A lesson of this day of William and Kate: The universal attraction of a love story

I have not yet seen video of the Royal Wedding, but many people have, apparently. I heard on NPR that about a third of the world’s population, in fact, tuned in. Wow. That’s a big crowd.

There are, of course, many reasons people want to watch such things: the sheer spectacle, the rarity of the event, the historical pageantry. But I’m certain that the irresistable draw of a simple love story is also part of it. I know: the story of William and Kate is not of the average couple. But beyond the royal trappings and media circus, all we really have here is a young women and man falling in love and pledging their lives to each other.

Everyone loves a love story.

That is why I was drawn to the story of Beverly Eckert. At the center of her heart, before and after that horrible day in September 2001, was the person she shared her life with, her partner, her soul mate, her one true love — Sean Rooney. Readers of No Truer Hearts will find out about what Beverly Eckert was like growing up in Buffalo, making a career in the insurance industry, and then living a new sort of life after 9/11 as one of the most effective family member activists. But through all of this they will also see how two people fell in love, made a comfortable and happy life together, and then said goodbye for the final time one clear, chaotic, unforgettable September day.


The Writer’s Almanac: Garrison Keillor’s online oasis of good writing, common sense, and calm

It is rare that I listen to Garrison Keillor’s daily dose of poetry, literary lore and homespun wisdom: The Writer’s Almanac. This is because I don’t usually listen to the local radio station that carries it. (WAMU 88.5, at 6:50 a.m. !!) But when I do hear it, I am always transfixed, and vow to try harder to keep up with the program. So I will occasionally visit the web site, which offers that day’s program in print and audio, as well as a rich and rewarding archive of past material.

Too often, going online can be a hellish experience. It is nice to know there are some places in cyberspace where calm, class, and common sense are the ruling principles.

What writers dream about: raves

It is easy (usually) to be loved by your mother, just for being you. Writers (usually) want to be loved by others for the things they write. This isn’t easy, especially when the others know good writing when they see it.

This book review in the Washington Post caught my attention. It raves about a new book by a new novelist: An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy.

Every once in a great while, a novel comes along to remind you why… you read.

…[A]s you slip into the book’s pages, you sense you are entering a singular creation, a richly populated world. Curiosity overcomes you. Before long, you are surrendering to the voice of a confident narrator, the arc of an unfamiliar story. And then, suddenly, you are swept away in a tale that is bristling with incident, steeped in the human condition, buffeted by winds of fate.

Phew! Who can resist a write-up like that? I’d rush on over to amazon right now, if I didn’t have a bit of writing to do myself. And then at night dream about getting a review like this…

Some Gene therapy for dog lovers: A touching ode to the old

Here’s more evidence that Gene Weingarten is not only one of our greatest humorists, but an essayist of great depth and skill as well. His meditation on old dogs is, by turns, witty, irreverant, loving, and deeply moving. It hits especially close to home for all of us who have ever had an old dog as part of the family. The piece was published in 2008, but I was recently reminded of it when a friend told me about the loss of one of her beloved dogs.

We have Apollo, adopted nearly ten years ago, and now a loyal part of the household. He is the brother my son never had. He is a scooper-upper of food scraps from the floor extraordinaire. His mild and loving temperament is admired near and far. People passing him on the sidewalk stop and say things like, “What a beautiful dog!” He seldom barks, never bites, and always, always has plenty of tail-wagging and warm nuzzling to offer friends, family and strangers alike. He always, always cleans his plate, and is happy to clean anyone else’s plate as well. And every morning, rain or sleet or shine, he is bouncing by the side door, ready to take me for my morning constitutional.

But Apollo is getting on in years, and we wonder how much longer he will grace us with his dignified and cheerful company. And so we treasure the time he has given us, and welcome every wag of his tail. Here is how Gene sets us off on one of his last walks with his old dog, Harry.

Not long before his death, Harry and I headed out for a walk that proved eventful. He was nearly 13, old for a big dog. Walks were no longer the slap-happy Iditarodsof his youth, frenzies of purposeless pulling in which we would cast madly off in all directions, fighting for command. Nor were they the exuberant archaeological expeditions of his middle years, when every other tree or hydrant or blade of grass held tantalizing secrets about his neighbors. In his old age, Harry had transformed his walk into a simple process of elimination — a dutiful, utilitarian, head-down trudge. When finished, he would shuffle home to his ratty old bed, which graced our living room because Harry could no longer ascend the stairs. On these walks, Harry seemed oblivious to his surroundings, absorbed in the arduous responsibility of placing foot before foot before foot before foot. But this time, on the edge of a small urban park, he stopped to watch something. A man was throwing a Frisbee to his dog. The dog, about Harry’s size, was tracking the flight expertly, as Harry had once done, anticipating hooks and slices by watching the pitch and roll and yaw of the disc, as Harry had done, then catching it with a joyful, punctuating leap, as Harry had once done, too.

Harry sat. For 10 minutes, he watched the fling and catch, fling and catch, his face contented, his eyes alight, his tail a-twitch. Our walk home was almost jaunty.

I have learned a lot from Apollo. One of my most enduring lessons was the way dogs can open up a direct channel to the hearts of humans. The eyes of toddlers would brighten as they belted out a “woof, woof!” cheerily from their strollers upon catching sight of Apollo. Older children petted and hugged him tight on their first meeting, as if they’d known him forever. Adults would break out into a smile, much more willing to greet a man and his dog than just a man walking by himself. And me? I dread the day I get up in the morning and I will have to take my constitutional alone.

Laura Hillenbrand: A master at making a true story sing

Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit" and "Unbroken."

It is inspiring to watch a master at work. Here is sentence one in chapter one of Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful rendering of the story of a horse, Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way.

Boom. You’re hooked. One carefully crafted sentence leads you seamlessly into another. The end of one chapter has you at the end of a swing on a trapeze, your whole being eagerly reaching out for the beginning of the next chapter. Hillenbrand’s latest book is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, and her style is just as vivid and compelling.

In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house in Torrance, California, a twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening.

The boy is Louis Zamperini, a mischievous child who becomes a world-class runner, an airman in World War II, and ultimately a survivor against incredible odds. Zamperini’s life story stands as a testament to courage and grit. But in Hillenbrand’s capable hands it becomes as well a work of art. This is what literary non-fiction is all about: the truth told beautifully.

The “Three Cups of Tea” tempest, Part II: The question of authorship

Who really writes the books we read? And do we deserve to know?

Let’s start by returning to the Three Cups of Tea kerfuffle. In addition to the problems already mentioned, it is now clear that the cover of the book itself is a lie. It lists as co-authors Greg Mortenson (the one who established all those schools for girls) and David Oliver Relin (an experienced journalist whose work focuses on children’s issues). But in 2008, Relin was interviewed by Etude, a journal focused on “new voices in literary nonfiction” and hosted by the University of Oregon. Relin said that he did all the work of researching and writing the book, so naturally he was expecting to be credited as the sole author. But Viking insisted on including Mortenson’s name as co-author, even over Relin’s objections. Relin said that decision was “the only negative thing” about the whole project.

Who wouldn’t be upset about sharing credit for months and months of work with someone who only contributed some extensive interviews? But this sort of thing happens all the time. And even worse than this case is the Ghost Writer Syndrome, in which publishers give all credit to someone who did not write one word of a book. Sadly, the ghost writer has long been a fixture on the literary scene. Publishers for years have hitched the profit potentional of a celebrity or other notable person (like a president) to the literary skills of a professional writer. The frequent result? Truckloads of cash for the publisher, with some trickling down the food chain to the person who did all the work. And everyone winks at the subterfuge. (Sarah Palin write her own book? Now that would be a hoot!)

Some publishers make an effort at honesty by labeling collaborations appropriately: “as told to” or “Celebrity Name with Ghost Writer.” But others don’t, which I think is a mistake. Authors and publishers of non-fiction ask their readers to believe them. Doesn’t this request ring hollow if the authorship of the book is not spelled out? I’m not suggesting that anyone who contributed to the book should be listed as an author. But they should, at the very least, be mentioned somewhere inside. Then the bond of trust between author and reader can rise on a more firm foundation.

Humor is for real: Thank God for Gene Weingarten

There is a book written by Sarah Palin biographer Lynn Vincent (and fronted by Evangelist preacher Colton Burpo) called Heavan is for Real, high atop the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. That’s right non-fiction. The God-fearing folks behind this publishing phenomenon claim the book records the “memories” of a visit beyond the Pearly Gates by the minister’s young son while he was under anesthesia during an operation.

Oh. Where to begin? There is so much material here, starting with the implications for the republic of so many people hopping on for this “real” literary ride. A good starting point for that analysis is a recent entry by Washington Post blogger, Susan Jacoby.

But there is hope. The miraculous rise of this small book also inspired Gene Weingarten to produce another one of his brilliant humor columns in the Washington Post Magazine. In the most recent column, Gene describes how he writes to his publisher to report that he had choked to death on a Cheez Doodle, but came back to life with memories of a heaven even more fantastical than the one in the Burpo book. The account started out with John Lennon greeting him at the Pearly Gates, and went hilariously upward from there

Grete Waitz, RIP: A running life marked by grit, grace and generosity of spirit

Grete Waitz: world-champion runner, mentor, role model

It is almost impossible improve on real life. That is one of the reasons I find it so frustrating when people try to embellish it or flat out lie about it.

Here is a prime example of a story that cannot be improved upon: long-distance runner Grete Waitz, who left this beautiful world April 19. After reading about her inspiring accomplishments, my jaw dropped: “Wow!”

After years of dominating women’s distance running, she was contemplating retiring from the sport at the ripe old age of 25. But her husband encouraged her to enter the New York City Marathon in 1978. Grete Waitz’s longest race until then had been 12 miles.

According to her obit in the Washington Post:

Mrs. Waitz and her husband, who was her coach, treated the trip as a second honeymoon. The night before the marathon, they ate a four-course meal of shrimp cocktail, filet mignon, red wine and ice cream.

The next day, Mrs. Waitz set a blistering pace. She kept it up through all 26 miles and 385 yards, enduring dehydration, cramps and a level of screaming pain with which she had previously been unacquainted.

“I’ll never, never do this again!” she yelled at her husband as she crossed the finish line, blonde pigtails swaying.

But she had won the race in two hours and 32 minutes, shattering the world record by more than two minutes and inaugurating a new career as a marathoner and an international star.

“To be suddenly a hero on a world basis was hard for me to understand,” she later said. “God gave me a gift. I got the chance to use it. I felt uncomfortable with the credit.”

Humble, gracious, but tough — that was Grete Waitz. One of her training techniques? “I prefer to train in the dark, cold winter months when it takes a stern attitude to get out of bed before dawn and head out the door to below-freezing weather conditions,” she once told an interviewer. “Anyone can run on a nice, warm, brisk day.”

Update: A profile of Grete Waitz by a friend and fellow-runner.