Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Books of 2012


When I was a teenager, I always had a book with me, the bigger the better. I still remember reading both Roots and Battlefield Earth simultaneously when I was a junior in high school, and carrying those two books with me wherever I went--about 1700 pages of literature total--drew quite a few comments from my teachers. Unfortunately, my hunger for reading fell away during college, where professors emphasized analyzing literature over enjoying it; the teenager who once read dozens of books in an average school year was suddenly the twenty-something undergrad who read barely two or three a semester, and even then found little enjoyment in them. Even after graduation, during my first two years of full-time teaching, I was working 14-16 hours a day, which left little time for pleasure reading.

However, now that I'm in my fourth year of teaching and my schedule has evened out--though I still put in upwards of 12 hours a day at work, 6am to 6pm--I can't get enough to read, and it doesn't matter the subject, style, or author. This year alone, I read books about forensic science, Theodore Roosevelt, zombified mothers, wormholes, demonic possession, the Trojan War, South Korea, Walter Cronkite, Superman, a World War II submarine, homicidal cats, dystopian teen prisons, Mumbai slums, Saturday Night Live, gay marriage, and so on. There were graphic novels, biographies, memoirs, poetry collections, short story anthologies, children's books, comic books, young adult novels, works of narrative nonfiction, and immortal works of literature. And they came from everywhere, too: India, Spain, Colombia, South Korea, the United States, England, France, Chile, and Iraq. It was a prodigious year, to be sure, and one that I hope to trounce next year.

Below are the books I read or re-read (*) in 2012, in order. Some of my favorites, for those who are curious, are shown above.

  1. The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (David Grann)
  2. Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers and My Uncle Arthur, New York's Greatest Hoarders (Franz Lidz)
  3. The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith)
  4. How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator (Andre de Guillame)
  5. Blankets (Craig Thompson)
  6. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Marjane Satrapi)
  7. The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Tom Standage)
  8. Pyongyang: A Journey into North Korea (Guy Delisle and Helge Dascher)
  9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Barbara Demick)
  10. Night Shift* (Stephen King)
  11. Pulphead: Essays (John Jeremiah Sullivan)
  12. Lord of the Flies* (William Golding)
  13. The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine (Benjamin Wallace)
  14. Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (North, Bennardo, and Malki!, editors)
  15. Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
  16. Anthem* (Ayn Rand)
  17. Cosmopolis (Don DeLillo)
  18. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
  19. Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust (Victoria Barnett)
  20. Night* (Elie Wiesel)
  21. Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Geoffrey Kabaservice)
  22. The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Evidence in Jazz Age New York (Deborah Blum)
  23. Losing My Faculties: A Teacher's Story (Brendan Halpin)
  24. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed)
  25. The Fried Twinkie Manifesto: And Other Tales of Disaster and Damnation (Ryan Moehring)
  26. Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam (Pope Brock)
  27. Do Not Ask Us What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Robert Draper)
  28. Here, Bullet: Poems (Brian Turner)
  29. August: Orange County (Tracy Letts)
  30. All My Friends Are Dead (Avery Monsen and Jory John)
  31. The Taking Tree: A Shrill Parody (Shrill Travesty and Lucy Ruth Cummins)
  32. Go the F**k to Sleep (Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes)
  33. That's Not Your Mommy Anymore: A Zombie Tale (Matt Mogk and Aja Wells)
  34. Cronkite (Douglas Brinkley)
  35. Skipping Towards Gomorrah (Dan Savage)
  36. The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell)
  37. Endgame: Bobby Fisher's Remarkable Rise and Fall--from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Frank Brady)
  38. Trout Fishing in America (Richard Brautigan)
  39. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (Tom Bissell)
  40. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Luis Sepulveda)
  41. That Night (Alice McDermott)
  42. The Stupidest Angel (Christopher Moore)
  43. Grant's Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant's Heroic Last Year (Charles Bracelen Flood)
  44. The Best Man (Gore Vidal)
  45. The Committment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family* (Dan Savage)
  46. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life and Death (Jean Dominique Bauby; Jeremy Leggatt, trans.)
  47. HHhH (Laurent Binet; Sam Taylor, trans.)
  48. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
  49. England Under Hitler (Comer Clarke)
  50. Book (Robert Grudin)
  51. So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel (Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch)
  52. It's Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein)
  53. Skinny Dip (Carl Hiaasen; audio book, read by Barry Bostwick; abridged)
  54. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
  55. The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code (Sam Kean)
  56. Kingdom Come (Mark Waid and Alex Ross)
  57. Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion (Peter F. Stevens; audio book, read by Robertson Dean)
  58. Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld)
  59. The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown; audio book, read by Paul Michael)
  60. Where Things Come Back (John Corey Whaley)
  61. Lost in Shang-Ri La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (Mitchell Zuckoff; audio book, read by the author)
  62. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
  63. Behemoth (Scott Westerfeld)
  64. First Day on Earth (Cecil Castellucci)
  65. The Ticking (Renee French and Chris Staros)
  66. American Born Chinese (Gene Luen Yang)
  67. Tricks (Ellen Hopkins)
  68. Pitch Black (Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton)
  69. Demo: The Collected Edition (Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan)
  70. The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court (Jeffrey Toobin)
  71. Stargirl* (Jerry Spinelli)
  72. Me the People: One Man's Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America (Kevin Bleyer)
  73. Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible (Tim Gunn)
  74. Goliath (Scott Westerfeld)
  75. How to Tell if Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You (Matthew Inman and The Oatmeal)
  76. Goliath (Tom Gauld)
  77. World War Z (Max Brooks)
  78. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Rachel Maddow)
  79. On Bring Different: What it Means to be Homosexual (Merle Miller)
  80. Colonel Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)
  81. Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (Jon Ronson)
  82. How to be a Person: The Stranger's Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself (Editors, the Stranger)
  83. Scorch Atlas (Blake Butler)
  84. Bonechiller (Graham McNamee)
  85. Oddly Normal: One Family's Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality (John Schwartz)
  86. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories (Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, and Maggie Stiefvater)
  87. The Odyssey* (Homer; graphic novel illustrated by Gareth Hinds)
  88. Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
  89. The Silver Pony: A Story in Pictures (Lynd Ward)
  90. Chicken With Plums (Marjane Satrapi)
  91. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrab)
  92. Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins)
  93. Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)
  94. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Katherine Boo)
  95. Down the Rabbit Hole (Juan Pablo Villalobos; Rosalind Harvey, trans.)
  96. Of Love and Other Demons (Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Edith Grossman, trans.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Children ("Down the Rabbit Hole" by Juan Pablo Villalobos)

In 2010, Emma Donoghue's novel Room caused a minor sensation among critics and readers alike--by their own admissions, neither group had ever really read anything like it. The story of a mother and son kept imprisoned in an isolated room by a kidnapper known only as Old Nick, the story is told from the point of view of the child, his situation unclear at first. He speaks as you'd expect all five year-olds to speak, in riddles and personifcations that are less about adolescent confusion and just simply about an immature mindset, one built half on misunderstandings about the world--referring to objects as though they were living proper nouns--and half on his mother's abstract ways of explaining away their god-awful situation. Had Donoghue written the novel from any other other perspective--the mother's, Old Nick's, even a detached and dispassionate third-person--Room would have lost the uniqueness and voice that led it to become such a bestseller in the first place.

Juan Pablo Villalobos employs the same technique in Down the Rabbit Hole, his first novel. And while Villalobos had quite a few impediments to gaining the same amount of success and popularity as Donoghue--he didn't have an established readership or credibility with critics, his novel came in at only 70 pages, and it was first published in Spain, meaning the time spent on translations caused it to be published after Donoghue's novel, even though it appeared in print the very same year--he manages to use the technique much more effectively than Donoghue.

Told from the point of view of Tochtli, a nine year-old Mexican boy, Down the Rabbit Hole starts in much the same way as Room: from the little information we are given outright, we know that our narrator is being kept in seclusion by an older man whose identity is sketchy at first; he follows a strict routine within the boundaries of his home; his mind is allowed to run free with fantasy; and the outside world, available only through a television set, is kept far away. The boy's one persistent dream is to have his very own Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, and he dreams of this little achievement between lessons with his teacher--Mazatzin--and repeated viewings of the same samurai films. As he does, we slowly piece together the reasons behind his seclusion--his father is a violent drug kingpin--and how his father's depravity--a shed full of loaded guns, a running menagerie of prostitutes, violent beheadings, bribing government officials--is treated as little more than the curious eccentricities of a dad who is otherwise doting and compassionate towards his son.

Unlike Donoghue's novel, Down the Rabbit Hole is short--a decision that keeps the first-person technique fresh. In Room, which clocks in at almost 400 pages, the first-person point-of-view becomes tiresome after a while; after all, Donoghue is keeping her readers perpetually trapped in the simplified world of an adolescent. Villalobos, on the other hand, gives us just enough of Tochtli to build a clear, coherent, and interesting story before it becomes redundant and frustrating. By the time the novel closes, we've come to understand Tochtli's life--and the life of his father--seen him pursue his hippo dream to its inevitable, disappointing failure, and been offered enough foreshadowing about what is to come--two taxidermied hippo heads, the significance of golden crowns, a samurai-film sacrifice--that we understand where the story is going without also having to be led there. Villalobos manages to use a literary technique long enough to craft a wonderful little story without the technique--and, in a sense, the narrator--overstaying its welcome.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Different ("Oddly Normal" by John Schwartz)

Before John Schwartz begins telling us his story--the story of his family, and especially the story of his son Joseph--he tells us something else: this is not a how-to book about raising a gay child. He's never liked how-to or self-help books, finding them impenetrable and pointless, and he cautions his readers against taking his experience--his successes and failures--and substituting it as their own, looking to turn his detailed and specific chapters into some sort of traceable set of goals and milestones. This is his family's experience alone, something to learn from rather than be guided by. And while he hopes that his book will teach his readers without explicitly instructing them, Schwartz's main goal is to tell a story, purely and simply, which is something he does with ease and skill.
Oddly Normal is the story of Joseph Schwartz, a precocious young boy whose parents understand from a very early age that he is gay. His personality and interests--he enjoys Barbies, glitzy decorations, playing with girls' hair, and other stereotypically feminine things--lead his parents to this conclusion, and they're immediately accepting but also cautious: they don't care one way or the other if their son is gay, though they also want to avoid labeling him at an age when society's gender norms mean nothing and he may simply be curious. (Schwartz points out that, after their first two children were born, they lumped dolls and trucks into a gender-less mass in the playroom, and their daughter naturally went for the Barbies while their son went for trucks.) However, as Joseph grows older, the possible becomes the obvious, the obvious becomes unavoidable, and soon his atypical interests and behavior make him not only an outcast at school but the target of some of his teachers' frustrations and wrath. Soon, John and his wife find themselves defending Joseph against careless teachers, lazy therapists, and a school bureaucracy that is more interested in blaming children than understanding them.
For me, this was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, not just because it was the conflict that dominated the first half--the second half being focused on Joseph's internalized conflict with himself and his emotions--but also because I'm a teacher who, even in the few years I've been teaching, has seen this play out firsthand. All teenagers go through this at some point--the feeling that they're alone and different, even among hundreds of other teenagers who are experiencing similar things in their own lives--but for gay teenagers, the feeling of loneliness and the idea that no one else possibly understands what they're going through, least of all the adults around them, is compounded. John Schwartz admits upfront that he and his wife tried their best to be good parents, and this book paints a picture of a mother and father who did indeed try their best, missed a few signs along the way, struggled, but ultimately raised a young man who is smart, confident, and well-rounded. But he also admits that, had Joseph been raised and taught in environments in which his uniqueness had been appreciated as a "gift"--as a part of him, not unlike hair color or height or gender--rather than a challenge to be corrected, he would have fared much better. Which is an issue still to this day: schools that feel accommodating students' differences, whether it be who they are or how they act, means doing nothing and hoping the "problem" goes away. It's this struggle that Joseph and his parents fight and, near the books' end, ultimately win.
This is not to say, however, that Schwartz's book doesn't have a few problems--namely, his need, perhaps based on his career as a journalist, to bring in research and statistics related to LGBT teens and current gay rights issues. There's nothing wrong with this, per se, and in fact it actually balances out well in their respective chapters: talking about a specific event in Joseph's childhood, then expanding out to see how it relates nation-wide, including the relationship between effeminacy and sexual orientation in boys, learning disabilities, and suicide. But the research is presented as just that--research--instead of being paraphrased down to fit with the rest of his book. At times, Schwartz's discussions of research feel like a lecture delivered in the middle of an otherwise engaging story, and it weakens the compassion and empathy we've felt towards Joseph and his struggle, almost as though Schwartz were trying to analyze his son's life to see how well it fit into the LGBT narrative...which, as Schwartz mentions more than once, isn't even a reliable narrative, as it raises up the stories of struggle ("it gets better") over the stories of hope ("it's better now") and presents the LGBT experience in teens as one of desperation, harrassment, and futility.
There's a moment in his forward when Schwartz says that, while he and fellow memoirist Joan Didion have very little in common, he would find more solace about death in her book The Year of Magical Thinking than in any self-help or how-to book, no matter how well-recommended they were. This goes back to his idea that, given the choice between dry advice and fluid story, he finds more to learn and relate to in story. It's a concept that I agree with wholeheartedly, and I only wish Schwartz had followed this more closely in the writing of his book. It's not that the research is bad--as I stated before, it actually adds to the story--but the story is much better, far and away.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Us and Them ("Lost At Sea" by Jon Ronson)

Ten years ago this December, a book called Them found its way into American bookstores. Written by a then unknown (to Americans) British journalist named Jon Ronson, Them introduced readers to what the author himself called "extremists"--a collection of men and women who saw the world around them in strange, different, hateful, and downright conspiratorial ways. There were those who believed the world was run by secret lizard-people who have served in the highest of public offices; a man who tries to reform a racist hate-group by making them, in the age of public relations, more appealing; a seemingly unstable Hollywood director who lobbies for creative control by bringing religious leaders to a production meeting; and so on. What made this collection of stories so unique was that, unlike other investigative journalists, Ronson never sought out his subjects to belittle or confront them, though more often than not he's forced into thost situations, sometimes through basic questions; instead, Ronson sought out and followed them in order to better understand them. Because, unlike most of society, Ronson doesn't consider these people to be the outliers that the title of the book suggests: he knows that, rather than being simply "them"--the fringe humans who we feel comfortable rolling our eyes, whose beliefs and behavior we excuse with derision and detachment--they're simply extreme versions of "us," and by trying to understand them, we can better understand ourselves.
Them was following in no short time by The Men Who Stare at Goats--the first of Ronson's books I ever read, and in my opinion still his best--two books on "everyday craziness" that are culled from his print articles, and The Psychopath Test, a look at the prevalence of psychopaths and sociopaths in everyday society, how we identify them, how we have failed to address their presence, and what that means for the non-psychopathic populace. (Spoiler: prisons don't help.) Lost At Sea, published late this year, is the most recent addition to Ronson's works...and where his past books were long-chaptered investigations of "thems," Lost At Sea is a collection of short-chaptered mysteries ranging from unusual murders and TV psychics to new-age hypnotists, faith-healers, cruise workers, and one assisted-suicide advocate who may find a little too much pleasure in the easing of others' pain. Them "thems" are still here, but now the boundaries between what constitutes "them" and "us" are increasingly blurred, and the effect is frequently--and perhaps purposely--unsettling.
In short, Lost At Sea still retains all the traits that make Ronson's writing so enjoyable. He approaches each subject with a mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and empathy--a need to understand tempered by a journalist's reason and a layman's sarcastic common sense--and often finds himself identifying with their struggles, as is the case with a group of Jesus Christians who look to better the world by abandoning material possessions and donating their kidneys to strangers; Ronson never once dismissed their charitable nature--giving an organ to a stranger is, after all, the height of Christian charity--but also finds himself put off by the leader's instability. (You almost wonder, in reading how Ronson is treated by the man, if the leader of the Jesus Christians thinks of himself as a Christ figure destined to be forever martyred.) At the end of the day, Ronson doesn't elevate any of his subjects to the status of outsiders who should be more mainstream, or to that of someone who is persecuted for no clear reason; every person he encounters has essentially, and often self-righteously, made themselves out to be unassuming victims, even as they continue to dig themselves deeper and deeper. (The clearest example of this is psychic Sylvia Browne, who comes off as so brash to cruise-ship attendees that she pushes away even the most willing followers. Ronson seems to see her as a hack cold-reader who is, above all else, just damn exhausted.)
The only disappointing aspect of Ronson's new book is its lack of depth. Yes, the book as a whole covers such a breadth of people and experiences that Ronson seems to be constantly crossing the oceans, meeting up in obscure locations, and going off on week-long excursions with the strange and gullible. (More than once I wondered if Ronson, who talks openly about his own home life, ever has time to be with his family...or if he's constantly off on some sort of investigation.) But the chapters are shorter than usual, and they're over before they should rightfully be. Each of his chapters could very well be their own short book of sorts, and some really should. But in trying to cover so much--to investigate the "them" and, in the process, teach the "us"--he doesn't give us enough to really understand anything. I've always loved Jon Ronson's books for their adventurous tangents--he's investigating one thing, then a tip or recommendation sends him off somewhere completely different, but always to the benefit of his research--but by tossing out those tangents in favor of short-form pieces, which read like half-finished articles at times, he makes himself as a writer seem posivitely...dare I say it?...normal.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

History ("HHhH" by Laurent Binet)

When you read a lot of nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction, you begin to notice certain patterns in the writing. Often, these books will open not with the most obvious or approrpriate moment--the subject's birth, say, or the triggering of a titular event--but rather a seemingly insignificant one that, in the writer's own warped logic, somehow embodies all that follows. Or, more perversely, the writer may choose to begin at the end--the subject's death, usually marked by a long and somber funeral procession on a gray and dreary day*; the signing of a treaty or unveiling of a memorial; the daily lives and pristine, ghost-like nightmares of the survivors decades after the fact. At some point, this need to be both factual and literary, the need to convey dry information balanced with the desire to tell an engaging story, becomes tiresome, especially when the author's skills in either research or creative writing are lacking...or, perhaps worse, overpowering.

The subject of Laurent Binet's HHhH promises to be a thrilling read from the outset: the planned assassination of Richard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official, by a handful of European military officers and everymen...a plan that, as is often the case, falls apart almost from the get-go. But it's immediately clear that Binet's focus on delivering this obscure, enthralling story is matched only by his obsession with how to do it properly....and that is where HHhH gets its magic. Yes, the story of the Heydrich assassination is spread out in fantastic detail, but it's Binet's deconstruction of this process--and simultaneous critique of himself as writer--that makes this pseudo-novel such a rewarding and worthwhile read. Binet worries that he's slipping into cliche, that pieces of his own life are slowly going to influence how he fills in the story's gaps; in one chapter, Binet frets that the cold he is suffering through will somehow find its way into a character's own system and make him ill, as well. On the surface, it's an interesting and unusual way to tell a story; beneath the surface, however, Binet's style speaks to the unwritten agreement between writers of nonfiction and their readers that everything put down on the page will be truthful, researched, and clear. It's an agreement that, more and more frequently, is being violated by the men and women we trust with telling our history.

By breaking down his process and being honest with his thoughts as a writer, Binet is highlighting the human failings that could--and often do--sneak their way into the books we read. We trust that writers like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Edmund Morris are reliable sources of history because all the tell-tale signs are present in their works: their stories are clean of judgement and opinion, their writing is lucid and professional, and their bibliographies are repositories of hundreds if not thousands of first- and second-hand sources that, to our eyes, seem legitimate. But how many of us become detectives as we read those books, stopping every few sentences to double-check that their sources are real, that the information is factual, that interpretation and opinion have not replaced statement and fact? Few, if any. And writers of nonfiction seem to know this, for at least once a year some established writer will have to issue public apologies and sometimes even resign from prestigious positions--at universities, at journals, at websites--because they've broken the agreement and called into question the faith we put in keepers of our history.** It's an event that, besides providing fodder for pundits, challenges those writers who revere the relationship between writer and reader to keep that very relationship strong and defend themselves against whispers that perhaps they too have broken the agreement.

There was a moment after finishing HHhH that I wondered if perhaps Binet was doing a disservice to history; after all, there are few if any good books out there about the Heydrich assassination, so wouldn't Binet have done us all a great favor by writing a straightforward account of those events? Binet obviously did his research well, knows how to construct a fluid narrative filled with suspense and intrigue, and understands the nuances of writing historical nonfiction when history itself ends up being incomplete or unwritten. Why not just write a nice, 200-page retelling of what happened instead of a treatise on modern nonfiction itself? It's a legitimate question, and one that bothered me for some time...but the longer Binet's book sits with you, the more you understand that the only way we can trust our history is by trusting those who write it. And by opening the curtains on his writing process--not to mention opening himself to the same kind of scrutiny that will be bestowed on his subjects--Binet is hoping to gain out trust so that we will revel in history without the fear of being lied to by the person telling it.

*Heavy rain is optional in instances such as these; chances are, your readers will not be motivated enough to scour old newspaper reports of that day's actual weather, so maudlin little touches such as these usually lend themselves well symbolically.

**One book mentioned by Binet is Comer Clarke's England Under Hitler, an obscure, out-of-print pseudo-historical book that looks to understand Hitler's plans for England through interviews with some of the men tasked with writing up those plans. It's a fascinating topic, but in Clarke's hands it becomes an excuse to make heavy-handed literature out of history by imagining conversations between historical figures. It's a ridiculous book, and it's rareness is a benefit to readers and history buffs alike.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Truth ("Cronkite" by Douglas Brinkley)

I was born five years after Walter Cronkite stepped down from the CBS Evening News, so I never really knew him the way millions of others did. And yet, strangely, I don't remember a time when I didn't know of him. It's a testament to his influence that, even in retirement, he was one of those unyielding cultural presences that hung over the world around us--an omnipotent and reliable measuring tool against which we judged not only our journalists and newscasters but our fellow citizens, as well.

In cases like these, the person we idolize will always have flaws that appear later on and threaten to temper our respect, not to mention dirtying their legacies. From the way people have talked about Douglas Brinkley's massive, 830-page biography of Walter Cronkite--667 of biography, the rest of sources and indexes--you'd think the so called "most trusted man in America" was doomed for the same fate. And while there is a lot in Brinkley's biography that makes us second-guess how we think about Cronkite, the bigger problem with Brinkley's book has nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with Brinkley himself. For 667 pages, Brinkley manages to prove just how rare and important someone like Walter Cronkite was by ignoring Cronkite's entire modus operandi of good journalism.

As Brinkley reminds us throughout his biography, Cronkite believed in triple-checking sources to make sure he wasn't being impulsive and, in the process, undermining his credibility by spreading inaccurate information or idle conjecture. Cronkite believed in providing truthful, researched news rather than the entertainment of news--that is, news that gets attention for being first and being loud rather than being right. But as one online reader after another has pointed out, Brinkley's own book seeps with violations of this attitude. For example, there are misspellings ("Silverseas"), incorrect facts (Daniel Schorr's official role during Watergate, the death of Bob Post during WWII), the occasional snarky interjection, and insignificant gossip, most of which centers on the tension between Cronkite and Dan Rather in the 80s and 90s.

On top of this, almost the entire book is written in stilted, uninteresting prose that never quite pulls the reader in. (The only exceptions, in my opinion, are the chapters on Cronkite's role as a journalist in WWII, which are written in a lucid, engaging, and often suspenseful style.) You get the impression that, with Cronkite having passed away just under three years ago, Brinkley and his publisher rushed to get this book to the press in order to capitalize on the subject's name recognition while the generation of his lifelong viewers was still around to buy the book. (After all, the idea of someone my age--26--or younger purposely picking up this book seems a little farfetched. Most twentysomethings today probably have no idea who Cronkite was.) I'd like to think this wasn't true, that Brinkley didn't rush this biography, that he had more than enough time to finish it the way he wanted, but something tells me it isn't.

Still, Brinkley should be commended for taking on such a difficult and well-lived subject. That Cronkite's life and career should require so many pages doesn't seem surprising, given the man's extensive influence on American life. But Brinkley, in giving Cronkite his due number of pages, should have also given the man his time and patience in order to get everything right. Cronkite deserves a lot of what Brinkley has to offer--praise, scorn, doubt, cynicism--but he doesn't deserve to be boring.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Congress ("Do Not Ask What Good We Do" by Robert Draper)

There are few things more disliked in our country than Congress--not the institution so much as the people who are elected to fill it. At last count, Congress' approval rating was a dismal 9%--the lowest ever. And judging by the last 18 months, it's not likely to rise any time soon.

What's strange is that, while Americans disapprove of Congress with near unanimity, they still approve of their own individual representative. It's a complex, almost paradoxical mindset that detaches individuals from the institution and treats them as Kafkaesque everymen trapped in some sort of inescapable beaurocracy. Everyone in Congress is a do-nothing crook, we tell ourselves, except our guy. He's on our side. Hence, all those members of Congress we claim to dislike are, not surprisingly, returned back to office every two years, often by hefty margins.

Robert Draper's Do Not Ask What Good We Do has an obvious bend to it, as is evident in the title. But what sets his book apart from other examination-cum-diatribes against Congress is that, rather than list the institution's failings to prove a point about its intractibility, Draper selects about two dozen members and tells their individual stories. Some of them are new, Tea Party-backed freshmen, while others have been in Washington for years or even decades...and one who, as of a few years ago, is officially the longest-serving representative in American history. They are a mix of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and moderates bridging those two gaps. 

Perhaps the two most surprising cases highlighted in Draper's book are both Republicans, though they couldn't be more different. The first, Missouri representative Jo Ann Emerson, is someone most Americans have never heard of. Unlike other members of Congress, Emerson does not appear regularly on cable news programs or seek out cameras to make a name for herself; she is a moderate in the classic sense of the word, and she's one of the few politicians who seems to favor the rational over the immediately popular. By Draper's account, she works hard for her constituents, who happen to live in one of the nation's poorest districts, even if it means bucking her own party and voting with Democrats. And on top of all this, she came to office unwillingly: after her husband, Representative Bill Emerson, died suddenly in 1996, she ran for his open seat and has kept it ever since.

Allen West, on the other hand, came to Congress by running against the same Democrat who defeated him--narrowly--in 2008, in a Congressional district that isn't even where he lives. A proud member of the Tea Party, West is one of the few House members known to a wide swathe of Americans thanks to his visibility as an outspoken conservative and one of only two African American Republicans in the House...a fact that has given him no shortage of troubles from both parties. West is frequently interviewed on television, has engaged in a few public scuffles with other members of the House, and was even touted by some earlier this year as a possible VP nominee, a suggestion West himself scoffed at. Unlike Emerson's Missouri district, West's Florida district--which was created less than twenty years ago*--has a median income of over $50,000 a year and lies along the Florida coast, making it a hub of tourism.

Two entirely different kinds of congresspeople. And yet, the way in which Draper presents these two representatives makes them both so downright fascinating that they shed their political selves and become individuals--which, I suppose, is the point. Any vitriol I felt towards Allen West, simply after seeing snippets of his "bayonett" speech or gossipy retellings of his fued with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, became secondary, and I felt a sudden appreciation for this man who, on more than one occassion, has become frustrated by his party trying to score political points rather than act on a piece of legislation. Similarly, my attitudes about the lack of strong moderates in Congress was challenged by Draper's words on Emerson, and I suddenly found myself wondering how many other level-headed members filled Congress' halls.

There are others, too, who transcend the "R" or "D" after their names and become fascinating individuals. There's Sam Johnson, the 81-year-old veteran from Texas who brought silence to the floor of the House in memory of fallen soldiers. Or Sheila Jackson Lee, who had promise as a reformer but has become her own worst enemy, the inspiration behind jars of change meant to calculate her insufferability. Or Walt Jones, the once in-line Republican who's become disillusioned with his party and now spends most of him time with Ron Paul. Each of the members featured in Draper's book come off as more vulnerable than one might expect, especially in an age when a politician's entire legislative years can be boiled down to five-second soundbites and 30-second attack ads. It's this human side that we need to see more of, especially beyond our own reprentatives, so maybe when pollsters report that, despite Congress' dismal approval ratings, most of its members will be soundly re-elected, we shouldn't be surprised after all.

*In contrast, Emerson's district has been around since 1863.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


At some point in the life of every perspective English major, they have to take a class on Literary Theory. For some, it's an eye-opening experience, one that strengthens how they view different works of literature and encourages them to see the written word through people's experiences. For others, it's a hellish four months akin to a verbal inquisition, in which--at the behest of the professor--students plum the depths of literature, over-analyzing to the point of meaninglessness and leveling ridiculous charges at otherwise wonderful authors. For some, it livens their love of books; for others, it kills that love.

For what it's worth, the most unproductive four years of my life in terms of reading--how many books I read for pleasure, how many new authors I encountered--occurred after my introduction to Lit Theory. Not that the class discouraged reading in any way--in fact, it was taught by a favorite professor of mine--but it put the value of literature squarely in "meaning" over "pleasure." Books, this class seemed to argue, were meant to be analyzed and dissected; any books that couldn't be broken down into parts greater than its sum wasn't worth the time. This meant that some of my favorite authors, some of the world's best storytellers, would never be considered "quality" literature, a message that had been delivered a few years earlier when Stephen King was given a National Book Award medal for lifetime achievement; the ruckus that followed this news, led by self-appointed literary gatekeeper Harold Bloom, let it be known that there was no place in capital-l Literature for entertaining books. (I later read some of Harold Bloom's work and was assured that King's work will last much longer than his.)

So I continued through college unable to enjoy a single book; the closest I came to basking in the warmth of a good book was a three-month reading of 100 Years of Solitude, which I enjoyed immensely (and still consider to be the closest I've ever come to reading perfection), and a four-month reading of Gravity's Rainbow which, for all the hard work and interpretation, turned out to be a rewarding experience. (Hopefully, there will be more on Pynchon and his effect on me, which bordered on obsessive, in a later blog post.)

What eventually snapped me out of this funk--what got me reading again, what draw me back to the hitching-post that was "enjoying" literature--was the job I got immediately out of college: high school English teacher. Now, instead of sitting in the desks and taking notes, I was the one lecturing, giving notes, and planning lessons. For the first year, I did nothing but analyze--a reasonable start, considering it was all I had been taught to do. But then came my second-year American Lit Honors, a class filled to the brim with students who were creative in all the ways I used to be. They loved poetry and fiction-writing. They accepted Anne Bradstreet's poetry just as easily as Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic prose, read it with the same mix of awe and confusion. They asked if they could swear in the stories they wrote, and I said they could, as long as it was for a purpose. They wrote more than 200 six-word stories, inspired by Ernest Hemingway's sad tale of unused baby-shoes, even though their assignment was to only write one each. They tried to create Facebook profiles for Gatsby and his friends, though our school's filter doomed this project to failure almost from the get-go. They wrote personal manifestos inspired by the work of Thoreau, finished stories outlined in Nathaniel Hawthorne's legendary notebook, and made their own creation stories inspired by the Native American literature we read in class. Every project I threw at them came back wonderfully successful; I'd never enjoyed reading writing assignments this much before, and the students themselves responded with what I can only describe as--gasp!--engagement. (Was it just wishful thinking--a teacher's own delusion--or did some of these students actually enjoy this?!)

By the end of my second year of teaching, these forty kids had thoroughly and completely staked to death the vampire that was Lit Theory--it was gone. My focus shifted to getting more creative writing into my curriculum, and I began reading copious amounts of books in my spare time; at the end of 2011, which is also midway through my third year of teaching, I'd read more than 25,000 pages...and any high school teacher worth their salt, especially ones at the start of their careers, will tell you that finding the time to read even a quarter of this amount is next to impossible.

But Lit Theory hadn't died just yet. In fact, it came back with a vengeance...but this time, it did so in a good way. The more books I read, the more introspective I became. Every book seemed to bring forward some kind of personal and emotional reaction in me. A book about the downfall of moderates in the modern Republican Party--a lengthy, wonkish tome of a book--reminded me of listening to talk radio with my father when I was younger; it was my education in how our government worked--or at least was supposed to--and began my love of politics. A book about hiking a thousand-mile, interstate trail out West caught me in the middle of my own infatuation with walking, and I began to think about all the reasons why I was suddenly crossing county lines and facing down coyotes on Saturday mornings. Every book I opened, every page I turned, held something beyond the ink and paper for me...and suddenly, I was back in that college classroom, head slumped in my hand, listening to a lecture.

Reader-response theory: the belief that we bring our own personal experiences to every book we read, and those experiences influences how a book is read and interpreted. I was never a believer in this theory--in fact, I remember mocking it ironically in one of the class' weekly papers--but then again, I was young and untested in the world.

So here I am, a full-time high school English teacher who loathes literary theory in the classroom while embracing it in my own personal life. Maybe the time will come when both shall merge once again--a lessening of myself in the books I read, a diversifying of how I teach and analyze books in the classroom--but until then, I'm happy to sit back and fill the screen with my own long, personal ramblings about the books that have shown me who I am. Because it's never just about books. It's about journeys. And life.

(Photo taken by the author. It is of Paul's Bookstore on State Street in Madison, WI, one of the best independent bookstores in the whole Midwest.)