Phillip Lopate: A Mother’s Tale

January 15, 2018 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

A Mother’s Tale – Phillip Lopate – Mad River Books (Ohio State University Press) – Hardcover – 9780814213315 – 196 pages – $24.95 – ebook versions available at slightly lower prices – January 12, 2017

It might be said that a good memoir is a hard thing to find. It takes a special touch from a writer. The best memoirs have humor and self awareness – one must be selective in choosing what is important to share and what must be omitted, valuable to one’s self but not so much for the reader.

Philip Lopate is a skilled and experienced writer who inherently understands the necessities of writing about self and family. His mother was a complicated person, his family life unusual and full of strange twists and turns that made him and his brother who they are as adults.

In 1984, Lopate convinced his mother, Frances, to allow him to interview her and record the story of her life. Frances was a powerful and strong willed figure. She was orphaned in childhood, married young, and had to make a life for herself without a support system, as a mother. She worked in a number of fields and late in life became an actress and singer. She appeared in television commercials and performed in plays in New York.

She told Philip all her many criticisms of her husband (his father), recounted the details of her affairs and sexual encounters, told him about her experiences with therapy and continuously complained about how the world had mistreated and misunderstood her. Locate set the tapes aside and never listened to them until thirty years later, when his mother had passed away. At that point Lopate was drawn back to the recordings, perhaps wanting to better understand his mother and himself through her confessions.

A Mother’s Tale is essentially then a three-way conversation between Lopate today, his mother, and the younger self he hears talking to her on the tapes.

Lopate seeks to better understand and appreciate his mother and the husband she ostensibly despised, but could never leave. He cannot share her self-pity or the harping on blame assessed to everyone but herself. But through it all, he comes to see her anew, now as a grown man, recognizing more clearly the survivor, her powerful appetite for love and for life, and the ways he finally found to express his love for her.

It’s a brave thing to expose oneself and one’s family in such a personal piece of writing. Lopate has succeeded with this short memoir, giving us much to savor, appreciate, and ponder about ourselves and our own family histories. This is a terrific book.

“With his signature insight an candor, Lopate reveals his mother for the complicated and troubled character she was, and himself–her darling, her confessor, her victim, her judge–as the child behind the writer he was to become. I could not put it down.” — Lynn Freed

Philip Lopate is the author of a number of well respected memoirs and personal essays, as well as two novellas, and is also the editor of several important anthologies. He has won a variety of awards for his writing, as well as for his work as a teacher. He is currently a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing.

Philip Lopate is a wonderful conversationalist and an easy person to interview. It was a tremendous pleasure for me to speak with him about this book and his intriguing mother.

Author website here. Author photo by Sally Gall.

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.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Jim Mairs about The Red Book

July 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and its economics? Publishing Talks interviews help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

After nearly 40 years with W.W. Norton, former v-p, senior editor and director of production Jim Mairs left the company in 2002 to found his own company, Quantuck Lane Press, which is distributed by W.W. Norton.  He is mainly responsible for the existence of this stunning and important publishing project, The Red Book.  This is how it is described in the Norton catalog: “The most influential unpublished work in the history of psychology.”

And this is Jung himself, describing his work on this book from 1914 to 1930:

“The years, of which I have spoken to you, when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.”

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jim Mairs for many years and wanted to talk to him about the “inside story” of this incredible publishing project, from the physical to the almost spiritual elements of the project.  For anyone interested in the way truly special books can still be published in this modern era of publishing, or for anyone interested in The Red Book as an icon of Jungian psychology, I hope this discussion will be valuable and interesting, as it was for me.