Nature is not evil. The world occasionally shrugs its shoulders, and people get knocked off. The earth, for geological reasons that are well known, is a fairly risky place to live.
FRIDAY: My Book World | Amburn Ellis's Subterranean Kerouac
My Book World
Leonnig, Carol. Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service. New York: Random, 2021.
This book is one of the most fascinating contemporary reads to emerge in a long time. Leonnig, a distinguished Washington Post reporter, delves into the 155-year history of the United States Secret Service—the agency designed primarily to keep the president and family safe. She brings to light its early history: Within a period of thirty-six years, the U.S. experiences three presidential assassinations. Lincoln. Garfield. McKinley. Following Lincoln’s death, the Service is established with minimal or feeble funding. After the third assassination, the congress still refuses to provide additional protection, not wanting the president to be treated like royalty. When Kennedy is assassinated, the congress ultimately realizes it must provide more resources for the Secret Service. And presidents must adjust their thinking. Kennedy may, in part, have contributed to his own death by not adhering to the Service’s request that he not get as close to crowds as he liked. And also by not riding in an open car and by not allowing agents to stand on the rear bumper of his limo.
Leonnig explores subsequent presidencies to inform readers in great detail about each administration since: Ford’s two close calls. Reagan’s near-death attack. How the Service erodes during Bush’s and Clinton’s administrations. How the Service is pushed beyond its capabilities during Obama’s era when threats and attempts on him rise exponentially and when two different “jumpers” leap over the White House fence, one of them actually coming within feet of the Obama family’s living quarters. The author informs us of the unrest within the Service: the frequent change of leadership, the history of good old boy networks that reward relationships instead of meritorious service. She tells of the scandals that rock the service, including details of the one in Cartagena where at least ten agents become extremely drunk and involve themselves with prostitutes. Her conclusion: many problems still exist. The agency needs a complete restructuring, much more funding, and a coordinated effort to heartily renew its mission of always putting the lives of the president and family and other figures ahead of lives of agents sworn to protect them. Until these things occur, the Secret Service will remain stretched beyond its capabilities and perhaps remain a second-rate organization.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Reinaldo Arenas's The Doorman
My Book World
Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: Knopf, 1978.
After perusing Cheever’s letters, I felt inspired to read his sixty-one collected stories (almost 700 pages)—a compendium I had previously spurned because I had only read his early stories. Mistake. And I withdraw what I said in print in the past about Cheever’s short stories being of less value than his novels. However, I believe his collection does present an interesting profile. His early ones, indeed, are less developed, less interesting, at least, to me. The middle ones and most of the later ones remain his meatiest stories. Cheever almost exclusively writes about life in New York City and its suburbs (Bullet Park, Shady Oaks). Most of his long list of characters are adorned with Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-Saxon sounding) names or made-up names of that ilk for symbolic purposes; if he uses a foreign name, he has something in mind (Boulanger, the French housemaid). Among the A-S names: Pommeroy, Westcott, Hartley, Tennyson, Hollis, ad nauseam—all giving voice to his own cultural dna or the heritage of New England. Some of the suburban stories become a bit pat. Most involve a man and a wife, who, to some degree, love one another, but one or the other is unhappy with this happy marriage—three to five loveable but often invisible children. All involve riding trains to the city, driving station wagons over narrow asphalt roads to summer vacations in Maine or the mountains. People who smoke and drink too much and really don’t care.
But! These must have been the very stories that the New Yorker wished to publish because Cheever certainly gave them what they wanted. For a time Cheever and family live in Rome, Italy, and it is that experience that gives brilliance to some of his most interesting and creative stories. In his letters, Cheever reveals that their family brings back to the U.S. a young Italian woman who works for the Cheevers. In “Clementina,” he brings this relationship to life by way of fiction, and the result is stunning. Cheever’s suburban world is now seen through the eyes of a poor Italian domestic who both loves and detests what she witnesses in suburbia. Cheever really seems to occupy her point of view. Likewise, “Boy in Rome,” is a lovely wandering story with a wonderful poetic refrain about “being loved enough.” Cheever sees Rome with eyes that have become so jaundiced by suburban America that the story is somehow crisper than some of his domestic narratives. He’s forced to observe and judge more keenly because of the environment’s apparent strangeness. A lesson to all writers: get out of your own backyard if you can, and see what happens to your fiction. Anyone writing short stories could benefit from reading these gems, mostly because it may remove you from your current world, and he shows you how to do it: be a keen observer no matter the setting; write what you know; and have fun skewering human nature if you can.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Mikita Brottman's Couple Found Slain
FRIDAY: My Book World | Pablo Neruda's Residence on Earth
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Raven, Catherine. Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship. New York: Spiegal and Grau, 2021.
A woman lives in a blue steel-roofed house she builds in an area of western U.S. wilderness that is at least thirty minutes from any burg that might be called civilized. With a PhD in biology, the woman lives in her crude dwelling year round and teaches at nearby schools. And she lives alone. Only she isn’t really. She names two cedar trees on her property Gin and Tonic. She names magpies, one of whom, in a strange scenario, will give up her life on behalf . . . well, that’s a spoiler . . . you will want to discover that tale on your own.
This woman, the author, is befriended by a fox, a red fox, a species whose adult male weighs no more than six pounds, and must survive, as parable and history tell us, by their wits and cunning. She often reads to Fox (no article, a no-name unlike her other friends) on his mostly daily trips to her property about four in the afternoon. First, she reads to him from St. Ex’s (Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s) The Little Prince. And later, Moby Dick. He seems to be lulled or convinced that she is one of him by the way she does not talk down to him or speak baby talk. He even receives his own sections of the book in which author Raven encourages him to give voice to his point of view (he calls her Hurricane Hands for occasionally extravagant nonverbal communication).
Spoiler: Hurricane Hands loses Fox twice, once in the middle of the book when she sees a mangy dead fox, and once at the end (you know it will happen). Here is the magical portrayal of her mistaken conclusion, when, at one twilight, Fox parades his four kits, the ultimate act of trust, in front of the author:
“In the middle of all that confusion of kits, one furry orange animal was dancing on a boulder. I don’t ever need to be happier than I was at that moment when I realized Fox was alive. On the hillside where he was dancing, rivulets rained down from a carnelian cliff and flowed through round-stemmed sedges, not so different from a stretch of the Wonderland Trail that I used to cross on my way to Indian Bar. Those subalpine meadows spread out in my minds’ [mind’s?] eye, and I remembered bending down to pull salamanders out of ice-cold brooks. When it was too dark to see Fox, even through binoculars, I sat back in my chair, and imagined him dancing all the way back to his den. I had just learned for certain that one fox was not the same as the rest” (161)
Near the end of the book, the author, who has thought so highly of Fox, makes an error by planting a little cactus near her front door where Fox usually lies when he visits. The next time he stops by he says, “Quah,” his one-word vocabulary, holds up his paw, then drops it and catches a toenail on the edge of the plant, casting her a look over his back as he retreats. She transplants the cactus again, and Fox thanks her the next day by lying down. Raven tells us that if we wanted to, we could tame or domesticate foxes within four or five generations. But we shouldn’t. Instead, if each of us were to have such an uncommon friendship with just one non-domesticated animal, the world would be transformed to one where loneliness would become obsolete and the natural world would flourish.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | TBD
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Cheever, Benjamin, Ed. The Letters of John Cheever. New York: Simon, 1988.
This collection of letters from the 1930s to 1982 is as much about the editor, John Cheever’s eldest son, as it is about the senior writer. So many times in reading a compendium of letters, one is left alone to solve certain puzzles the letters may contain. For most letters Benjamin Cheever glosses events, dates, but most important, personalities, and by doing so he allows readers a deeper view into his father’s letters, his father’s life, the life of their family: John Cheever’s wife, Mary; daughter Susan, Benjamin, and a second son Fred (born Federico in Italy).
Having read Cheever’s journals some years ago, I again encountered his wicked wit, in which he slices humanity a new asshole but also a humane man who loves that very flawed humanity and is kind enough to portray his characters that way. For the wicked sense of humor: “About a month ago Mary took a job teaching English at Sarah Lawrence two days a week and so she journeys out to Bronxville on Tuesday and Fridays and comes home with a briefcase full of themes written by young ladies named Nooky and Pussy” (124).
Or this, with a scintilla of rage: “I got back to work on the book about a month ago, but was dealt some crushing financial blows three weeks later and now I’m back in the short story business. I want to write short stories like I want to fuck a chicken” (125).
And a sweet cat story: “The cat, after your leaving him, seemed not certain of his character or his place and we changed his name to Delmore which immediately made him more vivid. The first sign of his vividness came when he dumped a load in a Kleenex box while I was suffering from a cold. During a paroxysm of sneezing I grabbed for some kleenex [sic]. I shall not overlook my own failures in this tale but when I got the cat shit off my face and the ceiling I took Delmore to the kitchen door and drop-kicked him into the clothesyard” (235).
But ultimately, as I said, Cheever loves humanity and declares as much by way of a Time magazine interview chronicling his career: “My sense of literature is a sense of giving not diminishment. I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next, and the we possess some power to make sense of what takes place” (240).
Now for the sex part of this profile: Editor Ben, eldest son to Cheever, discovers that his father is not bisexually bicurious in a furtive, shameful sort of way but has had sexual-emotional relationships with many different men over his lifetime. Cheever’s letters attest to having done the deed with (grad student of Cheever’s) Allan Gurganus (about his son’s age) and photographer Walker Evans about whom he tells this story: “When I was twenty-one Walker Evans invited me to spend the night at his apartment. I said yes. I dropped my clothes (Brooks). He hung his (also Brooks) neatly in a closet. When I asked him how to do it he seemed rather put off. He had an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life. I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse Lithograph and hit him under the chin. I gave up at around three, dressed and spent the rest of the night on a park bench near the river” (304).
I must say that I admire John Cheever’s zest for life, an enthusiasm he did not relinquish until the day he died. And even then?
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
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Flores, Dan. The Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest. Albuquerque: U of NM Press.
First of all, I love that Flores takes possession of this subject right away with the term, “Near Southwest”—a region stretching from eastern Louisiana and including all of Texas and New Mexico. I come over twenty years late to reading this elegantly scripted book about the area’s ecology, but the ideas he expresses here seem to gain urgency as time passes. Flores alternates sections of family history (French and Spanish) and other histories with first-hand accounts of living, say, on the Llano Estacado, as well as poetic and lyrical sections of fiction to bring alive said histories.
Flores is always on the move. After advanced schooling at Texas A&M, he explores, to mention a few places, the Chihuahuan desert, the Southern Plains of Texas (Llano Estacado or Steaked Plains), Abiquiu, New Mexico—finally lighting in Montana. But the Horizontal Yellow of which he speaks is the once real, now metaphorical, wave of yellowing grasses that cover what locals call, with a certain inelegance, the South Plains. It is where he builds a primitive place to live in Yellow House Canyon, about thirty minutes from where he teaches at the local university. It is where he lives with two wolf-dog hybrids as their alpha male (a role he doesn’t particularly relish; it’s the critters’ idea). It is a place remaining in his heart as he makes his home up north, where he can establish and retain a closeness to nature that the Texas South Plains has mostly expunged from its existence. His is an admired life but one I’m not sure I could pursue myself. I adore my life in town—Internet, TV, central heat and air—a bit too much.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Winston Groom's A Storm in Flanders
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Kawabata, Yasunari. The Master of Go. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Vintage, 1972 (1951).
Western readers should probably read more eastern literature, myself included; it would give us a broader view of the world. Wikipedia defines the game of Go in this manner: “Go is an abstract strategy board game for two players in which the aim is to surround more territory than the opponent. The game was invented in China more than 2,500 years ago and is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day.” In this book (hybrid of novel and nonfiction), the game has moved to Japan. For Kawabata the game of Go provides a wonderful extended metaphor for one man’s life. Shusai, Master of Go, spends time toward the end of his life in battle with a player named Otaké, a fine player but hypochondrial man. The game moves from venue to venue, where players may take hours to decide a play, where weeks may pass before the continuation of the game. There are end notes that help to explain the game. A brief but head-spinning read.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Richard Ellmann's Oscar Wilde
My Book World
Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York: Random, 2019.
This book about copyediting offers readers an excellent review if you think you already know the business pretty well, and, if you don’t, then it’s a great place to begin (Dreyer himself includes a list of fine sources). Even so, he makes something like the subjunctive mood (“mood” being a grammatical concept not always taught today) utterly clear (If I were vs. If I was)—not as rigid as, say, the Chicago Manual of Style. Dreyer nevertheless has his pet peeves and his absolutes:
This may be a particular peeve of mine and no one else’s, but I note it, because it’s my book: Name-dropping, for no better reason than to show off, underappreciated novels, obscure foreign films, or cherished indie bands by having one’s characters irrelevantly reading or watching or listening to them is massively sore-thumbish. A novel is not a blog post about Your Favorite Things. If you must do this sort of thing—and, seriously, must you?—contextualize heavily” (113).
I give Dreyer another thumbs up because he has a broad (flexible and forgiving) understanding of the English language, the concept of rhetoric being one of them. A peeve of mine (and he articulates it well) is how people misuse the term “begging the question” in common speech (especially on MSNBC or CNN) and writing, mistakenly taking it to mean “raising the question”:
Begging the question, as the term is traditionally understood, is a kind of logical fallacy—the original Latin is petitio principii, and no, I don’t know these things off the top of my head; I look them up like any normal human being—in which one argues for the legitimacy of a conclusion by citing as evidence the very thing one is trying to prove in the first place. Circular reasoning, that is” (151). The greatest example from my classical rhetoric text is, “When did you stop beating your wife?” An apparent single premise actually assumes two, one of which is not possible without the other. To stop beating your wife you had to begin at some point, making the question a trap.
At the same time, Dreyer is unusually forgiving about other concepts, some of which cause me to grind my teeth. Even a few scientists seem to forget that “data” are plural (hee hee) for “datum.” The data clearly show … (not “shows”). Same with “media.” The media are (not “is”) always talking about how the media are not to blame. Ah, so satisfying to my ear, and yet Dreyer seems to shrug it off.
Dreyer’s greatest talent may be as wordsmith. He makes this discussion of “continual” vs. “continuous” pellucid: “Continual” means ongoing but with pause or interruption, starting and stopping, as, say, continual thunderstorms (with patches of amity). “Continuous” means ceaseless, as in a Noah-and-the-Flood-like forty days and forty nights of unrelenting rain” (179).
He tackles “epigraph” and “epigram”; he tackles “farther” and “further,” and makes their meanings clear. Most of all, Dreyer’s book seems to demonstrate that the copyeditor, far from being captain of the grammar police, exists to take a writer’s finished manuscript and style his or her words to make the final product seem more like the original than the original. In other words, the copyeditor’s work should be invisible. Well done, it seems like magic, particularly to the author.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Matt Bell's novel, Appleseed
My Book World
Edwards, George C. with a foreword by Neal R. Peirce. Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America. New Haven, Yale UP, 2004.
For years the electoral college mystified me, but it seemed like a concept that worked because more or less the right candidate always won both the popular vote and the electoral college vote. Then came the 2000 election, a bizarre turn of events by which five people on the Supreme Court would, through their action/inaction allow the candidate with fewer popular votes to win. And one of those justices would tell the rest of us to get over it—instead of taking the time, like a reasoned person, to explain to us why we should get over it, why their decision was such a wise one. Another justice, years later, before her death, would confess that she regretted her vote. Nice. I hope it made her feel better. The electoral college is a roulette wheel that is loaded. Rigged. Like any roulette wheel, we don’t really know until the last second which way the falseness is going to lie.
Author Edwards logically and factually proves his thesis as to why the electoral college ought to be drummed out of existence. Interestingly, instead of beginning with the historical context of its origins, he begins with how the electoral college works, how it among other things, cheats the voters in a particular state who vote for the “losing” candidate who may actually have more popular votes. Most important in his discussions may be the idea of political equality or more important the political inequity that the electoral college tends to foster. The biggest takeaway from Edwards’s chapter on history is the recorded fact that the electoral college was not a well-thought-out concept that received rigorous attention from its founders. No, Philadelphia was hot that summer, and men [and I mean only men] formed the electoral college in a hurry, so that they could find cooler places in which to spend the rest of their summer vacations. At every turn, Edwards has an answer for those who would retain the electoral college, especially by noting when the proponents begin with false premises. The e.c. does not protect the smaller states, as some claim. It does not maintain cohesion and harmony among citizens. Candidates are not more attentive to small states with a low number of electors nor to large states that are entrenched in one party or another.
In the book’s foreword, scholar Neal R. Peirce sums up what is most flawed about the electoral college: “The electoral college process, Edwards reminds us, doesn’t simply aggregate or reflect popular votes; it consistently distorts and often directly misrepresents the votes citizens have cast. Indeed, the unit vote actually takes votes of the minority in individual states and awards those votes, in the national count, to the candidate they opposed” (x).
Don’t worry that Edwards’s tome was published in 2004; nothing much has changed concerning the institution. Author Edwards’s study is prescient in that he states emphatically that what happened in 2000 with Bush v. Gore will happen again. Voilà, 2016! The United States must abolish the electoral college when it comes to voting for the office of the president. The time to do so has past.
[This book published by Yale University Press has, by my count, five typographical errors derived mainly from a lack of close reading by copy editors—rather egregious for an Ivy League press, eh?]
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Oscar Lewis's Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty
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Hill, Fiona and Clifford G. Gaddy. Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. New and
Expanded. Washington: Brookings, 2015.
When I tuned in to President Trump’s impeachment trial at the end of 2019, I was impressed with the testimony of Fiona Hill, at that time former Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council. Her credentials seemed impeccable, and I told myself I would read the book she co-authors with Mr. Gaddy.
The Hill/Gaddy team paint a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin that is not personal. They do not delve much into his upbringing or family life, only as those elements may apply to his long political life. They formulate what they refer to as Putin’s six identities, by which the book is structured: “the Statist, the History Man, the Survivalist, the Outsider, the Free Marketeer, and the (KGB) Case Officer (18).” The man manipulates or exploits each one of these identities in order to further his own career, his own strategies, and each study is an eye-opening view into the life of the real Mr. Putin.
Mr. Putin declares himself to be a gosudarstvennik, “a builder of the state, a servant of the state . . . a person who believes that Russia must be and must have a strong state” (40). The State is of ultimate importance, not the individual. Hill/Gaddy claim that “Putin continued with an analysis that echoed the language of the tsarist statist school, noting that Russia will ‘muscle up’ by ‘being open to change’ through state-sanctioned procedures and rules’” (55). The authors reinforce what President Obama once said of Putin, that Putin still maintains a nineteenth-century view of the world. He may utilize some of the tactics he learns while serving in the KGB, but his worldview is rooted in a glorified, pre-Soviet past: he aspires to be a tsar.
To summarize most of the other five areas, Putin manipulates history to strengthen his power. He is a survivalist who will do anything to get what he wants. Ultimately, his sense of strategy (over tactics, which only serve to fulfill his overarching set of goals) is one of his greatest strengths, one that Hill/Gaddy claim the West underestimates at its own peril. A man who creates a long-term strategy for the success of his State and is willing to do anything to see that it succeeds is to be to watched very carefully, something that the authors indicate the West has failed to do thus far. The West must see clearly how the man views himself, and the West, while not forfeiting its own values, must develop strategies for dealing with him, ones that realistically exploit his perceived strengths and weaknesses. Until the man is taken seriously, the rest of the world cannot deal with him in a realistic manner, and such a stance is not good for that world.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | George C. Edwards's Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America.
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Waldman, Michael. The Fight to Vote. New York: Simon, 2016.
I wish I had read this book when it came out during the run-up to the 2016 election—when I bought it. Even though the last chapters seem dated now, considering what the country has been through, the early chapters give an excellent historical account of how this country has ALWAYS been divided into two camps: those who would like to allow everyone to vote and those who would only have so-called elites vote. White (heterosexual, one assumes) male landowners comprised that group in colonial times:
“And there were men who worked as hard to restrict the vote as others did to expand it, such as John Randolph of Roanoke, who fought to deny the franchise to men without property, declaring, ‘I am an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality;’” (xi)
Slowly, and only through arduous struggles, did other groups gain traction over great spans of time: African-American males, white women, African-American women and other minority groups (including the young). Still, the fight to vote has wavered back and forth, according to the whims of the SCOTUS and voter suppression activities. One group rises up and gains three feet, and another group grabs power and sends progress back two feet. And tragically . . . the struggle still continues. If readers have time, they should consider devouring this informative and at times humorous book. If you’re undecided about voting in 2020, perhaps its contents may sway you to get registered and do so now!
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Fiona Hill's Mr. Putin
FRIDAY: My Book World | Michael Waldman's The Fight to Vote
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Monette, Paul. Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise. New York: Harcourt, 1994.
I’m pretending that you gaze over my shoulder and peruse this piece about you and Last Watch of the Night. On pages 267-8, you discuss your hoarding of books, and I’m so glad to learn that I’m not the only one who does this. In recataloging my library of 1,300 books, a year ago, I realize that 300 of them remain unread, and, until now [during COVID, I am endeavoring to catch up, now having read fifty-six], yours has been one of them. I feel disgusted that I didn’t read it when it came out, but that was the first year of teaching AP English in high school, and my reading tasks were to stay at least one chapter ahead of my five classes of bright bulbs. So now to why I love this book and why it will never be dated.
Your essays, at times, seem long and meandering, but readers, make no mistake, they are ordered; they have organization. I believe it is a nonlinear order in which, for example, in an essay about travel, you mention sojourning with all three of your long-term relationships: Roger, Stevie, and Winston. What I like about this sort of organization is it allows the essayist to discuss bigger pictures, larger topics. In the first essay entitled, “Puck,” ostensibly about yours and Roger’s Rhodesian ridgeback-Lab mix, the piece spans out, in which this “noble beast” (28) is the glue holding you two lovers together until Roger succumbs to AIDS.
In another essay, “Gert,” you bring to light your first relationship with a lesbian, in this case, Gertrude Macy, a “maiden great-aunt” of one of your pupils. After she reads your novel manuscript, Gert asks, “Does it have to be so gay?” You answer:
“Oh, indeed it did. The gayer the better. I launched into my half-baked credo, invoking the name of [E. M.] Forster, the writer to whom I was most in thrall, and the one who had failed me the most as well. When Forster decided he dare not publish Maurice, for fear of the scandal and what his mother would think; when he locked that manuscript in a drawer for fifty years until he died, he silenced much more than himself. He put up a wall that prevented us, his gay and lesbian heirs, from having a place to begin” (43). I tend to agree, but one must think about the consequences for Forster if he had released Maurice. Lost revenue? Loss of a career? His life? Prison time?
A fallen Catholic yourself, in fact a defiant ex-Catholic, you discuss your relationship with several different “priests.” You cover gravesites and “The Politics of Silence.” “A One-Way Fare,” your paean to travel, becomes a metaphor for the one-way trip we all make through life. I love how you move from Mont-Saint-Michel to Noel Coward’s Private Lives, to a ten-line excerpt from that play, and on to Greece, all within a page—yet all connected.
Young gays need to read you, just as we read Forster and Isherwood, our forebears, so that they may know from whence they come. They must realize that the fight for freedom and equality is never over. It just shifts from one opponent to another. You fought to bring AIDS into a national focus, and perhaps the young will see that the COVID-19 battle is much the same: unless we change our national leadership COVID will be with us forever, just like AIDS is still with us. One must thank you for your fight, which ended all too soon. You would just now be enjoying a long-deserved homage at the ripe age of seventy-five.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Byron Lane's Novel A Star Is Bored
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Lardner, Kate. Shut Up He Explained: The Memoir of a Blacklisted Kid. New York: Ballantine, 2004.
About halfway through this book, I realized I had read it before—not because I recognized the material but because I found little thumbnail indentions indicating where I’d stopped a reading session. My first “review,” sketched in 2004, was rather short and not very positive: Poor writing and poor editing. What could have been enlightening and touching was scattered and uninteresting. Lardner keeps an emotional distance throughout that is not very pleasant.
In a way, I still feel the same. The writing is fine enough; it just lacks a certain depth. Perhaps that is the point where a better editor might have helped the author. Much of the book is really about Kate Lardner’s father, Ring Lardner, Jr., a distinguished screenwriter who is blacklisted in the 1950s because he refuses to answer the question at a hearing whether he is or ever has been a communist. He spends twelve months in prison simply for attempting to practice his First (or Fifth) Amendment right to speak (or not). And, of course, such an event does have harmful effects on a burgeoning family: A wife, herself a working actor, who ceases to be offered film roles because she is related to Ring; a daughter and two sons who need him to balance out an impatient mother who, though loving, is also bound and determined to have her own career.
What is most troubling, I think, is the pacing. Of ten chapters, “The Penal Interlude,” is the longest at 120 pages. Conclusions that the author could draw about the effects on her as a “blacklisted kid” are missing or shortchanged. At the end of the book, Lardner gives a hurried account of her college years, her stumbling around to find out what she wishes to do with her life, thumbnail sketches of her two marriages, and boom, we’re done. Either the book should focus more on her father, or she should have a book longer than 272 pages, in order to discuss how being a blacklisted kid has affected her entire life (she’s about sixty at the time she writes the book). This time around I don’t notice the “emotional distance” as much as I do in 2004, but there exists rather a flippant tone that seems to reduce the import of what she is saying about one of the most destructive periods in US political history and its ramifications for her family. Perhaps it’s her way of dealing.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Paul Monette's Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise.
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Tolstoy, Leo N. What Is Art? Translated from the Russian by Almyer Maude [sic] with an introduction by Vincent Tomas. Indianapolis: Sams, 1960 (1896).
I was assigned to read this book for a half-credit, pass-fail humanities class in college. There is little indication that I actually did so (a few underlined passages in Chapter Two). It seems like a challenging read for eighteen-year-olds who’ve had little exposure to argumentation or (unless they have studied art as children) art. In general, to summarize an often unclear thesis, Tolstoy seems to believe that art is a feeling that the artist would like to infect the watcher, listener, reader with.
He believes that high art is so only because it is heralded by the upper classes. Tolstoy goes on and on about how bad Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is, in part because Beethoven was deaf, and how could the composer possibly compose if he couldn’t hear? And besides, Beethoven is attempting to combine two arts: music and chorus (based on another’s lyric). Tolstoy abhors contemporary opera, Wagner in particular, again because it combines visual art, drama, music, singing, and more. When he uses the invective “filthy” to describe it, it seems he has a prejudice he can’t explain. In fact, he leaves a lot unexplained by way of sometimes poor or faulty logic, and by using terms he has defined to his own satisfaction. He asserts that beauty is not art. He asserts that the basis of art must be religious, i.e. Christian (I think).
However, Tolstoy does make a prescient remark when he argues that art (music, drawing, creative writing and more) should be taught to all children so that they may create art for all their lives, in order to enrich their lives and the lives of the people they love. That seems to be the most positive assertion that he makes, and, because many American school districts have abandoned the teaching of art, the result being a certain poverty, I believe he is right. The rest of this work seems like a highly subjective opinion he took fifteen years to develop; if he’d tried hard he probably could have done it in four or less.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Sayaka Murata's Convenience Store Woman
TOMORROW: My Book World | Letters of Cole Porter
My Book World
Walton, Anthony. Mississippi: An American Journey. New York: Viking, 1996.
This combination of “travel writing, history, and memoir,” as blurbed on the back cover is a profound work. Walton, noted poet and author, takes the reader on a multilayer journey. One of those journeys may be the physical. He tells of the move his Mississippian parents make from their home state to Chicago as young adults to establish a better life for their children. One is always aware of the physical: the hot Mississippi summer days, the fields of blindingly white cotton, the cool of air conditioning and iced drinks. Walton takes pains to give us a full history of the state, beginning with the Native Americans who occupy the land for centuries before others arrive and kill or move them off. He doesn’t stop there but gives us a history of the slave, the African-American: lynchings, beatings, the cold war that Whites take up against Blacks after the Civil War. But Walton’s journey of Mississippi, which begins mostly after he is an adult, includes memories of visiting family there, interviewing a broad range of white and black citizens. He describes the “polite” way that citizens treat each other, as long as one observes one’s role. He also describes the fight for the vote, which continues to this day. Included in his personal comments are original poems of note that help to illuminate his narrative. History. Travel. Poetry. He appeals to the broad spectrum of human perception and sensibility. I regret that it took me this long to read a book I bought in 2006, ten years after it was published. Yet Walton’s message is still a vibrant one of truth.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Garth Greenwell's novel, Cleanness
My Book World
Fellows, Will. Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1998.
This book has been on my shelf for over twenty years. If I had read it when it was new, it might have seemed fresher. As it is, the men featured here, born between 1907 and 1967, seem stuck in their contemporary argot. I wonder if gay farm boys are still experiencing the same universals, some of which dovetail well with so-called urban gays. Young farm boys seem to have more interest in growing beautiful things like gardens instead of livestock; they enjoy cooking more than being outside. Insofar as it is possible, given small rural school districts, they become involved in the arts and often excel in them. Over and over again, you see gay farm boys say they don’t care for picking up tricks or one-night stands, that they would prefer long-term relationships but that rural life makes that kind openness impossible. The reader cannot imagine the number of these men who have sex with male siblings and other relatives before they begin to engage with and marry women. Perhaps the most prevalent commonality is the harm religion, particularly Catholicism, causes young boys and men as they search for a way to express their sexuality and find a partner with whom they can share a life. Like the urban gay youth, they more often than not experience a sympathetic mother and a distant or hostile father because the gay son doesn’t fall into line. By the end, I almost felt as if I were reading the same four or five profiles over and over again. And yet I know I wasn’t. Every gay man’s story has something in common with others and every story has its differences, its unique qualities, which set that man apart.
What would be interesting now would be for Fellows (or some other courageous writer/scholar with boundless energy) to interview gay farm boys born between 1970 and 1995. Have their experiences been different than the generations before them? How does arranging for sex online compare to picking someone up at a bar or at some Interstate rest room? Are fathers still as intractable about masculinity and what that means? Has the world at large made any dent at all into the sequestered lives of rural Americans? This fascinating book seems to invite an ongoing discussion in which these and other questions are explored.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Aaron Smith's The Book of Daniel: Poems
My Book World
Eberhardt, Jennifer L. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. New York: Viking, 2019.
An excellent book for every American to read. Why? Dr. Eberhardt addresses the concept of implicit bias, and she begins with some great examples that lead to a clear definition:
“Whether bad or good, whether justified or unjustified, our beliefs and attitudes can become so strongly associated with the category that they are automatically triggered, affecting our behavior and decision making. So, for example, simply seeing a black person can automatically bring to mind a host of associations that we have picked up from our society: this person is a good athlete, this person doesn’t do well in school, this person is poor, this person dances well, this person lives in a black neighborhood, this person should be feared. The process of making these connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds. These associations can take hold of us no matter our values, no matter our conscious beliefs, no matter what kind of person we wish to be in the world” (31-2)
Eberhardt doesn’t come to the topic without a personal story of her own. As an African-American she is raised in a middle-class home in Cleveland, Ohio, and attends noted Shaker Heights High School, which leads to a first-class education. On the night before she is to receive her PhD and head the procession as flag bearer, she and a friend are stopped by a white Massachusetts policeman because her Ohio license plate is over six weeks past expiration. I can imagine him saying (to a white person), Did you realize your tag has expired? Oh, you’re about to graduate? Congratulations. Since you’re leaving town, you might want to put that renewal high on your list when you get back to Ohio. I normally issue a warning, but I’m going to let it slide today. This is NOT what happens to Jennifer Eberhardt. She is so shaken by the policeman’s demand that she get out of her car that she refuses. He not only drags her out of the car but slams her slight body on top of it so hard it creates a dent (and not a few aches and pains for her), now in full sight of bystanders and a policeman of a higher rank who claims to see nothing. Fortunately, Eberhardt is allowed to call her dean at Harvard and the woman bails the two students out. But the experience mars the graduation experience for Doctor Eberhardt and renews her resolve to continue studying implicit bias.
And study she has. Eberhardt teaches at Stanford University and is a well-respected scientist in her field. In this finely written book, she combines research (hard statistics) with personal examples (her own plus observations of others). She begins the book speaking about the Oakland, California police department whose leadership is attempting to address bias. She addresses a small auditorium of polite, white officers, most of whom have their arms crossed, body language for Show me. It may be the most difficult lecture she ever gives. In wrapping up her book she speaks once again of the Oakland police, after ten years of training, and she views things from their perspective, demonstrating, I believe, her global understanding of the problem and of human nature. Again, a must-read for all of us.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Will Fellows's Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest
My Book World
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. with translation by Thomas P. Whitney. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II. New York: Harper, 1974.
In some ways I’m embarrassed to say that this book has been on my shelf since 1974—unread. It is a paperback of such vintage that I had to be careful about cracking the ancient glue in the spine or pages would have fallen out. Though the read was a slog—not having a Russian history background—I was able to glean much of its purpose. The writer wishes for people in the West to know that Russian citizens experienced a purge probably as horrendous as what took place in Germany in the 1940s, if not worse. At least a million Soviet citizens held in custody by the Allies at the end of World War II were handed over to officials at the end of the war. This does not include other enemies of the people.
One must remember scads of acronyms in this book, and yet they are based on the Russian words, not the English version, so it is more difficult to recall the connections. For example SMERSH stands for Soviet counterintelligence but means “death to spies.” GPU stands for Russian words meaning State Political Administration. Also difficult to recall for an English reader are people’s names; except for Stalin, most are quite multisyllabic.
Yet there is much the naïve reader can take from this book. Solzhenitsyn speaks bluntly of many things.
“I smiled in pride that I had been arrested not for stealing, nor treason, nor desertion, but because I had discovered through my power of reasoning the evil secrets of Stalin. I smiled at the thought that I wanted, and might still be able, to effect some small remedies and changes in our Russian way of life” (167)
Perhaps Part II, about the prison conditions themselves, is most understandable of all, the most universal. Solzhenitsyn calls the trains that take people to the prisons “ships.” I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything as painfully disgusting as his descriptions of the conditions: men literally sitting on top of one another; few if any toilets so men must soil themselves; at best, a kind of gruel to eat, if anything at all; unbearable cold or heat. Then there are the prisons themselves: again little or no heat; no healthcare; poor food and sanitation. Draconian punishments for the tiniest of (sometimes manufactured) infractions. And the people must bear these sentences, most begin as tenners (ten-years), with great aplomb, hoping they will in one way or another escape the hell they are in (even death would be prefable).
The Russians present to the world such a mixed and puzzling heritage. On the one hand, we treasure great Russian literature and drama, superb music including ballet, fine visual art and more. On the other, Russians, either by way of their isolation from the rest of the world, and its inherent paranoia, have a mean streak in their DNA, whether it is by way of the Czarist leaders, the Soviets, or post-Soviet PutinWorld. They desire to be respected as a substantial part of the world, but simply put, do not know how to play nice. And it seems to be a cycle that is difficult to break.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Jennifer L. Eberhardt's Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
Cenziper, Debbie. Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America. New York: Hachette, 2019.
Cenziper focuses her book on two main groups. First, she tells the story of Polish Jews who, during World War II, become Hitler’s pawns. Hitler is looking to expand Germany’s borders so that his people have more space in which to live, so he annexes Poland. After the war, some of these displaced persons flee to the US, for they have no one or nothing left at home. The other group Cenziper develops is the people who work for the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), one of whom is a fresh new historian, Peter Black. Historians are relentless researchers, so they make a good team along with others, lawyers, in particular.
Their work is to ferret out particular ex-Nazi’s, particularly “Citizen 856,” who later minimize their involvement with killing Jews to US Immigration officials, and thus gain illegal entry into the country—a frightening idea to the legal immigrants living nearly side-by-side their torturers in some cases. The OSI spends decades building cases against this group of Ukrainians and Russians who are recruited and rewarded by the Nazis for carrying out their orders to exterminate about 1.7 people. The OSI’s work is arduous and their results are mixed. Because most of the accused Nazis appeal the decision to be returned to their native countries to face trial there (except in Germany, where officials do NOT want these people back), some of them die before deportation, but a few do have to face justice in their home countries.
Some Americans, like Pat Buchanan, oppose the OSI’s work, want to dispose of the OSI. They believe those mass murderers should be forgiven and forgotten. It is difficult to see how these usually conservative people, can form such a free-and-easy view of what should happen to war criminals—when otherwise they are usually such hawks. Is that really a Christian posture? Maybe someone will write a book about them to figure out why they would hold such a position.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II
Watson, Robert P. The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II. Boston: Da Capo, 2016.
Even as a child, I was a sucker for disaster reads, particularly those taking place at sea: Titanic, Andrea Doria, and others. Watson seizes upon the fame of the Titanic to make a case for his story about the German ship, Cap Arcona (German for Cape Arcona). Without the Titanic reference in the title, the book might not have much shelf appeal. I’m not sure that there are too many real parallels between the two ships except that they both sank.
Nevertheless, Watson’s book is a fascinating one about the extraordinary history of a German luxury liner that services travelers from the Baltic to South America from 1927 until 1939. At that time the Nazis expropriate the ship and transform it for war purposes. Its most important history comes at the end of its life, in 1945, and I’m not going to spoil the read by giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that the Cap Arconastory is one that has been overlooked, and we have Robert Watson to thank for keeping it and its historical significance alive.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
[If you missed yesterday's post, please scroll down. This will make more sense.]
WHEN THE BOOK BEGAN
In 2012 I swabbed my cheeks to get a DNA readout from National Geographic Genographic Project. Briefly, the Project determined that my “deep DNA” was about 41% Germanic, 41% Mediterranean, and 17% Southwest Asian. The NGGP results piqued my curiosity about the three generations of Dutch (half), German (quarter), and Welsh (quarter) ancestors immediately preceding me.
HOW THE BOOK PROGRESSED
I wouldn’t know much about those people, except that my mother and to some degree my father saved everything, which brings me to the second stage of my work. Since my parents died in the aughts, I had stored away boxes and boxes of documents and photographs and negatives, some going back a hundred years or more. My intention was to toss everything I could, but I decided that I should examine every document before disposing of it.
WHAT I FOUND
Hundreds of letters my mother wrote (I’d never before read them); letters my grandfather wrote to his hometown newspaper from France when he fought in WWI, with naïve but fresh descriptions of the Atlantic, the British and the French people; letters to and from other relatives; a dozen issues of Jayhawkerinfrance, a newspaper published by my grandfather’s Kansas Army regiment tracing their movements through France; journals my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my great-grandmother kept, as well as my father’s journal covering the two and a half years he spent in the South Pacific during World War II. In addition, I located newspaper cuttings that pertained to many family members, including ornately written obituaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I came upon creative writing; art work; photographs, and much more revealing the joys and heartaches of my family.
WHAT I DID WITH THE INFORMATION
First, I felt compelled to write about my nuclear family, portraying how my parents (both with rather nonnurturing mothers) raised my brother and sister and me. I felt compelled to tell about my sister with Down syndrome and how her disabilities affected our family life, both positive and negative. I included a chapter about the tiny house (750 square feet) where I grew up, almost a character in its own right, a dark dwelling where many sad yet joyous things happened. In another section I write about my parents’ youth: my mother’s life on a farm in Kansas; my father’s life in suburban New York City. In the next section, I write about my maternal grandmother and her parents, a great-grandmother who suffers the loss of her first husband to a flood. I write about my maternal grandfather and his parents, even my third-great-grandfather who hails from Wales in 1790 (consulting several books having been written about him by other relatives). I then turn to my father’s parents and their parents, who live in Breda, Holland for many generations before my grandparents emigrate to the US. From my memory and from documents and from extrapolation I glean instances of abuse, premature deaths that cripple the family, shotgun weddings, mysterious decisions (like not placing my grandfather’s name on his crypt in New York), psychological and physical illness, severed hands and time spent in hospitals, missed opportunities for education, and much more. In the fourth section I return to revisit ghosts of my sister and my parents, once again bringing up the past but in an atmosphere of forgiveness, seeing everyone in his or her full humanity. Acceptance.
WHERE I AM NOW
I have written four drafts. In the first I submitted, over a two-year period, one chapter per month, to my writing group. After studying their critiques, I wrote a second draft; this time returning to my research to include information that had, the first time around, seemed irrelevant. In the third draft, I finally abandoned the idea of directly addressing each ancestor and relied on first and third person. Now, most recently, I realized, finally, that the inner chapters were not presented in the most felicitous order, so I am reordering them and dealing with the ripples that such a change makes. I feel close to the end, having read the six-hundred-page MS aloud multiple times for rhythm and to eliminate clunky language, not to mention other errors that only seem to rise to the surface when read aloud (such as omitted articles or verbs). I am ready to give birth to this monster and hope to wrap things up as soon as the thing presents itself to me. I have never enjoyed writing a book as much as this one, but I am ready to be done and move on!
I shall keep you informed!
Take a look at members of my tribe in the slideshow below.
FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert P. Watson's The Nazi Titanic
My Book World
Kirp, David. The College Dropout Scandal. New York: Oxford, 2019.
Before I left public school teaching in 2002, the district I worked for had implemented, at a low level, a plan to mentor potential dropouts. Kirp’s book argues for the need to have American universities tackle the same problem, citing the fact that, nationwide, colleges and universities support a 40% dropout rate. The rate is even higher among community colleges: 60% of students drop out before completing an associate degree.
Kirp visits a number of universities who have implemented innovative programs to retain more students: Georgia State University, the joint campuses of the University of Central Florida and Valencia College, the University of Texas, and an “elite” school, Amherst College. His research indicates that, in some cases, small adjustments can allow a student to finish a degree. One helpful practice is to provide small grants (not loans) during the last semester or two; it can make the difference of finishing or not. Another is for the institution to provide professional advisors (not professors) whose job it is to keep tabs on students, particularly those at risk of dropping out; students cannot escape contact. The institutions have even provided experiences that help students to think positively about themselves. Some forward-thinking professors use the Internet to provide lecture material to be read on the students’ own time; then they use class time to work more actively together. Other places provide accelerated tutoring to catch students up in, say, math in the period of one semester without having to slow down the student’s advancement through a program.
In essence, Kirp asserts that because of the great expense involved in attending college now, institutions of higher education owe their students something better than the old sink-or-swim or trial-by-fire approaches of the past. They should meet halfway these bright students who have met the entrance qualifications and make sure they have every opportunity to finish their schooling. Although I attended a small, private school (a half a century ago) and found great comfort in attending small classes led by professors who were highly accessible, with the practices mentioned above, I might have succeeded at an even higher level. There were times that I felt like dropping out, and only the military draft, the threat of being sent to Vietnam, kept me in school. I wound up getting a degree in music that I only used tangentially to earn a living until I left the field entirely at age thirty. Professor Kirp’s book is one all college professors and administrators should read and consider. After all, in corporate parlance, students are the “business” of higher education. They should be given every opportunity to succeed.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert P. Watson's The Nazi Titanic
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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