Monday, November 06, 2006

Reading Aloud: An Unexpected Road Trip Pleasure

(This post also appears at

The drive from Syracuse (NY) to Greenfield (MA) lasts 255 agonizing miles. By the time we start forth, we have already been in the car five hours, having visited five Syracuse high schools between 8:30am and 1:00pm. After a week on the road, we have wearied of the ten CDs we trucked along with us. Hold off on calling us Luddites; few rental cars come equipped with satellite radio, and we left our iPod attachments at home.

Keryn comes up with an unusual solution: “Maybe you should read aloud.”

My first impulse is to take this opportunity to read her the newest chapters of my novel-in-progress. But that might seem a little selfish on my part…

I have always been a proponent of reading my drafts aloud. There’s no better way to find pet phrases or clumsy structures than to recite them. Whenever I complete a draft, I carry the printout through my apartment and pace from bedroom to kitchen and back. In an online workshop I’ve been a member of for several years, I was appalled to see a fellow writer proclaim his belief that reading aloud was a waste of time, since that’s not how readers read. His lunacy was confirmed a paragraph later, when he went on to say that rhythm and language were immaterial to story.

I don’t know that this joker is alone in his assessment, though, which is a tragic thing indeed. In my years of workshopping, I have run across many people who claim to have a great story to tell and believe that the power of plot can compensate for lacking technical proficiency with the language. I’m not sure where they came upon this silly notion. Granted, on the opposite extreme, story sometimes disappears into a fog of figurative construct and purple prose. Literary writing is a balancing act of all the core elements. The craft is about using the sounds and shapes of words to tell a story. If your tongue trips on itself trying to read a sentence, flaws remain in need of smoothing.

But I’ve led us off topic.

Cut to an East Syracuse Kmart. Keryn and I are looking for a DVD to watch on my laptop back in the hotel room. We find a winner and head toward the front of the store. The fiction section holds us hostage for ten minutes. Both of us are bookstore addicts; it is a blessing and a curse.

Smack dab in the center of the display stands the maroon cover and mauve script of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. That famous novel was one of two unread books on the syllabus of a literature class I took my junior year at Harvard, and I have always felt a distinct measure of regret for not going back later and reading it. (The other unread book was Herzog by Saul Bellow). I impart this story to Keryn and she suggests we read it on the road. We agree that the jacket text is intriguing and drop the book in our cart.

Ten minutes outside Syracuse, with three hours of daylight remaining, on our way to Greenfield, Mass., I crack the binding.

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”

When I reach the bottom of the page, I stop.

“Now that’s writing,” I say. “Damn.”

Keryn nods. “Keep reading.”

There are awkward moments, words distasteful to my tongue, words that raise the fuzz on my neck. Some images haunt us. Vicious beatings and rapes. The murder of a daughter for reasons unknown. Scars, spirits, and sexual intercourse. Butter churns and pink granite tombstones. As the words roll from my tongue, Keryn asks: “Can you read that again?” And sometimes I finish a sentence and pause to mutter “Wow” before I can proceed. That is the power of great writing.

The first time I read Lolita, I stopped and stared at the first page, then permitted my eyes’ return to the top. I recited that famous opening in the quiet of my sophomore dorm room. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” In that moment, the power of language overwhelmed me.

But back to Beloved. This is a book built for oral recitation. The vernacular in the voices of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. comes alive, and you realize how perfectly the author has crafted the dialogue. Tight, evocative, and real. It’s a hard life few readers can truly imagine, yet it comes alive through the words. Speak through the characters and feel their anguish and sorrow, the fleeting moments of elation, the doubt and worry and hope. And in the long passages of exposition, you find sentences so powerful that sometimes you have to stop and say them again.

That afternoon in the car, I complete only fifty pages. But we decide that the entire book should be read this way, and through the weekend we take turns reading difficult and powerful words. I have never experienced a book this way. Beloved is truly a masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Keryn and I have decided this whole reading aloud thing, experiencing a great book in lockstep, is a tradition henceforth. Beloved will be a tough act to follow…

Friday, November 03, 2006

Worth a Visit: The International Boxing Hall of Fame

Room 312

We had been on the road too long when Keryn spotted the billboard from the New York State Thruway. Her finger shot toward the right shoulder.

“The International Boxing Hall of Fame. Sounds fun. Maybe we should stop on the way back.”

Fifteen minutes before, we passed signs for Cooperstown and part of me wanted to suggest we stop. But a challenging week lay ahead, and a museum to a sport she finds boring (except from the stands) would probably not make the grade. Truth was that I would not want to stop there any more than she. By Thursday, when we would pass Cooperstown on our return drive from Central New York, a familiar bed would sit highest on our individual lists. Two hours of admiring busts and plaques? Not so much.

But boxing had promise. Last weekend we watched When We Were Kings, the feature-length documentary about the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” and loved it.

Once settled into our Syracuse hotel, we found the Boxing Hall of Fame website. Admittedly, I lost some enthusiasm on finding that the site does not enumerate the museum’s operating hours (suggesting potential visitors call instead) and that more than half of the pages do not work.

Fortunately, Google returned an article from The Washington Post that described the HOF’s exhibits in some detail. Bronze casts of champions’ fists sounded particularly unusual, even as I contemplated the possibility (later proven true) that my own fists would produce casts smaller than Christy Martin, former female boxing champion…

Besides, when I typed the address into our trusty GPS, I learned that it was so close to the highway that we could not afford to skip it. Add that to your trusty bundle of travel rules: if a potential destination is less than half a mile off your path, that should erase most or all hesitation… (Exceptions to be made for exorbitant entry fees – at $7 per person, the IBHOF was more than reasonable).

Room 312

To say that the International Boxing Hall of Fame is unassuming is to make a gross understatement. Without the signage, one might guess it little more than a modest two bedroom house with cedar clapboards. In fact, if the museum underwent a residential conversion, it would barely accommodate two bedrooms. The IBHOF is not spacious.

Yet its simplicity is majestic in a way that echoes the crude potency of the sport. We were the only two visitors for the hour we spent there, about which I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was wonderful to tour at our own speed, never needing to hurry along or jockey for position with pushy strangers. We moved freely, watched the video displays as long as we wished, lingered to read the single paragraph biographies beneath the small photographs of each of the IBHOF’s 300+ inductees. But the museum merits more visitors, and I would have gladly sacrificed some of my personal space for the museum to be more widely seen.

Room 312

I’m sure the most frequently asked question at the International Boxing Hall of Fame is “Why Canastota?” I already knew the answer, but the greeter took two minutes to explain nonetheless. As the website notes: “In 1982, residents of Canastota, N.Y., decided to honor former welterweight and middleweight champion of the late-1950s, Carmen Basilio, and his nephew, Billy Backus, who won the world welterweight title in 1970.” This nothing hamlet twenty minutes outside Syracuse had produced two world boxing champions; why not launch the hall of fame there. Halls of fame belong off the beaten path, or so it seems. Baseball in Cooperstown, Basketball in Springfield, Football in Canton…Boxing in Canastota.

Robes, gloves, and boots from assorted champions were fun to see, but what astonished me throughout the exhibit were the photographs. I read somewhere that few sports lend themselves to photography as well as boxing. How true. Only in a still photograph can you really see the awesome power of what one man’s fist can do to another man’s face. The sweat sprays, the flesh buckles, the eyes can tell no lies. At real-speed, a boxer can seem unharmed and can use this seeming to his advantage. Look, your punches don’t hurt. But in the moment of impact the truth stands unblemished by artifice. We stared at pictures a long time.

Cinderella Man (James Braddock) in the flesh, his grainy visage echoing Russell Crowe more than we realized, helping Joe Louis, the man who would take his title not long thereafter, cut his birthday cake. Mike Tyson on his way down against Buster Douglas. Muhammad Ali on the canvas, silenced by Joe Frazier…

If you’re a fan of boxing and you drive through Central New York without stopping at the IBHOF, shame on you. We give it our Unqualified Recommendation.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Leaf Peeping Through Ohio and Maryland

Above: Normal Girl swings from a very red tree on the road to Pumpkin Show 2006.

Every fall, leaves wither, die, and fall to the ground. The crinkled droppings drift across lawns and streets, while the task of raking them into huge piles and stuffing them into garbage bags falls on somebody’s shoulders (another chore I tried to dodge as a teen). When I was young, those piles were modestly appealing, fit for a belly flop and six minutes of hysterics. Yet those heaps were often soggy and always emanated the peculiar scent of decay, two factors that curtailed my interest. Besides, autumn has never been my favorite season, signaling as it does the slide toward flurries and blizzards. To me, red and yellow leaves were things to be mourned rather than celebrated. I have never understood the appeal of leaf peeping.

When we headed to Circleville in late October, the last thing on my mind was the transformation of oak and maple leaves into compost. For one, my attention remained transfixed on the task of gaining approval from Keryn’s grandparents. And, as voracious readers of this blog know too well, my mind was also whirring with the possibility of seeing the 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers in all their waxy glory…

But seriously, it never crossed my mind that the foliage would be vibrant and prompt moments of wonder. I heard reports that the colors this season in New England were spectacular, fueled by the summer’s ample rainfall, and Keryn reported the same during her drives through Vermont and Connecticut over the last few weeks. Boston, however, remained vibrant and green until late last week, so I claim no first-hand knowledge.

While I may have missed the peak colors back home, we arrived in the nick of time to Southern Ohio. Driving across the flat expanse of Columbus, Circleville, and Chillicothe, I was struck by the colorful landscape. Shock of shocks, I found myself snapping photographs of trees… Of trees! That’s so not me.

A few days later, thirty minutes north of Baltimore, the situation grew more dire. As we drove from high school to high school through Hunt Valley and surrounding towns, I kept saying “this is beautiful” and immediately wondering what had happened to me. But you hate foliage, I reminded myself. Those leaves are the harbinger of winter, and you HATE winter.

One moment sticks most strongly in my mind: after passing two miles of rolling fields dotted with thoroughbreds and jumpers, we entered a tight two-lane stretch where the trees ran to the shoulder and intersected fifteen feet above us. Brilliant yellow leaves swirled across the asphalt and arched above, brightened by sunshine. As we emerged from the golden tunnel to shoot past more horse farms, I looked at the mottled hills, cherry and raspberry reds, safety orange, marigold and lemon yellows, with agape eyes, as if watching autumn for the first time.