Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Summer Reading List... And Some Books to Avoid

Photo by @bvarphotos
It's Memorial Day weekend, so it's time for me to read "The Great Gatsby" again.

But what if, Old Sport, you don't want to repeat the past and would simply appreciate a few recommendations about something worthwhile to read during the summer of 2018?

For those with such tender curiosity, here are five recently-read books I would highly recommend:
  • "The Boys on the Boat," by Daniel James Brown
  • "A Higher Loyalty," by James Comey
  • "Make Your Bed," by William McRaven
  • "In Harm's Way," by Doug Stanton
  • "Dear World," by Bana Alabed
Having recently updated my privacy policy 🙂, I'll disclose that real-life friends and social-media connections have written books I can highly recommend as well. Here are five:
  • "U.S. Route One," published just this past week by Mark Marchand
  • "I Hope My Voice Doesn't Skip," available June 5 by poet Alicia Cook (a recommendation based on her previous book, "Stuff I've Been Feeling Lately")
  • "Verizon Untethered," by Ivan Seidenberg, Scott McMurray and Joellen Brown (yes, this is a shameless plug)
  • "Leaving Story Avenue," by Paul LaRosa
  • "Never a Good Time," by Jack Hoey
All 10 can be easily found and purchased on, and you can read reviews of all except Mark and Alicia's new books on my Goodreads feed.

In reviewing all these reviews, which are based on a scale of 5 stars, I now realize I hardly ever give less than 3, believing that any published work is a worthy effort (save for "Pride and Prejudice," which deserves a special place in Literary Hell). Still, some of my 3-star reviews are rather sarcastic, rife with Stephen King references and more entertaining than the more-positive reviews. So here's a repost of five mediocre reviews of books you may want to avoid:

My Ántonia (Great Plains Trilogy, #3)My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Add this to the list of what I read in high school or college, thought I had loved, and then years later... upon further review... I’m overturning my call: The Sun Also Rises, Being There, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lolita (although only because of the subject matter... it’s still undeniably a work of genius).

Now, My Antonia too. It was like listening to paint dry. I kept imagining what Stephen King might do with the story buried here about the wolf attack on the wedding party in Russia.

It’s not that I’m especially fickle. After all, I still love The Great Gatsby. Through the years, it has never let me down. And the music of The Beatles. And the poetry of Yeats. And anything by Poe. Even my old friend, Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, imagine me reaching for a Kindle right now, searching for a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles

Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential QuestionsWait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions by James E. Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Listened to this during a long drive through New Jersey on a Friday night, and thought, “Eh...” So maybe you can blame location or the darkness, but I didn’t find this as inspirational as Admiral McRaven’s “Make Your Bed” or Jonathan Fields’ “How to Live a Good Life” or, hell, even James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty.” I would have preferred the shorter, speech-as-delivered version of this book — especially if the original didn’t include the graphic childbirth stories. I get the premise about the questions, I really do. But as one of my heroes, John Prine, once sang: “A question ain't really a question, if you know the answer too.”

Kill CreekKill Creek by Scott Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I could have sworn I saw Stephen King quoted somewhere saying this book was great. Which is why I bought it. And now I can’t find any evidence of his endorsement. It’s like I’m being pranked by the malevelant spirit of Very Good Horror Fiction Writers Who Have Sucked Hours of My Life Away — And For What?

OK, this book is good. It’s actually two books in one — the psychological horror in the first half, and then “surprising” part, with psychological horror combined with graphically depicted murders and a heroic character who undergoes stultifying superhuman torment... running around with a broken ankle while cutting himself on shards of glass. Surrounded by spiders, and lots of blood. Maybe there was a deep leg wound too.

I don’t know. It’s all too much — and I listened to it for hours and hours. Why? Because Stephen King recommended it? I can’t even be sure of that anymore.

Damn you, VGHFWWHSHMLA-AFW! Damn you to Hell, all of you! Until, I suppose, the obviously talented Scott Thomas writes his next book. Will I have learned my lesson by then?

The DispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a regular crime story short story - and a fine, professionally written one at that - with a radical twist in the premise. As the online blurb states: "One day... it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back." Suicides and natural deaths don't count, so just plug this into the equation and start the plot. It's pure fantasy, with arbitrary parameters, like a story about Zombies... posing theoretical tensions and outcomes that are, well, purely theoretical and outside the realm of possibility. In fairness, this is what fantasy fiction is all about. Never expecting to encounter a Dispatcher or Zombie in real life, however... all things considered, I would rather have spent this time watching a baseball game.

The Sarah BookThe Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[SPOILER ALERT: The following is written in the style of the book itself -- which is a sad reflection on the reviewer since, in real life, I only wish I could write as well as Scott McClanahan.]

I have a car. I was listening to this book while driving my car. My wife was with me. “What's that?” she asked. I told her it was an audio book. An audio book called The Sarah Book. My wife said, “It’s an audio book?” “Yes,” I said. “It’s called The Sarah Book.” “It sounds like it’s written by a third-grader,” my wife said. “It isn’t,” I replied. “Well, it’s the way kids in my third-grade class would tell stories,” she said. “Just one thing after another. It’s very repetitive.” “Well,” I replied, “It’s actually a very well-reviewed book. And it’s short. I’m trying to keep an open mind about it. Everyone loves it.” Everyone but my wife.

Then the author continued reading in his mesmerizing drawl. It wasn’t one of the good parts. I had heard some good parts, but this wasn’t one. This part was about an old dog, and I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be humorous, pathetic or ironic. Or whether it mattered. I had thought some parts were poetic. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was right. Maybe my feelings are just a metaphor for life, and we’re all trapped inside this book review. All of life is just one big book review, and we don’t even know if the author is reliable or not. Did he really take his kids on a joyride while drunk? I don't think we can ever be sure.

So I need you to forgive me. Also, I know I’m using the word “I” a lot. I’m just warning you: if I were you, and I purchased this book, I would get used to it. Anyway, I know that all is lost. Everything we love will be lost. So what does it matter?


What's next? Mark Marchand's book in Kindle format, Alicia Cook's new book in soft-cover (because poetry just doesn't translate well on a Kindle) -- and, on deck in Audible format, "The Last Boy," about the life of Mickey Mantle by Jane Leavy.

Why The Mick? Because it was highly recommended by real-life friend Paul Macchia, and because I often find myself borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Three Images of Unconditional Love

Harley, top; Molly Anne, left; and Phoenix
We are surrounded by unconditional love.

It’s often hiding in plain sight, but sometimes -- like a monster in a horror movie -- it reaches out and grabs you by the throat.

That happened to me three times this past week.

It began last Saturday, when I posted about the death of our family dog, Phoebe.

I shared the post publicly on Facebook, but soon reset the privacy settings to “friends only” due to the personal nature of the supportive comments.

Many friends shared about their own relationships with their family dogs, and the overriding theme was how much they treasured the unconditional love they had experienced.

Several posted photos of their dogs, and they shared heart-rending stories.

Pictured here are Phoenix, who my cousin described as “our destroyer of worlds”; Molly Anne, “in the winter of her years”; and Harley, a 16-year-old lab who died this past December.

“I still pretty much cry about him once a day,” wrote Harley’s owner. She went on to express something others also hinted at: “Losing a beloved dog is so hard because they've given us pure, unconditional love every day. They've never judged, hurt or disappointed us. They never rejected us or tried to fix us. They just loved us, without reservation, no strings attached.”

Another friend who recently said goodbye to a beloved dog, Marino, said her son looks up at the sky every morning and waves to his pet in Doggy Heaven. Still another friend said he lost his last dog five years ago and still looks for her face at the window whenever he pulls into his driveway.

I was so touched, and grateful, to read these comments.


The next day, Mother’s Day, I should have seen it coming.

Mothers, after all, are the personification of unconditional love, and yet I am guilty of having taken this for granted in my own life.

Planning to drive Mom to visit my late Dad’s older brother, Julian, I had prepared myself with questions to ask her while we were alone in the car.

My colleagues at Verizon had devised a Mother’s Day social media promotion -- #callmom -- designed to bring together mothers and their adult children to have a conversation they haven’t had before. I had two questions to ask Mom: What’s the single thing you would do differently if you could go back in time? What has surprised you most about how your life has unfolded?

To my surprise, Mom answered each question thoughtfully during our long drive. To my further surprise, I learned nothing new about Mom -- except that, touchingly, she is currently reading “Conversations in Heaven,” a book about five individuals who are greeted after death by their shared guardian angel.

I thought, “Ah-ha! So Mom’s been honest with me all these years!” The nerve of her; she has no great regrets, and she is filled with gratitude about her life.

Then we arrived at Julian’s, and I saw the way the two old friends -- who had shared a great love for my father -- greeted each other.

I saw PDUL. A public display of unconditional love.


The day after that, I left on a business trip to Jacksonville.

Having never been there before, I tried to soak in everything in just two days. “Soak” being the operative word, since it rained nearly non-stop. Still, I managed to get some sunrise photos at Atlantic Beach — and a bit of an education during the Lyft rides to and from the airport.

I observed that Jacksonville is humid and flat, filled with palms trees, pickup trucks… and picture-perfect sunrises. It’s a great expanse of one-level homes, restaurants, car dealership, gas stations… and churches.

So many churches, so many different denominations, in so many different styles of buildings… some even looked to be former office buildings. I was particularly struck by this because, lately, I’ve been noticing all the churches that surround my home in New Jersey too.

Why all the churches, I wondered?

Just then, a monster ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and highlighted a sign outside one of the passing buildings: “All Are Welcome Here,” it read. “Come Worship With Us,” read another sign down the road. And, “Whoever Prayed for the Rain, Please Pick Another Subject!”

Churches are filled with the promise of friendship, forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re accepted as soon as you walk through the doors.

How often do we ignore all the welcoming signs, and all the invitations to grace that surround us?

Thank you to friends who offered condolences for Phoebe, and thanks to Mom, and thanks to the surrounding churches for reminding me this week that unconditional love is a mighty force, one that should never be taken for granted.

Like my cousin’s dog Phoenix, it is the destroyer of worlds.

Sunrise in Jacksonville

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Rare Photo of a Good Dog

Our dog Phoebe died this past week, and all I can do is howl at the moon.

Here’s a photo of her; the only one that does her justice.

She was part of our family for more than 15 years until, after a precipitous decline in health and quality of life, she passed peacefully in the arms of our youngest daughter, Maddy.

Despite Phoebe’s regal beauty in real life, she was eerily unphotogenic.

Perhaps it was her monotone coloring… black on black, save for a white chest patch. With her head down, she was impossible to see in the darkness. My Mom accidentally stepped on her twice when they first met.

Or perhaps, like Greta Garbo, Phoebe was simply camera shy and valued her privacy. She ran from me when I approached holding any device with a lens, but Maddy managed to snap this photo during a car-ride to a local Dunkin’ Donuts in the days before Phoebe realized phones also had front-facing cameras.

As soon as this was taken, she learned to duck out of the way of all cell phones too.


Phoebe was intelligent, but untrainable. These were two qualities she shared with my two daughters as they all grew up together. (One exception: as smart as she was, Phoebe never truly learned the concept of “screen door.”)

She was the runt of the litter, chosen by our daughters at an adoption fair at the Petco in Ramsey, NJ, in early 2003. She was a mutt or – more charitably – a “Labradollie” of “Borador,” which is part Labrador, part Border Collie. The girls had every intention of naming a pet after Joey, a character on the TV show "Friends." Since their new puppy was female, they improvised.

Phoebe became their enthusiastic playmate. She galloped when she ran, and I often imagined the background music as Miss Gulch rode her bicycle in "The Wizard of Oz" when I watched our puppy take off on her various backyard adventures.

True to her Border Collie roots, Phoebe’s favorite backyard game was herding.

Our oldest daughter, Cathy (who Phoebe once locked out of our house), used to convince Maddy and her friends to run around the yard pretending to be sheep. They’d shout, “Baa! Baa! Baa!” and Phoebe would gallop in circles to keep them together in the same place.

Phoebe herded her toys too. She’d arrange them all into one neat pile. Her favorite toys were stuffed squirrels, bears and sheep – and, grotesquely, she would mark them by chewing off their eyes.

Besides herding, she was also exceptional at guarding.

Usually even-tempered and sweet-natured (except when encountering bicyclists, other dogs, old women, babies or squirrels during her walks), Phoebe judged anyone who approached our front door using an instinctive litmus test. Most visitors and tradespeople gained her immediate approval. Our usual UPS deliveryman had witnessed the arrival of the vet at our house, and the next day he knocked at our door not to deliver a package, but because he wanted to express condolences to my wife, Nancy (Phoebe’s constant companion). “She was a good dog,” the two dog-lovers agreed, their highest compliment.

But some few callers – such as one unfortunate PSEG meter reader, and just about anyone who sought entry when the family wasn’t nearby -- feared for their lives when they approached our front door.

The girls always felt safe around Phoebe. More than safe: protected. Phoebe even protected them from me, since for years I mercilessly teased and joked at the dog’s expense, rather than at my daughters’.

In return, we accepted Phoebe for who she was – with all her quirks and allergies… the way her legs twitched when she dreamt… her love of snowfall and licking dirty dishes before we could close the dishwasher door… her primordial fear of fireworks and lightning. We treated her as family:

  • The girls took care in planning her Halloween costumes: a "bad dog" prisoner outfit from Party City; a pink Little Bo Peep costume, hand-sewn by Maddy; a hotdog.
  • We included her in our family’s made-up rap-star names: I was jogging “Run Daddy,” Nancy "Big M" (for Mom), Maddy "Little M," Cathy "Cagey C," and Phoebe was "Notorious P."
  • Maddy baked biscuits using a dog-friendly recipe, and Phoebe especially loved these. She didn’t want to eat them right away and would stuff them between sofa cushions or run around the house whimpering with a treat in her mouth when she couldn’t find a suitable hiding place.
  • Phoebe would randomly run up to Maddy excitedly, as if wanting to tell her something. "What is it, Lassie?" she’d playfully respond. "Is Timmy trapped in the well again?"

We took Phoebe on family vacations to Cape Cod. Since she looked just like the logo for the local “Black Dog” brand, she strutted – and was treated -- like a celebrity when we took her for walks on the streets of Chatham.

I happen to have this photo too, but truthfully I don't need a distant image to recall how Cathy and Maddy took her for a walk to a landing off Oyster Pond, and how Phoebe waded out to romp joyously in the shallow water.


I realize, now that sweet Phoebe is gone, what she and I truly had in common: The instinct to herd and protect.

She was much better at both than I’ve ever been.

I wonder if she held on to life as long as she did simply because she didn’t trust me to do these things on my own.

Just like me, Phoebe was always at her absolute happiest when my wife, two daughters and I were all together – which, now that my daughters are grown, happens rarely. Whenever we’ve all been at home lately, we’d praise Phoebe lavishly because she had once again herded the four of us together. We’d all gather around her, pet her, and praise her for doing such a good job and for being such a good dog.

Earlier this week, when I left for work the first morning after Phoebe was gone, I realized that I no longer had to step over her as she tried to block my exit from our house.

This has long been my morning routine. Upstairs, I’d say goodbye to my wife and tell her I love her, then I’d stop at each of the two other bedroom doors and tell each of my daughters the same – whether they’re there or not.

Finally, I’d go downstairs and awkwardly step over the dog on my way out the door. “Goodbye, Phoebe,” I’d say, and pat her head, “Good Dog!”

Phoebe was always at that door, always protecting us, always trying to keep us near, always worrying about the ones who weren’t there. When I walked over that empty space where Phoebe used to sprawl, I realized she still needs me to carry on and help her protect us.

And now it’s time to say goodbye.

In this endeavor, I feel like I’m in over my head, treading water. Still, I find comfort in the image of Phoebe frolicking in a shallow boat basin. I’ll try to follow her lead and maybe blast through a screen door or two. Life is short, and we should all spend more time pretending we’re celebrities, enjoying some extra cheese, bacon and peanut butter, and playing in the snow.

In the end, Phoebe, I know I never appreciated you enough. Forgive me for teasing you, and for posting your photo.

I promise to do my best to keep our family together without you, and to try to keep our lives from being overrun by all the squirrels.

Goodbye, Phoebe. You were a good dog.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Stumbling Into Magnificence in New Jersey

On a recent visit to Branch Brook Park in Newark to take photos of the Cherry Blossom Festival, my wife Nancy led me instead inside the nearby Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

This is how I stumbled into one of the most magnificent locations in all of New Jersey.

For me, it was like coming home.

Nancy's great-grandfather was among the many immigrants who had cut and lain the stones during the church's construction. In 1955 my parents -- through the favor of family friend, Fr. Oates, who directed the choir -- had gotten married there.

In the top photo, that's newly ordained Fr. Julian B. Varettoni (Dad's older brother), officiating at the wedding of Frances and Robert Varettoni, all with their backs to the church-goers at the Pre-Vatican II altar. In the bottom photo, 62 and a half years later, I had the same view of the same altar.

Of course, I also photographed this scene from another "artsy" angle on my iPhone. I particularly like this photo (right) -- although I've had far more popular Instagram posts.

I think that has to do, somewhat, with the polarizing aspect of anything overtly religious.

This past week, I read a great autobiography written by journalist Paul LaRosa. He describes his boyhood church in The Bronx, NY, as "a macabre funhouse... jam-packed with gruesome paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows. There is a gigantic cross hanging from the rafters showing Christ in the agony of his death... There is a lot of talk about ghosts and people rising from the dead... It's easy to imagine this place being haunted."

I can appreciate and understand this view. My own view, though, is that beautiful churches and cathedrals are grand expressions of hope among people who believe there is more to life than what we can see. Sacred Heart's own website describes the cathedral basilica as "a symphony of praise" to God.

When I look inside a church, I see something that haunts and challenges our lives. I see a sanctuary for a timeless, collective consciousness that aspires to something more and something better, filled with symbols of faith and hope and longing.

The outside structures -- where the architecture is sometimes sturdy and utilitarian, and sometimes breathtaking -- are tangible reminders of transcendence, even in the midst of everyday life and in the midst of poverty of spirit or means (for the most ornate structures are often in the poorest neighborhoods).

On my Instagram account devoted to all things New Jersey, I've begun posting photos of local churches every Sunday, and I wanted to post a few more of Sacred Heart here (see below) -- although, these days, you can take this virtual tour of the place.

Still, I highly recommend a visit in real life.

Sacred Heart's front doors... yesterday and today

Views of Sacred Heart in 2018, and (bottom right, Mom and Grandpa) 1955

Mom needed two red carpets to roll down the center aisle at her wedding
Dad and Mom revisited the church on their 40th anniversary...

...And renewed their wedding vows.