September, 2004

Sep 04

Box of Matches, by Nicholson Baker

I’ve wanted to read Nicholson Baker for a while now, and with his new, controversial book Checkpoint coming out, I figured it was time (that review is coming up).

Book of Matches, like all of Baker’s fiction, is a short book — under 200 pages, and incredibly focused. Each 3-5 page chapter is the 1st person narrative of a middle-aged man who’s begun to get up around 4a every morning by himself to start a fire and think about things.

Basically the book is about his time to pause and notice some things around him while he lived his life. Some of his revelations are big, most are small — and that’s probably most of the point. I think it’s a little bit like the first couple of seasons of Six Feet Under: the message in both is that life is full of mostly small moments that most people just move right past, always waiting for the bigger ones. And that when it comes down to it, if you can take the time to notice the "small" ones, and take joy in them because they’re part of life, then things can be pretty good. Along the lines of a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about lately, so I was happy to read it.

Sep 04

Checkpoint, by Nicholson Baker

There’s no way around it: we’re in an unfortunate period in our nation’s history — one that’s gotten particularly polarized and nasty and personal and divisive. One signal is that politics is creeping into everything we do, including the books that we read, more than ever.

This is an even shorter & more focused book than Box of Matches, weighing in at a svelte 120 pages, and only considering the direct act of assassinating President Bush. This book will not make Nicholson popular at Karl Rove’s house, or in approximately half the households in the US, if not more. It’s just the focused dialog between two characters: one wants to kill the president, the other is a little roped in.

I was hopeful about this book, mostly because I feel like there are things that we’re not "supposed" to discuss lately — and that as a country we’re playing increasingly fast & loose with the truth — talking about the "spin tactics" of modern political parties like they’re legitimate and that the way they’re doing it is the story. The story, of course, should be that more people are lying to other people than ever before. Not really that encouraging.

Anyway, having said all that, as I mentioned, I was hopeful about this book, and it was interesting, but ultimately not that thought-provoking. You might borrow it from someone if you’ve got an afternoon to kill, but I probably wouldn’t run out to buy it.

Sep 04

Aunt Laura

My great aunt Laura Lilly McMichael died yesterday afternoon, at the age of 95. She’d moved to Atlanta a couple of years ago, away from Quitman, GA, where she lived virtually her whole life.

Laura was the 4th of 5 children of my great grandfather, Homer Lilly — she came a couple of years after my Grandee was born; she was his little sister. Their sister (Ellie, 2nd of 5), my grandfather and Laura lived almost their whole lives in Quitman, just a couple of blocks away from each other. Think of that.

Laura was married to Bill McMichael, a man that I remember from my childhood as being approximately 10 feet tall. In pictures he sure looks like maybe he wasn’t quite that tall, but my memory seems clear. He was a big, friendly man to me always — seems like he was always holding court in the study of their big house, smoking a cigar and making jokes.

It wouldn’t be remembering about Laura without at least mentioning her house. She & Bill lived in a beautiful white house on the main street of Quitman — with a white picket fence, and trees with spanish moss, and everything you’d see in a movie about the South. She really loved that house. My 2nd cousin, Mary Michael Stewart, her granddaughter, told me once that Laura didn’t have pictures of her grandkids in her wallet, but did have a number of pictures of the house.

In very many ways, Laura is who I think of when I think of the South — her house, her mannerisms, her speech, the way she was involved in church and the community. A lot of Jessica Tandy’s character in Driving Miss Daisy reminds me of her. (And my grandmother, too, but in a different way.)

We got to see Laura in Atlanta just a few weeks ago, and I’m thankful to have gotten to do that. She seemed happy & engaged, and pretty much in charge of the conversation, like every time I can really remember talking to her. She reminded me of my grandfather a few times during the conversation, and I’m thankful for that, too.

Hurricane Ivan notwithstanding, Laura will be buried in Quitman later this week, next to Bill, I think, and nearby just about everyone that I knew in Quitman, where my dad grew up. Think of that, too.

Sep 04

Straight Man, by Richard Russo

I’d recommend you read anything that Richard Russo writes — he’s fantastic. I read Empire Falls a couple of years back — a Pulitzer-winning novel. His novels aren’t really about all that much — mostly about small town life in the Northeast. But here’s why I read them: he writes with such empathy that you can’t help but like his main protagonist (in both books, a middle-aged man who’s too much a smartass for his own good, but can’t really help himself). Here’s the quote of the main character, who’s teaching his creative writing class:

“Is good fiction more likely to be about the air we breathe or the nose we breathe it through?”

He asks it as a leading question to his class; he’s saying that good fiction isn’t about the stuff that’s obvious & all around us — at some level, that’s history, or journalism, or something else. Good fiction helps us to understand our relationship with all that. I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms before, but think it’s great & right on.

The book is funny, and painful, and true — I think the excerpt below (main character, 1st person point of view) is central (don’t read it if you want to read the book soon — it might not even make any sense):

“Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we’ll sleep with given the opportunity, who we’ll betray in the right circumstance, whose faith and love we will reward with our own…Only after we’ve done a thing do we know what we’ll do, and by then whatever we’ve done has already begun to sever itself from clear significance, at least for the doer. Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, “I know you, Al. You’re not the kind of man who.”

Great book.

Sep 04


Took my third trip to Detroit last week (and drove up to London, Ontario for a quick meeting as well) — went to see GM & DaimlerChrysler. First, I should say that GM & Chrysler are both incredibly impressive, and I thought it was sort of cool that I got to visit two of the largest companies in the world in the same day.

Having said that, I’ve got to say that I’m not a huge fan of Detroit. The downtown is pretty clearly depressed — it reminds me a lot of Rochester, NY, even though it’s much bigger. When you’re in Rochester, it’s impossible not to think about the city and how it must have been incredibly vibrant, right until the Erie Canal got built and they didn’t need it any more. With Detroit, you’re forced to the (obvious) conclusion that the global markets have passed American autos by — and you’ve got to wonder what the hell they would have done if they hadn’t invented the SUV in the nineties.

But Canada was nice, as always. Very polite, very clean, very friendly. London is a university town — but to be honest, I didn’t get to see much of it — most of the 6 hours I spent in Canada this time was driving (2 hrs each way) and on the phone (lots of conference calls).