It's time for the World Economic Forum at Davos!
Have you been? Neither have I.
But then, it's not ideally suited to freelance writers and first-time novelists for a number of reasons. One, I don't own a plane. Two, I'm not the CEO of an incredibly large corporation. Three, I'm not Bono.
Davos is all about incredibly rich, powerful people talking about how incredibly rich, powerful people can solve the problems of less incredibly rich, less powerful people, while at the same time helping incredibly rich, powerful people become more incredibly rich and powerful.
Interestingly, according to today's Guardian newspaper, British CEOs are among the world's most downbeat, which I thought was sad.
I think I'd like Davos. It'd be a new experience, and I find lately I need new experiences to try things that take me outside of my comfort zone. I find it too easy to get into a routine, to forget to be present wandering the same path to the supermarket or the subway.
Also, Davos is in Switzerland and I generally have a very positive view of the Swiss, though in point of fact the only Swiss person living or dead that I can think of is Roger Federer. The other thing that comes to mind when I hear the word Switzerland is the Orson Welles quote from the movie The Third Man:
"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
So I didn't go to Davos today, though the weather here in Brooklyn is certainly alpine, with the temperature hovering around 20 degrees with wind gusts that make it feel a lot colder.
What I did, instead, was take the J train to Williamsburg to have coffee with Jami Attenberg, author of the New York Times bestseller The Middlesteins.
We'd never met before but Jami was kind enough to agree to do a Q&A with me tomorrow at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It was a big deal for me to meet with her. It was also a big deal because today is the day my first novel goes on sale (a point I would very much like to convey to the Davos attendees).
Jami is the kind of person who likes helping others. She took time away from her writing to have a coffee with a stranger. She's warm and funny. We spoke for an hour and a half or so, at first about our Q&A tomorrow evening, Jami taking notes, and then about books and life, and then about the lameness of the scone I'd ordered. We parted ways outside, in the cold, the wind whipping up off the East River a few blocks west.
On the train on the way back, I was reading the last pages of her book. It's the story of a family, the Middlestein's, in suburban Chicago. The mother, Edie, is morbidly obese; she simply can't stop eating, to the point where it destroys her marriage and makes life very difficult for her two grown children. That's a bland, factual synopsis and doesn't do justice to the prose, the storytelling, the way she plays with time, taking us forward then backward in the story, telling it from different perspectives through different characters.
Why do we read?
Far smarter people than myself have answered this question. I read — and I'm talking about novels here — because I want to understand more fully what it means to be human. It's not for escape. Quite the opposite. Books do that for me, whether it's Alan Furst or John le Carre or Virginia Woolf or Leo Tolstoy.
What Jami has done in 272 pages in The Middlesteins is show us a world, generations, lives, pain, love, humor, death.
I looked up as the train crossed the Williamsburg Bridge to see sweeping views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, thin white clouds moving fast across a sharp blue sky. I was looking but I was only half seeing. I was thinking about her book. About something a character had said. It stopped me, made me feel what the character was feeling. I was right there. The view was stunning. But I looked down at the page, continued reading. That's where the real experience was.
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John Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for 17 years. He has also been a contributor to the New Yorker since 1999. Some of his work appears in a collection of the New Yorker’s humor writing, Disquiet, Please! He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
John Kenney is the author of Truth in Advertising