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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are Books the New Yoga?

One measure of how much books matter is to see a child react when you tell him or her that the story is over.
No, no, goes the wail. And then: Read it again, Daddy.
Lately, though, I’ve been hearing a similar message from people of a more (shall we say) settled age. I’ve had people talk about their “reading” who’ve never gone there before in our relationship. Where last year it sometimes seemed that all people wanted to talk about was yoga, and the year before that, the tango, this year it’s books.
As a writer, I’m pleased, of course. As a writer with a new book out, I even feel lucky, for the first time in my stop-start career.
But mostly I’m curious as to why. If something about our last decade has brought out the reader in us, even as distracting devices proliferate, it feels counter intuitive. Is it because everyone is determined to forestall discussion of the latest pop star outrage, or the latest diet, food allergy, exercise regimen, kale cleanse, and so forth?
I’ve wondered whether a flagging interest in sports could be responsible. As a former athlete and sportswriter, part of me has noticed I just don’t care about all these Cups and Masters and Bowls and Races. I’ve finally hit my limit. And my male friends have been saying the same (even as our eyes migrate to the widescreen over the bar):
What are you reading? they ask, followed by: I need a new book.
Then they look at me, the writer. After all these years, finally I’m in my element. As Curtis Mayfield sang, I’m your pusher. And here are my picks for a variety of readers who’ve run dry:
For the thriller reader who wants to aim higher (and replace the cheap sugar rush of pulp fiction with something finer): David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Yes, the man behind The Game of Thrones is a crack novelist (The 25th Hour was turned into a pretty good Spike Lee movie). That this love story set during the Siege of Stalingrad is swift and self-assured is a cause for wonder.
For the lover of Downton Abbey and Masterpiece Theatre and all those other Upstairs/Downstairs dramas: Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels. Going deep inside the English upper classes of the last 50 years, St. Aubyn delivers a vision of hell lived on a hundred thousand pounds a year with houses in four countries. The dialog would make Oscar Wilde envious. Your mother may not forgive you for leaving it lying around. But she won’t give it back, either.
For those familiar with Tom Wolfe’s epic takedowns of entire strata of society, Mark Panek’s Hawaii is a savage, deeply researched and hilariously apt portrait of a colonial-tropical multi-ethnic society destroying itself with corruption, cultural warfare and real estate development. Mandatory Pacific Rim reading by a rising star.
Finally, for all those who’ve been quietly reading boxes of books for decades, may I suggest my favorite quirky-deep reads? Think of them as palate cleansers: Andrei Platanov’s Fierce and Beautiful World, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Call me when you surface for air.

BIO: Don Wallace is the author, most recently, of THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). He lives in Hawaii, grew up in California, spent 27 years in Manhattan, and visits a surf shack in Brittany with his Hawaiian wife almost every year.

This article first appeared in

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My Year of Being Mork (Thanks to Mindy)

It's not easy being me--as, I'm sure, it's not easy being you. But I doubt you had to spend a year being called "Mork" by a group of people you barely knew, in a town where you knew nobody else.

My wife had enrolled in a law school in a small town in rural California. The first year had been very hard, as law school first years are. My wife had quickly realized she'd made a mistake and didn't want to continue with law. She'd had her revelation the first week, actually, but stuck it out: a good Korean girl trapped by her mother's demand that she put her four younger brothers through school.

That first year we got to know my wife's classmates, but under duress. We felt at times like the cattle in the boxcars trundling past our rented bungalow every night, packed too close together, panicky, guessing the fate that awaited us at the end of the line.

The second year, 1978, we arrived back in Davis after a summer spent completely detached from law school and, to a degree, America. We'd taken our wedding cash, those envelopes Asian families so thoughtfully give in lieu of china and sterling, and hightailed it to Europe for a delayed honeymoon. In Europe we backpacked around and got thoroughly lost in our pre-law dreamscape. Coming to town, finding a rental, me looking for another minimum-wage job, all felt disorienting.

The welcome-back party was held at a wealthy student's fancy apartment, an anomaly in a cowtown like Davis. When Mindy and I walked in, the first people we saw, Craig and Leslie, both blonde and pretty in a Southern California way, turned and began to call out: "Mork! Mork and Mindy!"

Not having seen or even heard about the TV sensation of the year, Robin Williams' breakout show, we were completely unprepared for the hysteria that greeted us. It was like all our friends had taken a group-think drug, a kind of Pop Culture Ecstasy; nothing we could do or say dissuaded them from the desire to call out "Mork and Mindy" every couple of minutes.

And that was how the year went. It spread, the meme. At the bank, post office, apartment office, whenever Mindy said her name, or showed her ID to write a check or order a beer, we got tagged. And it stuck. And others hearing it, said it, over and over: "Hey, it's Mork and Mindy!" It was like Ebola, burning through entire populations.

The weirdest thing was that people assumed we were like them--Robin Williams and Pam Dawber. Mindy, my Mindy, is a brunette (though today it's a bit ehu, as Hawaiians call russet). Pam Dawber was America's Sweetheart that year, which for Mindy meant being on the receiving end of crushes: supermarket checkers, drug store clerks, gas station attendants, for the most part.

For me, Mork, it was more aggressive, the strain of personality disorder. I did not look like Robin Williams the way I once was said to look like John Denver (also with typical, horrifying results). But I was a cutup, comic, quick-change artist, a chameleon in conversation, "a trippy guy!" as one grad school rival once exclaimed loudly, unfortunately to a room full of university professors who were soon to pronounce on the fate of my application for a fellowship I didn't get.

Trippy guys, I'd already learned, suffer from a surfeit of thoughts and a deficit of gravitas. In junior high, that meant you don't get the girls. (Humor as prophylactic, in more ways than one.) While I'd wrestled my slippery self into a semblance of seriousness long enough to become a writer-in-progress, and a purty durn good one, too, the risk of backsliding was never more than a bright shining quip away.

We never did see a full episode of "Mork and Mindy." Somebody once heard us say that and forced us to watch a few minutes. But, Jesus Christ, who could take it--the shrieks and stares of our friends, every time either character spoke, entered, said their names?

It was, I think, a tiny taste of what life inside Robin Williams' head must have been like, for him. The nonstop river of impressions, jokes, quips, non sequiturs--oh, the non sequiturs, those delicious rainbow arcs from here to... nowhere.

So went my year of being Mork. Robin Williams had me in some secret grip; what he did on the screen passed through osmosis and the helpful interference of friends and strangers into my consciousness. I couldn't fight him. I was him, in a lesser way. I was his Mini Me. When "Good Morning Vietnam" came out I remember being chilled to see it was about a manic radio personality who slipped in and our of characters--I'd spent 1975 doing much the same as a late-night AAA dispatcher in Santa Cruz. My midnight voice infiltrated tow truck, ambulance and police radios, soft yet stern, offering advice and deep thoughts. My handle: Sergeant Serious of the Highway Patrol.

When the Mork and Mindy craze began to pass, I don't know. We left Davis and law school and our law school friendships. We returned to Europe, tried to stick it out a year. We stayed on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany where nobody had a television set. When we returned, we moved to New York City, where, again, no one we knew had a television set.

Nobody in New York City ever called me Mork. In time, I forgot. And my personality--even the quick-change, quip-a-minute me--felt like my own again.

Personality is fluid. Even after the amoebic years of childhood and teenagerdom, the process of acquiring traits that are "yours" can seem arbitrary, accidental.

That's why I instantly responded to the F. Scott Fitzgerald line in his essay about losing his mind, The Crack-Up, about personality being nothing more than a series of successful gestures. Liked the line? No, I felt interrogated by it. Because, my first reaction was, What if my "I" amounts to a series of un-successful gestures?

Yep, that's me, all right, muttered by insecure ego. The embarrassment that left you tongue-tied all through elementary school, the fumble on our own 20 yard line that ruined your football career, the failed first kiss in sixth grade, the avoidance of going to class freshman year, not following up on this or that opportunity...

We're all losers,in the end, if we accept the un-successful gestures as our narrative. We all lose the fight and die at some point, after all. If we get dementia or Alzheimer's or have to live on a drip feed of painkillers, we will lose our personality by degrees. Not having a handle on a personality is just part of the process of going through the days.

Now I finally stand on more solid ground, personality-wise. Mindy and I have spent almost 35 years on that Breton island, on the installment plan, and it was there that some friends once cornered me and asked why I couldn't be more serious. My facility with jokes and puns had become a screen, covering up my lousy French. They loved my humor, my French friends, but they wanted to see a little more of the other me.

I think I was never that bad, but that intervention helped. Maybe because I'm closer to the end of life, and thus, personality, than the beginning. Now I am able to think about myself as a ripple in a moving stream without panic.

Which panic, voila, brings me back to Robin Williams. May he rest in peace--finally, that marvelously supple, distracting, disorienting mind, at rest.

DON WALLACE is the author of The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks).