The book arrived in the mail and I went right to the dedication page hoping I’d see what I saw.
“To Dan Weaver and Michael Caputo, a small token of my esteem and affection.”
I do not know who Dan Weaver is, but Michael Caputo is one of my best friends, my Little League coach when I was 10 (and he all of 14) and my tennis partner for the past 45 years. My son is named Michael because of Michael Caputo. My kids call him “Uncle Mike.”
I am well aware of the supportive role Michael Caputo has played in the life of author Holly Van Leuven, his former student at Pittston Area High School, but knowing him as I do, I am sure he was both surprised and humbled at Holly’s tribute in this, her first book. He doesn’t look for or expect things like that.
Holly’s book, “Ray Bolger: More Than a Scarecrow,” is sitting next to me right now. I knew it was coming, but still get goosebumps just touching it. Through updates from Mike, I know Holly has been researching the life of Ray Bolger and writing his biography for nearly 10 years. The result is now available from Oxford University Press and has brought Holly the inaugural Hazel Rowley Prize awarded by the Biographers International Organization. Writing those words gives me goosebumps as well.
See, I also know of Holly Van Leuven through another person I love, my late uncle, Eddie Strubeck. When a high school kid, Holly joined Uncle Eddie as regular volunteers to clean Blessed Sacrament Church, their parish in Hughestown. He thought the world of her.
As do most, when I think of Ray Bolger I think of his most famous role, The Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” But from what little I’ve read of Holly’s book thus far, I realize, as the title suggests, he was so much more. In the introduction, Holly quotes an article in The New York Times: “His long, rubbery legs tell a story of their own.” To which she adds, “This was exactly as he intended.” Holly probably knows more about Ray Bolger than anyone ever has.
Each week in the Book Review section of The New York Times, a writer is interviewed in a feature titled “By the Book.” The first question is almost always, “What books are on your nightstand?” I don’t have books stacked on a nightstand, but I do have a pile on the floor. On top is Holly’s “Ray Bolger.” It is first on my list of summer reading and will most likely be finished by the time this column appears.
I cannot say the same for the book I began at the start of last summer. On the recommendation of my friend Paul Pugliese, another tennis player, I bought “Grant,” the biography of the 18th president and Civil War general by Ron Chernow. It’s 959 pages, of which I’ve read 694. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, and, though it weighs about as much as a cinder block, even took it on an airplane. But it kind of wears me out, making it much too easy to keep putting it aside for page-turning novels, like “Old Man’s War,” sent to me by my son, and “The Kite Runner” and “The Book Thief,” both given to me by students. These three are no longer in my pile. The first I passed along and the other two I returned to their owners. But “Grant” awaits. I must tidy that up.
I have a few others I am in the middle of. For most of my life I would never read more than one book at a time. Turning away from something I was reading in favor of something new always felt a little like cheating on a girlfriend. But a friend, who always has three or more books going, convinced me otherwise. “You have more than one type of food on your plate, don’t you?” he said. “You take a bite of this and a bite of that. It’s the same with books.”
So now sitting on my plate with several bites out of each are “Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harrari, “Thank You for Being Late,” by Thomas Friedman, and “The Sun and the Moon,” by Matthew Goodman, a book about the newspaper “The Sun” in 1830s’ New York City given to me by former newspaper colleague Ed Philbin. All will be completed before fall sets in.
But probably not before I get at “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall, loaned to me by fellow professor Andy Petonak, “E.B. White,” a biography of the author of “Charlotte’s Web,” by Scott Elledge, that I picked up for 50 cents at a Pittston Library book sale, and “This Hallowed Ground,” by Bruce Catton, yet another book on my favorite topic, the Civil War, given to me by Martin Sowa.
Then there’s Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Yes, I’ve read it before, but James O’Malley, a former student now directing public relations for the Bucks County DA’s office, found a really old hardcover version of it for me, and I’m dying to crack it open. When I do, I know I won’t be able to put it down.
Finally, still in the pile is the little 184-page book “Why Sinatra Matters,” by Pete Hamill. But it won’t be there long. I read it in one sitting and all the while kept thinking I have to send it to Michael Caputo. I know he’ll enjoy it. Probably not as much as Holly Van Leuven’s “Ray Bolger,” however. That one’s in a class by itself.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com