Marc Bloom is an award-winning journalist and former magazine editor-in-chief. He is the author of nine books including God on the Starting Line, about his experience as a Jewish coach of a Catholic high school cross-country team. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Marc says the books by his bed include:
A Natural Woman by Carole King. This memoir of the 1960s and ‘70s folk-rock earth mother and one-time James Taylor “sideman” is plainly written with stirring reminiscences, musical insight and honest appraisal of a vulnerability that led her to abusive relationships and four husbands. How ironic that her first big hit was “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” I was surprised to learn that her first husband and co-writer Gerry Goffin wrote the lyric (a “women’s song” if ever there was one) while Carole fashioned the melody. I can still hear the Shirelles singing it with soul at Murray the K rock ‘n’ roll concerts in Brooklyn in the early sixties.
An Accidental Sportswriter, by Robert Lipsyte. For four decades at the New York Times, Lipsyte was not just a sports writer in the “toy department” but the sports writer in America—the reporter who started on the boxing beat and became an Ali confidante and used his bully pulpit to take down the hypocrites and money-grubbers, the “Sports World” denizens and press box enablers who “Godded” up flawed ball players who could barely spit tobacco and scratch themselves at the same time. Lipsyte’s story is softer than his biting columns in distilling a sensitive and yearning search for honesty, artistic freedom and a life worth living through the prism of sports. At one point, Bob Costas tells him to lighten up. Seems that he has.
J. D. Salinger, by Kenneth Slawenski. Every Salinger fan will dive into Slawenski’s comprehensive work for his appreciation of all things Holden et al., and for his finely wrought threads that cast a light on the master: the bruising military service that shaped his world view and informed so many stories; the spiritual quest that trucked no detour from real-ness; the creative honor that spurned many an editor; the cold rejections and contradictions that built to such a potent force in our post-War collective. If you’re going to read one credible explanation of Salinger, the man and his work, that is at once popular and scholarly, this would be it. I’ve promised myself to read it again.
My Song, by Harry Belafonte. In his no-holds-barred memoir, Belafonte, still pissing off the political right in his 80s with his raspy-voiced challenge to the status quo, works his entire oeuvre as artist, activist, humanist. Was there ever a cooler cat? This guy had it all, and he spread the wealth, funding various performers and civil rights initiatives at home and abroad. I’d forgotten just how close Belafonte was to Dr. King and how he threw his weight around, effectively it seemed, in Africa. Belafonte could never stomach Sammy Davis Jr’s jiving with the Rat Pack but he did bail him out of some serious jams. My only quibble is the swipe or two Belafonte levels at his friend and frequent civil rights partner Sidney Poitier, for what Belafonte sees as Poitier’s less than war-like posture.
Nine Stories, by J. D. Salinger. A must-read for an appreciation of Salinger prior to The Catcher in the Rye, these gems, most originally published in The New Yorker, show the emotion Salinger is able to draw with an understated style and how he picks at, as though on guitar strings, the timbre of the heart. For my money, the signature piece is, “For Esme–with Love and Squalor,” a paeon to Salinger’s war-time loneliness as his character so embraces even a faint touch of tenderness from an encounter with a curious young girl.
14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life, by Alberto Salazar and John Brant. This is a perfect time to read up on the all-time great marathoner since the distance runners Salazar currently coaches (Mo Farah of Great Britain by way of Somalia and Galen Rupp of Oregon) just finished first and second, respectively, last month in the Olympic 10,000-meter race in London. Salazar—a Cuban whose father was a Castro confidante but then had a bitter falling out, left the home country and re-settled in the Boston area—uses his miraculous recovery from a heart attack at 48 as a metaphor for his nine lives as a runner and the fight and spiritual enlightenment he’s counted on in various aspects of life. I’ve known Salazar since he was a teen-age running phenom. He’s some piece of work: unyielding to a fault. Credit (blame?) the father for that; but Alberto’s conflicts with his father inform much of the story. I like to think that Alberto is finally at peace, especially after London. I would bet that his athletes’ successes mean more to him than his own successes—even his three straight victories a generation ago in the New York City Marathon.
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. Not that I needed much prodding, but my wife insisted I read this. And then a lecture Krauss delivered at Princeton convinced me. She conveyed a dreamy writer’s embrace of ideas, much as her novel does. This work is written with a remarkably confident hand, sure in its melding of characters and time frames and human links filled with pathos and desire. Krauss is wildly talented with an acrobatic use of language and events. Read this in one or two sittings or you may lose track of who’s who and what’s what (as I did). The actual story defies summary; the accomplishment is heroic.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Reading Franzen, especially for an aspiring novelist, is a requirement. After tackling The Corrections, I’m anxious to see what Franzen has created for an encore. I wonder: how many truly great works does an author of Franzen’s capacity have in him?
Nemesis, by Philip Roth. Keeping up with Roth is to guess where he will go next in his beloved Newark and home-boy Weequahic neighborhood. Recently I ran in Weequahic Park with a black friend of mine who lives nearby. I was the only white person among hundreds of Sunday morning exercisers. In Roth’s day Weequahic was a Jewish enclave, and this is his turf, whether in heaping works like American Pastoral, or this story of a 1944 polio epidemic that mines (inevitably) Jewish suffering and isolation. Soon, this will be another treasured notch in my Roth belt.
Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban, by Jere Van Dyk. As soon as this book came out two years ago, I knew I would eventually dig into it, as I know the author personally and worked with him as a magazine colleague when we were young. Van Dyk, a superb, resourceful journalist who has traveled the world, first ventured into Afghanistan more than 30 years ago. He probably knows the area and its own despotic rules as well as anyone. In 2008, researching a book, he was captured by the Taliban and held for 45 days. He got his story and then some. Van Dyk has a great sense of irony and I expect that will inform the insider’s account he has put together on facing his murderous subjects and getting away with it.
Music, sports, masters, more . . . hope we’ve introduced you to some good reads you may have missed.