This first appeared in HuffingtonPost.

When I was 23 and about to go to law school, I thought I’d spend the summer writing a novel. (A bit more than a half-century later, I laugh.) To keep the days free for writing, I decided against getting a day job. Instead I sold my body to science — that is, to the various experiments in greater Boston offering pay to guinea pigs. Most of them were in the late afternoon or evening. The one that made the most lasting impression was a study of hypnosis at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. I was hypnotized six or seven times over a two-week period. I soon realized that hypnosis is co-operative. You don’t just submit; you’re a partner.

A bit later I saw that the trances varied in depth. At an early and shallow level I was conscious enough to rephrase the hypnotist’s suggestion that my extended arm was “as stiff as a broom handle.” I thought of a stronger simile — “arm like a rebar in a block of cement.” The hypnotist hung a bucket of water onto my wrist. I consciously thought it was odd that I didn’t have to make any effort to hold up the weight.

Another trance, deeper. The instructions, of which I was unaware, were: “You’re in third grade. Write your name. Write the names of the students around you.”… “You’re in fourth grade…” When I came to I was amazed at what I saw. In third grade, I still printed. It was eerie how childlike my writing was. Even eerier was my fourth grade writing. I’d seen John Hancock’s signature on a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. I’d taken to imitating his bold J, the one that looks like a lateen-rigged sail. I’d forgotten that. I also had no memory of picking up a pen during the trance. When I was awoken, I felt as thought I’d had a good nap.

Each session got deeper and deeper. For the last one, because I’d been co-operative, I was given a “free dream period — something pleasant.” I was a dolphin. I felt the air the whole length of my dolphin skin when I leapt, the water when I dove.

It occurred to me much later that rewriting has levels more or less parallel to hypnotic levels. The shallowest and most conscious is, in a now outdated phrase, “Run it through the typewriter one more time.” Level two is something like what Flaubert did in his gueuloir, the practice in which he read his work out loud to himself, making sure each word was right. At a somewhat deeper level: rehearsing before giving a public reading. I have an occasionally recurring stutter, but not when in character on stage in a play. Odd. James Earl Jones has the same pattern; he stutters in everyday life but not when acting. Preparation requires an actor’s concentration to make the words belong to another person, which is its own sort of trance.

Another level of rewriting: I was writing a long story. Halfway through I caught a following wind. I didn’t know why. Two thirds of the way through I did know why. I was rewriting a story I’d tried to write and mangled. Now it was re-emerging with altered characters and different actions, all the better for having aged in the cellar.

Another level: This one came from a conscious decision at first, but went deeper into a semi-conscious realm. You — meaning me but also you, fellow writer — bravely put the 300 pages of a third draft into a drawer and start all over again. But you know the characters. You are happy to see them and hear them again. Perhaps you have some sense of the place where the tale will end. Things go well. Things go very well. Then it gets hard again. So hard you’re stuck.

You take a long hike. Halfway up a hill you stop. Was it something you were humming? Was it something you saw? Some pattern of light and shadow? Something released a buried notion.

In your wallet there’s a blank check and a grocery coupon with white space on the backside. At the bottom of your knapsack there’s a pencil. You scribble. You walk home in a careful daze. It turns out that you don’t even have to look at what you’ve scribbled. However it came to you, whatever it is is hanging around. Not a time to try to explain it. Be of good cheer and go with it.

At some point you may have heard or read other writers’ descriptions of such mysterious but helpful moments. Not explanations and not instructions. Proust, Nabokov, Zamyatin and Kipling — to pick a few at random. Proust’s petit madeleine, Nabokov’s rain drop sliding down a leaf, Zamyatin’s blue light in the sleeping compartment of a railway car, Kipling’s “daemon”…

Whether at the beginning, the middle or the end, whether during the first draft or the last, discipline and routine play a part, but so do the trances.

Writing is rewriting; rewriting is writing — from the first crossed-out word in the first sentence to the last word inserted above a caret, that most helpful handwritten stroke: ^

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Miscellaneous Diary 2002-2010: Travel and Daughters

May 3, 2002

Two post-it notes left beside a dead blue jay Julia found on the sidewalk and put in a shoebox on my workshed porch:

  1. “Fred, a blue jay, found recently dead, was a good bird. He was a father. He was a friend.”
  2. “Instructions: Get a shoebox and bury him with paper towel. Don’t put him in the compost. Respect your Elders. He was 79.”

Sunday, October 13, 2002

Train from Charleston to Charlottesville. Old man across aisle—thin, long, and bony. Out of it? Talks with great effort. “Maybe…maybe…maybe…maybe…thass my ride.” But sometimes makes sense. On his way to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Here to go to DC? No. Just to Charlottesville. “I want to get home so bad.” Then old, possibly retired conductor who’d been on PA system to give us a guided tour: “Kanawah is an Indian word meaning river of white stones. The capitol is by the distinguished architect…” He can’t think of name. Now he is standing behind us (rear across aisle and me) and talking. I think at first into a cell phone or two-way radio but nope it’s to us—or to me. “You can catch the 51 and go back west. Runs ever’ day. Good train. An hour. That’s good. We’re not so far off. An hour and a half.” Then he wanders off.

One nice thing about this trains is that there is an unofficial smoking section near the café car—“NO SMOKING” shining clearly over the door, but tin pie plates* filled with butts at every seat (it’s a fraction of the car—maybe six rows of seats set apart by walls or storage space).

*On closer look, saucer-sized paper-plates carefully wrapped in aluminum foil.

Wednesday, November. 6 – Thursday, Nov. 7, 2003

On plane to Rome, about 9 pm EST, three hours into flight, remembering Clare and me on first day in ’98, headachy, jet-lagged, bravely walking down from the American Academy into Trastevere by the zigzag footpath. Clare six but very robustly companionable (“Wall as old as Jesus.”) but obviously a bit overwhelmed. The thought of her then of the two of us then made me cry is making me cry now.

On way here after train from Fiumicino to Ostiense station, puzzled about where I was, come to Piramide and saw rosticerria where Ros, Julia and I ate several times (Clare was being jet-legged and/or poisonous, 14 or 15?). Same thing: tears as I pulled my wheeled backpack up the hill. This isn’t just fatigue. I’m being pierced—by presence and absence.

Saturday Morning, November 12, 2002

Okay, Julia – here goes from memory. Thinking of you in a convent garden in Rome, just down the street from the house we stayed in a few years ago that looked down on the Circo Massimo.

Had I the Heavens’ embroidered cloths
Enwrought with gold and silver light
[&] the blue and the dark       and the half light
I would spread [the, these, my] cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, leave only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams

November 12, 2002

Santa Cecilia – Cavalinni freschi – Oh yes. Even better than twelve years ago. Meandered around Trastevere – train to Largo Argentina – Feltrinelli bookstore lunch and coffee at café Sant Eustachio. Read today’s La Republica (had to look up a dozen words).

Clare’s Christmas present. More meander – Santa Maria sopra Minerva Fillipo Lipp(i)(o) worth some euros of lighting. Meander; prove it’s true that walking around Rome gives me something either beautiful or interesting (of course I was in the center) every few minutes. Mild weather, beautiful light, esp. on hill above Teatro di Marcello.

On the terrace of the Villa Rosa: 83-year-old nun with a basket of laundry. We said to each other what a lovely day to be outside. She added, “And it’s the first day of winter. The feast of St. Martin.” I remembered he was the one who gave half his cloak to a stranger. What odd pleasure the odd details of childhood memory.

November 28, 2002

Morning: Les Invalides. The French can do a courtyard. I remember N’s tomb, but not the huge military museum. Armor, crossbows, endless muskets, pistols, swords, sabers. How Tom Allan would like it.

Afternoon: “Adolphe” film avec Isabelle Adjani from Benjamin Constant novel. They managed to make something bien quelconque out of the novel. The costumes, the buildings were gorgeous – the part of count well acted but —.

“Le Regard” – by Murray Schisgal. Good idea for a short play, two painters, two models. Casting excellent, esp. old man painter, but it did go on far too long at the end. Also commonplace.

French comprehensible. (Odd how it came back. Linda called this afternoon and without thinking I picked up the phone and found myself saying “Allo, j’écoute” in a way that surprised us both.)

We speak 4/9 Italian, 4/9 English, 1/9 French – When it comes to asking directions, she does the heavy lifting.

Wandering around this morning after Invalides, I had another pang—some of the things, physical things, some postcard set things like the Metro sign, some particular like French bulldogs (Uncle Drew had a French bulldog named Adam) set off this thought: how my memory that takes place in words is finally a feeble net in which to hold things. Without the things—or with the things brought back only by words—the world is seen through a fog. Only a glimpse of a thing and then it’s lost again.

Before “Adolphe” and “Le Regard” Musée d’Orsay. Ex train station redone by Italian architteta. Style called, by sarcastic Italians, ‘Assiro-Milanese.’ Spec. show – see catalog-Velazquez – Manet (Tho’ a good deal of Goya). Point is Manet heavily influenced by Spanish painting – tho’ in his letters he also talks about the whole deal (corrida, for example).

November 29, 2002

Food notes:

“au pied de fouet” (rue Babylone) bay scallops and leeks (4 stars)

“chez nénesse (rue Pastourelle) tete de veau with spicy sauce (2 stars)

l’écluse (near where Boul. St. Michel hits the Seine) matelot de Seine (?)


Institut de la France. Courtyard on Seine splendid. I’m so used to vertical Rome—that is, each baroque dome is pretty much its own show—that I was struck by the baroque dome and the wonderful proportions of the half-oval courtyard and the vast wings of the whole building. Should look for Uncle Drew’s old apartment and courtyard –Rue du Bac. Can’t find. Too much new stuff. Jack White was at 11 (I think) Rue de Lille.


“L’Homme sans passé”. Finnish. Liked it a lot. Boy, are these Finns laconic. My favorite line (in the subtitles), after Salvation Army worker learns that the amnesiac she’s fallen for has a wife: Le marriage est sacré. Je sais l’horaire des trains.

Supper: “Au coin des gourmets”   5 rue Dante (metro Cluny)

December 2, 2002

La Mattina – le spese. Lunch – octopus sauce with peppers on spaghetti, octopus salad. Pomeriggio. (Tour of Domus Aurea, base of colosseo of Nero, glimpses of Arch of Titus).

Give a lecture: dare una conferenza

Le bestie nere degli Italiani:

1. La brutta figura
2. I correnti d’aria
3. il mal di fegato
4. le domande indiscrete

E quali sareberro le bestie nere degli Americani?

(Ho detto che non ho uno specchio…)

1. to be taken for Americans immediately
2. to be held responsible for American foreign policy
3. to have been too trusting OR to have been too suspicious
4. to have raised an indiscrete subject

Toast at Nell and Jesse’s wedding dinner:

Here are two sentences you have probably already recognized as useful components to conversations with your about-to-be in-laws.

ONE – “Oh yes—good story—how interested I was the first time…

TWO – “That’s not how I remember it.”

(In fact I’ve heard you use the more polite form: “That’s not EXACTLY how I remember it.”)

I mention these two sentences pre-emptively.

If the following brief plot outline is not EXACT, it is in essence true.

New York, New York. Nell and Jesse are pals. They are both funny, smart and attractive; both hard at work, both on their way in their careers. Nell gets an assignment to write about personal trainers. For research purposes Nell gets personally trained for…seven weeks. Already gorgeous, she emerges dazzlingly chiseled. Nell and Jess are still pals.

Nell’s sister Maud is in a hospital that is an hour away by subway. Nell visits Maud five days a week for seven weeks.

Jess is moved by this. Yes, he has seen the chiseled good looks—yes, he has seen Nell get standing ovations for her performances at the MOTH—but when he sees the heart Nell has, he falls in love.

This much is exact: They are two good and well-suited hearts. To these two hearts.


Saw a wild turkey (male and his harem. Just up the slope from the driveway between the stable house and the forest cottage. Females nipped into the woods. Male set up his fan and gobbled at me. Strutted in a circle so I saw him from every angle. Did he think I was another male? Or is this how he protects his females—by looking as big as he can—or by being so elegantly on display he distracts the stalker?

I went away for a minute or so—came back. So did he. Same display, minus gobbles. I stood still for a long time. He let down his fan and exited with dignity. Must take a lot of energy to keep the fan up and all aquiver.

Admirable bird.

Were there two appendages from his chest? Looked like the things drooping from some goats that Kate Crosby said were vestigial gills. (Her father was a vet, so…)

October 9, 2010

Georgetown to Nashville
Julia: “What’s the word for the view of leaves in a treetop?”

“Hmmm, no I’m thinking of an actual word. Also why would I ask you for a simile? ‘A school of green fish fanning their fins’? Come on dad, you won the national book award.”

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second year (2002) of John Casey Reading Journals

Demon of the Waters: The story of the mutiny on the whaleship ‘Globe’ by Gregory Gibson (sent by Deborah Baker for a blurb)
Blurb: The mutiny on the Globe is every bit as exciting as the mutiny on the Bounty, and the author…gives us the full adventure—the discovery of a key document, the psychological history of a villain’s going whaling, mutiny, life (& death) among South Sea Islanders, heroic rescue by the fledgling US Navy. A gift for fans of Patrick O’Brian and Nathaniel Philbrick or anyone interested in how America grew by putting out to sea.

All true. Reservations: a bit of a meander now & then about the author’s adventures in the rare-&-old manuscript trade. The ship building chapter would be baffling to someone who hadn’t read something else earlier. And some minor quibbles. In general it’s hard to go wrong describing whaling, mutiny, or life at sea in the 19th century.

An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski
Third time through (or fourth). Yes!

Nadja by André Breton
Everything I already knew I disliked in a self-congratulatory self-indulgent self-justifying decadent—(Decadence=going for one’s minor pleasure at the expense of someone else’s major pain). But one or two good rants in between the name-dropping & self-delight. Hard awkward French.

Victorian Visitors by Alfons L. Korn
(Recommended by Boyd Zenner)
Big idea—visitors opened up British Victorian psyche—save to last sentence. Perhaps an afterthought. “Entertaining” is the word used by the reviewers quoted on the jacket. It’s better than that, that is serious gossip and discerning little frames and ironies—but it reminds me of two things: 1) how dangerous it is for an age to be remembered by newspaper reviews—dancers, musicians, and artists (tho’ we can still go see the Raft of Medusa or hear Wagner) get panned by some hack review. What’s hard to gauge is what other people thought. The author digs out diaries &c but that’s from the diary-keeping kind of person… 2) If you’re going to do the portrait of an age (or decade) get a great big intrusion—Wagner works well.

A glass rod in a saturated solution.

Throwim Leg Away by Timothy Flannery
Aussie mammal expert (tree kangaroos, bats & rats) in Papua New Guinea & Indonesian other-half of Island. Very good. Very good on animals, people, terrain, language. Somber last bits about collusion of Freeport Mining Co (US) & Indonesian government—both devastating forest AND killing the people.

Speak, Memory (see essay sections) Essential reading.

Embers by Sandor Márai
Wonderfully old-fashioned tale—reminds me of Joseph Conrad. Probably the last time and place in Europe where someone could live as a member of a noble military caste—after that it’s iffier. Compare with In Praise of Older Women which is also Hungarian—guy also goes to military academy, but it’s a generation later—completely different.

The Worshipful Lucia by EF Benson
I think I read one of these before…pleasantly malicious but I’ve had enough for a while.

White Rhino Hotel by Bartle Bull
Another surprise surprise. Good stuff—lots of well presented lore—wide sympathies for range of characters. End somewhat hacked out, but what the hell. I was afraid it was going to be as class-ridden as Dorothy Sayers.

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
My old student from Iowa, Spring ’98. Good for him. Ok stories—precisely written, with an eye to eeriness. The best—and really very moving—is the last one “The Volunteer”.

Blurb: From the brilliant manic gallop of the first story to the deep careful breath-held balance of the last (a truly beautiful duet of age & youth) this is a book to savor.

Yeah—the first one is brilliant and catches a man in a manic phase very accurately—comically for a while, then painfully. Maybe a tad long.

Selected Stories by Alice Munro (again. Even better.)

Journey on the James by Earl Swift
Starts like Danubio by Claudio Magril—Swift hunting for the trickle by a barn. And then the history of some of the Indian wars, floods, industries…An okay blow-by-blow. A good guide if one wanted to canoe the canoe-able parts. He ends up having to use his 18 foot kayak—(I wonder what brand—sounds like the one I want) because the canoe won’t do for single-handed navigation of the lower tidal James. The rapids through Richmond sound hairy.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
Good enough device—confessions of a cad who has good luck—I always like the tone of a villain in the first person—and the care of the historical facts works out in this case.

Royal Flush by George MacDonald Fraser
Not quite as good, but still happily read.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. III by Edward Gibbon
Backwards to consider character of Constantine and his brand of Christianity; then up to Theodosius (invasion of Goths, allied Goths, another civil war; final sighs of paganism).

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
The connection between Holmes & William James doesn’t make this go (it fizzled), but Menand does very well at summarizing the lives & works of Agassiz, Darwin, Holmes, Charles Peirce—the whole gang. I said to my friend Savi that this book is as good (tho’ not as fanciful) as Calasso—both deep & broad. Grateful to hear what was going on intellectually—even spiritually—during the otherwise Robber-baron Gilded Age.

Gulistan of Sa’di
Pieties and some wit. Mid 13th c. It ain’t Chaucer, it ain’t Dante, it ain’t La Rochefoucauld, but there are some lovely passages—& who knows how much better in Persian? A sense of how cosmopolitan this world was—reached to China, India, Africa, N. Africa—Turkey. Feared Tatars.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
The jacket picture is her at 14! I thought she was 20 something…

This is very good & not just because I’m crazy about her from afar (see Dec. ’01). Narrative plus buildings & fields & clothes all taking part. A bleak but determined childhood (no whining, no excuses—no excuses for anyone). So that’s what the 50’s were like in Wales in a small town. And of interest is the arrival of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Elvis & Jerry Lee Lewis). No surprise that some thought they were demons.

A Cure for Serpents by Alberto Denti di Pirajno 

English translation 1955 but can’t find the Italian publish date.

Excellent sketch/anecdote writer. At one point identifies with Kipling—I can see why. He does love the Arabs, Berbers, Tuaregs, the black Africans, the Greeks and Jews and unidentifiable Mediterraneans—and then in Eritrea, he loves them too. Not so keen on
“Abyssinia” tho’ he becomes the pal of the ras. A bit stuck in European de-haut-en-bas, but he did learn Arabic—I guess he knew French—and he picks up some Tuareg. His being a doctor got him into houses. He eventually became an administrator (tho’ he continued to practice some).

So let’s say there’s a progress—compare Trollope’s sketches of the West Indies, a bit less than a century earlier. And the Italian raj was—until the war on Ethiopia—not as serious a business as the British. An initiation…

His pet lion says a good thing about him—and the lion.

The Dykemaster by Theodor Storm
I see what Tony Winner (colleague and trusted advisor) saw in this—the unity, the concision—and something Tony likes in Kleist & Goethe’s Elective Affinities & other Germans—forceful statements about how things stand, not just the facts but the emotions. No sneaking up on a feeling…Is that right?

He (Tony W.) may also have passed it along because there’s a lot of sea lore & a storm climax—(so get on with the sequel to Spartina, the message?) Nah—just of interest.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Gets the star because of 1st & 2nd part—the 3rd part a bit too fancily turning inside out. But the tension in part one, the squeeze of the girl’s conscious & unconscious, of what she is grappling with inside & of what she sees is good. The retreat to Dunkirk also very good. Third part wasn’t bad; in fact I read it avidly; it was just that the move to ah-but-perhaps-this-isn’t-quite-true & I’ve-been-playing-with-you wasn’t up to the grade. The girl-now-an-old-woman parts were very good.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori
I can’t remember which story Deborah Eisenberg said is the one she teaches. I’ll bet it’s the boarding-house one. I’ll ask her. I liked the first one a lot—spoiled, sensitive, in-trouble Austro-Roumanian adolescent. The only one that was repulsive (but fascinating) is the last “Pravda”. I wonder if von Rezzori is pulling a My Last Duchess? No—the spleen and insistence on the narrator’s “truth” and special self-knowledge seem to be earnest pleading.

Le Avventure di Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (bilingual edition)
Good practice, especially since I would’ve been exhausted looking up the many specialized verbs for squirm, wriggle, grabbed, seized &c not to mention the names. (I’m trying to do an hour a day of Italian.)

A much better story than the cartoon version, which I must have seen at an early age. Not a whale, for example, but a cane-pesce a kilometer long and a philosophical tuna talks about how he & Pinocchio are about to be digested, a fact of life absent from the cozy inside of the Disney whale.

I, Roger Williams by Mary Lee Settle
Yes. A lot of historical stuff I didn’t know—especially about Coke being young Roger Williams’s mentor. Moves right along—the present is old old RW sitting by the bay, but that’s the frame for his narrating his youth & middle years.

The Modigliani Scandal by Ken Follet
Why did I bother? But I think I remember liking The Needle’s Eye or The Eye of the Needle (which was also a movie—did I see it first?—with a wonderful actress, very soberly & wisely beautiful, & Donald Sutherland whom I’ve always liked—so that may have swayed me. The Modigliani book was mechanically competent.

Lezioni Americane by Italo Calvino (Recommended by my friend Giuseppe Verani)
Sei proposte per il prossimo millenio

1) Leggerezza  2) Rapidita  3) Esattezza  4) Visibilita  5) Molteplicità…romanzo contemperaneo come enciclopedia  6) Cominciare e finire

A run-down of what Calvino likes to read & likes to write with appropriate citation, some known to me, some not.

Since these were Norton lectures at Harvard, they must be in English somewhere. Use this book (English version) along with Clear and Simple for spring? From what I gathered this is a good outline of coherent aesthetic.

Le Piccoli Virtù di Natalia Ginzburg
I love the first essay—the shock of the end. And the one about human relations—good but a bit predictable & long, but with a terrific finish about finally having the revelation about how to be good, losing it, faking it, getting it back…

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene
The feel of Brit ex-patriates & semi-Brits in a small Argentinian town across the river from Paraguay. “Entertainment” parts good—phil./theol. not so compelling.

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch
Altho’ sometimes at a cool and/or stiff remove in her prose, Murdoch is a powerful witch. This one better than the one with “book” in the title—Brotherhood of the Book??

La Marchesa di O*** by Heinrich von Kleist
Play—a soliloquy really in a wonderful little theater in Testaccio. Luckily I’d seen the Rohmer movie & read the story (tho’ without really getting it) so I could follow pretty well. Linda Ferri found the crucial page of the program with explanatory notes. The public announcement the Marchesa puts in the newspaper:

Trovatami, senza saper come,
in stato interessante, prego il
padre della creatura che sta
per venise al mondo di farsi
conoscere, perché sono
determinate a sposarlo.
Marquise von O.

A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby
An echo to Love & War in the Apennines (which was terrific)—better than the Frances Maye about her place in Cortona. Newby comes to grips with the people—is who he is and gets who they are with eyes open and happy appreciation. Last chapters could serve as a good guidebook to small towns, Lucca, and walks along the “Crimera”. Very last chapter genuinely sad.

Kitty and Virgil by Paul Bailey
Wonderful. Odd thing: moved to sobs by “mayonnaise”—when I started reading again got critical. Should have stopped with “mayonnaise” and not gone on for a half-dozen back-&-forths. Odd.

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first year (2001) of the reading journals of John Casey–following years TK

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard                                                                                           My friend Savi’s pick for a funny novel. I thought it a strange tour de force—congruent with Schoenberg variations (as I remember being told about them). One of those novels that wraps around and around an obsession—in this case a compelling one.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale                                                                        Captain Iliam Quillian Kewley, man and skipper ofSincerity is the best character of this novel narrated by multiple narrators. Second best is Peevay, the aboriginal. Rev. Wilson & Dr. Potter, one a crank hoping to find Garden of Eden in Tasmania, the other a rack-theorist (Saxons best Norman how did they get on tap? Celt sly lazy. Black—jail—aborig. & African—will lose in great race war)—but the English reverend and doctor get to go on too long. Still, a good yarn, even if heavy on making fun of 19th c. colonizing mentality—It had its idiocies & cruelties which should be rewarded, tho’ the more interesting story (having rebuked the evil) would be that of well meaning projects going awry not through utter stupidity but by a small blind spot in an otherwise clear eye.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson                                                                                   I’m annoyed with Bryson in the same way I’m annoyed with those two books about the joys of rowing [names omitted]—they haven’t got past tenderfoot, maybe Scout second class. I don’t expect Eagle Scout but a bit more effort. So they can look back at tenderfoot. The good part of Bryson’s book is Kate, the relationship with Kate. Also the Maine woods. The insistence that “I hiked the AT” is the bit that’s annoying. He did 810 miles. 2/5. Good. Don’t claim more. But he’s a pretty good reporter—Park Service, Forest Service, the Centralia Pa.

Arcadia by Jim Crace                                                                                                            Rook, a quick foxy assistant to Victor, 80-year-old tycoon who owns soapgarden, the city farmers’ market, to be transformed into ‘Arcadia.’ Joseph, a country boy with notions of city life. Anna, maybe late 30’s, 40, works for Victor, gets it on with Rook. The main attraction is the sense of city life, country life, Victor’s childhood, infancy even, his mum and aunt. Just a few acres in the city—the office tower, the vegetable market, a couple of bars. (Good concentration of energy with right setting.)

Something insistent in the rhythm of the prose—not as perky as The Thirteen Clocks (thunder) but still a drumbeat. I think a success. Two epilogue chapters I’m not so sure about. Book did need a slower movement to come to an end without the brakes squealing—and it was touching to hear that Anna was still thinking about Rook—but a bit too much about the newspaperman who is the mostly invisible narrator.

Still, all in all, a good and substantial novel, and Crace a man of good and substantial knowledge & sympathies.

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri                                                               I prefer her to Arundhati Roy. She shows off less, pays attention to things instead of seizing them to brandish as symbols or ornamentation. I liked the story (not in this collection) which I read in the New Yorker a month or three ago—even better. Though there were moments. “Sexy” is good. “The Interpreter of Maladies” is a nice stretch to a man’s point of view—actually Lahiri can do that. I sort of liked in a quiet way the 1st person male narrator who takes a room in the house of the 103 year old woman. Quiet & careful. What will Lahiri move towards? Bigger world? Deeper in psyche? Oh—I like the babysitter one—the Indian woman terrified of driving.

Fraud by David Rakoff                                                                                                            The problem with collected cute essays is that the shtick gets repeated too often: Gay/Canadian/Jewish city-dweller. I was annoyed (as I am at Sedaris—: get over it & learn a little French, stop reveling in ineptitude, it’s worse than Private Benjamin)—BUT Rakoff—once off Mount Monadnock (which 8-year-olds climb without a whimper) he’s good. Did Tom “Tracker” Brown week, Tokyo, Aspen Comedy Arts (sic) Festival very well. His Hodgkins disease memoir essay too—good.

The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso                                                                                 I dunno. Brilliant, but I have no idea if he’s right. Have to read it again to see if I’m dumb or he’s obscure on the question of sacrifice. Amazing what Calasso has ingested & (maybe) digested. Riffs on Freud, Marx, the Veda, anthropology; lots of scraps of observation from minor characters. Worth reading again. Also send it to my old friend Duncan Kennedy.

What’s the big idea? Sacrifice somehow allied to star-time & that’s good. The ceremonial kept us in time. Maybe that’s why Talleyrand a significant figure—he did ceremony and therefore stayed on top through 4 different regimes. Talleyrand not a hero but exemplary in that narrow sense of knowing how ceremony-ritual-protocol is as powerful as Napoleon’s will.

But it’s Calasso’s by-the-way that inspired his ear & eye.

Deus lo Volt by Evan S. Connell, Jr.

For someone who hasn’t read the Runciman history of the Crusades this would be a revelation. For someone who has—a bit of review, revisited pleasure, sometimes like a novelization of a movie—no, that is unfair—but novelization of history. It goes awfully fast over some things I would have like to linger over (Runciman takes 3 volumes). But a pleasure. Odd—a lot of passages end with a bit of medieval piety, as if to remind us that the chronicler is on the last crusade—his forbears were in the 1095 one—a repetitious insistence on fiction although very likely the medieval chroniclers stuck in these quasi-prayers too. One thing I missed from Runciman is the adaptation to the Near East by those crusaders who settled there. Learned Arabic, wore silk, grew local fruits…I’m a fan of Connell’s—especially his novel Mrs. Bridge and his biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star. Deus Lo Vult is an historical novel about the Crusades. It is told by a French crusader whose forbears were also crusaders—family lore and chronicles allow him to be both a first-person narrator and an omniscient one. Neat. It’s a skillful gallop through a couple of centuries, but I was reminded how much more I liked Stephen Runciman’s History of the Crusades (three volumes). Runciman is famous as an historian, but he also has the grace to narrate as well as Parkman or Prescott. He does the overview, the battle by battle, the power struggles, the culture shock (and the slower culture shift) as well as some small scenes that are like raised ghosts.

Republic by Plato                                                                                                                    Read in response to a phone call for help from Clare. I must have read parts before—certainly heard notions—but I’d forgotten how exuberant and nutty it is. And that it could be the blueprint for a horrible state. But exhilarating—and he’s daydreaming wonderfully. Until he says—hey, we could get some ruler to impose this. An interesting notion of history: the many twisted forms the Guardians have taken.

The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age            by Alan Trachtenberg                                                                                                                 Worst to be said: cobbled and vaporous.

How to write it: 1) You check out who’s been most quoted on the subject by your colleagues. 2) You quote different passages from the same “authorities” to slightly (but only slightly) different effect. 3) You try to connect the dots; when you can’t you call it an “intuitive leap”. 4) You call it inter-disciplinary and learn the jargon of some other trades to create an ornamentation of authoritative vocabulary. 5) You “speak figuratively” so you don’t have to get down to cases—or to define “corporate system” or “ ‘the world culture’”.

Best to be said: 1) Suggests some further reading in text and in bibliography of other good commentary. 2) Suggests (by lack of extended quotation) how nice it would be to encounter primary sources. 3) Some helpful summaries of events—e.g. the rise of newspapers, the physical description of the “White City” (tho’ cp. David Foster Wallace on Indiana State Fair in “Getting Away From It All” in A Supposedly Fun Thing for how to do a granfaloon of a fair).

All in all a far better book is 1846: Year of Decision by Bernard de Voto. For all his quirks and growls de Voto makes the people, their actions & notions, come alive. Trachtenberg can’t get out of the library, literally or figuratively.

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (a gift from Anastasia Khitruk)          Memoir by Szpilman. Excellent commentary on it in an epilogue by Wolf Biermann. “…its language is surprisingly cool” says Biermann. True—but not as literary understatement—it seems more a product of a precision that is in its turn a product of reflection and cautious memory. There is horror in the bare narrative of the SS entering a dining room and, offended because the head of the family doesn’t get to his feet (he’s crippled), the SS throw the man and the chair out the third floor window. Szpilman sees the chair and the man fall apart, then hears two different noises. More horror than if we were urged to horror by exclamations or commentary.

Especially in the second half there are such careful descriptions of places—details of hiding places—of meetings with saviors (& a betrayer)—that the story embeds itself. The German Hosenfeld—standing with arms folded across his chest—says to Szpilman “Play the piano.” No indication of how it will turn out—no endowing him with more radiance than any of the Poles who helped Szpilman.

Was it discipline of playing and/or composing (no extra notes) that taught Szpilman this lesson? Or did the stress of his experience purify him of lecturing & rhetorical adding on?

And the end:

“Tomorrow I must begin a new life. How could I do it with nothing but death behind me? What vital energy could I draw from death? I went on my way.”

Perhaps he could have stopped there. He adds snow & a darkening sky. It would have been perhaps subject to a too resurgent interpretation if he’d stopped at “I went on my way.” And the snow & sky are better than an adverb.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass                                                             Written only ten years after his escape from Maryland, when he was about 28. (So he was 17 or 18 when he got to NY & then New Bedford). I wonder what he read—aside from the Bible & the Liberator. It is a high style .He does mention Sheridan (the same who wrote “The Rivals” and “School for Scandal” ?)—an argument in favor of Catholic Emancipation, I presume in Ireland.

Many of the events take place near Wye Island or St. Michael’s. I wonder if there are any plaques…

Again it is the details that are most compelling—as when he stands up to fight with Mr. Coffey, the slave-breaker. Or how he teaches himself to read & write when he’s in Baltimore—on fences, brick walls, pieces of wood—by challenging white boys to show they’re better than his LF or SA (larboard fore or starboard aft) that he’s copied from the carpenter writing on planks at the shipyard. His point about the Underground RR is well taken—keep the slave masters in the dark.

I wonder if Dickens read him. Or he Dickens. There are similar riffs in places—invocations and loftiness.

Portraits in Miniature by Lytton Strachey (plus “Four English Historians”)               A great pleasure. Connie could do a book like this. Opening a spyglass on a discrete piece of history (but you have to have a feel for the general period). And have wit. Not necessary to be smart-ass mean witty, which Strachey is once in a while.

Old Money by Nelson Aldrich                                                                                          Bogged down—was it because Aldrich was repeating himself? Graceful writer. A bit slippery on question of being a patrician/a bit of an artist/a good modern liberal guy/(a bit of a snob to Podhoretz, by the way)—

Fred Seidel CIA-poem quoted neatly and out of context to make a point counter to Seidel’s snide point.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan                                                                                                Very good. Marred a bit near end by the arranged clear-it-all-up-for-the-widow-who-thinks-her-husband-was-having-an-affair picnic. But up till then kept me coming back for more. The suspense and self-conscious & very knowledgeable narration—nicely alternating.

The Bhagavad-Gita (Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War)                                                 Repetitious but compelling. My friend Savi loves this—Krishna arguing Arjuna into fighting the battle, similar to each person must fulfill his destiny, be true to his nature. I particularly like the part where Krishna reveals himself in his true aspect—not a nice god but the (unbearable) source of all power.

The Candlemass Road by George MacDonald Fraser                                             Great pleasure. Not one of the Flashman series & better than the Flashman I did read. Fraser can do Elizabethan English—and what I guess is Border dialect. Second time I’ve heard Derrick was a hangman. BTW, Carol Janeway (my editor at Knopf) “discovered” Fraser.

Simple Stories by Ingo Schulze                                                                                              He calls it a novel, which it is in a way. I lost track of the names. However it still works out.

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey                                                                       Dear Margot Livesey—this is the most tender piece she’s written—quite self-contained & lovely. (Her essay on memory is more of a knock-out punch—beautifully written and achingly dire.) I admire Eva the matter of factness of the ghosts—“companions”. Controlled piano piano all the way—and then an aria at the end.

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod                                                                              A bit awkward in its toing & froing in time but powerful. All those really tough Scots staying tough through two centuries on Cape Breton Island. The narrator however has joined the world—is a dentist/plastic surgeon, but carries the stories. The title is wonderfully buried in the middle—General Wolfe used the Highland Scots as his vanguard at the Plains of Abraham. He mistrusted them (he’d been fighting them in Scotland not long before). He is said to have said “No great mischief if they fall.”

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen                                                                                  The note I wrote to Ros (my second wife):

Dear Ros,

This book is really very good. The last 1/5 especially—but you can’t just skip to it, unfortunately. Fortunately it’s pretty funny (once in a while too funny for its own good) but it’s finally not caricature, not of the people or of the world. I’m not sure the characters are always three-dimensional—well maybe 3-D but not 4-D (but to get 4-D you have to go all the way to Proust).

Mainly though there are takes on stuff you do know (siblings) and then, what’s ahead, a requiem for old failing parents. The novel does do one thing that novels ought to do (among several) which is to remind me of some things and prepare our nerve ends for some others.

Yes, it’s 500 & some pages—at 25 pages a night that’s…less than a month.

Love, John

Some other things: 1) chess-player skill (though I noticed it…) at keeping four stories linked together with some small connecting details (e.g. the murderer of the daughter of a woman Enid meets on the cruise ship is the object of an anti-capital punishment vigil in the Denise-in-Philadelphia section). 2) I did laugh out loud several times. 3) I liked the supporting character Gitanas, the Lithuanian would-be warlord. 4) The ending—or penultimate section Last Christmas, does Christmas and American family Christmas very well. Should be required reading in place of Dickens’s Christmas Carol.

Foley’s Luck by Tom Chiarella                                                                                                 I read this for the purpose of giving an outside opinion on a promotion at De Pauw. I’d read one story years ago. The book of stories is greater than the sum of its parts & the parts are pretty damn good. He should be writing more of these rather than the golf stuff for Esquire.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Vol. VIII) by Edward Gibbon                Just the last volume, the part after 439 AD. A lot about Odaoser, Clovis & the Franks…Best part is about Belisarius. And Chouzroes (sp?) the guy who made off with the true cross).

Close Range by Annie Proulx                                                                                                Stories. Some tall tales, reveling in the wind, snow, bad luck, grit, &c. My friend Savi hates the one she read in the New Yorker—not her West. I sort of enjoy these. She’s being Synge listening to western Irish through the floorboards. But I can see Savi having a reaction like mine to Deliverance—in-bred dangerous hillbillies buggering & killing canoeists—yup, a scary story but it’s exploiting the weirdness without giving an account of the whole place.

Emigrants by W.G. Sebald                                                                                                         A great book Goes in my spring lit-class list. In some ways a sequel to Speak, Memory—or anti-sequel. Very moving—the first two pieces especially. The last moves me in a different way—it has poignancy but also a mysterious glory.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer                                                                                                 Scott sent this as a thank-you present—when?—a year or so ago after he was here. Now I know what all the fuss was about. It’s a good smart book. Maybe ¾ of the way through he wasn’t sure which way to go, but it ends with as much energy as in the beginning & middle. The only thing that throws me a bit is that Jade is so certain David was guilty when all David did was run away from Hugh. Maybe there’s that about him embodying her own hatreds for her family & getting him to act them out that makes it work. I would have liked more. Anyway, once past that it’s a good rush to the end. What’s good is that it’s smart and the wail of crazy love is fully sung. (He does the voices well too—David’s parents, the sophisticated Ann.)

Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles by Peter Grose                                         The writing is more pedestrian than Evan Thomas’s The Very Best Men but the breadth & length of the subject (Allen Dulles was born in 1893) and the relatively small cast of characters (the same four as in Evan Thomas’s book plus Lord Meyer, John Gross, Robert Amory, Kermit Roosevelt & al.—during WWII, the Korean War, Guatemala, Berlin-Wall-tunnel, V-2, Bahia de Cochinos(!)) make the WWI-WWII more of an epic, & the post WWII more of a general lesson. I had no idea that it was via Sullivan & Cromwell as well as HYP that was the pool of talent. Nor that Allen Dulles was so under the influence of Kipling, especially Kim—nor that the parameters of his thinking were so 19th c. British. Grose is basically a journalist, but good enough to get the names of the players and their theme-songs (Kennan=containment; Dulles=great game; what larks; Bissel-tech; Council on Foreign Relations=shadow state department).

I wonder if it would be possible to find out what notions changed & in what minds as events moved along. Tracy Barnes, after he was out, changed his mind a good deal (re Vietnam, for example) but it was after… Did these guys pick the game first & then work with the ideas provided? Was it like law school—you don’t want to get caught being too “metaphysical”?

Grose is good at offering the crucial misunderstanding about the Bay of Pigs—CIA hoping to get bailed out by US forces if initial action isn’t enough. Kennedy won’t go along, pulls the plug.

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser                                          Reading this to see if it will serve for the extra book Clare has to write about. I mistook a glance at a review of Alexander Hamilton’s writings (more than 1000 pages in the Library of America) as a possible book. So this replaced it. Didn’t notice Brookhiser’s credentials—National Review, book dedicated to William Rusher, &c. But it is only by arrangement of blocks of narration that Brookhiser has a conservative/National Review slant. He is, I think, reliable in what he presents.

Main claims for Alexander Hamilton: self-made man. Wants the same for other Americans.

Contrast: Jefferson—rich (tho’ that’s a question) Southern slave-owner

Hamilton: a complete rationalist—argues from fundamental principles of law—couldn’t see why people didn’t agree by the time he was through.

Jefferson: by contrast—sometimes inspired, sometimes rational, sometimes a flatterer.

Hamilton: good about finance—mainly because he understood that if the nation honors its debts it’ll get more investors.

Hamilton: pro manufacturing

Jefferson: vision of nation of good agrarians

Hamilton: rights of Government as well as individual rights

Jefferson: rights of people (from his mountaintop—easy for him to be in favor of Shay’s rebellion—Oh good! Another bloody uprising to fertilize the land of liberty!

Hamilton: distrusted The People. “Democracy” a danger.

Hamilton: pro British system which has “corruption” i.e. government can give favors to “worthy” big shots.

Jefferson: pro French Revolution (at least for a while).

Another theme of the book: we tend to look back on the Founding Fathers as calm & great-minded. But look—they fought & spit at each other like anybody else. (Tho’ they wrote better.) Vicious newspaper spats. Adams vicious about Hamilton the bastard of a Scots pedlar.

A current neo-conservative argument: liberals don’t really trust the people, they’re secret aristocrats. So Brookhiser emphasizes that Jefferson’s Republicans were upper-class, Southern slave owners.

Issues that I didn’t know about:

  1. “discrimination” against speculators in government IOU’s to Revolutionary War vets.
  2. Should new US government assume debts of states incurred before nationhood came about?
  3. Should Britain return slaves taken from Revolutionary slave-owners? (Hamilton argues that “odious” or “immoral” treaties shouldn’t be honored. I’ll go with him on that) But the principle that all contracts should be honored is a Hamiltonian notion—what would he have said to the notion that if there wasn’t a fair bargaining position when the contract was made that that contract is “odious” or “immoral”?

Queenie by Alice Munro                                                                                                             A short story in book form. Not her best—but the innocent not entirely articulate narrator not a method Munro usually goes for. Her very best stories have a surface intelligence—either a sharp first-person narrator (who can still have done some regrettable things) or a hovering sharp omniscience (as in the historical ones).

The Business of Memory editor Charles Baxter                                                       Margot Livesey’s is the shining one. Most of it is crap. Okay are Jim McPherson, Karen Brennan, maybe Richard Bausch, Victoria Morrow, Patricia Hampl, (Michael Ryan marginal). Baxter himself seems half in a daze. “We are now children of Beckett more than…of Proust.” Jeez. The authors I haven’t named are really adrift. Particularly the one re-translating Proust.

Naturalist by E.O. Wilson                                                                                               Wilson’s autobiography. Good. Three or four parts to it. Childhood (blind in one eye, parents divorce), military school, early career—University of Alabama, working working working, gets to Harvard, gets to work on a bigger scale. Think about the whole scheme, big ideas. Then the spat with molecular biologists (Watson. Also Mark Ptashne.) Then the Stephen Jay Gould leftie attack on sociobiology, apparently for the political consequences of the theory.

Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown                        Short—97 pages. Even simpler—more simply written than Gifts of the Body which I liked a lot. This is completely personal. The writer is almost not there, just the daughter. And sister to her sister & brother and lover to her lover. Mainly a daughter. Step by step. The definitions on the verso sides are good—it isn’t a technical medical dictionary but a home manual. It binds this sickness and death to others. This whole book could be a manual for children of a dying parent whom they have loved.

It made me like her a lot.

Dangerous Muse by Nancy Schoenberger                                                                   (biography of Caroline Blackwood, one of Robert Lowell’s wives. CB a good writer.)       Breathy or breathless gossip, especially towards end when author is trusting just about anybody. And I’d guess the subject is lost—but an okay chronology & a list of names. In some places I found some people I’ve run into Jonathan Raben, Lorna Sage (bless her), Anne Winter Williamson, and of course Peter & Eleanor, Robert Lowell, William Alfred. Biographers are apt to get engulfed—this one does—accepts the ethos of Anglo-Irish when with them, high art when with that, NY tattle when with that. Read this because Bobby Pittman had it on hand. I would like to read more of For All that I Found There.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr                                                                           Absolutely wonderful. Perfect pastoral. Comic (understated) with shadows (mostly understated). Goes on top 10 list (at least of short novels).

The Hunters by Claire Messud (two novellas)                                                                   Tony Winner (colleague and trusted advisor) said one was terrific the other not so hot. Right. A Simple Story: B-. The Hunters right down Tony’s alley—eerie, self-doubting, mysterious about sexual identity, seismographically sensitive to the tiniest quaver of the heroine/hero’s psyche, which is filled with acid for others & self.

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth by Richard Fortey                                                                                                                     Started this a year & ½ ago—don’t know why didn’t go straight through. Now want to re-read it.

There could be a different category of Literacy—Don Hirsch has a first one for Americans—the frame of reference necessary to read the New York Times. Another: that necessary to read Tristes Tropiques, Richard Fortey’s Life, maybe Shakespeare? (with notes). Set up different standards perhaps for Science, Social Science…does it hinge on Freud, Darwin, Marx? (But who’s read Das Kapital? Duncan kept urging me to—yeah, you’ll be perplexed and bored for the 1st 1/2 , then, bingo. Not enough to get me to. I’ll take the Classic Comic, or osmosis.)

Present History by Timothy Garton Ash                                                                       Took a while to get into. Then followed it as briskly as a novel. But not sure what I’m left with…message to England to join EU, support more democratic East Europe, hope the rest will catch up. Ash’s narration of various incidents well done. Good thoughts on whether a country should “remember” or “forget”, maybe forget so you don’t have to forgive. Germany—now—chose to remember Communist past (3 miles of files)—Czech Republic chose to let it go by—but then…Hungary…I can’t remember.

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Former Rowing Coach Responds

John Casey

Here I am, browsing at a bookstore in Wellesley, MA with a friend and naturally, I gravitate to the Sports Section.  You can only imagine my thrill and delight when I discover that the John Casey of this captivating book, entitled, “Room for Improvement” is THE John Casey, a man whom I know and love and had the pleasure to coach!

And then, better yet, I come to discover that you mention me in the acknowledgement section and that I helped you shave a minute off of your best performance.

John, let it be known, albeit, belatedly, that I loved working with you and Tom and cannot wait to read this wonderful book as I also love to explore the extremes!  Thank you for sharing your adventures and no doubt, they will inspire mine!

All the best and again, thank YOU!

Veronika Platzer

Head Coach, Women’s Rowing, UMass Lowell

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A Nice Review on Amazon for Room for Improvement

From Kevin Quinley from Fairfax, VA:

True confessions: my Gmail address is geezerjock@gmail.com Compared to John Casey, author of ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, though, I readily concede my poseur status. Now well into his 70’s, Casey is The Real Deal when it comes to Geezer Jockdom.

In ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, Casey devotes each chapter to a phase of physical and athletic passion that he has engaged in during his seven decades. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay. Weaving them together is a clear and strong passion for the outdoors, for sports and for the vigorous life. Detractors might dismiss Casey as an athletic dilettante, but I think that would be harsh. The chapters cover a diverse array of athletic and outdoor passions, including:

* A 50-mike hike (in the heyday of the JFK era)
* A maritime-themed Outward Bound course off Maine’s coast
* Various rowing and canoeing adventures
* Marathoning
* Judo
* Cross-country skiing

Casey brings a palpable sense of passion as he writes of the physical life and the pleasures of exercising. It’s amazing what he is able to do as he gets older. If he suffers from many injuries or ailments, these never made the cut for the book. Well into his 70’s, he is able to sustain a level of physical activity that would drop most people have his age.

There is the sense that modern life, with all its technology and conveniences, has made our existence too cushy and easy. There lingers among some a desire to take the harder, more rigorous route and to test themselves. ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT taps into this vein. Even if you have never engaged in any of the sporting or outdoor avocations depicted by Casey, his sparse prose makes for an absorbing read and may inspire you to get outside, chop some wood or dust off your bike.

Though there may be room for improvement in ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, I’m hard-pressed to specify what that may be and give it five stars!

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New York Times Review: Room for Improvement

New York Times Sunday Book Review

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