The Best Book Review Ever!

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The best way to review a book is to really, really look at a book…really, really experience the book. Want to know one way this can be done? Read on. Think this is something not worth knowing? Oh, go ahead and read on anyhow—you might surprise yourself, and me.

Let’s pick a book at random. Hmm, here’s a copy of ROBINSON CRUSOE by Daniel Defoe. This particular title falls into that rare category of BOOKS THAT HAVE NEVER BEEN OUT OF PRINT, in this case for centuries. Something to think about: If a book has lasted this long and people are still attracted to it, there must be something about it worth experiencing. The test of time guarantees you will probably learn something delightful or frightening that you don’t already know.

Pick up the book. Well, it’s not as heavy as it appears. It’s a 1930′s reprint printed on pulpy, light paper. Sniff the paper. It kind of smells like a fragrant but intriguing old memory.

Look at the paper. Even though it’s aged, it’s only faintly tinted. The pages are still crisp and intact and ready to be read. Check the hardback cover. Nice. It looks practically new, which means someone has taken good care of it. The print size is large and easy to follow.

Look at the publishing information. For one thing, we learn that the actual title of the book is THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE. If you do a little research you learn that this novel is based on an actual incident—there was a man marooned for years on a desert island who lived to tell about it!

Look: the book is illustrated by Frances Brundage, a very popular artist of the day who knew how to make you wish to turn the page and read further. And the publisher is Saalfield of Akron, Ohio, creator of many books for families and young people. CRUSOE, though action-packed, bloody and exciting, was always considered to be a tale for young people, as was HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. It is fashionable to keep these titles in the youth section of bookshops, even though the themes are very adult.

Oh, and this particular edition of CRUSOE has a beautifully color-illustrated dust jacket, depicting Robinson in hand-made garb trudging along, musket at the ready, full-bearded and shaded by a handmade umbrella—long before sunscreen was invented.  The jacket also advertises other books that CRUSOE lovers might enjoy, such as BLACK BEAUTY, TREASURE ISLAND, PINOCCHIO, MOBY-DICK, ROBIN HOOD, KING ARTHUR…all still in print after generations.

Now, any good book detective will still examine this volume for other clues to its past—this being more exciting than treasure-hunting or metal detecting. If you examine old books carefully, you may come up with such things as love letters, pressed flowers, mustard stains, tobacco odor, old folding money, bills of laden, scribbled secret notes, beautiful bookmarks, matchbook covers, lapel pins, ticket stubs, etc., etc. It’s worth the search!

What about the genealogy of the book? Look for names written inside, dates jotted down, critical observations in the margins. This is like getting two books for the price of one!

Feel the texture of the pages as you turn them? This tactile act will become a part of your memory of the book. Not to mention your surroundings while reading. Look around and spot your favorite blankie, your cat, the stool you rest your feet on, that great painting you love so much, the dingy lampshade you keep meaning to replace…all this will stay with you, embedded in your sweet remembrance of great books past.

This concludes my book review, with one additional observation—take my word for it, ROBINSON CRUSOE is one heck of a good read and, unlike other reviewers, I will not spoil if for you by revealing anything else. You can grumble if you don’t like it, or you can re-read it on the assumption that you didn’t quite get it the first time. There’s something there to enjoy. Like treasure-hunting, you just have to keep digging and never, never give up

© 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

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Serious Clowns Railride Off into the Sunset

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Once a year, the Serious Clowns converge upon Reed Books/The Museum of Fond Memories. This has been going on for decades. Sometimes I’m prepared, sometimes it slips my mind, this convergence of Serious Clowns.

The front door of the shop will chime and in straggles a sad-looking, faintly tattered young man, forlornly casting his gaze about the place as if searching for something specific.

I greet him and ask what I can help him find.

“Circus things?” he timidly answers and asks at the same time.

“Sure,” I say, relieved that I now know who he is. I lead him to a small bookcase wherein awaits circus programs, circus posters, circus books, circus circulars…all things circus that accumulate in this one place. He happily focuses on the trove and I leave him to his bliss.

He’s another clown from the travelling Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, an annual visitor to town whose off-duty hours as a performer are filled with gentle obsessions, quiet probes for more circus paraphernalia to take with him on the circus train—his home for much of the year. Later in the day, other clowns in various states of sadness and seriousness and tatteredness amble into the shop, some remembering from years past where I keep the goodies, others, new at the trade, needing to ask. After the first one, I’m ready to help them. They are so easy to spot.

I enjoy these clowns. They remind me of my childhood generation’s zeal for all things circus, our certain knowledge that running away to join the circus would be the noblest and scariest thing we could possibly do. Because of the scary part, we never did it…but the dream never dies.

Scattered conversations with these clowns and the buddies they sometimes bring with them—animal trainers and acrobats and musicians—allow me to learn about the actual life of modern circus employees. Gone are the days of sawdust and canvas tents and disheveled elephants…but still present is the tramp-like life of living in a tiny train compartment, never settling down, missing out on life-long relationships, depending upon fellow travelers for friendship and support.

These clowns are sturdy survivors estranged from their roots, and I find them to be bright, sensitive and extremely serious about their comedic lives. They collect books on famous comedians, ephemera about carnivals and circuses…and they know their profession’s history very well.

Their visits remind me of one constant factor in my lifelong love of the past: everybody has a story, everybody has many stories, and those everybodies who get really lucky find a way to tell their stories in non-threatening ways. As any performer knows, it’s easier to tell stories to strangers than to family, friends and neighbors. And there are no repercussions when the audience goes home, or when you the performer ride away on the rails to another town.

Like the Lone Ranger, you can come to town, do your duty, make someone happier for a moment, then quickly leave before being punished for your good deeds. And, like the Lone Ranger, you can glance over at your companions and say, “Our job is done here!” And off you go in a cloud of dust, or rather a mist of diesel fuel and scattering gravel

(c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

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Surviving the Red Mud Snake Filled Storm Center Ditch

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I am sliding down the muddy red-clay slope of The Ditch, and wondering whether I’ll land head-first or rump-first on the bottom. It’s a split-second skid that lasts an hour during the rewinding playbacks of my memory.

This is back in the late 1940′s of my elementary school childhood, back when things are still clear and mysterious and enormous and simple all at the same time.

The Ditch is deep and long to a small kid my size, and within it ranges water moccasins, a diversity of insects, swirls of soft plant matter, tadpoles and…Germs. Germs are invisible, but we kids think we can see them, since Mother warns us about them all the time—”Wash your hands, get rid of those germs before supper!” or “Flush the commode and wash those germs away,” or “Don’t pass your cough germs to anybody else, wash up!”

So, the Ditch we play in is all the more fascinating because of its threats and germs, because of its constant humorous surprises—ever looked real close and long at a frog or a smooth stone or a mudpie? All science and theology and philosophy lie dormant inside them until  you decide to revive and employ them.

Anyhow, I’m walking home from school in a driving rain, holding onto one telephone pole after another to keep from blowing away in the strongest wind I’ve ever encountered. At the edge of The Ditch, which runs parallel to the retired Army barracks  serving as Northington School in Tuscaloosa, I squint down to see how far the water has risen, and that’s when I slip and fall—and eventually land.

The bottom of The Ditch blocks some of the wind and rain, so I’m kind of safe, even with the thought of those snakes and critters creeping about. And by now I don’t even remember whether I’ve landed on rump or head. Now it’s all about the mud and trying to decide whether to stay and slosh around or head home and get clean and dry.

At last, it seems more prudent to get the heck out of The Ditch and traverse the Night on Bald Mountain landscape to security. When you’re this age, you can always find a way to climb a slippery bank. You’re just full of energy and adrenalin and vim, and you don’t have enough experience to know that sometimes you can’t make it out of a tough situation alone. You just do it.

Just recently, I stand where The Ditch used to be, thinking about another storm that hit deadcenter at this very spot, a storm that destroyed most of the Northington neighborhood I used to play in, a storm that was not as forgiving as the one I survived way back then.  I realize that coins flip, fate decides what’s what, some kids get to live another half century or so after a crisis…and some don’t.

Thanks to this particular flip of the coin, I live to tell you the tale of one kid whose love of getting through the day drove unabated through the years, pretty much the way most kids most everywhere get through the years…by enjoying the mud and chaos, but by also appreciating the love of an anti-germ Mom, a nice hot bath, dry clothes, and dreams about what adventure might take place the next day, if you’re lucky

(c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

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Cone of Reticence Meets Passionate Poets

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This afternoon, temporarily forced outside my zone of comfort (my Cone of Reticence), I spent two hours absorbing the creative poetry and energy of a roomful of high school students.

The teenagers had much to be passionate about—they each wrote and performed a three-minute poem inspired by Birmingham’s violent and bitter civil rights struggles of 1963 A.D., just half a century ago. They weren’t there when the conflicts occurred, but their empathy for the citizens who endured that era was immense. Loud and boisterous exclamations laced with whispers and sobs framed the afternoon, and nobody—nobody—left unmoved.

Their teachers can hardly be praised or compensated enough for the effort that continues to pour into these special classrooms, obviously classrooms where students are free to safely express themselves on the most disturbing of subjects.

I felt honored to be there, and I hope the librarians and teachers and family and friends who spent the afternoon with me felt this specific honor, too.

There are sanctuaries such as this everywhere in our land…sanctuaries where freedom of expression can thrive uncriticized, away from the prying eyes of those who are disturbed when emotional and unorderly feelings are verbalized. Small groups of people who literally believe in freedom and are unthreatened by its expression are our true heroes.

As Johann Lavater said, “Each particle of matter is an immensity; each leaf a world; each insect an inexplicable compendium.”

We are all immensities.

So be it. When the world twirls about another and another time, a hundred more poets will be born, another myriad will be forgotten. At least those of us who are aware that we are alive will be humbled, thus wizened, by the thought that there’s always another poet on the way to replace the one who is exiting. We just have to embrace and enjoy the poetic presence in our lives, in order to diffuse the furies and nurture the kindly meek

(c) 2013 A.D. by Jim Reed

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