Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Polysyllabic Spree

The Polysyllabic Spree
Nick Hornby (2004, Believer Books)

"There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you’re a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I’m beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they’re a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy."

Here's another wonderful book about books, this one a collection of Nick Hornby's reviews for the Believer magazine. The column is actually called "Stuff I've Been Reading", which sums it up nicely. "The Polysyllabic Spree" is Hornby's name for the editorial staff of the magazine; it's a spoof on 'the Polyphonic Spree', which Google informs me is a musical group with some cult-like attributes. The point of the jibes about the Believer staff is that they are a high-minded bunch, whose philosophy is "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." That can be a hardship on a reviewer: from time to time Hornby has to mark a gap in his list of books read, as "Unnamed Literary Novel (abandoned.)" even if that's a kindness the novel's author doesn't deserve. After all, says Hornby, "maybe a literary novel is just a novel that doesn't really work, and an art film merely a film that people don't want to see..." Hey!
I admired the breadth of Hornby's reading over these fourteen months. He read several literary biographies, and Checkov's letters; and the poetry of Tony Hoagland (whom I had also somehow missed. He's good, somewhat in the vein of Billy Collins, an observation I intend as a compliment to both. Hornby himself, for that matter, sounds like Stephen Fry.) He read Mystic River, and Moneyball, and a book about blockbuster movies. And he thinks Dickens is the best novelist ever, but only just got around to David Copperfield.
Each month's column is headed by a lists of Books Bought, and Books Read. Naturally, the lists don't always overlap, let alone match--this is a comfort to me, not that I thought I was the only one. Here he is on the books that don't even make the To Read pile: "But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit non-fiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal."
Well, one of the top three, I'd say, up there with music and friends. Wishing you the joys of all three--

Emailed October 2006

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War
Joe Bageant (2007, Crown Publishers)

"I would like to take the reader someplace closer to the lives of America's homegrown working folks than our media ever ventures, closer to those whose kids' high school trip is to Iraq, who are two paydays away from homelessness yet in their pride cling to the notion that they are middle-class Americans."
A book about poverty in America is always a matter of double vision: the person who's writing it is almost certainly not, himself, poor. For that matter, if the reader is the sort of person who can, and will, spend twenty-five dollars for a hard-cover book, that fact marks a dividing line of both economics and culture. (When Barbara Ehrenreich made a field trip into just-getting-by America, in Nickel and Dimed [2002], she was frank about the fact that she'd be going back to her regular life afterward.) Joe Bageant has the necessary credentials to cover the class war he wants to show us: Deer Hunting with Jesus is a report from the front lines.
Bageant grew up in Winchester, Virginia, and got out through military service and higher education. He spent thirty years in other parts of the U.S., working in journalism and developing a liberal perspective, but now he is back home in Winchester, because he feels most comfortable among his own people. His people are gun owners, soldiers, evangelical Christians, chicken processors and truck drivers. They leave school after high school, if they make it that far, and they marry young. They drink beer and spout talk-radio opinions, and they vote Republican.
In this book, Bageant is reaching out to his fellow liberals on behalf of his fellow rednecks. He has some sharp words for both groups, and some fair criticisms of their short-sightedness. He's mad at the liberals for their blindness to working-class economic conditions, and their complicity in the systems that maintain those conditions. He's mad at his neighbors for voting against their interests, and for subscribing to religious doctrines that may yet wind up overturning the constitution.
Withal, he is also tender with them for being so dumb. Cigarettes, diet cola, and Little Debbie Snack Cakes are not the ideal diet for people who are destined for hypertension and diabetes, but how are you going to take people's pleasures away? The patriotism that sends the youth of our small towns into uniform is a fine and glorious thing, though they'd be better off if they also knew some history, or had some other ways of seeing the world. And it is not entirely his neighbors' fault when they are suckered into bone-crushing debt while trying to buy a home, considering that their choice is between predatory mortgage brokers and slumlords with equally carnivorous tendencies.
Bageant's a good writer; he serves up his hard facts in a palatable way. He has no easy answers, but he does us a service by putting a human face on the mortgage debt crisis, the world of for-profit nursing homes, and the miserable consequences of education policies that leave many people unable to read or reason. It's a good beginning if we acknowledge the existence of a working class in America, and a better one if we acknowledge that its members are our own kin.

Email, November 2007

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

American Band

American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland
Kristen Laine (2007, Gotham Books)

"Max Jones woke ahead of his alarm." And we're off! Who is Max Jones? One of the top high school band directors in the band-mad state of Illinois. His Concord Marching Minutemen are perennial contenders for the Class B championship title of the state. And why is he out of bed before six o'clock on a quiet July morning? Because seventy kids, mostly ninth-graders, are coming for their first taste of life as Marching Minutemen; the culture of the group is such that a hundred and twenty returning band members come a week before the full band convenes, to show them the ropes. Mr. Jones has an extensive band room complex, and a vast resource of parental volunteers, but his budget is modest, running to only seven assistant directors (who also work in the feeder schools) for a band that will eventually number two hundred and forty-three students. The season will ride or fall on the quality of the leadership exercised by the veterans.
Kristen Laine spent the 2004 season at Concord High School, in the residential suburbs between Elkhart and Goshen, Indiana, a few miles from the Michigan border. American Band is the story of Concord's quest for another state championship trophy, as they are led by a group of senior section leaders, some of whom have had those roles in their sights since sixth grade band. They're a special bunch of kids--and they are utterly ordinary. They are going through an ordinary American high school in an ordinary American suburb, with perhaps a few more honor students, and fewer problem drinkers, than any similar group of teenagers anywhere.
From time to time, Laine pulls back for a wider view of economic and social conditions, both the particular and the universally American: Elkhart has lost its once-storied position as a leader in the manufacture of band instruments; the land nearby is more valuable for single-family houses than for farming, though the cornfields have not yet disappeared entirely. The descendants of Mennonite farmers worship in giant auditoriums to the strains of Christian rock music, and the nearby Catholic church needs a Spanish-speaking priest.
At other times, Laine zooms in. She gives fly-on-the-wall accounts of baffled freshmen being taught how to march, and how to stand at attention the Concord way, with chin held high. She's there when the moms are passing out uniforms, and bottled water, and hugs. She spots the peeved expression on the face of a senior for whom Mr. Jones's encouragement crosses a line into nagging. And she's there with the class superstar as he parses the balance between excellence and humility, between self-abnegating faith and the call of his heart.
The blurbs are comparing American Band to Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, the classic story about high school football in the oil fields of Texas. Laine is in that league, but I am reminded even more of the West Point story I reviewed in 2005, David Lipsky's Absolutely American. In both books, the suspense revolves around how the young people will master themselves and become effective leaders; and whether the adults can better help them do this by exhorting them face to face, or by presenting a gigantic challenge and getting out of the way, with all the risk of failure either course entails.
Whether or not you have ever picked up a trumpet and tried to walk down the street (as Laine did in one parade), American Band will keep you turning the pages.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Farewell Chronicles

The Farewell Chronicles: How we really respond to death
Anneli Rufus (2005, Marlowe and Company)

It's a fateful day, says Anneli Rufus, the first time someone you know dies: "Without meaning to, you have joined a club. It is a vast worldwide society whose members share no privileges, no solidarity, no secret handshakes, no discounts at Legoland. You are just in. You can never get out." The Farewell Chronicles is about what happens next. You're a different person, it's a different world, and there was no imagining what it would feel like. Yes, you feel sad, but that's the one part you knew about going in, the thing they could have warned you about.
The Farewell Chronicles is a primer on the many other possible feelings evoked by death--"weird, messy, nasty, sticky, scary reactions that slop over the rim of sorrow, or infiltrate it, or flavor it, or poison it, or take its place." You might feel more sad than you could have imagined, but you also might feel less so: numb, relieved, even glad. Anger, evasion, horror, greed--these things did not make it into the songs and poems you recall from the days before death tapped you on the shoulder.
Rufus writes from her own wide experience, and that of her friends. Some of her illustrations serve as warnings about guilt for things you did, and regret for things you have left undone: at some point you will run out of time, and a door will close forever. "Death snatches away all chances to apologize, time's chance to heal all wounds." Other examples deal with social conventions and taboos, which can do only so much to protect us from uncomfortable feelings. You wouldn't be the first person to be struck with a fit of giggles in the middle of a funeral. "The soul is stubborn that way. Forbid it to laugh and it will disobey on principle, merely to prove it can, merely to prove itself alive."
Rufus is here to tell us that there is no right way to face the deaths around us, and no wrong way. Loss will overtake us sooner or later, if we're living any kind of life at all. "You contemplate the cusp, and don't know what to do. And that darkness inside you, that murk which you find shocking and unspeakable, is part of the story, is what you take away. And even at its worst, you are richer for it."
Amen, and Hallelujah.

Voices, January 2008

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Race Beat, There Goes My Everything

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975
Jason Sokol (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

It’s an age-old truth that comparisons are odious, but sometimes they are also instructive. Here are two books that cover the same period of American history, and the same transformation of attitudes and behavior that accompanied the death of state-sanctioned racial segregation. Both books are rich in anecdote, but The Race Beat is much more successful, because its anecdotes are telling additions to a clear narrative structure, which There Goes My Everything lacks altogether.
There Goes My Everything is an attempt to show how the advance of civil rights for Negroes affected white Southerners, but that turns out to be too broad a canvas to make a good story; Jason Sokol is frequently reduced to citing “Some..., while others...,” --especially considering the determination of so many white southerners to deny change, as well as to resist it. Sokol also ties his own hands by looking for the stories of the unsung middle, the white people we haven’t heard from: “Most white southerners identified neither with the civil rights movement nor with its violent resisters. They were fearful, silent, and often inert.” The more right he is about that, the less he’s going to have to tell us. Sokol actually does cover a broad spectrum of white opinion, from the axe-weilding Lester Maddox to the liberal Virginia Durr, but many others he quotes are simply less memorable.
The characters in The Race Beat, on the other hand, are themselves writers and storytellers, and we get to watch them doing their best work, on the most important story of their time. The reporters who covered race relations were a colorful brotherhood; they went into some tough places, and sometimes took physical risks, to get their stories. The editors who sent them illustrate both the wide range of opinion about race, and the way it evolved within individuals.
The Race Beat would make a fine introduction to the subject of civil rights history. At only 407 pages of text, it’s a little less daunting than the works of Taylor Branch, but its reach is similarly broad; the eighty-odd pages of notes and bibliography indicate how much deeper the authors have gone on our behalf. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff have not simply piled fact upon fact, though: the wealth of information is handsomely shaped.
Watching events through the lens of news coverage and editorial response, they show us how the integration of Little Rock’s Central High differed from that of Ole Miss, and from George Wallace’s stand at Alabama. They show what the trial of Emmett Till’s killers looked like to readers of different publications, and why the people of Birmingham were so irate with CBS News. We see the calculations of black leaders about where they can provoke white violence; we see deranged mobs, lawless lawmen, and posturing politicians; and we see the fruition of Gunnar Myrdal’s 1948 prediction that the lot of America’s Negro population would only begin to improve when the rest of the population was forced to see clearly how bad it was.
It’s a story I never get tired of, not because it came out all right in the end, but because good and heroic people kept working, bending the arc of history toward justice. God willing, we’ll get there yet.

Feb 2008

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Angels and Ages

Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Adam Gopnik (2009, Alfred A. Knopf)

Starting from the coincidence of their birth on the same day, two hundred years ago last month, Angels and Ages illuminates the lives and continuing influence of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The existing bodies of work on each man are dauntingly voluminous, and Adam Gopnik thoughtfully points out some of the treasures of the literature, but this ‘short book’ is a gem in its own right.
Their shared birthday aside, there are pl enty of contrasts to point out--Darwin, the Englishman, was a comfortable country gentleman and scholar; Lincoln, the American, a hardscrabble backwoods boy who aspired to live in a nice house in town. Their fields of endeavor might seem worlds apart as well, but Gopnik says that they made contributions of the same kind: “Each, using a form of technical language--the fine, detailed language of natural science for Darwin, the tedious language of legal reasoning for Lincoln--arrived at a new ideal of liberal eloquence. This was a revolution in rhetoric that we still live with, and within, rhetoric remade by a suspicion of rhetoric.”
Gopnik goes on to show us the particular evidence for that contention, and why it matters. He loves the mountains of facts about earthworms and pigeons that Darwin built, which made his conclusions so indisputable. He admires Darwin’s temperament, and his integrity in scientific argument. “Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone--believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet...” The counterviews Darwin invented and overcame were as thorough as they were honest, and therein lies the continuing interest and power of The Origin of Species.
Gopnik likewise appreciates Lincoln’s peculiar rhetorical gift, of spelling out a lot of legal detail, and then summarizing it in memorable monosyllables, “the urge, natural to a lawyer, to say something hard one last time in short, flat words.” He also shows how Lincoln labored through his whole career to make reason and the rule of law sovereign, as against the romantic and violent code of honor that prevailed in the southern states. “When Lincoln proposed a cult of the law, he meant it, and we miss the thread of continuity in his life if we miss the passion of his belief in dispassion. The law existed in order to remedy and cure old evils; the right way to cure this one of slavery, which was fixed in law, was by using the law to fix it.”
For both Lincoln and Darwin, the commitment to reason and argument tended to drive out religion, in its then-traditional form. “Lincoln and Darwin take opposing trajectories toward two very near places, and rare is the modern person who hasn’t, at some time or other, visited both: private mysticism touched by public secularism, shining inward faith in tension with scientific skepticism.”
In their day, and partly through their doing, the world was being changed, undergoing “the slow emergence from a culture of faith and fear to one of observation and argument, and from a belief in the judgment of divinity to a belief in the verdicts of history and time.” Gopnik’s final essay, about what that change means, is extraordinarily humane and beautiful; his conclusions, like those of his subjects, are honestly come by and passionately felt.
I often read books so that you won’t have to, but this is one you won’t want to miss.

Any Good Books email,
March 2009