A Walk to Remember Seasonably Cliched



A Walk to Remember (1999)

By Nicholas Sparks

Warner Books, 240 pages





I occasionally like to read outside of my comfort zone, so when I saw a free Nicholas Spark book, I grabbed it. I know he’s a romance writer, which A Walk to Remember certainly is. It’s also religious in content, which is fine by me, though overt religiosity makes me nervous because of what how it’s abused. Many insist that organized religion is the root of all evil. That’s overstated, but it’s true that adherents frequently behave barbarically. Islam is troubled by terrorist groups (Hamas, Al Qaida, and El Shabab); ultra-conservative Jews interpret Zionism as an excuse for imperialism; Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims war with one another; and legions of Christians equate material success with faith, pick up guns in Jesus’ name, or behave with the intolerance of Old Testament Pharisees.


A Walk to Remember isn’t great literature, but it seems appropriate for the season. It is set in 1958 and was inspired by Sparks’ sister. Sparks was born in 1965, but he gets a lot of things about 1958 right. It is set in the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, during a period in which school prayer was legal, as were Christian-themed school plays. Its protagonist Landon Carter is the only offspring of a U.S. Congressman and a homemaker mother. They live in a historic home that’s large and well-appointed, though not quite a mansion. Landon’s life revolves around high school and he’s semi-popular, though he’s a slacker, is bright but not a scholar, and hangs out with athletes though he’s not one.


Sparks slathers on the nostalgia of the mythical Golden Fifties. In Beaufort, you can belong to any religion you want, as long as it’s Baptist. He and his family attend a Southern Baptist denomination headed by the widowed Reverend Hegbert Sullivan. Naughtiness for Landon and his friends involves sneaking into the cemetery to eat boiled peanuts, talk about “girls,” and engage in needling and braggadocio. Some occasionally drink a beer. Horror of horrors, Landon’s ex-girlfriend is now dating a guy who is in his 20s, drives a hot car, and wears a white T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled into the sleeve. Shocked yet?


Landon is a senior working on his nonchalance. His father forces him to run for class president to bolster his chances of getting into the University of North Carolina. He doesn’t really want the role, but this is a “Yes, sir!” era, so he does and wins. This places him in what passes for the high school social whirl, though he’s still without a steady girlfriend. He knows who he doesn’t want to date: Jamie Sullivan, the minister’s daughter. “Old Hegbert,” as the kids call him, is stern, serious, and routinely works himself into a lather about the dangers of fornication. Jamie is forbidden to wear makeup or allow anyone in the house unless her father is home. Not that any peers would want to hang with her. She’s a mousy brown-sweatered loner never seen without her Bible whose idea of a good time is going to the orphanage to read to the children or perform other good deeds. In other words, she’s a classic Goody Two-Shoes. Landon does, however, take her to a school dance because he can’t find another date.


Circumstances will force the lives of Landon and Jamie to intersect again. The upcoming play is a yearly Christmas pageant that Old Hegbert wrote and Jamie wants it to be special for her father, as she will play an annunciation angel. The male lead, though, stutters and is terrible, so Jamie asks Landon to tryout as a “favor.” She also makes him promise he won’t fall in love with her. No worries! He’s about as withdrawn as he can be and sometimes is downright rude. You can take it from there!


The novel is riddled with cliches, stereotypes, and predictable turns–except for a central one involving Jamie. Why bother with it? First of all, you can gobble it like a pint of ice cream and in not much more time. Second, it has the wholesomeness of “The Gift of the Magi” and the redemptive feel of “A Christmas Carol.” Finally, it’s about a 57-year-old recalling how he learned to be a decent person who does the right thing. I’m down with that, no matter what ideology inspires it.


Rob Weir   


Somebody's Fool Completes Russo's Trilogy



Somebody’s Fool  (2023)

By Richard Russo

Knopf, 464 pages





Somebody’s Fool completes the North Bath, New York trilogy. Even if you’ve only seen the movie version of book one, Nobody’s Fool (2018), you know that author Richard Russo is a keen observer of blue-collar life. In book two, protagonist Donald Sullivan dies. Somebody’s Fool picks up the pieces through Sully’s son Peter, a divorced man frustrated in his academic career. He moves into the house “Sully” inherited with the idea of restoring it, does some part-time teaching, and takes a journalism gig. His plan is to flip the house and move back to New York. Un huh.


Somebody’s Fool is a ghost story without a specter. Even ten years after his death much of the town of North Bath operates according to a WWSD principle: What Would Sully Do? As as one character asks, “…what if dead wasn’t the same as gone?” Sully was certainly not a model citizen, but his stubbornness, his support for underdogs, and his crankiness made him magnetic in a rough town that had seen better days. It’s still a given that not just anyone can sit in Sully’s stool at Birdie’s. Now North Bath is slated to be absorbed by its more affluent neighbor, Schuyler Springs. That news is greeted with all the enthusiasm of being told that root canal surgery is needed. Who cares if North Bath is broke and decaying? It boils down to culture–blue collar versus the upwardly mobile. What will happen to blue-collar bars and diners?


As in the previous two books, Russo weaves parallel lives into his story. Police Chief Doug Raymer is about to lose his job, but try telling that to people in North Bath who call him when a man is found hanging at a closed resort. His on/off African American girlfriend Charice is the new chief in Schuyler Springs, but she has issues of her own, not the least of which are resistance to her authority, confusion over how she feels about Doug, and her OCD brother Jerome. He is highly educated, erudite, and is normally meticulously dressed, but he reappears as unkempt, disheveled, and tottering on the edge of being unhinged. Former deputy Del (Conrad Delgado) still sees Doug as chief, though he too is working across the river and is aware enough to know that he’s the butt of contempt from other officers; he’s just not savvy enough to do anything about it. He does, however, have a new girlfriend who is trying to free herself from her abusive husband. Even dim-witted Rub is back, and there are surprising revelations about him.  The same is true of Carl, Sully’s old boss, who has fallen from crooked grace.


Throughout, locals find themselves musing upon one of the late Sully’s pearls of wisdom: “Do some f***ing thing. If that doesn’t work, do something else.” Peter especially needs to heed that advice when the children his ex-wife refused to let him see come back into play. Peter is also forced to confront dilemmas I suspect many readers will recognize. How many of us tried very hard to be unlike our parents, only to fear that we are more like them than we thought? Who are the people who have their act together and who are those who only imagine they do? How do we adjust when we discover that what we think we wanted isn’t really what we wanted at all?


In other words, there’s quite a lot going on in Somebody’s Fool, including solving the mystery of the hanging victim. Even Russo’s title is not as simple as it sounds. Who’s the fool? The snap answer is that it’s Peter. Perhaps, but the more we read the more we come to suspect that everybody is somebody’s fool. If you take that path, then the novel’s purpose shifts to sorting good fools from the bad. 


As I have said in previous reviews of Russo books, he’s one of the few authors who never disappoints me. As always, Russo interjects enough humor to make certain we never grow overly serious or sad. My one small criticism of Somebody’s Fool is that it starts to tick au courant politically correct boxes as it nears its end. It’s not a matter of whether or not readers agree with such positions, but how they’d play in North Bath. Individuals change, but does a whole town?


Rob Weir


Why Holiday Music Bugs Me


A few weeks ago I expressed the view that Christmas music makes me unjoyful. Several people suggested I was a Santa-hatted Grinch, a spoil sport, a grump, or all three rolled into one. I’m not chastened, but I am explaining my reasons.


Reason # 1: Fatigue. You might have noticed that Thanksgiving has pretty much disappeared from the holiday hype machine. That’s weird because it’s the least controversial holiday we have–no battling faith systems, wars, or commercialism. Because there’s no pause between Halloween and Christmas, we start hearing Christmas music in stores well before the end of the October sugar rush. It’s bad enough the days are growing shorter; I don’t even want to think of dashing through the snow before I’ve finished raking leaves.


Reason # 2 is that I’m sick of hearing the same old/same old year after year. Have you ever sat in a church pew and wondered if there were any hymns written after the 18th century? Most Christmas carols aren’t quite that bad, but they’re close. “Jingle Bell Rock?” Are you kidding me? It dates from 1957 and if I want rock from that era, I’ll queue The Everly Brothers! “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?” Country cornball from 1952. “Silver Bells?” Two years earlier still. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” 1949. A majority of the religious tunes­: “Away in a Manger,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Little Town of Bethlehem,” etc.–come from the 19th century or earlier. I’d say let’s modernize the genre except…


Reason # 3: Schmatz. Christmas songs from pop and rock stars is the biggest affront to the ears since elevator music. I almost lost it when Dylan put out a holiday album, but my gag reflexes engage no matter who does them: Andrea Bocelli, Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi, Nora Jones, Carrie Underwood…. It gets even worse when a celebrity such as Kelly Clarkson or Cher tries to write a new Christmas song destined not to become a classic. Just. Don’t. Those make me go full airsickness bag.


Reason # 4: Faux Comfort. Despite stated beliefs in innovation and newness, most Americans thrive on familiarity and repetition. They certainly don’t want anything that pricks the comfort bubble, which is why songs such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Circle of Steel” or Joni Mitchell’s “River” are not among their most-played compositions. Lines such as, “Deck the Halls was the song they sang/In the flat next door where they shout all day/She tips her gin bottle back till it’s gone,” or, “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down the trees/They’re putting up reindeer/Singing songs of joy and peace/I wish I had a river/I could skate away on” do indeed burst imaginary nostalgia trips. No wonder legendary editor Peter De Vries once commented, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”


Reason # 5: The Forgotten Man. One thing Christmas carols are not about is the birth of Jesus. December 25 was a crock from the get-go. There’s no record of when Jesus was born, though sometime around April is a better bet given the efforts of centuries of theologians seeking to show how the Old Testament prefigured the New. Their exegesis would suggest a Christmas/Easter parallel. Christmas became associated with December in the first century to prevent Christian converts from celebrating the considerably more libertine and raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Here in the USA, it’s hard to refute observations that Christmas is really Santa-based consumer capitalism–unless you think the Wise Men came to the manger bearing Amazon gift cards, L. L. Bean sweaters, and fruit cake destined for the compost bin. (Is fruit cake myrrh?)


Surprise! Last week, I actually went caroling–in a pub. I enjoyed it because it was heavy on public domain songs. They’re older than mall muzak but you don’t hear them as often. Do you have any idea how many “Twelve Days of Christmas” don’t have any “five golden rings?” Here’s one titled, “Green Grow the Rashes,” not to be confused with a ballad from Robert Burns.


Gathering with friends and sharing food and drink is nice. So too are presents, lights, decorations, and belting out choruses to less familiar songs. Just hold the mall carols.


Rob Weir