration, truly one of the best memoirs I have read. Perhaps because my own father was similarly a writer who made his living through his work with words, this book meant a lot to me.

It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Chris Offutt about his courageous and beautifully written memoir, and his own creative work as a writer.

Chris Offutt was born in 1958 in Lexington, Kentucky and grew up in the small town of Haldeman in the same state. He went to Morehead State University, and then to the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. His first short story collection was Kentucky Straight, published in 1992. Along with fiction and memoirs, Chris has also written comics and journalism for several magazines and newspapers. In recent years, he has written for television as well (Weeds and True Blood).

Chris has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a Whiting Award in Fiction and Nonfiction.

“Chris Offutt owns one of the finest, surest prose styles around, ready and able to convey the hardest truth without flinching. Now Offutt enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece.” —Michael Chabonchris offutt

I’m as impressed as Michael Chabon is with this fine book.

And Offutt knows how to give a great interview too.

Jowita Bydlowska: Drunk Mom: A Memoir

November 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

0143126504_bDrunk Mom – 978-0143126508 – Penguin – paperback – $16 (ebook editions available at lower prices)

What an incredible book. Tough, loving, uncompromising. So much power in this book, admittedly at times, very painful to read, and stunningly honest to the point of extremism. But Jowita is such a fine writer, it is impossible not to admire this book and despite all the terrible things she tells us about herself, that she is alive, and able to speak her truth is incredible.

You know that any book with a title like this is going to be amazing, but there is no way to get through this book without being thoroughly bowled over, and depending on one’s tolerance for witnessing someone else’s painful mistakes, perhaps more than in any other book you will ever read. And yes, Jowita is completely and terrifyingly honest about herself and her misadventures throughout.

It’s valuable to understand that when Jowita first wrote this story, she wrote it pretending it was a novel. She had to get through that ironically deep denial as part of her ability to understand herself, one assumes. And that is part of the power of this book, that the author is able to uncover layers of denial, fear and guilt to get to a place where she can be honest with herself, and by telling that story to the world, reach a kind of absolution, a place in herself where she can be able to reconstruct herself, not forgiving, but finding the parts of her persona that are who she is not drinking. This is very powerful reading and a book I recommend no matter what you feel about yourself or others who are drinkers, addicted, lost, or found.

Short summary: Three years after she gave up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself drinking again – at the party celebrating the birth of her son. Thus begins the harrowing tale of her descent, once again, into full blown alcohol and substance abuse. You have to read this one for yourself. Go buy this book, prepare yourself for a powerful experience, and read it now. Another good interview with the author on NPR here. And Jowita’s website, worth a visit – “I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I moved to Canada as a teenager. I live in Toronto with my little family in a little house. I write, write, write (compulsively, happily, unhappily, obsessively)” here.

I very much enjoyed talking to Jowita, who does a great interview. This conversation runs a bit long at 36 minutes, but hopefully it’s an experience well worth your time to hear.
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Ladette Randolph: Leaving the Pink House – A Memoir

November 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

 

leaving-the-pink-houseLeaving the Pink House: A Memoir – 978-1609382742 – University of Iowa Press – paperback – $18.00 (ebook editions available).

Ladette Randolph is both an editor and a writer; she is currently the editor of the fine literary magazine Ploughshares, whose founder, DeWitt Henry, I interviewed about that magazine’s history, and she’s written a total of four books and edited three more. She was previously an acquiring editor at University of Nebraska Press and earlier, the managing editor of Prairie Schooner. She has received four Nebraska Book Awards, a Rona Jaffe grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Virginia Faulkner award, and has been reprinted in Best New American Voices.

Ladette grew up and lived much of her life in Nebraska. In this really well written and beautifully composed memoir, Leaving the Pink House, she tells the story of her life through the houses she has lived in. At first, the book appears to be a relatively straightforward memoir of buying a dilapidated farmhouse to fulfill a dream of country living (the day after September 11, 2001), and the complication of leaving the pink house she and her husband had already turned into the house of their dreams.

But Randolph is writing to understand herself and where she comes from. Leaving one beloved house for another that is full of potential (for good and bad) spurs her into exploring her past life through the houses in which she lived. And she essentially tells herself – and her readers – where she came from, and how she became the person who is able to love and inhabit her own being in the present by exploring her life through the houses in which she lived from her early youth onward.

Randolph grew up in small towns in Nebraska; her father took his family with him as he worked to become an evangelical minister. Randolph tells us what it was like for her to experience the world through the lens of fundamentalism as she grew up and then into her early adult years. She experiences a series of awakenings, tragedies and struggles, all told without over dramatization and alternating with the mundane and always challenging work of remodeling the old house in the country and preparing to move from the pink house.

It’s an engaging and perceptive form of storytelling and much like a remodeling job itself, we learn with her as she goes through the work of tearing down and rebuilding the structure of her life.  I greatly enjoyed reading this book, vicariously experiencing her challenges and accomplishments, and learning about her life experiences. Then having the opportunity to talk with Ladette about it only amplified my interest in her writing.  Her active and informative website is here (and worth a visit).

ladetterandolph21-about

Paul Conroy: Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

November 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

conroy978-1602862364 – Weinstein Books – hardcover – October 8, 2013 – $26.00 (ebook versions available, prices vary depending on retailer)

Marie Colvin was an award-winning journalist who wrote principally for the London Sunday Times for almost thirty years until she was killed covering the siege of Homs in Syria in February, 2012.  She was raised in Oyster Bay (Long Island), NY, graduated from Yale in 1978 who worked for the British newspaper The Sunday Times from 1985 until her death.

Marie was an activist journalist in the best sense of the word, committed to reporting the lives and conditions of the oppressed and especially civilians suffering in wars, armed conflicts and governmental actions.  Her writing was vivid and clear, gripping and very muscular.

Colvin specialized in the Middle East, but also worked in East Timor, Sri Lanka, Chechniya and the Balkans. She was recognized by the British Press awards for her reporting in Chechniya (and an amazing escape from that war zone, also grippingly reported). In East Timor in 1999, she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees stranded in a United Nations compound that was surrounded by the Indonesian Army after the Timorese chose independence from Indonesia in a referendum.  Colvin and two other journalists refused to leave and forced the UN to stay as well, and eventually the refugees were extracted and taken in by Australia.

In 2001 she became the first Western journalist in years to enter Tamil Tiger rebel territory in northern Sri Lanka. When she returned to the government-controlled area, her group was fired on by Sri Lankan military, and she was wounded by shrapnel, losing the use of an eye.  She famously wrote a 3,500 word dispatch about her adventure while in the hospital in NY for surgery. From that time onward, her black pirate-style eye-patch became  the emblem that represented her irrepressible spirit to all.

John Burns, the veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, called her “one of the most respected and celebrated reporters on Fleet Street…She was, of course, absolutely fearless, though she knew the dangers well.”

Alan Philps, a former Telegraph foreign correspondent said: “What she brought to journalism was being a great eyewitness and being incredibly brave. It was a role she settled into and she never saw another form of journalism she wanted to do, but that meant she sacrificed everything for the job.”

In 2010 at a London newspaper industry service for fallen British journalists, she gave a moving speech about the work and risks of foreign correspondents: “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

“Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”

Marie Colvin reported from Libya in the middle of many battle zones during the revolution against Qadaffi, where she worked with photographer Paul Conroy, who became a close friend of Colvin’s.  In 2012, the two of them, working for the Sunday Times, made their way into Homs in Syria, where the government was bombarding the local population into submission.

Under the Wire is Conroy’s story about his friendship and work with Marie Colvin in Libya and Syria.  Most of the book is a blow by blow account of their time in Homs, where Marie was killed while trying to leave Homs after many days in terrible danger, along with French photographer Remi Ochlik and Conroy was grievously wounded as well.

The book is a vivid and powerful account, not only of the work of the foreign correspondents who went to Syria to document what was going on there, but of the people in the country on the rebel side, who wanted Marie, Paul and other western journalists there to report what was happening.  Acts of bravery, selflessness and heroism abound.

Paul Conroy’s story is a gripping and painful celebration of the human spirit, full of bravery and hope and a wonderful memorial to the work and life of Marie Colvin.  It’s also a reminder, as the civil war in Syria continues, of how much we need people like Marie to serve as a public conscience in the face of oppression and state sponsored violence.

Marie Colvin’s work has been published as On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin.   Visit her website to learn more about her life and work, and the Marie Colvin Memorial Fund.  The Colvin family has established a memorial fund in honor of Marie. The fund will direct donations to charitable and educational organizations that reflect Marie’s lifelong dedication to humanitarian aid, human rights, journalism and education. artworks-000050004263-oznov1-t500x500Marie-in-jean-shirt

George Gmelch: Inside Pitch

March 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

9780803271289_p0_v1_s260x420978-0803271289 – University of Nebraska Press Bison Books – paperback – $16 (no ebook edition available!)

Given my longstanding interest in baseball and an early background in anthropology, it’s kind of surprising to me that I missed knowing about the work of George Gmelch until very recently.

I ran across George’s books in some random searching having to do with baseball, and happily was able to get an introduction to him through my anthropologist brother.  When he was young, George was a baseball player, and a pretty good one.  Like so many others, he played for several years in the lower minor leagues, but never made it to the Major Leagues.  It’s possible he quit too early, but it’s also likely that he made the right choice to quit baseball and go back to school (and got his Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara) and then became an accomplished cultural anthropologist, studying tourism, sport cultures, and migration. He has worked among and written about Irish Travellers, English Gypsies, return migrants in Ireland and Newfoundland, commercial fishermen, Alaska natives, and Caribbean villagers and tourism workers, and has taught at several universities.

Given his training as an anthropologist and his unusual background as a minor league baseball player, it made sense that he could study baseball players, perhaps in ways that non-players could never manage.  So some 30 years after his playing days ended, George arranged with friends still in the game to spend time with major and minor league players as an observer.  Over the course of five years, he interviewed more than 100 players, coaches and managers, and got to experience and document the inner workings and social milieu of modern day baseball as it is lived by its participants.

Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball is nothing like a typical anthropological ethnography.  There’s a great deal of George’s personal story throughout, and it’s neither dry nor academic.  But the observational techniques and abilities of the trained anthropologist are brought to bear, as George ruminates on the differences between modern players and those of his own era.

It’s unusual for us to get an insider’s view of the game that gets past the public relations walls that the institution and all its participants have build around it to protect the image of the game.  Minor league players, though rarely interested in George’s own experience as a player, were always willing to tell him about their experiences, and even normally wary major leaguers were willing to talk to him once he explained that he was a former player doing anthropology, not a reporter looking for an angle.

So if you love baseball, Inside Pitch is a terrific read, and will enrich your understanding of what it is really like to play professional baseball.  I was especially taken with the writing about and the interviews with players that illustrated the psychological struggles that players go through.  I recently read the excellent RA Dickey memoir, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity, and the Perfect Knuckleball, which is a terrific complement to Inside Pitch, as so much of Dickey’s story is about how he managed to conquer his personal demons and harness his inner being to finally become a successful pitcher after years of struggle.  Gmelch both give us many quotes of players talking about their mental struggles and writes about these issues perceptively.

Baseball is generally considered a cerebral game because of its complexity and pace.  That, and the fact that there are so many games in a very long season, create a very challenging emotional and psychological environment for players.   We rarely, if ever, get to see close up what that can mean for them.  And because the vast majority of players who play in the minor leagues never make it to the majors or only get there for a brief time, reading about their struggles can change the way you think about the players who do get to the majors and stay there for any length of time.  They really do have to be special, lucky and to have developed a solid psyche in order to be able to survive and thrive in such a difficult and fraught environment.

George Gmelch has written eleven books and now teaches at the University of San Francisco, where he co-directs the anthropology program. I’ve now got an earlier book of his, In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People on my reading list as well.  Talking to him about his experiences as a player, anthropologist and writer was a terrific pleasure for me.2147483669_u_gmelch_georgedickey.book1  Alert to listeners: we had such a good conversation that I lost track of time, and this is a longer than average podcast at 54 minutes.

Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs

January 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Gershwins and Me978-1451645309 – Simon & Schuster – Hardcover –  $45 (ebook editions available at lower prices)

Michael Feinstein is doubtless the most active supporter and proponent of the Great American Songbook we have.  Aside from his own inspiring performances, he is an incredible impresario of the music he loves and that he loves to share.  His “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” show is on PBS (and past seasons are available on DVD).  He performs more than 200 times a year, and records regularly.

Michael has been nominated for five Grammys, most recently in 2009 for The Sinatra Project and his TV special, Michael Feinstein – The Sinatra Legacy, is currently airing on PBS.

He is also the founder of the Feinstein Initiative, that preserves and promotes the Great American Songbook, and serves as Artistic Director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts, a $170 million, three-theatre venue in Carmel, Indiana, which opened in January 2011. The theater is home to an annual international Great American Arts festival, diverse live programming and a museum for his rare memorabilia and manuscripts. Starting in 2010, he became the director of the Jazz and Popular Song Series at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 2013, he will replace the late Marvin Hamlisch as the lead conductor of the Pasadena Pops.

His many other credits include scoring the original music for the film Get Bruce and performing on the hits television series “Better With You,” “Caroline in the City,” “Melrose Place,” “Coach,” “Cybill“ and “7th Heaven.”

Feinstein was born in Columbus, Ohio, where he started playing piano by ear as a 5-year-old. After graduating from high school, he worked in local piano bars for two years, and then moved to Los Angeles when he was 20. The widow of legendary concert pianist-actor Oscar Levant introduced him to Ira Gershwin in July 1977. Feinstein became Gershwin’s assistant for six years, deeply influencing his life and setting him on the path that has become his life as a singer, songwriter and promoter of music.

In The Gershwins and Me, Feinstein tells a personal story in which each of the twelve chapters highlights one of the Gershwin classic songs, using them to tell the story of the Gershwin brothers and their family, illuminating their music and incredible creativity, and telling memorable personal stories throughout. In this unusual narrative, Feinstein tells a moving chronicle of his own life with the Gershwins and his vision of how their music inculcates so much of modern American life.  It’s a wonderful, personal and special book that I very much enjoyed discussing with author Michael Feinstein, whose amazing website demonstrates the incredible breadth of his work in music.Style: "p25+-Ipro"

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