Monday, December 31, 2018

9 Favorite Books, 9 Favorite Photos in 2018

My 2018 reading list
2018 was a very good year when it came to two of my favorite hobbies -- reading and taking photos.

Here are 9 mini-reviews of favorite books I read, starting with...

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Full review

Unlike a good journalist writing a good lede, I don’t even know where to begin to summarize the reasons this is the last, best and most important book I read in 2018.

This is an epic drama, with life-saving consequences. It’s the compelling, readable story of journalists, editors and their sources who sought the truth. In doing so, they put an end to business practices that had a sociopathic disregard for the public.

This is a cautionary tale for our times. It cautions us to be more skeptical of the “fake it until you make it” culture, about accepting things too readily at face value, and about the dangers of the cult of celebrity. And about greed.

Just Kids2. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Full review

Let me begin in the style of Patti Smiths Instagram account: This is a wonderful book.

I listened to the version, and it’s quirky… read by the author, who drops her “g”s, pronounces piano as “piana,” and drawings as “drawlings.” Also, so many mentions of Arthur Rimbaud and the word Abyssinian. I found it enchanting, however, because it describes a world so different from my own.

This is not, however, a memorial to a lost generation. Long before they became Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Robert encouraged Patti to sing, and Patti encouraged Robert to take photos. Are you a fan of their art? It doesn’t matter. The art they created is inconsequential to the act of its creation.

This is, in the end, a story about the transformational power of love.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership3. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

I read or listened to quite a few politically oriented books this year. I hated and I loved this one by James Comey in particular.

Perhaps it was these emotional extremes that leads me to choose Comey's book over “Unbelievable” by Katy Tur (which to me seemed a little too self-absorbed), which I thought was better than “From the Corner of the Oval” by Beck Dorey-Stein (which I thought was much too self-absorbed), which I actually enjoyed more than “Fear” by Bob Woodward (because, by the time I read that, I was numbed of any emotion).

And perhaps, in fairness -- focusing on issues rather than personalities -- a better (certainly earnest) political read might be “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond or “Dear World” by Bana Alabed. You can read my full reviews of all these books on Goodreads.

The Odyssey4. The Odyssey by Homer
Full review (in memory of Robert Vacca)

“Tell me about a complicated man.”

That’s the way Emily Wilson, classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, begins her translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” first published about a year ago.

This was recently released in Audible format, read by the actress Claire Danes – and I found listening to it a bittersweet experience, bringing back memories of my favorite teacher at the University of Notre Dame, the late Greek classics professor Robert Vacca.

Wilson’s translation? It’s beautiful: sparse and direct. Professor Vacca would have loved it.

Looking for Alaska5. Looking for Alaska by John Green
Full review

2018 has been the year I’ve dropped all pretense of who my favorite living author is. It’s John Green -- who is not a “young-adult” writer; he’s simply an excellent writer. This was his first book -- and not his best (since, for me, it flagged after an abrupt plot twist about midway through), but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, half of this book is better than 95% of anything else you could have been reading in 2018.

Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us6. Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us by Dan Lyons

Here let me list books by two other favorite living authors: Dan Lyons and Michael Lewis.

To be sure (a phrase that introduces many paragraphs in this book), I never expected Lyons’ latest to be as good as 2017’s “Disrupted” -- which was a true modern classic, based on first-person stories, and filled with devastating humor and satire. This book is more of a research project, but it’s a research project written by a wonderful writer and a thoughtful critic.

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to FatherhoodHome Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis

I read this shorter, older book (originally published in 2010) on a whim on Father’s Day. I found it funny, well-written and an object lesson on the value of remaining whimsical when deciding what to read. It was an enjoyable ride by another wonderful writer. “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” “Flash Boys,” “Liar’s Poker”... none of these books will prepare you for this. Just like no other experience in your life will ever prepare you for fatherhood.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem7. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Full review

I didn’t read this book; I listened to it… the production narrated a few years ago by Diane Keaton.

The actress’ measured cadence is so articulate and clear, you can speed up the playback by half, and it’s still perfectly understandable. This is an almost magical way to experience this book. The words come at you in a crazy jumble of images that on some intellectual level make sense -- but then they don’t seem coherent, the center doesn’t hold.

Personally, it reminds me of one of my dearest friends. You go for a walk with her -- say, around one of the many lakes in Minnesota -- and you find yourself transported to another world of seemingly incongruous observations and one-liners and literate confessional narrative.

The endearing difference is that my friend will stop suddenly during that walk, turn to lock eyes with you, then break into a wide smile and ask, “What the hell am I talking about, anyway?” She’ll laugh at herself.

Joan Didion, in this collection of stories, writes the way my friend talks -- without ever laughing at herself or admitting that she doesn’t know any better than you. The thing is, she probably does.

Verizon Untethered: An Insider's Story of Innovation and Disruption8. Verizon Untethered: An Insiders Story of Innovation and Disruption by Ivan Seidenberg
My full review (which got me banned from posting reviews on because I was too self-servingly commercial)

The two new books mentioned here were written by people I know and worked with.

First, there’s “Verizon Untethered,” which provides an insider’s insight into questions such as, What did it take to get the U.S. stock market up and running just days after the 9/11 attacks? What was Steve Jobs like as a business partner? How does a company close a $130 billion transaction, or choose a new CEO or disrupt a successful business to stay successful?

It’s a readable primer of interest to business students, technology geeks or anyone curious about the collective impact of individuals who work together with a common purpose. Scott McMurray is the author, but I suspect much of the book’s readability is because of Joellen Brown, who is cited as helping to provide historical context, research materials and several reviews for accuracy.

Joellen, my friend and former colleague, retired at this time last year as chief speechwriter for Verizon C-level executives. She is a masterful editor.

U.S. Route 1: Rediscovering The New WorldU.S. Route 1: Rediscovering The New World by Mark Marchand

Mark Marchand, another friend and former colleague, self-published this sweet, thoughtful reflection this year about a two-week midlife journey from Maine to Florida. It reminded me of an old favorite book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Although this (unlike “Just Kids,” “The Odyssey” and “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”) is not available in spoken-word format, finishing the bulk of this book while relaxing on vacation, I found it interesting to re-discover the simple joy of reading words on a page. To be honest, I heard the voice of my friend echoing in my mind while I read, adding a dimension of intimacy and soulfulness.

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World9. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...And Maybe the World by William H. McRaven

Since I’m posting these reviews on New Year’s Eve 2018, it seems only right to end on a book upon which you can base a year’s worth of resolutions. My late Dad (who would have been 87 next month) would have just loved this simple book. I thought of him often while reading it. So thank you, Admiral McRaven.

I read “How to Live a Good Life” by Jonathan Fields at the beginning of 2018, which I could also recommend. A lot of sold advice there too -- except perhaps for his chapter on auras.


So there you have it, my 9-ish favorite books in 2018.

To close out the year, as a postscript, I also want to post my “Best 9” Instagram images from 2018.

These are the 9 images most-liked on my two Instagram feeds. First, from @bvarphotos:

And these 9, from @foundinnj:

Happy New Year, everyone! Here’s to 2019!!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I am being haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Two nights ago, the above photo -- beside a Christmas tree with Mom, sister and cousins and taken by Dad in Garfield, NJ, in the 1960s -- appeared in my Facebook news feed from out of the blue.

It was like a ghost, reminding me that this had once been a popular post. I can see why. Mom looks stunning and my sister has a wide smile (holding a doll dressed like Mom). I'm the serious-looking young boy on the right.

Everything is picture perfect.

Then last night, Google automatically produced this video, with a cheery holiday soundtrack, of old photos I had stored in a cloud...

This time I recognized the Ghost of Christmas Past, reminding me that things will never be the same.

This morning, taking another look at what I've posted on this blog in 2018, I've come to realize how much I write about the past.

So my wish tonight is to be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come.

Unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, I do not fear this specter.

The past has taught me that nothing in life is truly picture perfect, but so much is good... and beautiful... and fleeting. I look forward to what tomorrow will bring.

This Christmas, to paraphrase Dickens, let us all be wise enough to see that all that's good in life begins with joy.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Book Review About Two Complicated Men

“Tell me about a complicated man.”

That’s the way Emily Wilson, classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, begins her translation of Homer’s “Odyssey,” first published about a year ago.

This translation was recently released in Audible format, read by the actress Claire Danes – and I finished listening to it last week.

It proved a bittersweet experience, bringing back memories of my favorite teacher at the University of Notre Dame.

Wilson’s translation? Oh, it's beautiful: sparse and direct.

The performance? Well, Claire Danes wouldn’t have been my first choice: her voice is disconcertingly fragile. Still, I enjoyed listening to it. It’s also appropriate to hear a female voice read (as the publisher boasts) “the first English translation of the ‘Odyssey’ by a woman.”

For all its uneven charms, however, this was not the most compelling performance of the “Odyssey” I’ve heard.


That honor belongs to bespectacled Robert Vacca, a classical Greek professor who died in June 2004 after a tragic battle with cancer, when he was just a bit older than I am today.

Imagine, if you will, a cold winter’s night in Indiana in the late 1970s. I’m safe and warm, in the otherwise deserted faculty offices in the basement of the Hesburgh Library on the Notre Dame campus. Sitting beside me is my classmate, Malcolm, a boy genius from England.

On the other side of the desk facing us, Professor Vacca reaches behind a row of books to reveal a hidden bottle of ouzo.

“This is what the Greeks drink,” he explains. “Modern Greeks. The ancients drank wine.”

He pours a small glass for me, mixed with water (the way the ancients used to mix their wine). The ouzo turns from clear to cloudy as the anise reacts with the cold. He instructs me to sip it slowly and offers young Malcolm only a glass of cold water.

The professor raises his own glass, clears his throat, then opens a text in ancient Greek and begins to chant verses from Homer in a way that would approximate the rhythm and tonality of how the poem might have been performed centuries ago.

His performance was joyous and enthralling. His booming chant echoed in the basement hallways, and the hypnotizing cadence of each line brought life and heat to the words of the dead language.

Malcolm likely understood every word of what he heard, but the only thing I understood was that this was special… this was very different than the accounting courses my friends were taking.

And this is what I cherish most about Notre Dame: the passion of my favorite teachers, all dead now, except for my ever-patient and supportive poetry professor, Sonia Gernes.

Vacca’s boss – the chairman of the classical languages department and the one who convinced me to minor in the field – was Holy Cross Father Leonard Banas. Princeton-educated, Fr. Banas was a gentle man who, like Vacca, had a mischievous sense of humor. He taught, of all things, the poetry of Catullus, which so deeply passionate and profane.

Then there was wise Richard Sullivan, a novelist and short-story writer. I took perhaps the last class he taught at Notre Dame... a playwriting workshop. He also had a playful sense of humor – unlike Sr. Madonna Kolbenschlag, who taught journalism and publishing. She always saw right through me.

All these names and images come flooding back now.

I recall Professor Vacca’s analysis of ancient and modern social justice issues, and the ancient stories he told with modern flair... about the Athenian politician Alcibiades or about Hector and his baby boy. He also told colorful stories about David Grene, his Dublin-born Greek professor at the University of Chicago. Grene was great pals with the writer Saul Bellow, and he collaborated with classical scholar and poet Richmond Lattimore on all the best English translations of all the Greek tragedies.


I wonder what all of them would think of this new translation by Emily Wilson. (Remember her? 🙂)

Feeling nostalgic, I located my worn paperback of Lattimore’s translation of the “Odyssey.” I probably haven’t opened it since I was an undergraduate... 40 years ago, twice as long as Odysseus was away from home.

Book One begins, “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways…”

It was only the first line, but I already sensed that Wilson’s translation is even better.

I read some more, then researched the translator online. She has an active Twitter account, and pinned to the top of her profile is this tweet:

Professor Vacca happened to love that story. So I know, without doubt, he would have loved Professor Wilson’s translation too.

“Well done!” he’d toast, raising a glass of ouzo.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

100 Words (exactly) on... Family, Salvation and Prayer

1. Family

Driving west on Route 4 in Paramus, NJ, with my 26-year-old daughter in the passenger’s seat. I hardly see her anymore (although she would say she visits all the time). It’s early on Thanksgiving Day; we’re traveling to see my mother.

When my daughter was a little girl, we used to enjoy going on adventures. But that seems so long ago, and now we’re traveling together in silence. She’s vacantly staring out the window.

Suddenly she smiles. “Is that a virtual skydiving place?” she asks.

“Yes, it’s new.”

“Well, you know, you and I have to try that out, right?”

2. Salvation

Over eight years ago, my oldest daughter became the eighth owner of “a skinny, green Fiesian with a lot of baggage.” The horse had been neglected, and caring for him changed all our lives for the better.

Token turned 20 earlier this year, and a few weeks ago my daughter asked me to take photos as she rode him. The two of them, who found each other when they needed it most, showed off the dressage moves accounting for all the ribbons that now line the walls of Cathy’s bedroom.

They happily splashed in the rain puddles in the ring.

3. Prayer

I did the crossword puzzle in People magazine today, because my daughter used to do that puzzle every week when she lived with us.

Just like I order polenta every time I see it on a restaurant menu, because it reminds me of Nonna… and eat franks and beans, and fudge marble cake, on Uncle Pat’s birthday… and shave every morning the way my Dad taught me.

Today, Advent Sunday, my Mom lit a candle at church. She prayed for the living and the dead in our family. She knows we’re all longing for home; each in our separate way.